Initial Sales Call – Questions, not Assumptions

So you’ve managed to get that first meeting with a key prospect. You know they need what you’re selling, and you are prepared with references from companies just like this one, the compelling financial justification, and the “can’t live without it” feature list.

Here’s the problem – you’ve made some assumptions just because they decided to meet with you. The biggest of these is the assumption that they are interested in buying your product or service. Based on lots of experience, I’d suggest that’s a dangerous assumption that leads you into a sales call strategy that results in a “that’s interesting, we’ll get back to you” reaction from the prospect.

So, I’d suggest two questions that you should ask early in every call that will keep you from making this assumptive error – you won’t ask them in exactly these words, but you need the answers before you get very far into the call.

Question One is “Why are you meeting with me today?”

You’ll get an answer something like “We want to see your product/service.” It’s easy to accept that because it supports your assumption, but the correct reaction is “That’s nice, but why is that?”, followed by additional questions until there’s an answer something like “We need help with….”

Question Two is “What’s going on here?”

This follows the answer to Question One and leads you to a more detailed explanation of what problem or issue prompted their interest.

Now, you can start using your references, product features, and financial justification in the context of what the prospect is really concerned about and interested in. You are very likely to generate a continuing discussion rather than a “We’ll get back to you.”

What Happens to Unqualified Leads?

I’ve been thinking about my last post – “You have 600 leads? Really?” (see it here) – and a recent LinkedIn discussion- “What constitutes a lead?” – started by Alan Rohrer (see it here). In both cases valuable points were made, but on reflection I think the discussions were too narrowly focused. I thought I’d lay out my view of the entire lead-to-order process to try to clarify how I think it works in most companies, and how I think it could be better.

A caveat – the process I’m describing fits B2B direct sales, which is what I know about – it may not be as accurate for other kinds of sales models.

Let’s start with how it works in most places. In most organizations, a “lead” is captured by Marketing from any number of sources. After some level of qualification or scoring the “lead” is turned over to sales for action. Sales does another level of qualification and either drops the “lead” or decides they have a potential deal – a “prospect” and engages with this “prospect”. At some point sales decides this “prospect” is a real potential and turns it into an “opportunity” and enters a formal sales cycle and process. As the deal moves through the sales cycle, for some deals there will be points where progress toward a deal stops and sales abandons the effort. Other deals move through the cycle until they become either “closed won” or “closed lost.”

I think there are three major changes that need to be made in this process, and they all derive from lack of communication between Marketing and Sales.

First, the initial lead scoring and qualification is often done by Marketing without input from Sales. It’s much more productive to have agreement between Marketing and Sales as to what qualification criteria need to be met before it’s reasonable for Sales to invest resources in follow-up, and also agreement about how Marketing is going to meet those criteria. Sales needs to agree that if Marketing forwards a lead that meet the criteria, Sales will follow it up.

Second, once the lead is turned over to Sales, Sales often abandons leads that they either don’t want to follow up or that they aren’t able to further qualify. This approach can leave potential deals in limbo where nobody has responsibility for them. It’s much better to have agreement between Sales and Marketing about what happens to those abandoned leads. The best process is to return them to Marketing for further nurturing. To make this effective, Marketing needs to understand that nurturing these abandoned leads is a different process than their initial lead gathering and qualifying and build programs that target bringing these leads to a higher level of qualification before they are turned over to Sales a second time.

Third, as Sales moves the leads into prospect and opportunity status, there will be at each stage of the sales cycle some that are abandoned and not moved forward. These still may represent potential future business, so it’s essential to build a mechanism for returning these leads to Marketing for further nurturing. To make this effort effective, Marketing must realize that these leads must be nurtured differently than initial leads or those that were abandoned by Sales earlier in the process. On the other side of the equation, Sales needs to have timeframes that mandate return of these leads to Marketing if specific sales cycle timings for progress from stage to stage in the sales cycle are not met. Leads that don’t end up as “closed won” or “closed lost” should only be completely abandoned when both Sales and Marketing agree there is no reason to invest further in them.

