How you allocate your time as a salesperson is key. In particular, maintaining a healthy pipeline requires that you balance your efforts between:
• Focusing on closing the most likely deals for this quarter.
• Nurturing those prospects with potential for next quarter.
• Generating fresh leads to go in at the top of the sales funnel.
To get the balance right can be a challenge. Key to the efficient use of your time is a system for prequalifying prospects and opportunities on which you are going to focus. But, too often, pre-qualification is applied in a blunt manner. Applying the popular BANT (budget, authority, timing and need) criteria too rigorously to an inbound enquiry or cold-call could exclude the bulk of the marketplace, including many companies that do not have a budget for your solution now, but still represent potential customers.
As well as selling to those who are already actively searching for a solution in the marketplace, every sales organisation must generate, and foster and nurture, demand for its solutions. That means sales and marketing must work together, with marketing substituting for pre-qualification at the lead generation stage. While some leads are classified as sales, or sales meeting-ready, others not ready for the next step are not left to waste but are nurtured. Later in the sales cycle, pre-qualification becomes more important, as the time and resources you must commit to an opportunity increases. Progressive pre-qualification – that is, asking the right questions – ensures that you can adapt your sales approach continually (if you are talking to the wrong people, or addressing the wrong requirements) to ensure you have the maximum chances of success.
Pre-qualification, like all aspects of selling, is not something that is done to, but rather is done with, a prospect. It must be a two-way process – that means asking the customer what stage he / she is at and what they want to do next, if anything. It is important to remember that you have to earn the right to ask progressively more direct and searching questions.
Your approach should reflect the stage of the buying cycle (if, indeed, there is one) that you are both at, as shown in the table below, ideally incorporating as many buyer-focused questions as possible.
The decision to engage in the buying process, in itself, is a significant commitment of resources by the buyer. For this reason, it is generally made in stages, with the sponsor in the buying organisation first being required to present a justification for a buying decision and a business case being prepared.
• Only a limited number of projects can be evaluated at any one time. This means that, although a project is of interest, the timing may not be right. As a vendor, you must show buyers how your project can impact on their immediate business priorities.
• Given the cost and time required, organisations will want to ‘kill off’ poor projects as early as possible. You may have to do most (or all) of the initial running for a project to gain traction.
• Organisations are standardising their approach to buying decisions, including steps to be followed, templates for documents, etc. This makes the process more repeatable and consistent, thereby saving time for them. You need to know – and follow – the approach required.
• Involving another supplier in the process costs time and money, so don’t expect to be able to squeeze in late when you hear that a project is under consideration, even if your solution is ideal.
• Buyers want to limit the time / cost of the buying process, which means being judicious about time spent with sellers. When you want access to all the stakeholders, you need to be conscious of the fact that this represents an additional draw on their time and adds to the cost of the decision.
• Buyers want to get something back for the time spent with vendors. They may need to meet with three vendors because their internal process requires three vendor quotes but, if each vendor requires 20 to 40 hours of time (including briefings, presentations, proposals, ongoing communication, etc.), it’s understandable that the buyer wants some immediate payback.
• Once a vendor has been selected, it makes sense for the buyer to want to develop and deepen that relationship, as opposed to going through the entire process again. When customers defect to another supplier, they face real switching costs related to the process of evaluating, educating and learning to trust another vendor.