Everyone wants to put their best foot forward for a new business opportunity, and I’m certainly not going to criticize anyone for going all out to win an account.

 

But you do learn a lot from your experiences, and one of my earliest attempts to win a big piece of business taught me a lot about preparing for – and pre-qualifying – prospects.

 

I’m going all the way back to the mid-1990s here, and that’s important because you might recall that the Internet back then was a very new thing. It wasn’t common to have access to it in your home, and most people had to get online either at work or at a library.

 

At the time, I was involved with a business selling a machine that printed credit cards, membership cards and similar products. A referral source turned me on to an opportunity with a burgeoning Internet café, whose prospective founder wanted to offer membership cards to his patrons.

 

It was right up our alley. This was just the kind of business we had in mind when we took this machine to the market. I saw it as an excellent opportunity and was determined to go in and make an excellent presentation.

 

That meant actually packing up one of the machines and a variety of other presentation materials, and heading to downtown Grand Rapids, where I’d be meeting with two father-and-son combinations.

 

Parking is not easy downtown – even if you’re not hauling a credit card printing machine – but you do what you have to do to get a piece of business, right? I entered the conference room confidently and greeted the four men. I had my presentation all ready. I just needed to wait for the right moment to get it started.

 

That’s when I started to realize nothing about this meeting was going to go the way I expected.

 

One of the father-son combinations consisted of the would-be Internet café owner and his dad, whose money the son needed to actually start the business. I was under the impression the venture was already going forward, and my only challenge was to convince them my machine was exactly what they needed.

 

As it turned out, the father and son were not on the same page at all. The son was gung-ho. He was convinced the Internet was going to be the next big thing and that it would change everything. He couldn’t imagine a better business idea than an Internet café because Internet access was at a premium.

 

On the surface, you could see his point. Anyone who remembers getting floppy disks in the mail from AOL, or paying per the minute for dialup connections, can relate to the appeal of having a place to go where you could get on the Internet much more easily. (Granted, there wasn’t as much to see as there is now, but it seemed pretty exciting at the time.)

 

The father had a different perspective, and it wasn’t an old-fuddy-duddy one either. He was completely convinced of the Internet’s staying power. His question concerned the viability of the Internet café. The father wasn’t so sure that Internet access would always be at such a premium. He believed it was entirely possible that the day would come when people could get online access much more easily – possibly even in their own homes, and without having to tie up a phone line or deal with slow speeds and high per-minute access rates.

 

If that happened (and of course it did) the Internet café would become an obsolete concept very quickly. For that reason, his son’s enthusiasm notwithstanding, the father was not prepared to invest in the business.

 

For more than 30 minutes I sat there awkwardly, watching the two of them debate this issue. The longer it went on, the clearer it became that it would be fruitless to present my machine to them, since it was far from certain this Internet café would ever open.

 

And it never did.

 

So what did I do wrong? No one could have foreseen the uncomfortable father/son dynamic that ended up dominating the meeting. But I could have done a better job of pre-qualifying the opportunity.

 

I could and should have asked more questions on the phone before I ever showed up for the meeting. Questions like:

  • Do you have a definite launch date for the business?
  • Do you have your financing in place?
  • Do you have a budget for equipment like mine?
  • Have you committed to patron memberships that would necessitate printing the cards?

These are not unreasonable or intrusive questions. None of them involve amounts of money, nor do they ask who is providing the financing. They simply would have given me a sense of how viable the opportunity was. I might have concluded from the answers that I’d be better off waiting to make an in-person presentation when the owners were more committed to going forward.

 

In the end, it only cost me time. But you have only so much time, and you can’t afford to be constantly wasting it on situations that seem to be good opportunities but really aren’t.

 

More than 20 years in business has taught me a lot about the questions to ask and the signs to look for. I still go all-out for new business opportunities that are solid and imminent. You should too. And while I don’t sell those machines anymore, I absolutely bring my best whenever I have a chance to present to a business that’s really ready for my services.

 

But I absolutely pre-qualify every situation before I go through all that. That improves my closing rate significantly. But even more so, it saves me a lot of time I can be using more productively than sitting in front of a father and son who don’t see eye to eye.

 

That Internet café never did open. And Internet cafes weren’t a thing for long, for all the reasons that father suspected. Eventually someone else bought that machine, and I trust they put it to good use. Just like I’ve learned to do with my time.

 

Written by: Wade Wyant

Red Wagon Advisors