There Is No Disqualification Fallacy! Disqualification Is Critical!


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It’s not often that Anthony Iannarino and I disagree.  When we do, it leads to a richer discussion where we both learn and converge on a new, shared point of view.

Recently, he wrote, The Disqualification Fallacy.  I found myself disagreeing–or perhaps reframing what he was saying.  I think it is a critical issue, and I think too few organizations and sales people do good jobs of disqualifying and focusing.  As a result, huge amounts of time and resource are wasted, both the customers’ and ours.

Anthony approaches the issue of disqualification both from a “client/customer” point of view and a deal point of view.  Disqualification is critical to each.

Why is disqualification of certain types or categories of customers so important?

We are most effective and create value for only certain customers.  We have to be very clear about who those customers are.  The process for doing this is clearly identifying our sweet spot.  We discover are sweet spot by addressing, ruthlessly, “What problems are we the best in the world at solving?  Who has those problems?”

The “who” needs to be richly defined–it includes certain types of industries/markets, or companies.  It may be organizations of a certain size, with certain operating philosophies, in certain regions.  It may be organizations at a certain maturity level within their own industry (e.g. pioneers, early adopters, late adopters).  It’s certain people within those enterprises–personas or people that “own” the problem we solve.

Everything outside the space defined by the problems we solve and who has those problems need be disqualified!  It’s a waste of everyone’s time and resources, and diminishes your and your company’s brand value.

For example, if we sell HIPAA Compliance Solutions to Healthcare Administrators, Branch Managers at Retail Banks are outside our sweet spot.  We should disqualify them!

You may be reacting, “Dave, you’re being too nitpicky, that’s obvious, we’d never do anything that stupid!”   Look at your own inboxes!  Look at the prospecting messages you are getting that are totally wrong and inappropriate—from reputable companies!

The unfortunate reality is most companies, marketing, and sales people don’t have the courage to honestly answer the question, “What problems are we the best in the world at solving?  Who has those problems?”  If forces them to have great clarity and understanding of what they do best.  It’s difficult and often painfully revealing.

Furthermore, when we do this, we often ignore it.  Recent data show 72% of emails have little or no targeting.

Focusing on the customers that might have the problem you solve, disqualifying everyone else is critical to our effectiveness.

Using Anthony’s great terminology, these become “dream clients.”

Here, I tend to agree with Anthony–we never disqualify a dream client.  We always try to engage them, nurture them, educate them and build some level of relationship.  While they may not be experiencing the problems we solve today, inevitably some day they will.  It’s at that point you want to have build enough knowledge and relationship they will eagerly engage with you.

This brings us to the second issue of disqualification.  And here, I’ll admit that I’m possibly splitting hairs.  It’s finding real opportunities, customers with a compelling need to buy.

We may see these customers having severe challenges–problems that we are the best in the world at solving.  But until the customer recognizes the issue and has articulated a compelling need to change and owns it as one of the most important things we can do,  we are wasting their and our time.

We are obligated to help them learn and discover, we want them to say, “Our current operations are unacceptable, we have to change!”  If they say this, we may have a qualified opportunity.

Until the problem we solve becomes important to them, we will never be successful in selling.  If we can’t make the problem important enough to them, then we need to disqualify the opportunity–at least for now.

I think Anthony and I agree on this point, we have to work on discovering what’s important to the customer,  we have to work at educating them and perhaps shifting their priorities, we have to move them to a place where they have a compelling need to change.  If we can’t do that, they need to be disqualified.

Too often, sales people don’t do this.  They think they can get the customer to buy without this commitment to change.  Whether it’s through sheer force of personality, inundating the customer with content, talking about how cool the solution is and how wonderful things could be, they never force the issue of “Why Now!”

Some years ago, I was the EVP of Sales for a large technology company.  A sales person had been persistently trying to reach me, he had been spending a lot of time with my team.  He was doing discovery calls, demonstrations, providing proposals and trying to close.  It was diverting the time of the team and his calls to me were distracting.  It became clear we were an “opportunity,” qualified in his mind because we had the problem he could solve and he had a compelling value proposition.  He was going to keep selling to us because of his need to sell.

