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Many years ago, I trained as a coach and as an executive coach you are taught to ask powerful questions and to engage in conversations which leave people at choice. I firmly believe that the most effective conversations with potential clients are conversations where you enable them to buy, particularly if you are offering them a professional service. From Day 1 you want to set the tone that you are a trusted advisor who is on their side, supporting them to get what they need, what they want and to enable them to buy.

This is so far away from the caricatured image of a double-glazing or second-hand car salesperson. But you do need to create a structured relationship as you have those conversations. All my conversations about enabling people to buy are in the context of a telephone call or a Zoom session that they have agreed to have in advance – no cold calls. It is still very important to set up the conversation in the right way and in the coaching world we call the set-up of those conversations ‘contracting’. An emotional and intellectual agreement to have the conversation on a particular basis.

This is important because if you just have a chat with somebody it’s very unlikely that it will end up with an outcome that will move anything forward. For salespeople, they call this the ‘buyer seller dance’.  You just circle round each other without ever moving to a clinch. If you have an upfront contract with someone then you are agreeing, at the beginning of the conversation, what will happen during the conversations and the choices you are offering them at the end of the conversation. If you want to enable people to buy, then the upfront contract is valuable both for them and you.

Initial Contracting

Here’s a couple of examples about how you could use an upfront contract. (Thanks to Sandler Training who first introduced me to this term).

“Hello, we agreed to talk at this time, have you still got the 30 minutes we planned or is it better to reschedule?”

Here what you are doing is setting up the conversation so they can easily say

“No, it’s not a good time” or “I’m busy” or “Can you call me back in 10 minutes”

You are leaving them at choice as to whether they want to have a conversation or not at this time. If they say,

“I’ve got 10 minutes let’s do it now”

then again you are going reinforce the original contract for a 30 minute conversation

“I think it’s better that we can find a new time so we have the time to explore what we really need to discuss”.

You are being very clear about the terms of the conversation.

So, the next thing that you would do is spend some time building rapport: asking questions about things they are interested in.  Remember, it’s all about them, it’s not about you. Sometimes that’s about their business, about the football team they support or even the weather. You are trying to create a connection, so they recognise that you have some shared experience or common interest. The more meaningful and purposeful the rapport building conversation, the more powerful the opportunity to have the next part of the conversation.

Establishing the ‘upfront contract’

Now you want to establish an ‘upfront contract’ for the rest of the call.  It could go a bit like this:

“So, it’s really good that we can have this call. I just wanted to outline what might happen at the end of the call so that we are clear up front what the purpose of this conversation is.  To my mind there are 3 possibilities:

1) You decide that there is no point having a further conversation and that is absolutely fine.

2) Or I realise that I can’t help you and therefore I may suggest someone else who can help you or some other avenue for you. But we recognise that we are not going to be working together at this point.

3)  and finally, we agree that there is a problem that I can help you with and we schedule a longer call where we can explore that in more detail.”

So, in this ‘upfront contract’ you are setting the scene for the rest of that conversation. You are going to reference this again at the end of the conversation to confirm with them what they want to do next. You are committed to leaving them at choice.

As the conversation develops, you then get to the point where you want to draw the conversation to a commitment to a next step. You reaffirm the initial contract and set out the basis for the next contract.  So let us say that the conversation has gone really well. they love what you have to offer, they’ve got some real challenges that you can support them with, and they are ready to consider buying.

Then the end of the conversation might go like this:

“From what I’ve been hearing, I believe that I can help you with the challenges that you face, and I get the sense that you’re interested in what we do. So, lets agree a further longer conversation where we can explore in more detail how we can meet your needs and what it might look like if we worked together.”

To which the response you hope will be ‘Yes’, but it could be ‘No’: you are leaving them at choice.

The next ‘upfront contract’

Then you move making an ‘upfront contract’ for the next conversation so you both agree what to expect.

The final part of the conversation might go like this:

“So, I think it might be good to set aside an hour, and because it’s going to be a longer call let’s do it on Zoom so that we can see each other and get to know each other a bit better. When might you have time for a conversation in the next week or so.”

You might suggest a time, look at the diary and work out a time that will work for both of you. You book the calendar invite there and then, confirm the time with them over the phone and tell them to expect the arrival of the calendar invite. You can tell them you’re looking forward to seeing them and if there are any problems nearer the time then they can let you know.

What you’ve now done is built a new upfront contract for the next conversation.


So, why does this contracting process matter when you are seeking to enable people to buy?

It come backs to the fact that you are committed to leaving them at choice. There is nothing worse than trying to persuade someone to buy something they don’t want. Even if they do buy it when they don’t really want it, then serving them as a client or a customer will be very painful. They’ve already decided they don’t want to be part of what is going on. They are less likely to be satisfied, less likely to pay your bills on time: it is not a good place to be.

But, more importantly, if you can create a structure to the conversation then people will feel some level of psychological safety. They will feel that they can trust you to meet your commitments. Your commitment to do what you said at the beginning of the call, to do what you said at the end of the call builds their trust for the future.  Now they are more likely to return that trust by meeting their commitments to you.

Building conversation around agreements about how you are going to relate to each other is very powerful when you are trying to enable people to buy.


Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.