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When is a Contract, not a Contract?


Salespeople sometimes dig themselves into a hole by leaping into action at the very first sign of interest from a prospect.

Maybe something like that has happened to you. Perhaps you had a “good initial discussion” with a prospect, and, based on that conversation, you agreed to invest time and energy gathering information, working up prices, and putting together your presentation.

Then what happened? You kept your word. You delivered your presentation in a competent, professional manner. As you wrapped up, you felt confident that one of two things was going to happen: You were either going to get the sale (which was what you wanted), or at the very least, you were going to obtain a clear decision.

Instead, you got one objection after another, followed by a series of stalls, and finally, you left with nothing more than the prospect’s promise to give your presentation some “careful thought.”

Unfortunately, the above scenario is a common one. If your expectation about what will be achieved during a meeting and how it will be achieved is different from that of the people with whom you are meeting, it’s a sure bet that someone (you) will leave the meeting with unfulfilled expectations – likely accompanied by feelings of frustration and resentment – and no sale.

Before you volunteer to do any of the work in this relationship, it makes sense to establish clear, appropriate expectations and time investments on both sides. How do you do that? Lots of salespeople are familiar with the Sandler® concept of the Up-Front Contract, under which both sides agree ahead of time about what the ground rules of a discussion will look like, and what the possible outcomes of the exchange will be.

Yet too many salespeople end up attempting to establish “contracts” that do not require the prospect to do much of anything! In reality, that is more of an up-front surrender. Over the phone, at the end of that “good initial discussion,” the up-front surrender might sound like this:

You: Beth, what I’d like to do is come by next Tuesday at 10:00 AM to show you some pricing and production options, and also go over the program we put together for ABC Company so we can see how everything looks to you. Does that make sense?

Beth: Sure.

You just surrendered. If you imagine that what you just read constitutes an up-front contract, guess again! All that happened was you agreed to do everything… and the prospect has agreed to do nothing (other than show up for the meeting).

Your goals here are actually much more substantial. You want to establish a clear objective for the interaction, clarify the initial time investment, identify the specific topics to be discussed, gain agreement on the intended outcome, set benchmarks by which to measure the progress made, and, last but not least, give the prospect something to do between now and the time you meet.

This is where salespeople so often sabotage themselves. They imagine they’re securing an up-front contract, when all they’re really doing is volunteering to do all the work themselves. That’s not an effective “contract,” because the other person has not committed or decided to do anything. Here’s what a contract where the prospect is fully engaged would sound like:

You: Beth, why don’t you pick a day when you can invite me in for an hour and we can determine if the type of targeted marketing programs my company has created for other distributors would make sense for you.

[Beth chooses Tuesday from 10:00 - 11:00 AM.]

You: That’s great. Can we set aside an hour for this discussion?

[Beth agrees.]

You: Wonderful. When we get together in person, it would be helpful if you would provide me with some samples of your previous marketing campaigns—the ones that worked and the ones that didn’t. That would help me develop a more complete picture of exactly what your customers respond to. Would you be comfortable doing that?

[Beth agrees.]

You: That would be great. Then, I could share with you the approach I would take and explain what would be involved. If you are comfortable with my approach, we would then have to discuss the various aspects of implementation such as objectives, timelines, budgets, people, and so on. If we get that far, I could then put together a formal presentation for you. But, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. When we get together next Tuesday, let’s focus on determining if there’s a good fit between what you’re after and what I have to offer. Does that make sense to you?

Notice the three questions in bold. You must receive a positive response to these questions in order to have a “contract.” If Beth is uncomfortable or unwilling to commit to the defined actions, the time for you to deal with it is up-front, at the time the appointment is scheduled, not at the time of the meeting.

If a prospect is unwilling to commit to the actions necessary to reach the meeting objectives, is there any point to having the meeting? (Hint: the answer is “no.”)

By engaging your prospect to make clear commitments and to actually do something before the meeting, you’ll spend more of your valuable time with people who are just as invested as you are in producing a positive outcome. You’ll get out of the cycle of doing all the up-front work. You’ll avoid long meetings with “decision makers” who won’t really make decisions. And you’ll close more sales.