As a salesperson, there's truly only one thing that you completely control -- who you spend your time with.
Quickly figuring out who has an immediate need for a product or service like yours is critical to spending your limited resource of time wisely.
This is a critical and often overlooked part of the sales strategy.
How? When you learn to qualify or disqualify at every stage of your process, you’ll avoid spending time giving unqualified demonstrations, writing proposals that go unread, and chasing contracts that will never get signed.
You'll also save your prospect's time as well as avoid pissing them off with your unwanted, unwarranted persistence.
Improving your sales qualification skills enables you to spend your selling time with the companies that have a compelling reason to buy now. This’ll help you help more prospects and exceed quota - at the same time. Win-win!
Don’t give up or disqualify too quickly, though. Be generous with your time in the beginning of your sales process; nurture relationships regardless of immediate need or fit. Relationships can be valuable down the line. Just don’t walk unqualified prospects through your sales process until you’ve qualified them.
Once salespeople get a prospect’s attention, they are usually quick to spit out features and benefits and hope they resonate. Heck, really lazy salespeople start their feature and benefit pitch in their very first prospecting email or call. But now that we all have instant access to marketing materials online, that approach rarely works these days. In reality, given the amount of unwanted email prospects receive from salespeople, many prospects often tune out salespeople who talk about themselves or their products too soon.
Instead, great qualifiers ask questions that get a prospect talking about themselves, their goals, and their challenges -- and then actively listen to the answers. Not only do questions help salespeople understand a prospect's world, they also imply expertise. By asking questions, you make your prospect realise "It seems this salesperson has helped people like me." The simple act of asking a question implies you might know the answer.
In sales, we throw the word “trust” around too often in my opinion. My litmus test for whether I’ve achieved “trusted advisor” status is whether people call me for advice on things outside of my expertise. This means they trust my judgment, not just my expertise. Salespeople rarely achieve this level of trust.
But, in the beginning of a relationship, trust is usually ours to lose and can be lost early in a sales process if you’re too focused on you and the benefits of working with your company. The first few calls especially are critical to keeping and building trust. During the qualification stage, identify challenges the prospect either wants to or should want to fix.
Keep in mind that if you're selling a complex or differentiated product or service, the prospect might not know they need what you have. Start by asking about goals you can help them achieve or challenges they might have that you can help them overcome.
If you’re selling into a defined need where competition is everywhere, your prospect probably expects you to talk about why you’re better. Don’t go there. Instead, as Tibor Shanto recommends, preempt that with a question like, “What is the one thing you have always wanted from a supplier like us, but have never had anyone do, or deliver?” This question helps you avoid slinging mud and spitting out benefits they may not need or may already have. Most importantly, it helps you differentiate in ways that your prospect will value.
Regardless of your selling situation, don’t fall into the trap of talking too early about what you do and especially don’t talk about how you do what you do. Don’t go down that road yet until your prospect acknowledges there’s a problem to solve and they’re ready to solve it with you.
Asking questions shows you’re truly interested in your prospect -- not just interested in selling something to them. When prospects know you care about them, they’ll be much more likely to ultimately buy from you when they do realize they need what you have.
Exploratory questions get prospects to think. And getting them to reflect often helps them realise their own business pain, that they have challenges, and, potentially, that you have solutions -- all on their own.
Most people are more inspired by their own ideas than by others’ ideas. If you’re the person that’s there when they have an “a-ha” moment, you have a much better chance of being hired when they choose how to implement their newly-formed plan.
To get immediate buy-in, use questions that make your prospects think. When your conversation helps them arrive at the right conclusions, they’ll feel ownership over next steps. And when they have ownership over the plan of attack, they’ll be much more excited to move forward. Use questions to turn your solution into your prospect’s conclusion.
A thorough qualification call eliminates the need to "handle" objections. In a well-run sales process, potential objections are covered early and proactively.
