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How a Trainwreck Meeting With Delta Changed My Sales Career

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Two-thirds of the way through my meeting with several executives at Delta Airlines -- and I knew I was crashing and burning.

This was back in the late ‘90s. I was working for a tech company, selling to the travel industry. I’d just closed American Airlines, so I’d felt pretty confident walking in.

But no one in the room was paying attention.

Rather than wasting the remaining time, I stopped myself and said, “I don’t know if it’s me or if it’s you, but this is hardly going well. Can we talk about what’s not right here and make the most of these last 20 minutes?”

One of the executives said, “Let me explain something to you, Jeff. You’re talking about how we can use your product to take customers from other airlines. However, travelers for this route aren’t buying because of price -- they’re traveling for business, so they’re solely looking at flight availability and time. There are only so many customers, and we can’t change that.”

He continued, “What we can do is compete with Amtrak. We want people to fly with us instead of taking the train.”

I’d focused my entire presentation on the wrong competitor and the wrong challenge. No wonder the attendees were tuning me out.

My colleague who’s with me was clearly upset. As we leave, he said, “Wow, Jeff, you really should’ve done your homework.”

I responded, “You have every right to be pissed, because I clearly screwed up. But if you think not doing my homework was the problem, you’re dumber than I am.”

My true mistake was believing prep would give me credibility.

Prepping for a call or meeting is incredibly important -- but the idea that I would have genuine insight into what goes on behind closed doors during a strategy session at Delta is laughable. It doesn’t matter how many hours I invested in prep, there’s no way I could have learned about their competitive plan in advance.

However, there’s a simple alternative. I could have asked them directly.

This meeting totally changed the way I thought about credibility. I used to believe a salesperson earned credibility by knowing everything about the customer’s business. But I realized you’ll never know more than the customer about their own company.

It’s far more important to be curious. If you ask the right questions, you can get the information you need to help prospects in your specific domain -- the one area you are more knowledgeable.

After this realization, I began using a brand-new prep strategy.

Traditionally, salespeople spend 50% of their prep time doing research online: Looking at LinkedIn, the prospect’s site, press releases, and so on. They spend 40% reading previous reps’ notes in their CRM. They might spend 10% asking the champion or point of contact some questions.

I flip these percentages. As soon as I confirm a meeting, I’ll ask for a call with someone who doesn’t have power, and I’ll spend 90% of my time talking to them and 10% doing research online.

Here’s how I ask:

“Could you connect me with someone at your company -- like an intern, project manager, or new hire -- who could help me learn more about your world? It’s purely for my own prep.”

I’ve also requested to speak with someone in PR or media relations. You want someone who’s not involved directly with the deal so your prospect doesn’t think you’re trying to stack the deck with allies.

If the prospect resists, I’ll say, “Then unfortunately I can’t do the meeting. I won’t be prepared. Honestly, we’ll waste the first 45 minutes because I won’t know enough about your company to give you any meaningful advice. Give me a chance to make this a great sales call.”

When people hear the honesty in my voice, they always agree. I’ve virtually never had someone reject this request.

Once I’m on the phone with the junior-level employee, I’ll learn as much as I can about their business, products, customers, and employees. I generally ask around 100 questions. In these meetings, I learn how to position my solution, where the company could see growth, what their culture and values are like, what the leadership cares about, who they’re competing with and how, and more.

When I get to the actual meeting, I’m ready -- and I earn credibility by skipping obvious questions and presenting helpful, relevant recommendations.

For more sales advice, check out my blog.

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