First impressions are important, and your initial meeting with a business owner will often determine whether you’ll get a second appointment. Over the past 25 years, I’ve participated in hundreds of initial business owner meetings. Here are a few tips that will help ensure a successful initial meeting.
1. Research the business prior to your meeting.
Do they have a website? Have you looked up the owner or owners on LinkedIn? Do you have any connections in common?
Research the current issues facing their industry. For example, when unemployment is very low, there is tremendous competition for hiring among construction-related businesses such as engineering firms, architectural firms and construction companies. Therefore, the business owner probably would be interested in learning about solutions to recruit, retain and reward key employees.
If it’s a family-owned business, familiarize yourself with typical family business issues such as how they’ll equalize the estate between the kids and whether they have a viable succession plan.
If you have access to a home office advanced sales department, give them a call and discuss your upcoming meeting. For example, if you’re meeting with the owner of a construction company, ask the advanced sales team member, “Are you seeing many cases with construction companies?
What types of solutions are being proposed? What are the primary issues?”
You’ll find you get very different answers for different industries, family-owned businesses, C corporations, sole proprietors, etc. The main point is that you should be as prepared and knowledgeable as possible for that initial meeting.
2. Try to spend 10% of your time talking and 90% of your time listening.
I once heard a successful advisor say, “In that initial meeting, if you’re talking, you’re losing.” How can you spend 10% of your time talking? Make sure you’ve prepared some good open-ended questions. Here are a few of my favorites:
» Can you take a few minutes and tell me about your business?
» What are the biggest challenges your business or industry currently faces?
» What are you doing to recruit, retain and reward your key people?
» Who in your business would you least want a letter of resignation from, and why?
» Can you take a few minutes and tell me what motivated you to agree to take time out of your busy day to meet with me?
Your goal should be to leave the meeting with a great understanding of their business and concerns.
3. Always establish a great relationship with the gatekeeper.
The gatekeeper may be their executive assistant or someone in human resources. Your relationship with them can be vital for future access to the business owner. Treat the gatekeeper with respect and engage them in conversation. Make them an ally in building your relationship with the business owner.
4. Business owners are busy and appreciate it when you respect their time.
I like to confirm how much time they’ve allotted for our initial meeting. When I do a good job of asking open-ended questions and stick to my 90/10 listening rule, the meeting almost always goes over their allotted time. Business owners love talking about their businesses. They appreciate the fact that you are listening and trying to understand their business.
5. Tell stories when it’s appropriate.
Business owners are experts in their field, not ours. They may not remember the differences between a cross purchase and an entity buy-sell agreement, but they will remember relevant stories. Here are two that are easy to find on the internet:
» Estate of Cohen v. Booth Computers, 2011 WL 2694288 (N.J. Super 2011). A business valuation method in the buy-sell agreement that was inconsistent with IRS valuation guidance cost Claudia Cohen’s heirs over $11 million.
» Naito v. Naito, No. 9805-03781, A10752 (Or. Ct. App. 2001). The verbiage in an old buy-sell agreement caused years of very expensive litigation and created significant conflict among family members.
It’s unfortunate, but there are hundreds of stories of businesses that failed due to no planning or poor planning.
6. Think strategically.
As you begin to build a relationship with the business owner, think strategically. Does the owner have other trusted advisors such as an attorney or a CPA? For example, my company offers complimentary informal business valuations for business owners. Get permission from the business owner to include the CPA in the discussion.
We also offer complimentary buy-sell agreement reviews. If we discover some provisions that need to be tweaked, I encourage the advisor to include the attorney in the preliminary discussion. Whenever possible, you want their trusted advisors to be “with you” and not “against you.”
7. Prioritize concerns before you end the meeting.
If multiple needs or concerns are expressed, ask the business owner to prioritize them before you end the meeting. For example, there may be dissatisfaction with a 401(k) plan, concern about the potential departure of a key employee, and concern about his or her own personal retirement. Summarize the list of concerns and the order of importance to the owner.
8. Never shy away from joint work.
If you’re new in the business market, one of the best ways to build your confidence is to do joint work with an advisor who is experienced in the business market. The knowledge you’ll gain is well worth a commission split.
9. In the initial meeting, keep solutions as simple as possible.
At some point in the sales process, you may need to get into the details of a buy-sell agreement or a split-dollar plan. The initial meeting is not the time to do this. Most business owners will become confused if you overwhelm them with details and will shut down as a result.
10. Never be afraid of saying “I don’t know.”
I’ve witnessed too many advisors getting into trouble when they think they need an answer for every question. I have lots of professional designations and experience in the business market, and almost every week I get a question that I’ve never been asked before. I’ve learned that business owners respect me more when I say, “I don’t know, but I have a team of experts I can consult with, and I’ll get back to you with the answer.”
11. Discuss next steps.
It’s always a good idea to discuss a specific set of action plans and a date for the next meeting. I was recently presenting at a workshop with a group of advisors, and one of them stated this a little differently. He said, “I try to never leave an initial meeting until the business owner asks me when we can schedule the next meeting. That’s when you know you’ve had a great initial meeting with a business owner.”