Making these changes helps deal with the classic conflicts between sales and marketing, significantly reduces the chance that good potential customers don’t get abandoned because they are not ready to buy at this time, and generally streamlines the lead to contract process.

You have 600 leads? Really?

I was coaching the CEO of a start-up company who told me her biggest problem was that she had been to a trade show and had 600 leads to follow up. She was overwhelmed, mainly because she had fired her only salesperson and had to handle the followup on her own.

We agreed immediately that it was impossible for her to followup 600 leads personally, so we decided to work on what to do instead. I think her problem illustrates a couple of tough issues that face almost every small company – and that have the potential to seriously impact sales if they aren’t handled well.

First, she doesn’t have 600 leads – she has 600 names. This might seem like semantic nit-picking, but it’s an important point. A lead has passed through some checkoffs that make it worth the time and energy it takes to do some form of personalized followup. Checkoffs might be “In the geography we can reasonably cover” or “Fits in our market segment sweet spot” or “Has made a request for a white paper.” It’s essential to understand that if this person doesn’t have the required checkoffs, all you have is a name. So the first filter of these 600 “leads” was to eliminate the “names” from the list of personal followups she was going to do over the next week or two.

Second, out of the 600, there were a significant number that she recognized as important prospects – companies that she knew she wanted to do business with. These companies already passed the market segment sweet spot filter. She also recognized that there were a couple of classes of these prospects – those that were small enough that she thought she could close them quickly, and larger companies that she felt would require extended sales cycles. So she was able to quickly focus on two followup strategies, and the number of these prospects was both small enough for her to make initial contacts within a week or two, and large enough that it seemed she could make her target sales number by concentrating on this list.

So by understanding the difference between leads and names, and by focusing on her market segment “sweet spot,” she was quickly able to transform a list of 600 names into a manageable set of about 75 real leads to followup. Her chances of success have increased significantly because she won’t be wasting time on low-probablilty names, and can devote her attention to understanding and solving the problems her high-probability leads have.

This kind of focus on the prospects that are most likely to buy is essential in any small company – you have limited sales resources and if you’re going to be successful and grow, you have to use those resources efficiently as well as effectively. If you close deals with your targeted prospects, many of the 575 names you leave behind for now will become real leads and prospects later – if you don’t close deals, they will disappear.

Whose Plan Are You Working?

As I work with my clients, I see a lot of “seat of the pants” selling – salespeople reacting to the current situation, figuring out how to respond on the fly, and generally counting on their gut feel for success. A long time ago a very smart sales manager told me something that snapped me out of this approach in my own selling:

“You are always working somebody’s plan. So if it isn’t your plan, whose plan is it?”

I thought – what are  the options here? Seems to me there are three potential plans you could be working.

  • You are working your customer’s plan. That leads to a situation where you eventually get confronted with a list of features that the customer thinks are important – and that probably don’t highlight what you think your primary differentiators and advantages are.
  • You are working a consultant’s plan: Your customer has hired a consultant to build the list of features and evaluate the vendors. If you don’t know the consultant, you’re very likely to see the same kind of list you’d see from the customer.
  • You are working your competitor’s plan: Your competitor has control of the buying process and you may not even get to see a feature list – you just lose the business. It’s worth noting that your customer’s plan or a consultant’s plan may actually be your competitor’s plan as well.

I think that the chance of winning a deal in any of these three scenarios is vanishingly small – you don’t get the opportunity to explore the customer’s problem or understand their business so you can make a compelling case for your solution. And in today’s world if you can’t do that, you lose.

