If the conversations I’ve been having with sales leaders recently are anything to go by, our sales pipelines are full of opportunities that start off looking like they are going to end up in a quick sale, but then get stuck somewhere in the middle (or towards the end) of the process.
And if my observations accurately reflect the underlying reason, then it’s worth us reining in our sales people’s natural enthusiasm and helping them to recognise that they will be more effective in shortening their sales cycle by slowing down their initial interaction with the customer.
It’s a subject I’ve referred to before, but it’s worth returning to again. If our customer acknowledges a need that we know we can address, it’s a natural (but wrong) reaction for a sales person to want to explain how they have a “solution” for their customer’s problem.
This tendency to premature elaboration (and the associated temptation to demonstrate and propose our solution as soon as we can) may initially give the impression that the sales cycle is moving forwards, but it all-too-often simply stores up avoidable future delays…
The critical importance of discovery
Our prospective customer’s acknowledgement of a potential need should simply be the necessary first step in a detailed discovery process, not the springboard for a poorly-timed and almost always ineffective product or solution pitch.
The customer’s acknowledgement of a potential need – rather than triggering a knee-jerk “sell” reaction – should instead fuel our curiosity. We should seek to discover when they first identified the issue, whether they have already tried to address it, and with what outcomes.
We should aim to understand the impact of the issue, and whether they regard the issue as frustrating, important or critical. We need to identify the other people and functions that may be affected, and how the issue is impacting them.
We need to understand where they are in their decision journey, if there is a decision team, and whether there are defined decision criteria and whether there is a formal decision process. We need to understand what the relative priority of this issue is compared to all the other potential initiatives they could be considering.
Identifying unconsidered needs
And, of course, we must not restrict our discovery to the implications and ramifications of the already acknowledged issue. We need to apply our experience of similar organisations in similar situations to explore additional potential issues, needs and implications.
That’s what I mean by slowing down in order to shorten our overall sales cycle. If we ignore the chance to learn more about the customer’s full situation, we may never have a suitable opportunity to revisit it again.
We are likely to find ourselves racing to propose a “solution” to a problem that the customer – in the grand scheme of things – regards as insignificant and unlikely to be worthy of any significant investment.
And in doing so, we may miss the opportunity to develop the initial issue into something that will require the customer to take decisive action – as well as missing the chance to uncover and develop previously unconsidered needs and implications that could lead our customer to the conclusion that our approach is significantly superior to all their other solution options.
And in rushing we often fail to recognise that we should have qualified out an opportunity that was never likely to do anything, never likely to buy from us or never likely to turn into a profitable customer before we wasted valuable sales effort pursuing it.
“Closing problems” = “opening problems”
Most “closing problems” turn out to be “opening problems” and in particular result from failures to conduct proper discovery. Developing good discovery skills is far more valuable – and far more effective – than trying to teach sales people slick, formulaic and typically ineffective closing skills.
And yet I understand how it happens. I understand why a sales person – after a series of frustrating customer calls or meetings that have gone nowhere – finally uncovers a problem that they believe they can solve and can’t wait to add the opportunity to their pipeline.
I understand why they might be tempted to talk about or demonstrate their solution. They may have been misguidedly encouraged to do by their sales leaders. I understand that they may be suffering from the “itch to pitch”. It’s just that these are the wrong instincts. They are instincts that reduce their chance of making a sale, rather than increasing it.
Top sales performers know better. They have learned that the time they invest in qualification and discovery is paid back multiple times over in qualifying out bad opportunities early and running more effective sales cycles for the remaining well qualified prospects.
They know that if they really want to shorten their sales cycles, they first need to slow down. It’s a lesson that every sales person would do well to adopt.