Once I was sitting in a restaurant having dinner with a friend of mine that runs a construction company. The restaurant was busy, the wait staff bustled between tables scooping up tips, serving drinks and taking orders, and there was a long line waiting to get in. My friend turned to me and said, “You know, someday I’d like to get out of construction and do something less risky. I’d like to take a fling on a new opportunity – like owning a restaurant like this!” For emphasis, he raised his arms expansively pointing across the room. Of course, both construction and restaurants are very risky endeavors, but he sensed a business opportunity for himself. Perhaps a milk shake machine that looks like a cement mixer? A steak served in a platter that looks like an asphalt paver? Wait staff in safety vests and hard hats?
Opportunities are situations customers are hoping to exploit. For example, a construction company customer, may have just been awarded a new project. A bank may have just purchased land to open a new branch office in a growing area of town. A city may have just learned a new business is locating inside their corporate limits. Where customers are eager to tell you about their problems, they are reluctant to tell you about their opportunities – unless you ask, and unless you have a relationship good enough to let you get that close. Of course, as opportunities get near, problems pop up and accumulate. The construction company with the new project may need rental equipment, the bank may need a landscaper to sod their new property which must be done before the branch is opened, the city or town may need a lawyer to help rezone the land before the new business relocates. If you uncover an opportunity early – by building the relationship and probing for opportunities during your phone conversations – you may be the rental company, landscaper or lawyer with the inside track. If you wait, you may be just one of many vendors vying for the business.
Opportunities in the early stage are fun, a long way before all the problems crop up. The salesperson who asks about opportunities at this stage will help frame the conversation, and can skillfully position their product or service as a way for the customer to exploit the opportunity. At this point, the talk is expansive, the opportunity is gleaming, and the salesperson’s solution is part of the fun. This is where an open-ended question is powerful. For the construction company example, “I understand you were awarded a new project. Congratulations! Tell me what excites you most about this opportunity.” When the customer responds, the salesperson can unpeel the next part of the onion by reflecting on what the customer just said. For example, “You’re looking forward to getting started because you can deploy the new technology you’ve developed for tunneling under highways.” This should be sprinkled and seasoned with a liberal dose of voice inflection that tells the customer you are truly interested in listening.
Because you are, it’s a big part of your job.