Build Peer Relationships with Clients and Unlock the Sale

By Andrew Sobel

It often can feel like buyers have the upper hand. They have many service providers to choose from. Everyone calls on them and aggressively pitches for their business. Upstart firms—or those desperate to bolster flagging revenues—may offer to do the same work as you for significantly lower fees. It not only makes it hard to get a sale, it’s emotionally discouraging—even devastating. One CFO defiantly told a client of mine, “If your company went out of business tomorrow it would make no difference to us!” Ouch.

A related problem in today’s markets is the stalled sale. Being treated like a tradeable commodity—a vendor—is bad enough. Worse, many of my clients find that they are slogging through meeting after meeting, month after month, without reaching a sale. There are lots of conversations, but no forward progress. You only hear vague allusions to an engagement or deal that might someday develop.

Thoughtful power questions (you'll find 500 of them in Power Questions) can help you manage both of these situations. Let’s look at each one in turn.

Creating a Peer Relationship

To begin with, your behavior and demeanor at the outset must telegraph that you consider yourself a peer. Remember, if you don’t believe that, why would your client? And if you’re not peers, how could the client accept you as a trusted advisor?

Psychologically, you want to put yourself on the same side of the table as your potential client. Consider these questions to help you do that:

1. “I view this meeting as a chance for us to get to know each other and understand each other’s business—and, potentially, to identify an issue of mutual interest that we could add value to. From your perspective, what would be the best way for us to use this time?” On the surface, this seems like a deferential question. But it actually has the effect of making the client come up with their own reasons for having a conversation with you. You set a very broad agenda, and then you turn it over to them.

2. “I’m curious about what in particular interested you in meeting with me?” This could come across as a somewhat cheeky question, but when asked at the right moment it can create very powerful “reach” on the part of your client. It can shift a client from sitting back and commanding “OK, impress me” to leaning forward and asking, “Can you tell me about yourself and how you think you could help me?” It can shift your client from defiance to engagement.

3. “You’ve defined a coaching program as the solution here, but in my experience there are other interventions that may possibly work better. Can you talk about the underlying goal you’re trying to achieve?” Challenging the client’s definition of the problem and the solution is not only the right thing to do, but it quickly puts you on an even footing with them. You establish immediately, albeit politely, that you're not an order-taker.

4. “Who would made the final decision on a project like this? Who would the ultimate executive sponsor be?” This may seem like a very basic question about the client’s decision-making process, but actually it’s more than that. It shows confidence. It demonstrates organizational savvy.  A follow-up question might then be, “Can you organize a meeting between the two of us?” This establishes you as someone who doesn’t just take orders (in both senses of the phrase!) from feasibility buyers.

When the sale is stalled

In today’s economy, there are lots of sales conversations that go on and on without ever going anywhere. You can avoid this by asking a series of incisive questions that help you verify if the preconditions for a sale are present.

The first precondition for a sale is that there must be a significant perceived problem or opportunity. If there isn’t, why would anyone hire you?

To ascertain whether a truly significant problem or opportunity exists, you should ask questions like:

  • “What is this costing you right now?”
  • “If you don’t fix this problem, what will the consequences be?”
  • “What do you think this opportunity is worth to your organization?”
  • What other issues is this causing for you?”
  • “Would you say this is one of your top two or three priorities? Or not?”

A second precondition is that you must be speaking to someone who owns the problem and is empowered by their organization to fix it. In big companies, there are always lots of problems—and plenty of people willing to talk about them. But unless you are talking to the owner of the issue, that’s all you’ll do—talk.

Questions you can use here might include:

  • “Who owns this problem?”
  • “Are you responsible for fixing this?”
  • “Who would authorize an expenditure to address this?”
  • “Who needs to be involved in the solution?”
  • “Who would lead the implementation of a solution?”

A third precondition is that the buyer must have a healthy dissatisfaction with the current rate of change or improvement. The client may have a problem, and it may be significant—but they will not bring on a new service provider or supplier unless they are unhappy with progress or current solutions.

Questions that can help to ascertain this would include:

  • “Would you say this is a minor irritant, at one end of the scale, or something you’re truly fed up with, at the other end?”
  • “Why do you feel that now is the time to put extra resources against this?”
  • “What solutions have been tried already?”
  • “How effective have your own efforts been to address this? Why or why not?”

And so on.

Finally, a fourth precondition is that the client must trust you are the best resource for the job—better than your competitors and better than internal efforts. How do you determine this? This is harder than the other preconditions, because it’s difficult to ask someone point-blank if they trust you! More likely, you’ll sense a hesitation or reluctance.

Nonetheless, you can ask questions such as

  • “What other solutions are you looking at?”
  • “How do you view our capabilities in this area?”
  • “How do you see your alternatives right now?”
  • “What concerns do you have about us or our approach?”

The prospect you are talking to may have had ten other meetings on the same day. If you want to be memorable, be bold about asking incisive, thought-provoking questions that demonstrate you’re a peer and help you ascertain if the client is truly ready to buy.

A related article you may enjoy: Why Would a Client Like You?


Power Questions contains nearly 500 thought-provoking questions to you help you navigate your toughest conversations with clients and also with colleagues, family, and friends. Have a look at on  Learn more about it on my Power Questions page.

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