So you must be working your own plan. And there are several levels of plan you need to execute:

  • Your Territory Plan: At the very top level of your planning, you need to understand your territory – who your “sweet spot” prospects are, how you are going to approach them, how you are going to leverage Marketing’s lead generation and branding, who the contacts are that you need to talk with, and what the specific value proposition is in each case. Without this overall plan, you will be spinning your wheels as you compete with other salespeople who are much more efficient and effective than you are.
  • Your Opportunity Plan: This is the planning level where you lay out how you are going to work through your sales process on this opportunity. Without this plan you will have no idea whether you are progressing toward an order or not – and you won’t know when your efforts are getting off track, which is key to understanding that someone else’s plan is being executed.
  • Your Sales Call Plan: Every sales call needs a plan – comprised of your goal,  your objectives, a statement of what’s in it for your prospect, the questions you are going to ask (and the questions you expect to be asked), and the actions you expect from your prospect and from yourself when the call is successful.

I discovered when I started working all three planning levels that my win percentages rose exponentially. My “seat of the pants” selling was based on hope, and we all know hope is not a strategy.

The moral of the story:

Put in the planning work and let the other guy worry about whose plan he is working.

All (or none) of the above – why multiple choice questions don’t work

Salespeople are fond of asking questions like “Are you worried about product quality issues…. or is it your manufacturing yield that concerns you…. or your parts supply chain?”

Last post I talked about “leading the witness” and why those leading questions don’t work.

Multiple choice questions like the one above are just as non-productive, for a lot of the same reasons.

They are

  • Manipulative – if you’re using them, you’re trying to get the prospect to pick an answer that opens the door to a sales pitch, rather than actually find out what’s going on. The prospect isn’t fooled and will tune you out.
  • Counter-productive – you’re not finding out what’s really going on. You’re guessing, and the real answer may be “none of the above” or even “all of the above”, but the prospect is likely to pick the easy answer instead. You’re missing the chance to uncover the real problem and find out if you can help the prospect.
  • Limiting – even if one of your choices is the correct answer, you limit your ability to explore the real problem. You’ve built a box for yourself with the wording of your question, and limited the prospect’s answer.
  • and Lazy – you obviously haven’t done your homework, and are casting about for some hook for your sales pitch. You’re not helping your prospect, you’re annoying her.

So what do you do instead? Pick one of your multiple choices – the one that you think is most likely to illuminate the real problem. Re-think the question so that it opens up the discussion: “How are you handling product quality issues?”  Ask it, and then … shut up and wait for the answer.

Guess what? The chance that you will illuminate a problem that you can help with goes way up. Well thought out, intelligent questions enhance your credibility with your prospect, increasing the chance that you will progress toward providing a solution. And, if the prospect doesn’t have a problem you can help with, you find out early and can be on to a better prospect.

So here’s my question for you: When are you going to stop asking multiple choice questions?

Leading the Witness

You’ll see the scene in almost every courtroom drama …

“Objection, your honor! Counsel is leading the witness!”

What the lawyer is objecting to is that the opposing lawyer is including the answer with the question. He’s trying to get the witness to use the answer the lawyer wants the jury to hear.

“Sustained. Jury will disregard the question and the answer.”

The judge won’t allow the lawyer to get away with leading the witness. Your prospect won’t let you get away with it either.

I constantly see salespeople asking their prospects leading questions. At the same time, they are presenting themselves as problem solvers, people who are trying to help their prospects improve their businesses, and “consultative.”

A prospect will immediately know that your leading question is not a search for information that will help you help him. He knows you’re using your questions to put him in a position where it’s difficult for him to say “no” to your closing pitch. He’ll tune you out and politely get rid of you. And you will lose any future credibility as a problem solver and be seen as a manipulative salesperson. Ultimately, you’ll lose the order.

If you are truly trying to help your prospect identify, quantify, and solve difficult problems in his business, you’ll stop asking leading questions and really try to find out what’s going on and how you can help. And you’ll be OK about walking away if you can’t help.

If you want to be successful in today’s competitive environment, you need to differentiate yourself by asking questions that help you help your prospect. You need to be your own judge and jury when you hear yourself asking leading questions. .. “Objection! Sustained.”

