When is it Better to Walk Away from a Sale?

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There’s a traditional school of selling – exemplified by Alec Baldwin’s performance in the film Glengarry Glenn Ross – that would have you believe that the essence of good salespersonship is to “Always Be Closing”. It is, exponents would claim, as simple as A-B-C.

Over the years, this “Closing at all costs and at all times” mind set has spawned an endless variety of closing techniques, including the assumptive close, the Ben Franklin close, the courtship close, the puppy dog close and many more. The curious amongst you can find a bewildering selection here,here and here.

But there’s a clear and obvious problem with all of these obsolete sales techniques. They tend to exclusively focus on advancing the short-term interests of the sales person, and pay scant regard to the long-term interests of the prospect. They aren’t – by any rational analysis – in the long-term interests of the selling organisation, either.

Customers that are exposed to “close at all costs” sales behaviour often feel like they are being manipulated against their will and against all common sense, and they are right. Even when “successful”, these techniques typically result in a wave of post-purchase regret that can live for months or years.

It would be a mistake to think that the negative side effects of a manipulative close are restricted to the hapless prospect. The undeniable fact is that bad sales affect the organisation doing the selling just as much as the organisation doing the buying.

Unhappy customers tend to be expensive to service and corrosive when it comes to word-of-mouth and reputation. They are rarely referenceable, challenging to support and unlikely to renew or to generate add-on revenue streams. It’s hard to make a profit under such circumstances.

Fortunately, most sales people and sales organisations have seen the light, although there remain a few isolated pockets of defiance in old-fashioned industries and sectors. The enlightened majority have already recognised that it is better to politely disengage than to pursue a deal that is against the interests of either the seller or the buyer.

Amongst these enlightened sales people and sales organisations, the emphasis has long since shifted from “always be closing” to “always be qualifying” – and the critical qualifying questions are those that revolve around whether or not value is currently being or could credibly be created for both the buyer and the seller.

Both parties need to believe that value is being created, but as salaried sales people we have to remember that we are not employed as independent consultants: we are paid to direct well-qualified prospects towards the conclusion that the best way of addressing one of their key current issues is through the successful (and profitable to us) implementation of our solution.

  • If at any time we come to believe that the prospect’s need is either not real or (more significantly) not a high priority, we need to exercise our right to politely disengage from the current sales cycle and put the prospect and the opportunity into a longer-term nurturing and education mode.
  • If at any time we conclude that our none of our range of available solutions happens to be a good fit for addressing the prospects needs and that other better options are likely to be available to them, then if we cannot convincingly persuade them to reshape their needs we would be better disengaging early rather than have the prospect conclude for themselves that better solutions are available after a significant amount of effort has already been invested by all parties.
  • If at any time we conclude that the effort required to solve the prospect’s problem is larger than the rewards we are able to earn, and assuming that the initial project is not simply the launching point for a potentially long and profitable relationship, we would be better off withdrawing politely from the opportunity rather than pursue it because the prospect hasn’t told us to stop.
  • Or if at any time and for any other reason we conclude that the relationship is unlikely to be mutually productive and valuable for all the parties concerned, we would be better off focusing our energies elsewhere.

In short, if we conclude that any given project is unlikely to come to fruition, or that our solution is unlikely to be selected by the prospect, we are much better off qualifying out early and investing our efforts in uncovering other more attractive opportunities and bringing them to a mutually satisfactory conclusion.

If you take the long term perspective, it’s always better to choose to disengage than to force fit a sale that one or both parties are going to have lasting regrets about. But how can we reconcile this with the short-term pressures for sales people to hit their targets and earn their commission?

First, sales and executive management need to demonstrate moral leadership. They have to communicate that doing the right thing by both the company and the customer is not optional, and that contrary behaviour will not be ignored or go unpunished. There can be no “turning the other way”.

Next, compensation plans and metrics need to be thoughtfully designed to reward the desired behaviour – the creation of long-term, happy and profitable customers. Everybody across the organisation needs to believe that building a satisfied customer base is the critical objective of the company.

Finally, instead of pressing sales people to close aggressively through the adoption of unnatural acts at the end of the revenue cycle, management should instead focus on ensuring that opportunities are initiated, qualified and developed the right way. If we do that well enough, there should be no need for any artificial closing techniques.

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