First impressions count. That’s why your mother always told you to polish your shoes and brush your hair, and why you still do a quick check of your reflection in the glass doors on your way into the first meeting with a new prospect.
It’s also why, if they were asked to introduce the company’s terms of business into the discussion at that first meeting, many sales professionals would run screaming for the hills. The last thing you want to do at a first meeting, they would argue, is expose your new prospect to the onerous contract terms you’ll be asking them to sign up to – much better to slip these quietly across the table when they’re writing out the purchase order, and it’s too late for them to switch to the competition!
So let’s look ahead – maybe weeks, maybe months – to the day when you’ve successfully wowed the prospect with your wonderful product suite, impressive brochures and company premises, and charming desk-side manner. The day when you say in a throw-away tone, as the prospect is preparing to become a client, “Oh – you need to sign a copy of our contract. It shouldn’t be any problem – just the usual sort of thing.” “Sure,” says the prospect happily. “I’ll just need to run it past Legal.”
Your heart sinks, and you realise that your hopes of closing the deal this month, or even this quarter, are suddenly looking very shaky indeed.
The Dreaded Contract Document
So why is the contract such a dreaded document? Why does it have the power to pour cold water on the hottest prospect? Why would even an experienced sales executive rather eat sheep’s eyeballs than discuss contract terms?
The first reason is that so many contracts are written by lawyers with very little direct experience of the business situations they are contracting for. The language is turgid and complex, and there is little in the contract that appears directly relevant to the client relationship it is intended to govern. The focus is on avoiding liability when things have gone wrong – without much thought as to how to prevent them going wrong in the first place.
The second reason is that few sales professionals ever receive any training in practical contract law. The contract is no clearer to them than it is to their prospective client – and the only answers they can give to client queries are “I don’t know, I need to check with Legal.” Or maybe, “It’s company policy – we never concede on that clause.” And nobody likes to be in the position of having to justify the unjustifiable, or explain the unexplainable.
So all things considered, it’s no surprise that the contract is kept under wraps for as long as possible, and revealed reluctantly at the last possible minute.
A User-guide for a great Commercial Relationship
There is, as the nice man on the television says, another way. Imagine a world where your contracts are easy to read and understand. Where they reflect the way that you do business. Where they set out a way of working that will help you to deliver a successful solution to the client’s problems, and the client is encouraged to help you achieve the best possible outcome.
Imagine a world where you can use the contract as a means to explain to the client the way that you will engage with them. To show the client how you protect them against your errors, and what you will do to ensure that any mistakes are identified as early in the process as possible – when you can fix them most easily, with the minimum of disruption and cost.
Imagine a world where every member of the sales team, from telesales to bid management to the Sales Director is intimately familiar with each term of your contract. And understands exactly what it does, and why it is necessary. And is able to explain it to a client or prospect in sensible business terms. Where the terms that regularly cause prospects to have serious attacks of apoplexy have been removed or re-worked in such a way that they are fair and reasonable, and it would be difficult for any sensible prospect to object to them.
In this world, the contract is not a dreaded document any more. Instead, it is simply a User Guide for your commercial relationship with the client. It helps each party to understand clearly what their obligations are, what their rights are, and what remedies are available to them if things go wrong.
Let your Personality Show
There is a common misconception that because contracts are legally binding documents, they should be devoid of personality and should stick to the strictly legal terminology that has evolved over hundreds of years.
But if your company culture is one of open and co-operative client relationships, of working together to resolve difficulties, and of taking it on the chin when you make a mistake, why should your contracts be any different? When you have spent thousands or millions of pounds establishing your brand, and ensuring that each communication with the client is strictly in line with the corporate personality, why should your contracts remain in the dark ages?
Have faith in your business
A strange thing to say in a secular business world, and not intended as a reference to any particular creed. Rather, consider this as a request to have faith in your company’s principles and integrity, and allow these to flow through into its terms of business. If you can achieve this, you will find that the contract ceases to be something to be hidden under a bushel – instead, it becomes a key tool in the establishment of a constructive and positive client relationship.
If you believe in what you’re doing, your clients and prospects will believe too. Because integrity is infectious, and knowing that your terms are fair will give your sales team the courage to stand by them.
First impressions count. So make your contracts a positive contributor to a great first impression, and help your sales team to use your terms and your legal resources as an active sales tool rather than seeing them as the sales prevention squad! This is never going to be easy, because it involves putting the business at the heart of the contract – and means the lawyers having to listen to those directly involved in client management. But once you’ve taken the plunge, you won’t look back. And you might even find that your lawyers and your sales team begin to appreciate each other a little more, too!