Those of you who know Star Trek will be familiar with the term ‘First Contact’; when one civilisation was contacted for the first time by another, more advanced, race from another planet. The process worked like this; advanced races would explore the stars and discover new sentient civilisations that had yet to advance beyond their solar system or even the shackles of their own planet. Distant monitoring would ensue and once the ‘primitive’ race could venture beyond their solar system, using advanced technology such as ‘warp-drive’, ‘first contact’ would be made. Both timing and the way contact was made were critical; it had to be the right people, contacted in the right way and at the right time to build strong, long-lasting relationships.
First contact between businesses is generally less of a cosmos-changing event; unlike Captain Kirk, we don’t have to worry that our first contact with a potential customer could lead to mass hysteria and military aggression. But if you’re selling a complex, technical product or service (as is the focus of this article) and you’re offering more than a “me too” product which can only win on price, then there are some parallels to be drawn and lessons learned from the ‘First Contact’ approach.
Once discovered, research of a civilisation was critical. Prior to First Contact, James T Kirk and the Federation would research the civilisation in depth; its customs, beliefs, history, politics, economics and power bases. On the basis of that research they could figure out who they should be talking to and how first contact should be made to ensure the best chances of success. Without proper research they could have ended up on ‘Friday Night with Jonathan Ross’, no doubt with accompanying cries of, “beam me up Scotty.” For technology companies, who provide complex solutions to other companies, whether hardware or software, strong initial research is paramount to ensure the best possible chance of a successful engagement and achieve as fast a time-to-revenue as possible.
Good sales and marketing people discover potential new clients in their target markets, where their products and services have or should perform well. They then research these potential customers; products, markets, strengths, weaknesses, competitors, decision makers, status and so on. This way an introduction is less of a self-serving desire to present their solution, with a hope that the customer will be interested, but is instead based on an informed belief that they have something that will benefit the customer.
If a more advanced alien civilisation, let’s say Vulcans, had made first contact with the human race late in 2008 they would probably have first contacted our only super-power, the USA and an unpopular president who was waiting out his last weeks in office. Their timing would have shown a lack of preparation and their impact diluted – although I’m sure GWB would have enjoyed the book revenues.
Likewise when contacting a company for the first time, timing is important. You don’t want to try and sell data management enterprise software to a public body that has already set and assigned its budget spend for the next twelve months. Neither should you promote a new processor to a company who is prototyping a new product using a competitor’s solution. You’ll just look amateurish and it’ll do your reputation and ability to develop a relationship no good at all. You may only get one chance and be locked out for years if you miss it. Your timing needs to be right.
Before landing on the lawn of the Whitehouse, the Vulcans would have undoubtedly observed us from afar for many years or even many tens of years.
If your research shows that the time is not right to make first contact, then be patient and don’t. Bide your time and work on other prospects. Wait until you feel your solution will provide a real benefit when it is needed. Should you inadvertently contact at the wrong time then rather than push for a meeting with the desire to get your foot in the door, try and build a rapport and get an agreement that it’s OK to call periodically and to be able to discuss their needs when the time is right.
Having got an audience with the human race, if the Vulcans had used the standard sales approach of arrogantly pointing out how primitive we are and how lucky we are that they turned up, they would almost certainly have been escorted back to their ship and told to sling their hook.
Similarly, while your products and services may be vastly superior to the those your prospect currently use, they won’t take kindly to you waltzing in on your first visit and pointing it out. You’ll be back in your ship (company car) in no time; their doors will be shut to you and the phones off the hook. So if, like most sales people, you feel that having got a meeting, you need to extol the virtues of your company and product and you whip out your standard company presentation, then please, please, please don’t.
When we think of communication most of us think of speaking, writing and presenting. But few think of listening which is arguably the most important aspect of communication (along with body language) and the one that is often least used. Spend your first meeting listening, asking questions and getting to really understand your customer’s problems and requirements.
This empathic-type approach will forge a far stronger relationship than simply using the opportunity to pitch your product’s features and benefits.
First contact is so important and often done so badly. But get it right and the amount of business won versus the number of customers approached will increase. Wasted time and effort will decrease and rather than being locked out for years you’ll be the one doing the locking out. In future editions we’ll expand on the best ways to achieve a positive first contact and establish long, and hopefully prosperous, relationships.