Three Cups of Tea


Building Relationships and Becoming a Trusted Advisor

“The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family.”  – Haji Ali; Village Elder – Korphe, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan  

K2 – The world’s second highest mountain peak, located in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan

In the spring of 1993, American adventurer Greg Mortenson was part of an expedition to climb K2, the world’s second highest mountain, located in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of North Eastern Pakistan. 

While making his descent in blinding snow he got separated from his group.  Instead of arriving in the village of Askole, where base camp was located and the rest of his party had been headed, he ended up 3 kilometres off course in the remote village of Korphe. 

Although only 3 km as the crow flies, Korphe is located on the opposite side of a deep chasm from Askole and due to heavy snow and the spring melt, inaccessible for over half the year.  Mortenson was stranded in Korphe for several weeks while he waited for the snow to melt.    

During his stay he noticed that the village was exceedingly poor and had no local school.  During the winter months children would either leave their families and stay with relatives in neighboring villages or more often than not, simply stay home when they couldn’t get across the chasm to Korphe.  Once the snow melted, out of gratitude for their hospitality, Mortenson pledged to return to Korphe and help them build a school of their own. 

Fast forward twenty-five years and Greg Mortenson, through the Central Asia Institute that he founded, has built over 171 schools in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.  The full story of how it all started can be found in Mortenson’s autobiographical; “Three Cups of Tea; One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace, One School at a Time.”  Although some of Mortenson’s claims are suspect and he has been accused of financial mismanagement the fact remains that there are now dozens of schools providing education to thousands of children across the remote mountain regions of Central Asia, where there were none before. 

I was reminded of Mortenson’s story recently while contemplating the often long and drawn out sales process in my business.    More specifically, I remembered the way in which Haji Ali had explained to Mortenson how to go about building long lasting relationships with the Balti people – Slowly, over tea.

There are as many different approaches to sales as there are sales people and clients.  There is no one-size-fits all approach.  But over the years I have observed that most new sales follow a path that roughly correlates to Ali’s three cups of tea theory. 

Meeting One – You are a stranger.

It is the sales person’s job in this first meeting to put the prospect’s mind at ease.  Listen to the prospect’s needs, wants, goals, dreams, and fears.  Do not interrupt.  Remember, no one trusts you at this point, offering grandiose advice without a full understanding the problem will only reinforce that distrust. Speak only when necessary, asking clarifying questions, or answering questions directed at you. 

Once the prospect has told you everything now is your turn to speak.   Resist the temptation to offer a solution.  Your job is to simply leave the prospect wanting to see you again.  Give them the impression that you are the only person in the world who can help them.  But don’t tell them how. 

I often leave these meetings by saying something like, “You’ve given me a lot to think about.  I know I can help you with this but it’s going to take me a few days to get my head around all this.  Can I call you on Tuesday?” 

When I call back on Tuesday like I promised I simply say; “I have found a solution to your problem, when can we get together so I can explain it to you?”

Meeting Two – You Are An Honored Guest

I’ve already told them that I have the answer.  They are happy to see me and eager to hear what I have to say.  They put on the charm and roll out the read carpet.  It’s as if The Pope himself or some other wise guru has come to visit with a special word of wisdom just for them. 

I begin by repeating back to them as verbatim as I can remember, the exact concerns they had the last time we spoke.  I ask them for feedback and confirmation that I understood them correctly.  When we are both in agreement that I understand the problem.  I lay out the solution being careful to link it back to their specific needs every chance I get. 

Some prospects will be so excited and happy about the solution that they will want to sign the contract right then and there.  Unless you want to make a one-off sale and forever cement yourself in the prospect’s mind as a one problem solution, resist that temptation.  Tell the prospect that they need to sleep on this.  You are trying to go from honored guest to trusted family member.  Family doesn’t rush into things.  By telling the prospect to sleep on it you are simultaneously giving them an out and elevating your status to as the kind of person who has their best interests in mind, like family. 

At this point I leave the meeting by saying, “Take your time with this, read it over, do your own research.  If there is anything you don’t understand, call me.  I’ll check back next Thursday and see how you’re doing.” 

When I call back on Thursday I ask if they have any questions and then tell them when I am available to come by and implement the plan. 

Meeting Three – You Are A Trusted Family Member

Now it’s time to do business.  This time when I come, the prospects tend to greet me like an old friend or relative.  The formality is gone, the red carpet has been replaced by a dusty floor mat.  I am no longer the wise guru with all the answers, I’m the kind uncle, or brother who’s looking out for the family.  There is no need to put on airs, I’ve already seen their dirty laundry, there is no point hiding it anymore.

At the start of the meeting I take a quick minute to reconfirm their needs and remind the prospect how my proposal solves their problems.  At this point there are very few questions left to be answered. This meeting is light, conversation centers around general life and personal matters.  Signing the contracts is just a formality and it’s done almost as an afterthought. 

Once contracts are signed, I reinforce the family image but reminding the clients that I am in their corner.  They can call me any time, day or night, there are no questions they cannot ask.  I promise to stay in touch and set a reminder in my calendar to call them twice a year, once on the anniversary of the signing of the contracts and once on their birthday, just like family. 

This process has worked for me consistently for 7 years.  My best clients have become friends.  Review meetings are more like reunions.  Without even realizing what I was doing, I’ve been following the ancient Balti tradition of three cups of tea since I started in this business. 

It works.  But more than just being a tactic for making more sales, if you’re genuine it’s a great way to make friends.  Most of my clients I think would agree, I’ve got a lot of friends. 

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