You answer the phone—and a person you don’t know starts bossing you around.

You know the drill; a potential prospect is telling you that he and/or his selection committee are close to making a decision on their product purchase.  They need you and your entire team on-site for a demonstration next Tuesday.  And it’s already Thursday of the week before.  Oh yeah, and if you can’t make it on that day, don’t bother coming at all.

In response to his request, you describe the the elaborate and time-consuming process that you’ll have to go through to prepare his demo. 

 He says that he doesn’t care.  It’s next Tuesday, or never.

First off, it’s important to understand that in probably half these situations, you’ve already lost this deal.  Generally, the “selection committee” has already done all the selecting they intend to—and your participation (such as it is), is merely window dressing.  Better stated it’s “Due Diligence.”  Every public-sector organization, and the vast majority of private enterprises have certain purchasing rules that they must follow.  And usually that includes obtaining information and pricing from a variety of vendors.

Most of us intuitively know these facts—but we’re not sure how to proceed or how to uncover the truth.  Here’s a novel idea; ask the person.

You’ll be amazed at the amount of (mostly) truthful information that you can elicit with simple, direct questions.  One reason that people will answer you honestly is because you have the element of surprise.  People just aren’t accustomed to a straightforward, authoritative question. It’s like when cops pull people over and ask, “Have you been drinking??” 85% of the people who have been drinking will say, “Yes!”

Meanwhile, your competitor is probably saying something like, “Has there been a long rang planning session to determine the optimal value factors that impact the final decision as pertains to our involvement in the process?”

Please.  Just ask the questions to which you really need immediate answers.  They are as follows:

       1.What is driving your rapid deadline?

      2. Which other vendors are involved in the process?

      3. Is there a preferred vendor at this time?

      4. Why did you select us to participate?

You’ll find that some folks will refuse to answer the first three—and possibly all four questions.  Why?  Is there some sort of national security issue involved?  

 As far as I’m concerned, the only reason they won’t answer you is because they have something to hide.  And almost always, the thing they are hiding is that a decision has already been made, and you are simply along for the ride.

If the prospect asks, let him know why you need answers to these questions. 

The answer to question number one is particularly important.  Is their timeframe so tightly compressed because they (or their bosses) were simply poor planners?  Is it because they are facing an unforeseen crisis that needs to be immediately resolved?  Did one vendor drop out, and they need a replacement quickly?

The answer to that question will be extremely useful to you.  If they’re simply poor planners—and they don’t care about any inconvenience or craziness that they cause you, is this really an organization with which you want to do business?  If, on the other hand, they are facing an emergency, you may be just the person to help.

When you know the answer to the second question (“Which other vendors are involved?”), you may be able to tell him that one of those other providers is in fact a better fit for him.  I’ve been in a number of situations where I’ve directed prospects to other firms.  I know that our product is either too expensive, or too complex, or too…whatever for them.  Even if they selected us they would fail at implementation.

 The answer to the third question (“Is there a preferred vendor?”) lets me know if there’s any running room at all.  If the preferred vendor is clearly not the right fit for them, you can ask additional probing questions to determine why they think it is.  If they like that firm because it’s owned by the guy’s brother-in-law, you also have all the information that you need.

 To the final question (“Why did you select us to participate?”), I will sometimes append a further question; “Did you include us mostly because you needed to fill out the roster—or was there something uniquely interesting about our company?  This will show you whether they even know anything about your company in the first place.  If they don’t, you can be pretty sure that you are simply filler.

If it seems either implicitly or explicitly clear to you that the person (he’s no longer a prospect) is just using you to complete his due diligence, your best bet is to offer the same thing that you offer everyone—which is to help him.  Let him know that you’ll be happy to send him (or have him download) promotional materials, and that you’ll even provide a generic pricing template.  That way you both get what you want.  He gets to add another company to his file, and you get to go about your business.

 Some might ask, “Why would I spend 10 cents on this guy, when I know that he’s not a prospect?”  The answer is simple; would you rather spend ten bucks on him—or $6,000 for airfare, hotels, and rental cars for you and your entire team?  Would you rather that he consider you (and, of course, by extension your company) to be total jerks—or would you rather generate the good will that comes from cooperating with him and helping him to achieve his goals?  ‘Nuff said.

If you’ve read Tim Feris’, Four-Hour-Work-Week (http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/), you’ll remember how he “fired” his most unproductive and abusive clients.  This strategy is similar.  You can also “fire” a prospect who isn’t really a prospect—while still sowing the seeds of good will and collaboration for the next time you may meet.