Almost without even noticing, most of us tend to turn every professional interaction into a lead qualification process. Every day is an ongoing parade of meetings and conversations with prospects, customers, partners, business development leads, prospective employees. But with business objectives to be reached and time in short supply, being mission oriented is of the essence. And so we analyze, assess, qualify and then we move on as swiftly as possible if a person isn't deemed to be worth talking to.
We don’t even notice we’re doing it – it simply becomes second nature. With every new connection, we try as quickly as possible to count the odds of establishing a good fit. Each party shows off its prowess, while intensely eyeing the other party for every clue as to its true intents and merits.
Since the human business professional is more verbal than his avian counterpart, most maneuvers take the form of questions: is the other party of the right vertical? The right business size? The relevant role? Will he be the right cultural fit? Good on his word? Cash flow positive? Is she experiencing a relevant pain? Can she relate to the solution you’re offering?
This is all done, of course, in the friendliest, most caring sort of way. We are, purportedly, showing interest in the other person’s circumstances and needs. Never mind that we’re actually assessing him every step of the way, ready to jump at every vulnerability to either disqualify him or insert it strategically into our pitch to use it against him the first chance we have.
The problem is that while we’re engaging in this extremely polite interrogation, our counterpart is pulling the exact same move on us. He, too, is trying to get the most information he can, pointing his flashlight at what we’re trying to hold back, while keenly trying to protect the information that may weaken his stance.
Both parties, of course, can clearly see through what the other side is trying to achieve, which only makes them plant their heels more firmly in their ground. What starts off as a polite back and forth turns quickly into a heavy-weight standoff.
Changing the process around
Every business graduate is well-versed in traditional lead qualification. But the time has come to innovate the process, which is unnecessarily burdening the business environment with roundaboutness and negativity – and, perhaps more importantly for the goal-oriented among us, often undermines desired business results.
Successful long-term business relationships, whether with clients, partners or employees, are the ones based on mutual interests, transparency and respect. These are pillars that are hard to fake, so even if an interested party manages to get qualified despite the lack of an authentic fit, it’s only a matter of time before the ensuing relationship falls apart.
That’s why transparency and honest cooperation should be the values guiding business interactions too. It’s a win-win proposition: a more direct and less manipulative dialogue is not only more positive and pleasant, but the openness it fosters will usually afford everyone concerned with more accurate and relevant answers to their most pressing questions. A deeper and more valuable dialogue ensues.
To enact the "flip lead qualification" process, follow these steps:
Give before you take. To prevent the naturally occuring stand-off, be the first to come forward with relevant information. Share of your own will what you presume the other side is most interested in hearing regarding your own company, offer, plans etc. But…
Don’t pitch. Everybody sees through a pitch two seconds in, and nobody likes it. Set the tone by being open and honest about your motivations, and don’t try to outright sell.
Highlight mutual gains. Create an atmosphere of cooperation, intimacy and rapport, rather than one of conflict or controversy. Your goal is to navigate the discussion in a way that either makes both sides the winners, or enables you to part as friends (you never know when and under what circumstances you’ll meet again).
Listen. No, really, listen. Your attitude is likely to make the other party less defensive and more comfortable sharing his or her true story, pains and objectives. Don’t retort with ready-made answers. Make sure that your answers reflect the fact that you’re attuned to the dialogue, that you really care about helping the other side, and that you’re not there to just blindly promote your own interests.
A note on rejection
The flip side of "lead qualification" is rejection. Even when your business interactions are played out according to a more authentic and empathic scenario, rejections will be part of them. And you may find yourself, interchangeably, on the giving or receiving end.
Rejections are never nice, but let’s face it: serving them is not as bad as getting them. If you are the party doing the turning down, consider pulling over the values outlined above to that last phase of the interaction, too. Whether you’re saying no to a prospective employee, partner or vendor, it will make both of you feel better about the experience – and perhaps even learn something new.
Rejections come in three forms: The cold rejection is based on evasion. Instead of confronting the uneasy task of turning someone down you simply cut the cord and do not return calls, do not reply to emails. It’s the business equivalent of ghosting in the online dating scene.
The warm rejection happens when you have a concrete reason for saying no, but rather than using it you rely on generic corporate excuses (“we don’t have the bandwidth right now,” “you are not in the right vertical,” “your salary expectations are outside our scope.”) The honest rejection is just that: honest. It involves divulging the real reasons for your no, even if these reasons are unsavoury and relate to the other party’s qualifications, product, cultural fit or experience.
As the rejecting party, we often feel that by falling back on the cold or warm rejection we’re actually doing the other party a favor, saving face by not exposing their weaknesses or shortcomings.
But in most cases, the opposite is true. The generous thing to do is to give an honest account of your reasons, so that the other person understands the why behind your no. This way, you are actually offering him a chance to improve on what needs improving, and perhaps do better with the next client, on the next job interview, with the following VC. Rather than leaving him hanging, or letting him move on just to make the same mistake over and over again, by giving a fair account of the reasons behind your rejection, you’re giving your fellow professional a chance to learn and grow.
Paying it forward
So whether your business interaction proves to be a non-starter or the beginning of a beautiful friendship, turning it from a showdown to the mutual, authentic sharing of information will quickly reveal its significant upsides.
While an open and honest dialogue might take your partner by surprise, he will soon follow your cue and match his steps to yours. He too will see that a dialogue of that nature is less emotionally and mentally demanding, leads to faster discovery of mutual grounds, and in the long term fosters relationships that are truly beneficial for everyone involved.
And if we keep at it long enough, doing business may turn from a game of egos into a dialogue of professionals looking for the best possible ways to work together.