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Always Be Qualifying – listen for the screams May 1, 2014

Posted by Bernard Lunn in Deal-making, Enterprise Sales.

This is # 6 in a serialized book called Enterprise Sales for the Digital Age. You can get value from each in isolation, but if you really need to understand enterprise sales, it is worth reading the whole series.  You can buy an improved version, neatly printed and bound, for $6 from Amazon.  

The old sales adage is “always be closing”. It confuses rookie sales people because they think of closing as something you only do at the end. Another way to think about this is “always be qualifying”. The things you close before the final close are really ways to qualify.

Traditional sales methodologies treat qualification as a one time event. Budget, tick. Need, tick. Decision-maker, tick. That implies a linear process like an assembly line in a factory. Of course the real world is not like that, so you have to re-qualify all the time. This is even more true in the Digital Age, when buyers self-educate online and appear fully qualified at the bottom of what we used to call a funnel and when the “innovator with clout” is that dude with a ponytail and sandals in the coffee shop.

As a sales leader, I love learning from the winners on my team. What is that consistent target-crusher doing right and can I teach this to other guys? For a while I was confused by one of my best performers.  He was by most visible metrics, the worst salesman. His presentations were rambling and verging on incoherent. His writing style would have given my English teacher apoplexy. He was consistently abrupt almost rude to all concerned. He came in late, left early and had long, expensive lunches.

I was really interested to find out what he did well. I do not believe in luck being a contributor on any consistent basis. So he must have been doing something really, really well because he was doing everything that was visible very badly.

I discovered that what he was doing very well was qualifying his prospects with great care and discipline. We all know that is what we should do, but very, very few sales people do it at all well. We think that sales is all about hard work, persistence, determination and all those other good Protestant work ethics. So we drive relentlessly on, calling that prospect for the umpteenth time.

This guy waited until he could see that the customer’s need was very real and urgent. He waited ‘till he could hear the screams. He then looked for something to indicate that we had an edge in the deal, some unfair advantage.

His laziness was a bit of an act. In reality he was a tireless networker. That is what all those long, expensive lunches were about. However he worked to create a sense of equality and respect with his customers. Sales people are usually too used to getting on their knees to that all-powerful buyer with the big budget. So the buyer does not respect the salesman and will ignore five of his calls in the certain knowledge that he will get another one.

Yes, it is a bit of a power game. This power game is easy if you work for the dominant player in the game. The power game is hardest to play when you are an unknown start-up, when times are tough and you are behind in your revenue targets.

We were in that position when a small Hedge Fund came on the horizon as a prospect for our real time trading support system. This was 1991 and Hedge Funds were not on our target list at that time, few people even knew what they were. The customer certainly seemed smaller than we were used to selling to. So the salesman told the prospect that we were not interested in their business. This put the prospect in a position of selling to us. “Sure we are small now, but we are growing fast and we need this system urgently and we have plenty of money for IT”. The screams were loud and clear and we closed the deal in record time and they became a good customer (and the Hedge Fund became one of the stars in this industry).

One way of checking for urgency is how much effort the prospect puts into the relationship. You need to see some equality of effort. If you call five times before the prospect returns your call that is not equality. If you send reams of information and give multiple presentations but the prospect won’t fill in a detailed requirements questionnaire, then that is not equality of effort. With every call you want the prospect to DO something. If this does not happen then the screams are not loud enough and you should move onto your next opportunity.

You have to cast a very wide net in order to qualify your prospects properly. Otherwise you will catch a couple of tiny fish in your net and mistake them for tuna! If you cast your net wide enough you will find deals where the customer’s need is urgent and your company has some specific edge in the deal.

The way to make sure you have a live one is to wait for the screams. Get your prospect doing some work before you get too excited.

 What really kills weak sales people is when a deal is going great but circumstances change and it is now dead in the water. They did everything right but the deal is dead.

Weak sales people don’t want to see this, it is too painful. That is when management has to make a painful decision to pull the plug on that sale.

Great sales people expect other members of the team (sales support and/or product management) to do most of the work during the proving phase. They are in oversight role, keeping an eye on what is happening to the customer, preparing for the close and filling the funnel with new prospects.

Great sales people will also not be reluctant to say something like “we set this whole POC up the wrong way, we have to start all over again”. If they see that the POC is not addressing the one thing that the CXO will mention in the Press Conference, they will be right. This makes them hugely unpopular internally, but it is better than losing the sale. The great sales people have the credibility from their sales track record to pull this off.

Great sales people are always visualizing that press conference and thinking about the “key ones” (one decision-maker, one business-driver and one selection-driver) and if it is not crystal clear today they will pull the plug even if it was crystal clear yesterday.

Next post in series.


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