Qualifying prospects

There’s nothing more frustrating for most sales professionals than investing time and energy (and emotion) on a prospect only to have it slip through your fingers for reasons unforeseen.

A recent statistic showed a 15% pipeline close rate efficiency – that means that sales, pre-sales, sales support, sales management and executive management put time and resources into something that 85% of the time isn’t going to drive revenue!

Yet, time and time again we observe that most surprises are avoidable. It’s about how you qualify your prospects early on.

Too often, the less experienced sales representative will see a big opportunity, get excited, have a good initial meeting, and begin forecasting the probable sale. But it’s all a pipe dream. The reasons can be many, but here are the most common three reasons:

  • Failure to determine the final decision-maker or process.
  • Failure to pinpoint the decision-making timeline.
  • Failure to determine if the prospect will actually switch.

It often starts with what a sales representative does early on to win the sale later. So, let’s talk about each of these three.

Failure to Determine the Final Decision-Maker and Decision-Making Process

Too many sales professionals fail to truly pinpoint the decision-maker and decision-making process. We throw softball pitches such as, “So, do you make the final decision on this?” at whomever we meet with. The easiest answer a person gives, of course, is “I am.” Then the sales rep moves on, taking their word for it. Big mistake.

In 2010, a starting thought should be that there is no longer a single, all-powerful decision maker in accounts. Our thinking and language should reflect this new reality – so a better way to unravel the decision making process would start with:

Who else would be affected by the problem we’re discussing?

Who else should I be seeking advise or counsel from?

“Assuming you want to move forward, who do you like to run decisions by for input?”

The next name you hear is almost always the real decision-maker. Keep in mind, the person you’re meeting with might have the power to say no, but not the power to say yes. Your job is to find that person who can say yes when everyone says no.

Failure to Pinpoint the Decision-Making Timeline

In industries where you and your competitors operate with hard-and-fast contracts, you are gambling with your time and emotion to not explore this in detail. A customer may like the improvements your product or service offer; may love working and interacting with you; may be the final decision-maker even; but the decision can’t be made because of the timing.

You not only need to qualify if a person or company will make a decision within a reasonable amount of time, but if they can. There have been times I have gently but assertively told prospects they we really need to clarify their current obligation with their present vendor before proceeding. I do this especially with prospects who are anxious to make a change. A few quesitons you might ask include:

“Mr. Prospect, how soon would you want to put this in place?”

“Mr. Prospect, it could take us some time to draw up the transition from your current vendor, I don’t think we’ll be ready to go for three weeks, how does that work with your timeframes?”

“Mr. Prospect, how quickly do you need to reverse that trend with your budget? You mentioned it’s getting out of hand…?”

Failure to Determine if the Prospect will Actually Switch

I love what Stephan Schiffman has to say about this. He teaches that regardless of who YOU think is your biggest competitor, in actuality it’s the status quo (great article on this, follow the link). Think about it. Companies and people have problems. Many of them they can solve by simply doing things differently or better on their own. If a problem involves a vendor many companies (with unfortunately lower service expectations) think it’s easier and faster to work out the problem with their current vendor. Maybe it’s the feeling that switching will be costly, or time consuming, or will cause more headaches. Whatever their reason, it poses a problem for you.

Your job is to effectively qualify not only whether a company has a problem you can solve, but also whether they will truly and fairly consider switching vendors to solve it. Here are a couple of questions you can use:

“Mr. Prospect, assuming we can work out the details so that you get better/faster/more cost-effective results with us, what happens then?” This question not only helps answer #1 above (who the true decision-maker is), but it also gives you an idea of whether your contact is taking this seriously and is ready to consider advancing the sales/buying process.

“Mr. Prospect, what steps have you taken to try to get these types of problems resolved with your current supplier?” I have asked this question, but only when I know my contact is VERY frustrated with how things are going. Otherwise, you could be encouraging them to put the brakes on and work things out with your competitor.

Summary

Save yourself the agony, both financially and psychologically, of losing prospects at the end of a long sales process that could have been won (or passed on) early on. Qualifying your prospects early on positions you as a professional and is the best time management tool you’ll implement.

Other resources on qualifying prospects: Kelley Robertson article, Cliff Allen article, Jack Carroll article.

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