What a hostage negotiator can tell you about introducing yourself to a new client

You have ten seconds or less to engage a prospective client and establish credibility. Telling them your qualifications won’t work.

Christopher Voss had a problem. As a top hostage negotiator for the FBI, he had been called in to help secure the freedom of a US citizen in Haiti. Among his challenges were that he was in Washington, DC, and had to win the trust of the victim’s father so he would agree to let him help. The father, a Haitian national who Voss reached by phone, started the conversation with the questions “You’re in Washington, DC? How you gonna help me?” Voss figured he had about 10 seconds to win over the father before he had the chance to negotiate with the kidnappers. What would you say?

And what relevance does this have to you?

Although higher stakes and more dramatic than when you meet someone new, it is a similar challenge. You need to win the trust of someone who may be predisposed to be cautious of you to secure their willingness to engage in your process. How would you do it? Maybe tell them about your credentials. Impress on them that you will always put their interests first (and maybe you have agreed to be bound by that legally). Voss had already made that mistake in other cases and knows it does not work. Your listener is not that interested in you and your background (at least not yet). They are interested in their own situation. The most important word in that father’s question is “me.” And everyone has that question on their mind when you have the opportunity arises to tell someone what you do – how you gonna help me?

So rather than list his credentials, here’s how he answered that father’s question. Haitian kidnappers aren’t killing their victims these days. That may not make sense but they’re not. Today is Thursday and Haitian kidnappers love to party on Saturday night. If you do and say the things I ask you to do and say, we’ll have your son out by Friday night, Saturday morning at the latest. The father said tell me what you want me to do.

As Voss explains it, the first thing on the other person’s mind when engaging with you is “do you see what I see?” The strategy for addressing the how are you gonna help me question is to communicate clearly that you can see what that person is dealing with. Empathize with the person and share with them a little bit of strategy to indicate you know how to get them through it successfully. Rather than sharing your qualifications in the hopes they will believe you can do the job, demonstrate that you have the insight necessary and a plan to get them what they want.

When you meet someone who wants to talk about what you may be able to do for them, try laying out the challenges your target market faces. It’s why we make a list of the target clients’ challenges the middle part of an advisor’s positioning statement. It is how you go from, as Seth Godin says, “Buy my product” to “I see you.” One fascinating thing we have learned in doing this work for advisors is that if you can simply express to people that you understand their unique, personal needs they will take it on faith that you have the expertise to get them through it. Sharing with prospects a list of unique needs their clients face and asking “You ever feel that way?” is more effective than telling them what you do for people.

The Haitian father could see that Voss understood the situation from his perspective. He did and said what Voss told him to. And they had the son released Saturday morning.

I get it. You worked hard to accumulate the knowledge and skill you have and you know that accumulated wisdom can help the client secure a better future. You want to talk about it. You’re proud of it. You want to explain to the client what you have that enables you to do a great job for them. And you get frustrated when it seems less persuasive as it should be, or when you notice the client getting that glazed look in the middle of that conversation.  But the client is wrestling with their own issues and they have a healthy skepticism for what we do. If you’ll take the client’s side and communicate with them from their perspective, you’ll get farther with them more easily.

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