Sales Call Planning Mystery Explained

There’s an old joke that goes “What’s the last sound you hear before sales call planning starts?” The answer is “The car door closing in the prospect’s parking lot.”

As I work with my clients, I’m astounded at how many senior salespeople don’t do sales call planning, and today my friend Jack Malcolm wrote a blog that explains why. You can find it here.

What Jack says is that senior sales folk think they are so good they don’t need to plan. Here’s news to those of you that think that: You’re wrong. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. If you don’t know in detail what you’re trying to accomplish, you won’t know whether you had a good call or a bad one.
  2. Without a plan, you risk wasting your prospect’s time, and they will not put up with that for long.
  3. If you are not planning your sales calls, you can’t link them into your account or opportunity strategy – so you have no strategy.

Sales call planning is an easy thing to do, and gives you huge leverage in your sales calls. Every really good salesperson I’ve known over the years has planned sales calls – and most of the mediocre salespeople I’ve known, and every salesperson I’ve had to fire, have not.

Read Jack’s post, and if you recognize yourself, do something about it and start planning your calls.

How to Avoid the “Infinite Sales Cycle” – Part 2

In my last post we saw how a shortened sales cycle destroyed the chance to build value and help a prospect discover whether a solution could help accomplish his goals. Now let’s look at how the salesman could have created a different kind of sales cycle – we’ll start with the first interchange between the prospect and the salesman:

Prospect: “I saw your product on your website, and it seems like it might be a fit for us. Would you give us a demo so we can see if we’re right about that?”

Salesman: “Sure, I’ll be glad to do that. What caught your interest when you were on our website?”

The salesman will never have more leverage to ask questions about what’s really going on in the prospect’s world than in this beginning conversation. The prospect wants something that only the salesman can provide – the demonstration – and the salesman can set the terms under which he will provide it. Once the salesman provides the demonstration, he loses this leverage. So even if the prospect pushes for an immediate demo, the salesman must politely refuse until he understands enough about the prospect’s problem to provide a compelling demo.

The salesman needs to obtain two agreements from the prospect at this point:

  1. An agreement that the prospect has a problem that is worth solving – and an agreed definition of that problem,
  2. And an agreement that there is a cost associated with not solving that problem – and an agreed estimate of what that cost might be.

Obtaining these agreements requires the salesman to explore the prospect’s reason for calling, and to help the prospect define and quantify the problem he is trying to solve and the goal he is trying to accomplish. At the end of this conversation, both parties know whether there’s a reason to continue talking, and more importantly, what the next conversation and the demonstration will be about.  This conversation ends with:

Salesman: “Let’s schedule a demonstration for later in the week – I’ll be sure that I show you the parts of our product that directly impact your problem, and we can figure out how to proceed from there. Is there anyone else in your organization that should be part of this next meeting?”

Prospect: “Yes, I’ll invite Mary and John, and I’ll brief them on our conversation. This seems to be a more important issue than I’d thought, and I’m eager to see how your product addresses it.”

The demonstration is now being orchestrated by the salesman rather than the prospect, and has a clear objective. The prospect is involved at a very different level than he was in the first case, and instead of looking for things to object to is looking for ways the product solves the problem and delivers the financial benefit. You might also notice that the price question has gone away, because the focus is on the outcome and the benefit.

Another really important point is that the salesman continues to have the leverage. At the beginning of the demo, he will be able to set the agenda for what happens after the demo. The chance of success is much higher than in the shortened sales cycle in my last post.

So, watch out for the shortened sales cycle, obtain the two agreements, and then show the prospect how you can deliver the solution and the financial benefit.

How to Avoid the “Infinite Sales Cycle.”

A young salesman that works for a client of mine asked me why prospects that initially seemed very interested would stop returning his phone calls after he gave them a presentation and demo of the product and provided ball-park pricing. Let’s look at what happened to see what wasn’t working for him.

The conversation would go something like this:

Prospect: “I saw your product on your website, and it seems like it might be a fit for us. Would you give us a demo so we can see if we’re right about that?”

