Assumptions can be a dangerous thing.

I was in a preparing for a follow up sales call with marketing people at one of the premier health systems in the country. Both individuals were super sharp, knew their stuff and were particularly innovative. I knew this having sat in on their respective presentations at a conference just a month prior to our web call. Thus, I was eager to have an engaged and free-roaming discussion around how we could collaborate on their marketing efforts.

In advance of the call, I’d sent along some background material on my company and a couple emails meant to keep us top of mind and reinforce some key points. Given this particular audience, my strategy was to quickly review the materials I’d sent and a brief company overview.

My thinking was that, once that stage was set, the conversation would quickly flow and these two marketing geniuses would ask their probing questions, make some suggestions, and then ultimately land on a potential pilot or experiment of their own clever design.

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My assumption was that, with their expertise and company’s market size and reputation, they wouldn’t respond well to being told that they should just sign up for ‘the standard package.’ Instead, I thought it best to keep things conceptual and without specific boundaries for what a relationship might be, given my company is a tiny start-up and basically any relationship with this account would be worth pursuing.

I was wrong.

While the call wasn’t a complete disaster (as I write this, we’re still in active sales mode with them), the conversation floundered. I got meandering questions about our web traffic. They wondered how we engage consumers. I found myself forced to explain esoteric, trivial details about our platform far afield from where I thought any meaningful collaboration might have been headed. Basically, I’d squandered the opportunity. And I had wasted their time.

The lesson that I had to relearn here was that my assumption was woefully naïve. I’d expected a lively, productive brainstorming session, but what this prospective customer needed were boundaries. And they always do. Customers need a frame of reference. Rather than being constrictive, having one or more defined choices gives the customer a baseline or foundation within which to work.

You need to paint the picture. Provide the vision and show them the way. Maybe your customer will say no, or deviate from the path you’re suggesting, but you’re giving them parameters. Maybe they get creative and want to color outside the lines, but they can only do that if you first give them the lines. Be consultative, of course, but give them choices. Not ‘the sky’s the limit.’

Because, as I just painfully relearned, “We’re proposing that you start with…” is invariably a better sales strategy than “We’re leaving this entirely up to you.”