Finally, I met with him.  He did a very good presentation, talking about the problem and how much money he could save.  He tried to close me.  I finally said, “I don’t disagree.  I see what your solution can do for us, I understand your value.”

Reading his body language, I could see him salivating over the potential of getting the order.

I continued, “But I don’t care.  I simply am choosing to pass on that opportunity.  We have bigger problems, different priorities, and I want my team to focus on that.  And your efforts are distracting them from doing what’s most important now.  I’m not saying I’ll never be interested, but it’s wasting our time now and the more of our time you waste, the less likely we will ever do business with you.”

We did end up calling him in a couple years later and ultimately bought his solution.

Perhaps, the issue I’m reflecting on is less the terminology of disqualifying or qualifying, but more a mindset issue.  Sales people with a disqualifying mindset force this type of discussion very early in the sales process.  It’s a way of creating great value for the customer.  If it’s not important now and there is no way we can make it important, they stop and come back when it is important  (they continue to nurture and educate the customer to help raise it’s importance.

On the other hand, sales people anxious to qualify opportunities tend not to force this discussion, instead they avoid it, hoping and dreaming the customer will buy.

Disqualifying is not simply the flip side of qualifying.  It’s a vicious focus on finding the right customer with the right problem at the right time.  It’s devoid of wishful thinking.  It’s driven by valuing both your customers’ time, the resources you use in your own company, and your own time.

We shouldn’t only be disqualifying, we should be doing so viciously.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Brock
Dave has spent his career developing high performance organizations. He worked in sales, marketing, and executive management capacities with IBM, Tektronix and Keithley Instruments. His consulting clients include companies in the semiconductor, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, computer, telecommunications, retailing, internet, software, professional and financial services industries.


  1. Hi Dave, I agree that we all (well, most of us, anyways) need to be a bit more structured with qualification processes, but still let me challenge your thinking on two accounts 🙂

    – is it necessary to be the ‘best’ at something? Simply the best seems to be too much of a simplification to me. There are too many variables involved in what makes a solution ‘best’, including the tenacity of the sales people. Unless you argue 100% from the customer point of view ‘the best for me’.

    – Why did you put your story into the disqualification bracket? I’d argue that there was a lead, if not an opportunity, just that it’s urgency was not high enough – which the vendor could hardly have known before you met him. So, one could say that the chance of deferral that you offered him was actually a qualification rather than a disqualification and made an opportunity out of a lead (though an opportunity that is clearly not closing soon) and gave him the chance to educate you with what goes on without continuing to ‘harrass’ you and your team.

    Just 2ct from Down Under

  2. Thomas, thanks for your thoughtful comments. Some thoughts:

    1. I think the difference between qualification and disqualification is a matter of mindset/focus. If we change the way we look at something, perhaps we have the opportunity to significantly improve our results.

    2. We not only do a bad job of qualifying, most sales people do the wrong thing when under pressure. If their pipelines look bad, rather than focusing on better qualifying, they cast a wider net, looking at far more marginal deals–deals where they aren’t the best–in fact others are far better. If instead, we focus viciously on finding the opportunities where we have our strengths we have far greater success. This is not just a sales problem, too few product managers and marketing people do a great job of understanding where the greatest strengths are and focusing sales efforts on those areas. Consequently, sales people invest too much time going after marginal/bad deals.

    3. A disagreement we may have is a tenacious sales person, selling outside their sweet spot is an annoyance. A tenacious sales person, within the sweet spot could be helping a customer discover new things. (there is the issue of when tenacity becomes too much–but customers generally have some foegiveness when they see the sales person is coming from a customer driven point of view.

    4. As I mention in the post, 100% of the customers in our sweet spot will buy sometime. In that sense 100% are qualified–that’s part of what causes them to be in our sweet spot. The issue around disqualification is the issue or urgency–which is the key issue impacting change. It they aren’t qualified now, we are wasting their and our time. Hence the notion of disqualification.

  3. thanks

    thanks for your patient reply, Dave! I admit that I wanted to split a little hair – not that I would have much success, given my head 🙂


  4. Thomas, I think we are saying the same thing, perhaps putting accents on different syllables 😉

    Plus, both of us have far too few hairs to split.

    Thanks for your good humor 😉


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