For example, if your solution requires a prospect to spend time with you after they buy, you might say something like, "When we work with a client, we usually need about four hours per week of their time to review and approve final work. Is that something you can do?" If they aren't willing or able to spend time with you, and you uncover this potential objection early, you can stop spending time with the prospect or brainstorm alternative ways of getting approval. However, if you don’t bring the issue up proactively during the qualification stage, and the prospect realises much later that they have to dedicate time they don’t think they have, the objection will likely surface when you try to close. This could be a showstopper, in which case, you wasted a lot of time. Not to mention that you ruined your opportunity to turn a potential objection into a positive, or at least, a neutral.
A thorough qualification process increases your chances of heading off objections before they become deal-killers. Don’t lose deals and customers by not addressing potential issues early and often.
Even if a salesperson doesn't anticipate every objection a prospect may have, a thorough qualification process still helps a salesperson handle objections more easily at closing time. How?
A thorough qualification call uncovers the prospect’s goals and priorities. So, when a prospect says "I'm worried that this plan might not work" in the late stages of their buying process, you can quickly follow up with, "But if you don't do something different, how will you achieve X goal?" or "Is fixing this problem still a high priority for you?
Knowing goals and priorities and surfacing them at critical junctures allows you to address objections in a way where you're still solving for your prospect’s best interest.
Conventional sales wisdom tells you to not spend too much time with any single prospect. Many sales managers -- selfishly focused on their own numbers -- will advise against spending more than 30 minutes or an hour on qualifying an opportunity.
But I’ve found this advice to be dead wrong. In fact, I’ve found over and over again that a thorough qualification often eliminates the need for a closing presentation -- thus, saving considerable time.
When Rick Roberge closed me on buying sales training from him, he whipped out a napkin (we were at lunch), wrote down the goals I shared with him, and jotted down the program he recommended for me. Then, he asked me how and when I'd decide. Two hours later, when I told him that my business partner and I decided to move forward, I gave him a credit card for the first payment over the phone.
Back in the early days of HubSpot, before anyone was ever looking for “marketing automation software" or a "sales and marketing platform," I closed many deals without doing a demo of our software. Because I had established credibility and trust during my exploratory process, prospects simply trusted that the software would help them achieve the goals we discussed. Just like Rick, I’d collect their payment information at the end of my qualification calls. Instead of spending several hours preparing and delivering a presentation, I redirected my effort towards getting them started and other sales pursuits.
I'm not suggesting that eliminating a closing presentation should be a goal of any salesperson. Often, closing presentations help make the deliverables clear and properly set expectations. But, a thorough qualification process can transform the presentation into a recap of how the prospect can be successful with a given service, instead of a pitch with fingers crossed.
With no need for further presentations and no mystery as to whether your prospect will buy, your sales cycle becomes shorter and more efficient.
I’m dumbfounded by salespeople who start qualification calls with a presentation about them, their company’s history, and a description of their service. Somewhere along the way, they were told that they have to earn the right to ask questions by educating prospects first, or they have to impress prospects with how awesome they are. But, really, all they are doing is wasting everyone’s time giving a generic presentation that is irrelevant to the prospect’s unique situation
Before you show off your product or service to buyers, qualify. Then you’ll be able to craft customized presentations that connect their goals and challenges to your offering, and show exactly how they’ll benefit with your service. It can sound something like the following:
Salesperson: “In order to achieve your goals of A, B, and C, and overcome challenges X, Y, and Z, we’ve discussed implementing D, E, and F. Does that accurately recap our discussions so far?"
Prospect: “Yes. Perfectly.”
Salesperson: “Today, I’ll show you how we can help you implement D, E, and F better than anyone else.”
Pitches that close are personalised to the buyer’s context. Be the advisor your prospects need you to be, not the pitch man you think they expect you to be.
Salespeople waste a lot of time checking in on contracts, reaching out over and over again to try and close, and justifying to their sales manager why deals haven’t closed yet.
