Five Key Insights Every Salesperson Must Know about Prospects


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While driving along one of Northern Virginia’s busiest highways last week, I passed an unusual sight. Black Porsche convertible with top down, male driver with salt and pepper hair. Hands perched atop the steering wheel, he clasped a PDA with which he was vigorously texting. Ahh, youth!

I see people texting-while-driving all the time. Every day, actually. But an added indulgence made the encounter more unusual: this driver also had white speaker buds conspicuously stuffed into his ears. I figured he was rocking to Metallica cranked past 11. If he wanted to be a little more sensory-numb to hazards, he only needed to don a blindfold. I sped off, mainly to avoid the risk of seeing that beautiful car crumpled like an accordion.

Collisions aside, he makes a useful point. People regularly perform complex tasks with less-than-optimal information. As you can tell, that’s not always a great idea. Ask any salesperson. In our multi-tasking, crazy-busy, do-more-with-less world, there are constant temptations to take information shortcuts. This, despite hearing wise advice to know everything we can about our prospects. “Yeah, right! Two months until the end of the quarter! Who has the time?”

Knowing Everything is a laudable goal, but salespeople are pragmatic. They recognize that not all information has equal importance or value. But to keep sales opportunities on the right road and out of the ditch, what, exactly, needs to be learned about prospects?

A vexing question, because the object of sales discovery, closing the deal, is elusive and has ancillary goals. Whether it’s early prospect qualification, price negotiation, strategic assessment, or something else, not all questions apply to every situation. And many salespeople struggle to find and ask the right questions because they don’t clearly know what they’re after in the first place. Instead, they review some best sales questions, and off they go, list in hand. But successful salespeople distinguish themselves by having a firm grasp on what needs to be learned. From there, the right questions follow.

For a simple comparison, consider how to calculate the volume of a shipping box, which requires determining length, width and height. And for assessing the offensive capabilities of a baseball player, the top measurements are batting average, RBI‘s (Runs Batted In), and home runs. Similarly, throughout the buying process, there are five critical observable elements about prospects that must be discovered:

1. Prospect Situation, or As-is State
What’s happening right now, and what will likely happen in the near future. Prospect Situation covers forces, trends, developments, pains, processes, recent events, limitations, goals, objectives, feeds and speeds, KPI‘s (Key Performance Indicators), financial metrics, gaps, what’s working and what’s not. And especially, risks and opportunities.

That’s a lot, so to uncover what matters most, salespeople must learn:

Consequence—based on the situation, which downstream outcomes or results occur?,
Impact—are those outcomes or results worth caring about, and if so, why?

2. Motivation
Some company executives care deeply about certain problems, but they don’t always invest in solving them. That reality upends frequent assumptions salespeople make. “Our product is a perfect fit for their problem. I don’t get it! They’re just ‘sitting tight’ for now . . .”

Not all organizations have the same urgency in their cultural DNA—or have any urgency, for that matter. While some companies believe they must adapt or die, others are just perennially fat—and quite happy.

Measuring prospect motivation was a hot topic covered in a recent article in Harvard Business Review (The End of Solution Sales, July-August, 2012), which offers a five-point scorecard to assess prospect motivation, including receptivity to new or disruptive ideas, and how the company encourages dialogue.

3. Network
The rise of Big Data and analytics obscures a durable fact for purchases of complex products: people buy when people have dialogues—with people. Not with brands, not with search engines, not with social networks. Same for the delusion, “our product sells itself!” It doesn’t matter how sophisticated or capable the product, or how urgent the situation, no B2B product will go anywhere sales-wise without people connecting with people.

In the past, salespeople simply sought decision makers and influencers as vehicles to the C-Suite, just as fish might follow a chum line. Today, the same Harvard Business Review article recommends thinking about buyer archetypes differently. The authors contend that successful salespeople identify and connect with Mobilizers—who have motivation and wherewithal to move a project from start to finish, and avoid Talkers—people that are “poor at building the consensus necessary for complex purchasing decisions.”

4. Attitude and sentiment
Network questions alone won’t reveal a person’s attitudes, sentiments, opinions, biases, prejudices, and feelings. All of which comprise the baggage—good and bad, strong and weak—that people bring to sales conversations. These elements are revealed through direct conversations, and through social media analytic tools.

5. Vision, or To-Be State
Sometime during the buying process, people conjure a vision for their situational nirvana. If it were a picture, it would display the caption, Problem Solved, much like the photos of shiny, un-dented car bodies featured in ads for collision repair shops. Some salespeople first seek to understand vision without the constraints of time, money, or technology, and later develop one more grounded by reality.

Of course, there are keen differences between sizing up sales opportunities and determining how much cargo a shipping container will hold, or whether a baseball player portends to become an offensive asset:

1. Availability of information. The five elements come from disparate sources, and aren’t always easy to discover.
2. Interpretation. Observations of some elements, like Motivation, Consequence, and Impact are often qualitative, and can be interpreted differently.
3. Timing. In a sales scenario, knowledge and insights are cumulative, and are rarely discovered at once.
4. Pathway. Discovery doesn’t always follow a linear pattern. For example, uncovering To-be state doesn’t always follow As-is state. Motivational insights might not follow Situation.
5. Permanency. Observations and measurements for these five elements can change throughout the buying process, sometimes significantly.
6. Weight. Some measurements carry greater importance, depending on the immediate sales objective. For example, during early qualification, Prospect Situation might matter more than Vision, or To-be State.
7. Connectedness. Prospect Situation and Motivation, while different, are related. Attitude/Sentiment depends on network knowledge, but is a different measurement.
8. Exclusion. Like the Porsche driver, is it possible to be unaware of key information and still avoid large risks? Possible, but not probable. When I sold IT hardware to the CIA, I had few clues about why they bought. OK—no clues! Everyone was happier that way. But that was the exception—not the rule.
9. Completeness. These five elements might not explain everything about a prospect. More elements might need to be measured or observed to develop a full understanding.

Knowing what needs to be learned helps keep sales conversations on the right track. If you know what needs to be learned, the right questions will flow, and there’s less need to memorize lists. And you can avoid asking questions that could be perceived as dumb. Most important, you’ll understand what information you’re missing and which hazards you face.

No salesperson can possibly learn everything about prospects, but neither should they be oblivious to key information, or overcome by informational noise, like listening to Metallica cranked to 11.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


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