James and I were chatting the other day about how badly things can go wrong when you first meet people.  The experience of making a bad first impression is, of course, common to all of us, is quite normal and wouldn’t often keep any of us awake at night.  On the other hand of course, there are times when you get it wrong and you have to do something about it.  Very early on in my sales career it happened to me.  I met an important client for the first time and, in all honesty, we simply did not get on with one another. 

 I was proudly in my first month with a prestigious company and I really wanted everything to go well.  Every day I’d get dressed into a smart suit, drive to work in my company car (which had to be clean, inside and out) and, once there, get on the phone to arrange appointments to introduce myself to my clients as their new sales representative.  I could not be happier. 

Whilst I’m normally very comfortable on the phone I don’t enjoy making cold or even warm appointments.  Back then though I had a wonderful manager and teacher who taught me this dark art.   

 He was an amazing character, and everyone on the team looked forward to working with him.  He made training so much fun and we learned our new skills with enjoyment.  He was a genuine master of a difficult art.  

The first meetings 

Having made my appointments, it was time to get into the field.  For the first day, my manager joined me; this was nerve-wrecking but, out of genuine respect for him, I was looking forward to demonstrating how well I had learned.  Six weeks of training was at long last about to be put into practice.

My first appointment was with a lady in academia, softly spoken and dressed in a wonderful tweed suit with a string of pearls.  She seemed perfectly fitted for a character role in an Inspector Morse murder mystery!

In I bounced, full of enthusiasm and determination to show both my boss and the client how the perfect appointment should go.  I had my learned mantra to hand: “I must get this information (what’s their budget, who am I competing with, what they like about their existing solution, if they had a blank sheet of paper what would they like in the future). I intend to get a follow up appointment. I would like to arrange a demonstration the next time we meet.”

So, armed with my magic mantra, I began to fire questions at this charming lady.  I was told later than it was rather like listening to someone being interrogated; not so much Inspector Morse as a darker moment from a bad war-film!   I don’t know how or why, but as we left her office, this poor lady actually agreed to see me again so that I could demonstrate my product.  My manager told me he thought she had probably done so just to get me out of the building; perhaps the white light I shone in her eyes had unnerved her. 

I got worse before I got better 

I drove home that night smarting.  What a fool I had made of myself.  Fortunately, my wonderful boss saw the funny side of it all.  We ended the day as he made me laugh, imitating my performance back to me ….. mmm – funny but painful.

The following morning I arrived determined today would be different.  This time, I was on my own and I would inevitably return to the office proud of my improved performance and with new sales in my hand.

I had an appointment with one of our largest clients, and if the truth be told, I probably should not have gone to see him in my first month.   From reception I was escorted to an office, where I was met by a diminutive middle-aged man crouching behind a desk covered in papers.  If I recall, he had two large piles of filing both of which tottered at least four trays tall.  It rather felt as if he was hiding himself behind them. 

He was the most direct man I had ever met.  Reversing the previous day’s experience, he bombarded me with questions: “what do you want; why are you here; show me something good and don’t waste my time.”

True to my rebellious nature, I started to talk at him, privately determined that he wouldn’t see just how uncomfortable he had made me.  I got out my presenter-pack and showed him our latest products.  With every word I uttered I could feel my failure get deeper.  Eventually, somewhere in my head I heard a voice “you have two ears, one mouth”; listen to him Diane.  Don’t talk at him.”  So I paused.  There was a long silence.  He asked if I’d finished.  I nodded.  “Great,” he said “then I’d like you to leave and, to be completely clear, I don’t want to see you again.”

And what happened next? 

 In some trepidation, I found a phone box (I wonder who remembers those years before the mobile phone) and rang my manager.  In all honesty, I expected to be fired.  I talked him through what had happened, and with what I remember as painful honesty, how badly I had got it wrong.  I knew it could be disastrous for my employer if I lost the account and I felt a desperate need to come clean.   

Marvellously, his first response was to tell me that it is not always wise to be overly self-critical, that it is sometimes possible to be too honest for one’s own good and that I would probably benefit from some help.  We arranged to meet the day after. 

What a revelation that meeting was for me.

We sat together and he made me complete a psychometric test.  I remember him sitting opposite me filling in his own questions at the same time.  Many of you will have done versions of this test.  He introduced me to the character wheel, in which each personality fits somewhere into the four quadrants of the circle.  I remember clearly that from the top and going clockwise they were coloured red, yellow, green and finally blue.  The right-hand pair of quadrants represented extroverts, the left the introverts.  Carefully he explained to me the power of such understanding and we discussed the accompanying dangers of stereotyping.  Generally, he told me, those people in the red quadrant were quite assertive, almost aggressive but often considered leaders; the yellow quadrant gave people of a sunny outgoing disposition and in some cases a tendency to be flippant (sales people); the green often thought of others before themselves (people managers and often great leaders) and finally the blues were the most data driven (often perfect finance managers, accountants and engineers). 

Needless to say, it was rapidly clear that I was a predominantly red/yellow character; predictably my two woeful appointments were with green and blue personalities.  In an uncontrolled meeting a character clash had been on the cards from the moment I went in.

(Before I go on, I want to point out that none of these psychometric tests are perfect.  Of course, over the years their sophistication has improved substantially and there are a great many competing versions.  I am certainly not qualified to discuss their various strengths and weaknesses but they remain an exceptionally useful tool in the hands of careful and trained users).

A lesson learnt well 

Thanks to a great manager and his sensitive and careful feedback, and thanks also to very professional support from my company via my training, I eventually did learn to flex my style to match the people I met.  I learnt to observe and to listen before jumping in.  I didn’t lose my own individual style, just began to tweak my personality so that I would no longer clash with people when I was meeting them for the first time.   

It was a great lesson and it’s helped me immensely over the years.  Learning to know yourself is a real gift; learning to know others equally so.   None of us get it right every time, but we can learn to do it better.  It’s a skill and it can be taught and, like a muscle, it can be exercised.

 I love meeting new people and trying hard to understand them and I love the excitement of trying to fit myself to the way they think, just as I also try to understand their commercial needs.  

Dialogue International exists to help you and your people learn the same lessons.  These are skills; we can help you develop them and by doing so we can help develop better relations between you and your own customers.  And in the end, successful business has a huge amount to do with having positive human relationships.

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