Interest vs. Intent: How to Identify and Engage Prospects Most Likely to Act

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This is my third contribution to the series “what is B2B sales excellence in the customer age?” For this post I’m going to focus on what B2B sales organisations need to do to identify and engage the prospects that are most likely to buy from them.

This turns out to be both a critical and a fundamental question, because in even the most successful B2B sales organisations there is a significant fall-off between the number of qualified sales opportunities that enter the top of the sales funnel and the number that eventually emerge as customers.



Needless to say, in less effective sales organisations the fall-off from top to bottom of funnel is significantly higher – and the true impact is compounded by the number of “zombie deals” that have somehow managed to remain in the sales pipeline despite showing no recent signs of life.

The question of which prospects are likely to buy from you really needs to be broken down into two constituent parts: first, you have to establish the chances that the “prospect” is actually likely to do anything, and then you have to determine the chances that they will select you as their preferred option.

Distinguishing Between Interest and Intent

If we’re to answer the first question, we need to distinguish between interest and intent, and the failure to do this is why so many sales pipelines are artificially bloated with so-called “opportunities“ that are, by any rational analysis, never actually likely to do anything.

Here’s why: interesting needs will cause your prospects to start investigating their options. Important needs will cause them to evaluate short-listed solutions. But only truly critical needs will guarantee that they will buy. That’s not to say that interesting or important needs don’t sometimes drive buying decisions. But only by uncovering or developing truly critical needs can you be sure that your prospect will inevitably do something.

How can we distinguish between interest and intent? One simple way is to ask them what would happen if they eventually decided to stick with the status quo. If their answer is “we could cope”, you’ve probably got to question their motivation – or do something that will increase it.

Converting Intent Into Action

Let’s assume that you’ve confirmed your prospect’s intent to act. Does having the “best” solution guarantee success? It’s a mistake that many tech-based businesses (in particular) seem to make. The problem is that the modern buyer expects every vendor to claim that they are better, and therefore will tend to discount or devalue any and all such assertions.



If you’re to satisfy the modern, well-educated buyer, you need to do more than claim that your solution is better. In fact in many situations you are better off challenging their perception of what they need, by introducing a new aspect of the problem they are trying to solve that they may not have previously considered.

Offering a better solution to the problem they thought they had is rarely very compelling. Opening their eyes to some previously unrecognised consequences of their situation is much more likely to stick in their minds, and to differentiate you from the other options they may be considering.

Engaging Early with The Prospect

Of course, it’s much easier to influence your prospect’s thinking if you engage with them at an early stage of their buying decision journey. It’s what a long-term client of mine refers to as “finding them while the cement is still wet”. It’s a very relevant metaphor: once their thinking about what they need has solidified, it’s significantly more difficult to reframe their thinking.

I asked him to share his experiences, and here’s what he said: “I always want to know where the prospect was in their decision making cycle when we first made contact with them. I’m always very wary when we seem to have arrived late to the party, and are restricted to answering an RFP we had no ability to influence.”

His inclination is borne out by the experiences of many similar organisations: failing to find the prospect when their needs have not yet been fully defined inevitably means playing a high-risk low-reward game of catch-up, with win rates in the low single digits.



Recommendation

I recommend that you take a careful look at your current pipeline. If you haven’t engaged early, distinguished between interest and intent, or taken steps to determine your chances of turning intent into action, chances are your prospects will decide to go with an alternative vendor who has managed to better address the needs of today’s well-educated B2B buyer. Or they will decide to do nothing, despite all the effort you and every other vendor may have invested in them.

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