Salesman: “Sure, let’s schedule an hour later this week and I’ll show you the product. I’m sure you’ll be impressed.”

The presentation and demo take place as scheduled, with the salesman doing his best to show the prospect all the features and benefits of the product.

Prospect: “That looks pretty good. What will it cost us?’

Salesman (reluctantly): Well, I really don’t know enough about your situation to give you a good idea of price.”

Prospect: “Well, we really just need a ball-park idea so we can decide how we might implement. We won’t hold you to it.”

Salesman: “Well, OK… the range is between $25,000 and $40,000, depending on a number of variables we haven’t defined yet. We should schedule another meeting to explore what you really need, and then I’ll be able to give you a more precise number.”

 Prospect: “OK. We’re really busy for the next couple of weeks – I’ll get back to you to schedule the meeting.”

Salesman: “OK, if I haven’t heard from you in a couple of weeks, I’ll give you a call as well.”

The sales opportunity then goes into what I call an “infinite sales cycle” – repeated phone calls and emails get no response from the prospect, and what looked like a pretty good opportunity in the beginning ends up being a frustrating time waster. So, what went wrong?

What happened is that this opportunity went through an entire sales cycle in two sales calls. Here’s what really happened in the conversation….

Prospect: “Can I see the product?”

Salesman: “Sure. Look at this.”

Prospect: “How much is it?”

Salesman: “25 – 40K.”

Prospect: “Thanks.”

The prospect finds out everything they want to know from the salesman, and the salesman doesn’t find out anything from the prospect. The salesman doesn’t know what problem the prospect is trying to solve, what the cost of not solving the problem might be, and what the prospect is trying to accomplish. He has no chance of demonstrating any value his product might bring to the prospect. He’s letting the prospect do his work for him – and the prospect is likely not competent to evaluate the product and its effects on his operation. The prospect ends up with no compelling reason to move ahead with an evaluation, and decides not to spend any more time on it.

This is a tremendous disservice to both the salesman and the prospect – the salesman doesn’t get an order, and the prospect is missing an opportunity to solve what might be an important and expensive problem. In my next post, we’ll see how to avoid the short sales cycle problem and actually help the prospect solve his problem and help him accomplish his goals.

How Your Value Process Generates a True “Win-Win”

In my past two posts, I’ve discussed why your value proposition may not be working well, and how you can build a value process to replace it. This final post in the series covers the benefits of the change.

When you build a value process instead of a value proposition and work to achieve the four agreements with your prospect instead of presenting and demonstrating your company and your product, you will generate a “win” for both you and your prospect.

Your prospect wins:

  • Your prospect reaches a better understanding of the problem he’s trying to solve – actually, in some cases realizes that a nagging situation that seems to be” just the way it is” is a problem that has a valuable solution.
  • Your prospect works with you and uses this understanding to arrive at a better solution than he would have if he had gone through a traditional vendor evaluation.
  • Your prospect has a clear understanding of the outcome and the value he will receive for his investment – and will be recognized for that in his company.
  • Finally, your prospect starts to build a valuable vendor relationship with you as the solution gets implemented.

You win:

  • First, of course, you get the order.
  • You attain a better understanding of your prospect’s business, of the problem you will be solving, and of the outcome you will be providing your prospect. You will be providing a better solution, you will have a smoother implementation which should lower your cost of delivery, and you are much more likely to have a delighted customer in the end.
  • You will have differentiated yourself from your competition along the dimension of value versus investment. This allows flexible pricing and gets you higher margins for the solution you provide.
  • Finally, you have created a superb reference to use as you work on your next sale.

As you can see, moving beyond a traditional “Value Proposition” and thinking about a value process instead, can provide significant benefits to both you and your prospect. The value process will also help you attain a much higher closing percentage as you qualify early and work closely with your prospects.

It’s a small but fundamental change in the way you sell that will provide big results.

As always, I welcome your comments, arguments, and analysis.