Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Joe Mazzafro

One of my pet peeves as a sales professional is when other sales folks don’t do their homework before visiting with a client or prospect.  Most business persons have seen it done or been a part of it: a show-up and throw-up sales call.  Whichever side of the equation you happened to have been on, these are not pretty meetings.  Selling -- on its best day, is a bilateral conversation, not a one sided technical dump, from the “sales person” towards the prospect. 


In the military and the IC market, I believe this mandate is even more important because the clientele is much more complex than most commercial clients, and the sales cycle is typically much longer due to the budgeting cycles.  Add-on the secrecy dynamic and you basically have a long process made even longer.  Here are some general tips on conducting an effective sales call in the military and the intelligence community (IC). 


    • Before I enter a new agency or an account that I have not visited in long time, I like to get caught up on any articles that have addressed their progress, or lack thereof.  Even the CIA’s IT environment was deeply profiled in CIO Magazine ( during 2008.  Checking Signal Magazine ( ) is a no-brainer!   I also try to check too.  It’s getting easier and easier to understand the IC and the DoD, so conduct your own background check on them!

    • Did you know that the Government Accountability Office ( and the Congressional Research Service ( ) write reports on most agencies?  The nature of these is that they usually only write the reports when something needs fixing.  I recommend checking here for any that have been written during the last twenty-four to thirty-six months.

    • As you routinely scan the news alerts for that particular agency in your Google™ browser, and you run across an article that may come in handy, store it away in your electronic folder for that particular agency.  This 20 second effort may pay huge dividends when--sometime down the road, you need to prepare for a meeting.  And don’t forget to check this folder before the meeting.

    • Develop the conversation as a result of what you read; i.e., prepare some questions ahead of the meeting that incorporate what you learned from the reading.  Your client will respect your preparation and perhaps give you more complete answers knowing you have a general understanding of his mission, challenges and environment.

    • Act like a reporter when necessary: if a subject has way too much CLASSIFIED sensitivity tied to it, ask a question that they can either confirm or deny.  Or make an assertion that they can agree with or correct you on, without feeling the need to into detail.  This may be more comfortable for him, than explaining things to you.

    • Never leave the meeting without a reason to follow up.  This suggests that you get his or her UNCLASS e-mail address and have a reason to keep the conversation alive.  Even if it’s to “check back in a few months” to see if anything has changed.

    • IMPORTANT: on my best days, I have envisioned myself as a resource to my clients and prospects.  They may not know the latest trend in your niche area, or how the other agencies are solving a particular challenge, or about a near-term trend that may seriously affect them.  All of these are ways you can help them!  This does require a little sensitivity due to inter-service or interagency rivalries.  Sometimes one service will want to know how others did it, and do just the opposite (!) just because “we can’t look like we’re imitating them”… although this kind of irrational behavior is waning…

    • IMPORTANT: have a list of the points that you need to make and the questions that you need to ask.  For really important meetings, I type this up and take notes on the paper; ….

    • Tap into your professional network and ask other folks (whom you trust) if they know anything that can help you.

    • Define success and failure for the sales call, before the meeting.  For instance, set a goal to leave the meeting with something like this:

      • Agreement for a product pilot’; DISA made it a policy to use pilots and they meant it!  This was explicitly stated by (then Director) LTG Croom at an AFCEA luncheon! 

      • Agreement for the client to attend a demonstration’; if it is specifically for him, ask him where it would be convenient (i.e., don’t ask an NSA manager to travel to Virginia, if you can help it!).

      • A better understand his requirement’ and how you can follow up with a proposal on how to address it;

      • Knowledge on who you should be selling to’ and how to approach them. 

    • Put yourself in their shoes.  I had an interesting conversation with a recently separated CIO from one of the IC agencies.  He was very honest and told me, “why should I put all my eggs into the basket of a very small company?  That’s too much risk for me.”  From his perspective, this is a real fear, and perhaps a legitimate one.  If you have a well thought-out response to this objection, you can address it head-on.  Now you’re in control of the meeting and will probably make much more progress as a result.

In summary, three of the most important things you can arm yourself with in a sales call are knowledge of your prospect’s organization and his requirements, secondly, how your solution fits into one of his ‘areas of need’ (as much as any outsider can possibly know) and finally, an honest approach to reality.  You may find out that you should stop wasting your time at this particular agency and move on.  Disappointing, perhaps, but better than spending too much and getting nothing!  And remember, the less you talk, the better!  The best thing you can do is have to schedule another meeting where you can respond to everything you’ve just heard with a fully tailored sales presentation, rather than a canned PowerPoint deck.  Good luck and good selling!