I'm not knocking persistent salespeople. It’s often that asking one more time gets the order. But wouldn't it be great if salespeople didn't have to chase? Wouldn’t it be great if every late stage deal in your pipeline was indeed ready to buy? Wouldn't it be great if your deals closed at the right time all of the time? I’ll answer for you with an emphatic “Yes!”... Yes, it'd be great for salespeople and for prospects, too.
The worst thing about chasing is that it makes it obvious to prospects that the salesperson cares more about "closing" than they do "helping." But since closing a deal is just the start of the relationship between you and a new customer, it's not a good time to make it about "you" or even give the impression that hitting your quota is more important than solving their problem. It plants a seed of doubt in their head as to whether you have their best interest at heart.
A thorough qualification process eliminates the need for all of this chasing by helping you determine if, why, and when a prospect needs to make a change.
But, even if you know all that and a prospect still goes dark, collecting the “why” and “when” lets you close with the prospect’s goals in mind. Try, “I thought you needed to achieve goal X by time Y. Did something change since we last spoke?” That’s much better (and friendlier) than, “I thought you were going to sign the contract -- why haven’t you?”
Want to improve forecasting accuracy? Improve your qualification process. Knowing more about your prospect’s why, when, and “why you” gives you the ability to forecast accurately.
Sales managers should work together to analyse, strategise, and move deals to completion -- won or lost. Know which deals will close (and which ones won’t) by maintaining high qualification standards. Then, roll up a forecast based on the deals that are going to close. It’s that simple.
A few years back, using our Goals, Challenges, Plans, Timeline, Budget, Authority, Consequences, and Implications qualification framework (GCPT, BA, CI) we asked our salespeople to rate every opportunity they were currently working based on the depth of qualification for each of these eight criteria on a scale from one (not very thorough) to three (extremely thorough). For example, a level one qualification for the “Goal” criterion would sound something like, “The prospect needs leads.” A level three qualification for the “Goal” criterion would sound something like, “Prospect needs to generate 100 leads per month starting in August to support the addition of two new salespeople to the team.”
We analysed each criterion in regard to the thoroughness of qualification across 1800 opportunities. The graph below shows that our average close rate was always higher when we achieved level three qualification. This was true for every criterion.
Qualifying opportunities thoroughly helps you figure out who will buy and who won’t. Not convinced? Consider using a qualification framework, rating how qualified each opportunity is according to it, and doing a similar analysis comparing qualification level to close rate for your pipeline. I bet you’ll have similar results.
A thorough qualification process helps you understand all the speed bumps that could derail successful implementation or adoption of your product or service. A strong qualification process allows you to plan for and avoid issues during implementation -- and even if issues can’t be avoided altogether, at the very least you can warn your prospect of the potential sticking point, so they’re not surprised and upset at you down the line.
It could be even worse than an upset customer if you don’t warn them of potential issues. You could lose your customer if you don’t effectively set expectations during your qualification process. I once fired my snow plow company for failing to set expectations about arrival times.
Qualifying effectively sets expectations clearly. It’ll help you avoid surprised, pissed off customers who might even fire you.
Do you struggle with establishing credibility and trust with prospects, spending time with unqualified prospects, getting prospects to commit to your solution, avoiding and handling objections, long sales cycles, pitches that don’t resonate with prospects, chasing prospects, low conversion rates, low forecast accuracy, or poor expectation setting? If so, are you convinced that you should improve your qualification skills yet?
If not, there’s one final reason to improve your opportunity exploration process that might sway you. Good qualification allows you to control your destiny. Almost like a Magic 8 ball, qualification gives you insight into your prospects' decision making processes, helping you predict who will buy when. Knowing who is going to buy when is the key to exceeding quota every month, quarter, and year.
Qualifying effectively helped me build my career, which enabled me to achieve many of my personal goals. Hopefully, this article proves to you that great qualification skills can help you achieve your goals as well.
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