This is my fifth contribution to the series “what is B2B sales excellence in the customer age?”, and today I’m going to focus on what B2B sales organisations need to do to better qualify their sales opportunities and avoid wasting resources on opportunities that they are never likely to win – or which if they did would be horribly unprofitable.
Specifically, I’d like to try to address the following question: “How can we qualify whether any given opportunity is a good fit for us, and help our prospects make an informed decision about whether our solution is a good fit for them”.
Sales people are used to think of qualification as something they need to do to every opportunity at an early stage in the sales pipeline. But there’s more to it than that: qualification is and should always be a two-way process.
If we’re not a good fit for the prospect’s requirements or situation, and if our attempts to persuade them to reshape their needs are unsuccessful, there’s not a lot of merit in going through the motions for what is inevitably going to end up as a losing position.
I don’t know about your experiences, but from my observations one of the abiding characteristics of the top performing sales people I’ve had the privilege to work with is that they have too much respect for their own time to waste it pursuing lost causes. By contrast, many less confident (and less effective) sales people seem to cling on to opportunities that by any rational judgement they should have abandoned long ago in part because they were unprepared to ask tough questions.
Start by Qualifying the Pain
Before qualifying whether our solution is a fit, we first need to qualify whether the customer’s problem is compelling enough to make action inevitable. In this context, the “pain” could be a current problem that they are trying to remedy, or a future opportunity that they need to take advantage of.
Either way, unless the costs and consequences of sticking with the status quo are seen by them to be sufficiently uncomfortable, they are most likely to accept their current situation rather than expose themselves to the risk of change.
It’s critically important that – early on in the process – we qualify whether the pain is real, what the impact on their organisation is, and who else is likely to be affected and to have a say in any decision to change.
If there’s no pain, then there’s probably no prospect, either.
Establish the Solution Fit
Assuming that the prospect’s pain has been identified and quantified, we need to turn our attention to whether our solution is likely to be a good fit for their needs. It’s a mistake to think of this simply in terms of product functionality.
We also need to assess whether our approach to solving the problem is a good fit against their expectations. For example, are they looking for a “plug and play” approach, or are they expecting a highly consultative engagement?
Don’t Ignore the Organisational Fit
Perhaps most important of all, are they the sort of organisation we want to do business with, and are they likely to be come a long term, profitable customer? Or can we detect the warning signs that suggest that both the initial sale and the subsequent relationship are going to be fraught.
There are a number of important indicators: for example, organisations with a tradition of conservative, safe/big-brand purchasing decisions are unlikely to be good prospects for a relatively new company with an innovative solution.
Do they see vendor relationships as partnerships or as negotiating combat zones? If the latter, then you had better be the cheapest option: pursuing a “value added” strategy is unlikely to increase your attractiveness to them (or vice versa).
Is Your Prime Contact a Mobiliser?
The authors of “The Challenger Customer” deserve a great deal of credit for opening our eyes to the importance of working with “mobilisers” in successful sales engagements. Put simply, mobilisers are individuals who are capable of leading the change agenda within their organisation, and of establishing a consensus around the preferred solution.
These mobilisers are not always C-Level executives (in fact, many or most of them aren’t), but they share a common characteristic — they have the respect of their colleagues and the perceived authority to align them around a common vision of a solution. Does your prime contact have these qualities?
Help Them Qualify You
I firmly believe that qualification should always be a two-way process. It’s not just a matter of us qualifying them: I’m also convinced that we need to help them qualify us, and to encourage them to qualify us out early if the prospective fit isn’t a good one.
Rather than pretending (often in the absence of any evidence) that we have a “perfect fit” for their needs, it’s often better to be honest about our reservations, or the fact that we need more information from them before we can recommend our solution to them.
Not only is this a more credible approach, it also forces a more engaged conversation at an early stage in the sales dialogue. By acknowledging our limitations, reservations or our incomplete understanding of their situation, we can turn the discussion to practical matters at an early stage.
It’s also the opportunity for an honest conversation about what both parties should reasonably expect from the other in return for their continued investment of time and knowledge sharing through the rest of the buying process.
A number of the top-performing sales people have mastered the art to a level where they can sometimes get the prospect to the point where they are seeking to persuade the sales person as to why they should continue the engagement.
Even if we can’t always reach these dizzy heights, there’s no doubt that having substantive, rather than glib, early-stage sales conversations can lay the foundation for a completely different relationship (and a healthier balance of power) throughout the rest of the sales process. What’s your experience?