Qualifying your sales process

Qualifying your sales process

A key to success in business development, as in any strategic endeavour, is picking winnable battles. Realistically, of course, how you qualify prospective customers depends on how many opportunities you have in relation to the resources available to actually do the work.

Salespeople with more prospects than they can handle qualify prospects very differently to those who are just getting into the game at a lesser-known company or in a new territory. There is no universal model for qualifying prospects.

But where is the line between qualification and quitting? Or between a positive attitude and the rookie trait of overly optimistic "happy ears"? Successful selling involves asking some tough questions and being honest about the answers. Enthusiasm is essential to selling, but hope is not a credible sales strategy.

To qualify a prospect, the first question is: will this business happen for anyone at all? Experience shows that many customer project evaluations don't ever result in an actual purchase.

When evaluations stall or collapse entirely, one of two things is usually missing: either there isn't a business problem of sufficient magnitude or urgency (pain), or the project lacks political sponsorship (power) to shepherd it to completion. In either case, a deal won't happen no matter how compelling your presentation.

If the prospect's intentions do seem credible, the second question is: is this a good opportunity for us? Sometimes customers will informally pick an integrator for a project without disclosing that fact to the other bidders. There's little you can do to avoid this trap; you just have to trust the customer's integrity. But if, in fact, the playing field is level, then it is best to pursue only those prospects where you have a solution fit and differentiating advantages.

One question traditionally asked by salespeople to determine an opportunity's viability is: is the money in the budget? To some salespeople, this question requires a simple yes or no answer. But if the solution is strategic enough or the sponsor powerful enough, budgets may only be one indicator. Of course, if there is an insufficient budget, there will likely be a longer sales cycle. Also, the salesperson will need to get higher up the sponsorship chain, which adds politics and risk to the sales process.

Ideally, integrators should engage in demand creation, rather than demand-reaction selling. Successful integrators find business problems that need to be solved and create a vision of a solution and a value proposition to drive an engagement, instead of just responding to an RFP.

Of course, there are strategic and intangible reasons that may trump the logical analysis as to why you pursue a particular opportunity. It may be a brand-name customer. You may want to penetrate a new industry or country. You may want to co-develop competencies for use throughout the industry.

An important question to ask is: will this prospect's business be profitable for us? Unfortunately, many integrators measure their salespeople by revenue, not profitability.

The last question to ask is even less obvious: will this engagement result in a satisfied client and repeat business? If it doesn't, you may get this piece of business and then inoculate the client against doing future business with you.

One other point: the qualification process doesn't always have to culminate in a "go" or "no-go" decision. There is the option to buy another card. This means investing only enough resources to stay in the game for the next step, gather information, and see if you can gain the upper hand later.

If your firm has the capacity and expertise to do a project, there is almost no deal that you can't win with enough effort. But at what cost and what risk?

The worst-case scenario is to commit significant resources and then finish second - and there are no silver medals in this business.

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