We’ve all done it. Most likely, during our early sales careers, or when joining a new company, or opening up a new territory. The dreaded cold call, also known as “Dialing for Dollars,” using a list of the area’s major employers. “Hello, Mr. Prospect. I’ve done no research on you or your company. I have no idea what problems you face, and frankly don’t care. Can I meet with you for several hours to show you a poorly done PowerPoint presentation, and then e-mail you a ‘cut and paste’ proposal with multiple misspellings? Hello? Hello???” The formula was very straight forward: call, fail, call, fail, call, fail, call, get meeting, write proposal, fail.
Oh, the humanity…
I got better in time, as we all eventually do. But why did sales have to be so hard? I have always had a burning need to work very little, while earning an embarrassing large amount of money in the process. There had to be a better way. There was – the surprising thing was that it came to me while working at my only non-sales job. The most valuable lessons I learned about selling came from my short time working as a consultant for customers.
Firstly, what does a consultant do, and why do end-users hire them?
My company was hired primarily because our clients did not trust the people who were selling them products and services. Usually, after several companies had met with our clients (call, get meeting, write proposal, fail), they would call us to try and make sense of all the proposals. We would almost always have to start from scratch, evaluating needs, creating a budget, writing a specification, putting the project out to bid, and then awarding the project to one of the bidders. Our goal was to level the playing field so that if a company was pre-qualified to bid on the project, we could choose the lowest price bid. Where was the selling here? In essence, we turned salespeople into bid responders. Our consulting company was able to charge high fees to do this work, primarily because no salesperson had been able to establish himself as a trusted advisor to the customer.
What were the big lessons I learned as a consultant? One of them was that in reality I never sold anybody anything…if I was lucky a customer bought from me. More important: I got to hear what the customer said after the salespeople left the room.
What a gift! My favorite people in the world, the people who write checks for purchase orders, were explaining what they liked and didn’t like about salespeople, presentations, demos, proposals, and (ack!) unread corporate brochures. While it was painful to learn that many of my “secret sales moves” were at best ineffective, I was able to take our client’s comments and apply them at my next sales job. This education helped me to open up a new sales territory that was a four hour drive from my home, had no existing clients, and full of prospects who had no idea who my company was or what we did. Armed with this new end-user knowledge, I was able to do more business in a year than the home office did with three salesmen.
Was I a great salesman? No. I have always been, at best, only an above average salesman. But my short-lived consultant career taught me what worked and what didn’t work with end-users. I learned what an ideal prospect looked like and what a time wasting, low price buying, revise-the-proposal 32 times prospect looked like. Qualifying became the foundation of my sales success.
What is qualifying? Is it surfing the web for companies that fit your product or service profile? Maybe kinda sorta. Really, it is much more than that. While qualifying is an important first part of the process, it really doesn’t stop until you have the purchase order in your hand. Most people do an initial qualification, but then halfway through the sales process, with red lights flashing and warning flags waving, they ignore the signs that the prospect is no longer (or perhaps never was) a qualified prospect. “I’m halfway through writing the proposal…I can’t stop now,” they reason. “I’ll finish it up, submit it, and hope for the best.” And when they eventually lose the sale, they kick themselves for pursuing a lost cause.
It doesn’t have to be that way. By continuously qualifying a prospect, deeper and wider within the organization than you may be used to, you can make sure that you spend your time with the right people within your prospect’s organization. This is especially important with large, technical, or complex sales. You need to focus on broadening your contact base, because the person with whom you are working with, the person who swears that he or she is the person who will be making the decision, is almost certainly not the person who will be making the final decision. The only exception I have personally ever seen to this is when selling to the CFO. More commonly, a host of people whom you have never met will be part of a group that makes the purchase decision.
There are only two ways around this. The optimum solution is to get to all of the right people, which is easier said than done. We’ll explore strategies to do this in future posts. The other option is to teach your prospect how to sell your product or service to his or her management team in an effective way. We will explore the craft of qualifying in great detail as well.