Is your offering a discretionary purchase for your customer? Do you often find yourself having to create needs? Does your true competition include not only other similar vendors, but also other completely different projects, and the possibility that the prospect will decide to “do nothing”?
Are your sales pipelines clogged up with opportunities that have expressed interest but now seem to be going nowhere? Do deals get stuck at critical points in the buying cycle? And are your sales people reporting that their “usual suspects” are nearly ready to close – quarter after quarter?
It’s a common situation. And the common explanation is that what you have to offer may be interesting enough for your prospects to want to learn more, but that their current situation is not yet uncomfortable enough for them to conclude that they have to act…
Challenging the status quo
Most systems – and most organisations – have a tendency to perpetuate the status quo unless challenged by a critical need to change. And today’s risk-averse climate has had the effect of raising these invisible organisational barriers to change.
Risk aversion hasn’t necessarily dimmed your prospect’s curiosity or their desire to educate themselves about trends that might affect them. But it has made it harder for vendors to persuade their prospects to convert curiosity into action, and to make a purchase decision.
In the void between pain and ambition
Most discretionary business purchases are driven by one of two motivations – to either solve an existing problem or to take advantage of a new opportunity. They are catalysed by either pain or ambition.
But unless and until the problem is acute enough, or the opportunity compelling enough, no purchase will be made. Conversations may certainly continue – and sales people may come to believe they are making progress. They may even hope that a deal is in the offing.
The opportunity will remain trapped in this widening void between pain and ambition until the economic consequences of failure are so blindingly obvious to the prospect that all the stakeholders involved can align around making the decision to take action.
Identifying the economic consequences
The nature of many discretionary purchases is such that the organisation may not already have a budget set aside for them. The budget will have to be found – and since it is unlikely to be created out of thin air, the probability is that the money will have to be redirected from some other source.
But before this can happen, and even if the new initiative appears to support a strategic priority of the organisation, the economic consequences of a failure to act must be crystallised and acknowledged by the prospect. Having a robust ROI is not enough to secure a purchase decision – prospects have to associate a painful economic consequence with preserving the status quo.
“Who else is affected?”
The status quo creates its own supporters naturally, but change has to recruit its champions. So it’s critically important – once pain or ambition is acknowledged by the initial contact within the prospect – that the sales person identifies other stakeholders who are affected by the issue, and finds reasons to connect with them.
The goal here must be to establish a network of affected and influential stakeholders, each of whom has declared a vested interest in dealing with the issue. And whilst paying attention to the most senior decision maker is clearly a critical factor, given the growing number of people involved in today’s decision making processes, winning a groundswell of influential support can make the difference between securing an order or being told that the prospect has decided to “wait and see”.
Avoiding the void
So how can vendors avoid the void between pain and ambition? I’d like to offer five recommendations:
- Ensure that you understand the nature of your prospect’s problem or opportunity – and if you can’t find a compelling one, ask more questions or qualify out. Focus on the economic consequences, and the cost of inaction
- Use every acknowledged problem or opportunity to explore who else is affected, and how. Systematically build a network of involved stakeholders
- Apply a zero value to opportunities in your sales pipeline unless and until the prospect has acknowledged an economic consequence which is at least as large as the cost of acquiring your solution
- Actively manage your sales pipelines with brutal honesty rather than misplaced hope. Base pipeline stages on buying behaviour rather than sales activities. Insist on observable evidence of a change in the prospect’s commitment before promoting them from one stage to the next in your pipeline
- If you find that a prospect is stuck in the void between pain and ambition, recognise that this is a problem and brainstorm strategies to resolve it. If you can’t, resolve to nurture that prospect until the problem can be elevated, and look for other opportunities that have stronger motivations to act now rather than in the future
A final thought
In this area, as in so many others, hope is not a strategy. Adopting a systematic approach to qualifying sales opportunities and managing sales pipelines is more important than ever.
It’s possible to be so close to your current sales and marketing processes that you fail to see the wood for the trees. You might be surprised by what insights an external perspective can bring. I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned with you.