Posted 9th November 2010.
One of the most powerful techniques I've come across for building relationships with clients while you're selling to them is the concept of pencil selling.
It's also one that I've almost never seen anything written about.
In fact if you google “pencil selling” then 90% of the results you'll find are about awful, pushy, cheesy techniques used in answer to the powerplay command in an interview of “sell me this pencil”.
But pencil selling is completely different. It's about building engagement and trust with a potential client through the sales process.
The Wrong Way to Do a Sales Meeting
When most professionals meet with a potential client to discuss how they might be able to help they typically come armed with a brochure or a big pack of slides. We consultants are the worst with the latter – often seemingly trying to batter a client into submission with the sheer weight of our slides.
These presentation materials are a sort of comfort blanket. They provide certainty for us. We've had time in advance to think them through and perfect them. They look professional.
But in reality, they actually stand in the way of building a relationship with your potential client. Of really engaging with them.
And sometimes we get even worse – we take a laptop into the meeting and present slides from there – putting an actual physical barrier between ourselves and the client.
Now I've nothing against maybe leaving a brochure behind after you leave. And maybe the odd pertinent slide (if you've already discussed with the client something you're then presenting ideas on).
But in an early sales meeting, your key objective is to engage with the client. To get him or her to open up and share with you what their real challenges are. To delve into them and pull out the impact so they're motivated to do something about it. To get them to commit to moving forward to the next step with you.
You won't get there by presenting at them.
And that's what having pre-prepared slides inevitably does – you present them. And presenting means you talk and they listen. The exact opposite of the dialogue you want.
Now you'll know from my other blog posts on selling professional services that being able to ask smart questions is one of the absolute keys to engaging a potential client.
But at some point, as a professional, you need to start sharing your own ideas and tentative thoughts. You need to be opening up the client's thinking.
This is where pencil selling comes in.
The Pencil Selling Strategy
Simply put, pencil selling is where – in your meeting with a potential client – you sketch out ideas and concepts which illuminate and enhance your discussion with them.
And I mean that literally, not metaphorically. Getting out a pencil or pen and sketching out a concept on paper.
In practice, what it looks like is that you position a blank pad of paper between you and the client (you are sitting next to the client aren't you? Not opposite.)
Then depending on what you're discussing, you sketch out a diagram which pulls together some of the concepts you've been talking about. And you use it to illustrate your thinking.
So if you're talking about improving their product launch capabilities – maybe you sketch out a rocket and talk about how the product itself is the fuel in the rocket. But how you also need a guidance system – your segmentation and marketing so that the rocket hits its target. And then your performance measurement and management system is like the radar – spotting obstacles ahead and adjusting the flight.
Or the client is talking about building a stronger organisation – so you sketch out a greek temple with a series of pillars representing the major components (business functions, perhaps) supporting the roof (their goals). And of course, you sketch in the foundations and talk about what they need to be in an organisation (people, culture, technology, etc.).
Or maybe you sketch a simple 2 x 2 diagnostic and hand the pencil to the client – asking them to show where they are on the map.
The possibilities are endless. the key is that you use the diagram both to illustrate a point or concept – and as an engagement device to get the client interacting.
You want them to make their additions to the diagram. To “get their fingerprints on it” and begin to take ownership.
How much more effective is that than showing some pre-prepared slides about who you are and what you do which they know anyway because they looked at your website?
Mind you – it sounds difficult.
How do you make up all these different diagrams and diagnostics on the fly?
Of course, the secret is: you don't.
You have a repertoire of diagrams and diagnostics you can use repeatedly with minor tweaking.
Think back to recent client discussions. How many times have you been asked the same questions? How many times have you described the way you run projects, or what the three core components of a marketing plan are, or what makes organisations creative?
Most of us probably have half a dozen or so core concepts which we repeatedly use with clients in slightly modified form.
Rather than (or in addition to) turning those into bullets on powerpoint slides – spend some time figuring out how to draw them out as quick diagrams you can recreate with clients.
Then try it out next time you meet a client. You'll see how much more effective it is at building a relationship and getting the client energised and interacting with you than presenting a bunch of slides is.