You arrive for that long-awaited meeting to make your sales pitch to a key executive only to hear the dreaded words “Something came up and I only have five minutes for you today.”
What should you do, because you know you need at least 20 minutes to draw out the company’s greatest needs and present your ideal solution? Grit your teeth and plow ahead? Shove your collateral into the executive’s arms and leave? Or just talk fast?
Sooner or later most salespeople experience this dilemma. Their posts on blogs and online discussion groups show they are deeply divided over the best way to respond. To some, any opportunity is better than none and perhaps your brief chat will expand to that desired 20 minutes, or at least may persuade the guilt-ridden executive to give you a second chance. To others, it’s simply a lost opportunity because it is difficult to achieve your desired results in five minutes.
Tackling this particular midstage development in the sales process is more art than science. As the divergent views reflected in the social media clearly illustrate, there is no definitive path to follow when you encounter this sudden change of plans.
To a large degree, how you respond depends on several factors. Are you selling a product or a service? Is this a transactional sale that requires just a quick chat for a buy-in or part of a complex solution that may require multiple discussions? Was a reason for the change offered, and if so, was it based on personal or business reasons? Has this occurred previously with this prospect?
Above all, recognize that today more than ever selling is about creating and maintaining relationships. What this means to you when you encounter “I just have five minutes” is that you must decide instantly whether a short meeting is a worthwhile opportunity to initiate that relationship. Does the “bird in the hand” outweigh the disadvantages of limited time?
If your prospect begs off for personal reasons, accepting five minutes in the hopes of creating a relationship may be misguided because that person may be so distracted that absorbing anything other than a recall of your name may prove to be futile. Empathizing with the situation is proper and appropriate; just be sincere. Gratuitous comments are transparent.
But if your meeting is cut short because another important event or company development arises, it could be valuable to take the five minutes to learn more about the person and the company and vice versa. Rather than rush through a planned presentation, particularly if it involves a complex sale, enjoy the conversation and avoid dominating it yourself. Since your goal likely is to secure a second meeting, you may be well on your way to achieving it.
Even if you do meet briefly, you should seek a longer meeting at another time. Request a commitment for a specific date; for instance, say “Why don’t we reschedule for next week? What day works for you?” This not only makes it more likely you can pursue your original purpose, it helps clarify the situation if your prospect really has no intent to meet with you. When you agree on a new date and time, pledge to send an e-mail (that same day) so the other party has something concrete to move onto a calendar. It’s a courteous gesture on your part and it also makes it more of a certainty you will get your meeting.
If this is the second or third time your prospect has canceled, you have another decision to make: Do you maintain the pursuit, or direct your time and efforts elsewhere?
Above all, remember this isn’t about you and what you had to do to get there. Be respectful of the prospect’s time, courteous in your response, and careful to avoid leaving behind anything other than a favorable impression of yourself. Burning bridges is never smart, and sometimes you get singed.
Paul Simon is contributing sales editor for AllBusiness.com and is the owner of SharperContent, a writing and editing business that refines written messages in blogs, newsletters and books and on websites for sales authors and entrepreneurs. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through LinkedIn.