In his best-selling sales guidebook “SPIN® Selling”, Neil Rackham identified four potential outcomes from every significant conversation with a prospective customer in a complex B2B sales environment: a win, an advance, a continuation or a clear “no sale”. I’ll define these outcomes in a moment.
Given the number of meetings required to close a complex deal involving multiple stakeholders, it should be no surprise that relatively few customer conversations directly result in the immediate confirmation of a win accompanied by an order.
And if the customer genuinely has no interest in buying, having them explicitly decide not to go any further ought to be a relief - because it frees the salesperson to refocus their energies on more promising opportunities.
More worrying are the number of conversations that end in a limbo-like state, in which the customer agrees in principle to continue the discussion but without making any other meaningful commitment. These often lead to false hopes and wasted time pursuing a lost or losing cause.
That’s why I recommend that salespeople adopt an “advance or disqualify” mindset...
Let’s quickly revisit those four outcomes:
- A win is the easiest to define. You exit the conversation with their contractual commitment to buy
- An advance involves the customer making a meaningful, tangible commitment that serves to progress both their buying journey and our sales cycle, and which requires that they make a material investment of time, political capital or some other valuable resource
- A continuation involves the customer agreeing in principle to continue to continue the dialogue but without any other meaningful commitment - or at least they do not (whether out of politeness or any other reason) explicitly throw us out of the process
- When the customer explicitly refuses to progress any further, at least we know where we stand and can dust ourselves down from this “no sale” and move on
Too many continuations
Here’s the problem: statistically, the vast majority of B2B sales conversations result in continuations - with a general agreement to keep talking, but without any significant progress having been made.
This is an extremely unproductive habit. It results in sales pipelines being clogged with Zombie deals that behave like the living dead. It consumes huge amounts of sales energy pursuing “opportunities” that either will never close or were never real in the first place.
Many salespeople are natural optimists (or at least behave as if they are). They are inclined to see the positive rather than the negative in their deals. They would rather not ask the customer tough questions if they are fearful of the answers they might get.
And so it goes on: pipelines are bloated. Close dates slip. Forecasts are missed. Salespeople miss their targets but believe they will make it up next month or next quarter. Reality is denied.
I don’t think the salespeople should shoulder all the blame. Sales managers have a responsibility to coach their salespeople out of these destructive behaviours. They need to press their salespeople for evidence to support their assertions. They need to probe for the advances achieved when debriefing salespeople on their prospect conversations.
Advance or disqualify!
Instead of the unspoken assumption that appears to operate in many sales environments - that opportunities should remain in the pipeline until it is blindingly obvious that nothing is going to happen - I believe that salespeople and their managers should instead apply an “advance or disqualify” mindset, with any exceptions needing to be justified by tangible evidence.
The advance does not have to be particularly substantial on every occasion - it simply needs to represent some sort of tangible commitment on the part of the customer.
It might be as simple as agreeing to provide information that is not widely available, or which takes a certain amount of effort on their part to gather. Or it might involve a commitment to include other stakeholders in the next conversation, or to schedule a future meeting with a clearly defined agenda and next steps.
Simply agreeing to “keep talking” does not constitute an advance. Without a firm date, and agreed agenda and objectives, and (preferably) the presence of other stakeholders, it amounts to no more than a continuation. Even a date in the diary, in the absence of mutually agreed objectives for the conversation, represents a continuation and not an advance.
The requested commitment can sit anywhere on the scale from just slightly better than symbolic to highly strategic. What matters is that it involves the customer agreeing to do something specific (and preferably timely) in response to your request that they might not otherwise automatically do.
Use your imagination
If you’re in a complex B2B environment and can’t think of a suitable commitment, you really need to apply a little more imagination. You might even want to create a list of candidate commitments that you could ask at appropriate points in the evolution of an opportunity.
If the first suggested commitment is rejected, offer another one - perhaps one that requires less effort on the part of the prospect. But if after exhausting the reasonable options, it is often best to disqualify the opportunity and politely inform the prospect that you believe that the dialogue should - at least for the moment - be suspended.
At this juncture, a couple of possibilities emerge: the prospect may be grateful that you are proposing what they wanted to do but were too polite to suggest. Or they may be so disturbed by the possibility of stopping the conversation to propose that it continues, but with a higher level of commitment.
Never let a bad deal drift
Any of those options feels like a better outcome for all concerned than letting things drift. I recommend that you apply the principle to your next conversation with all your active early-stage deals.
You’ll probably end up with a smaller, better qualified pipeline. And you’ll be able to reinvest the time you would otherwise have wasted in finding more, better-qualified opportunities...