Preparing For Your First Call With a Prospective Client: A Guide For Sales Cynics

In the time that I’ve been in creative services, more agencies than I can count have told me proudly of their ‘if we build it, they will come’ approach to sales and growth. In this approach, preparation and process go by the wayside, while winging it and praying for success take favour. The feeling seems to be that it’s better to err on the side of laziness than employ any hint of odious ‘business development’.

Luckily, I don’t think you need to be a biz dev “growth hacker” or have a sales script to get the best clients. In most cases, all you really need to do is take some time to assess the situation and think a few steps ahead. For example, consider your first call with a prospective client: you can either dive in headlong and hope for a smooth meeting, or do some basic preparation to put yourself in the best position possible.

Here’s how I’d prepare.

Categorize The Lead, and Tailor Your Approach Accordingly. Entering a sales conversation with no plan for where you want to guide it is suicide. In the last couple of years at MetaLab, we’ve carved out three distinct funnels for our clients, and it’s our job to figure out as soon as possible which funnel that lead goes through—ideally before the first call. From there, we have fundamentally different approaches: the client approaching us with a completely blank slate and just the seed of an idea has a completely different initial meeting than the client who emails us an RFP. A recognition of the distinct needs of each client lets us plan out our approach, and we can make a quick determination on whether they’re a fit within their funnel.

Know Who You’re Up Against. For a long time, I thought it was gauche to ask the client who we were up against when bidding on a project. I was certain that doing this showed serious insecurity. Eventually, a strong realization hit me: who cares? Knowing our competition—or maybe that there is no competition—lets us frame the discussion to our advantage. We can only effectively highlight our strengths if we know who we’re competing against.

Know The Room. Take a look at the meeting invite, and look at who’s going to be there. Is it the CEO? Maybe the CFO? A lone entrepreneur? Or maybe it’s just a designer who’s been tasked with finding an agency to work with. Maybe it’s all of them. The point is: all of these people want to hear different things. The CEO wants to hear that you’ll meet their business needs. The entrepreneur wants you to buy into their vision. The CFO wants to be sure that this won’t go over budget fivefold. Know who you’re talking to, and make a point of addressing what matters to them. But also…

Don’t Try To Know What You Don’t Know. If you’re non-technical, it’s almost a guarantee that the client will throw a question your way that’s outside of your expertise. Do you really want to try to be the hero and stumble your way through an explanation of your company’s tech stack if you’ve never written a line of code? Well, I hope you don’t, because your obvious lack of fluency will lead to some irreversible buying resistance. If their CTO is going to be on the line and laying down tough questions, get yours on there to answer them with confidence.

Ask Questions. For many people new to selling themselves or their work, the sales mindset is declarative. There’s a distinct focus on having the answers and communicating those in the most assuring way possible, but not much of a focus on asking questions. As a result, a new salesperson will often find themselves on the defensive for the entire call—selling, but not screening. Isn’t the whole point of this first call to determine whether it’s a fit for your agency? A good salesperson always has this in mind, and has both preset questions and specific ones created just for this client.

Anticipate Objections. There will always be unforeseeable curveballs during initial calls — after all, you can only prepare so much. At the same time, a little foresight can take the client’s bombshell and defuse it entirely. For example, let’s say you take a meeting with an e-commerce startup, and you’ve never worked in e-commerce before. Doesn’t it seem obvious that they’ll ask about your experience in that space? Use this foreknowledge to your advantage: come up with a good answer, or send them some of your relevant work before the call.