Several times a year I get a meeting with a new prospect—but find myself competing for the job with a number of other vendors. It’s a big problem because every year there’s more and more competition for each client and, if I’m going to continue growing my business, I need to separate myself from the herd.
When I first started out I followed the traditional advice for making a good impression and focused on using the opening of the meeting to find common ground and build rapport. This old-school approach is a good start but I found it only took me so far. Many entrepreneurs do the exact same thing and so it rarely sets you apart.
My thinking about how to open these kinds of meetings changed when I met Frank—a great marketer with a natural ability to win people’s confidence. He was one of a number of candidates I talked to about creating a promo piece for my business. All of the vendors in the running had good track records and the first three all presented well. In particular, all of them were very complimentary about my business—but none of them had stood out as a clear winner.
Frank was different. Like the others, he did a good job of building rapport, but when we got down to business his opening gambit surprised me.
“I took a look at your website,” he said. “It looks great, but the truth is it could use a lot of work.” He smiled. “It doesn’t tell me who you are. You should cut half the front page out…and fix the language. Talk to me like a friend, not like a company. Anyway, just a thought… You didn’t ask me here about that, let’s talk about your promo piece.”
A cycle of emotions
As we talked I found myself going through a cycle of emotions. At first his brazen comment made me pull back. I liked my website. He made me doubt myself. But that doubt started me thinking, maybe there was some truth in his statement—the website was my public face, and maybe it could show my personality a little more. Although I’d asked him to talk with me about my promo piece, I now began to see him as a more complete marketer, with a broader range of expertise than the others.
In the end, I had to admit, Frank’s opening was risky, but really confident. My guess was only someone who really knew what he was talking about would even try that.
The more I thought about it the more I realized Frank had done something counter-intuitive but masterful. I would have thought opening with negative feedback would turn off a client. But Frank had used constructive criticism to not only separate himself from his competition, but to win me over. His feedback demonstrated his expertise better than any explanation of his product or service. It made me trust him.
His criticism was a perfect attention-grabbing headline that none of the other vendors could match. And like all good hooks it created a reaction—I decided Frank was the guy for me. In fact, I asked him to not just help me with my promo piece, but also to overhaul my website to reflect the changes he’d suggested.
The last word
After experiencing how constructive criticism demonstrated expertise, built trust and set Frank apart from his competitors I made it a part of my sales toolkit. It’s not appropriate in all situations and I’m careful to only use it when I feel my feedback will help the client—but it’s a great option to have when I find myself in the middle of a pack of vendors all jostling for a client’s attention.
About the author: Andy Haynes is a writer for FreshBooks. He is the co-author of two best-selling business books, a successful entrepreneur and business consultant.
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