You've spotted your target, done your homework, and scheduled your first meeting with your customer. You've pulled together company literature, product information, and business cards. You're prepared to convince your prospect that he should do business with you because your company provides a value proposition second to none, exceptional service, and first-class building materials.

It all sounds good. Too bad there is a fundamental flaw here.

In my rookie years, after eloquently describing my company's value proposition and extolling my products' virtues, I would sit back, expecting the customer to say, "Brilliant presentation! Let me write you a purchase order right this minute!" Instead, I would receive a smile and a "Thanks for coming in, I will get back to you."

I have learned complex ways to approach and close a sale. I've even taught such classes, but all those approaches brought limited success. Why? Because in the end, it's the relationship you build with your client that matters.

Regardless whether you're on your first meeting or your 100th, two principles remain paramount: 1. Ask questions. 2. Listen.

Thats how you build and strengthen relationships. When you try to bowl over a customer with enthusiasm and knowledge, they can see you're prepared, but are you conveying that you actually care about them? And if you don't care, how will the relationship—and more important, trust—be established?

I guarantee you that when I leave a meeting, I will know more about the customer and the inner workings of his company than they will know about me and my business.

Absolutely, I would like my target client to know all about me, my company, and my products, but give that time to develop. Your initial understanding of the client, and how his or her company works, enables you to develop a map to integrate your business into their company and to develop a long-term partnership. If you're not asking questions, how will you know what direction to proceed?

One of the best tactics I've found with target clients for initial meetings is to invite them to lunch or breakfast. Getting a customer away from the office to a more informal atmosphere usually yields a greater quantity and quality of information. Among my questions:

– How does the client's company work?

– What are its successes, weaknesses, and struggles?

– What are the contact's responsibilities within the organization, and how did he or she get to that position?

– What are the company's goals this year? What must be done to achieve them?

– How do the various departments in the company work with each other?

– What is the company hierarchy? (This is particularly important given changing changing roles and responsibilities. Keeping track of who has taken on which job at a company can be like herding cats.)

Don't charge into that first meeting firing off questions like you're the Spanish Inquisition. Rather, first do introductions and state what value you can bring to their organization, and only after that begin asking questions. Then listen. Listen for the verbal responses—both what is said and what's left unsaid but implied. Look for non verbal responses as well. If you are in the client's office, does he or she have stacks of paperwork on the desk? Is the phone ringing off the hook? Is your client frequently interrupted or distracted? How does that person communicate? Does he/she prefer e-mail or text rather than a phone call? Observing the operating environment can provide valuable clues.

At the close, you likely will have gathered enough information to determine next steps. The meeting may not yield immediate sales results, but if you have established a foundation upon which you can build a relationship, the opportunities for sales will come.

Dena Cordova is a regional sales manager for Foxworth-Galbraith Lumber and president of the Mountain States Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association. She's based in Colorado Springs, Colo. Contact her at