Chapter 23: Turning Soft Data Into Hard Data (And Ultimately Into Impact)

Soft data funnelUp to this point we have been discussing how to measure problems, how to define problems, how to determine what a favorable end result would be, what the value of that end result would be, and what that value would be over time. In Chapter 22: Turning Financial Analysis Into A Value Discussion, we took some very simple round numbers from Hard Data and had a discussion with our client to hopefully create an understanding that there is a problem worthy of a cost-effective solution. Ready to sell now? Hold on – there is another type of data that we need to talk about:  Soft Data.

Soft Data is by nature hard to quantify and put into a measurable ROI. If your customer wants to increase security in their building, create an environment that attracts better employees, elevate their position in the marketplace, or foster better teamwork, you are going to have a hard time turning this type of general statement into actionable data. While it will always be more difficult to uncover and quantify Soft Data and how it affects the problems and potential solution, there are ways to increase the clarity of the situation.

We all have heard, simply put, that customers buy to either increase the good or decrease the bad. Sometimes a solution will address just one of these, but more often it will impact both good and bad issues (for example, an exercise program will increase your fitness and decrease your weight). For our purposes here, let’s look at these as two distinct situations.

If your prospect is focusing on increasing good things, you will most likely hear phrases from them that talk about the goals, objectives, accomplishments, targets, or improvements that they desire to obtain. For example, they may say that they want to improve the security in their employee parking garage. How do you measure that to create an ROI? It starts with a series of questions:

  • “If you improved security in the employee parking garage, what would that do?” (It would make our employees feel safer when they work late and have to walk to their cars in the dark)
  • “If they worked late but felt safer when walking to their cars, how would that affect your business?” (Some of our high priority projects are in danger of slipping, and we need people to work longer hours to catch up…if they felt safer walking to their cars at night, they would be more likely to work later)
  • “And if those employees worked later more often, what would the impact be on those high priority projects?” (We would complete those projects on time and we would bring in an extra $XXX dollars over YYY months into the company)

A bit simplistic? Of course, but it illustrates the process of turning Soft Data into Hard Data and ultimately into Impact. What if your prospect is focusing on decreasing bad things? If so, you will most likely hear phrases from them that talk about pain points, concerns, margin slippage, process roadblocks, or work silos that they want to diminish. While it can be difficult to get a prospect to fully unveil all of their pain points, once they are discussed, these are usually easier to measure. Let’s use the same example, except this time the prospect is saying their problem is that people are unable to work late to finish some important projects:

  • “Why don’t your employees want to work late?”  (We had some cars broken into at our employee parking garage, and now people don’t want to be in the garage when it’s late, dark, or when they are alone)
  • “Did they work late in the past, and did they feel safe then?”  (Yes, we never had a problem with employees working late until we had the car break-ins)
  • “What will it cost the company if you don’t finish these important projects?”  (It will cost us $XXX dollars over YYY months)
  • “What else could happen if the employees don’t feel safe?”  (Morale will decrease because employees will feel management doesn’t care about their safety, and ultimately, we could get sued if an employee were attacked in the garage)

This line of questioning could go on, uncovering both Hard Data (those $XXX dollars over YYY months that have a financial impact) and Soft Data (decreased morale, potential for a lawsuit, difficulty in recruiting new employees, etc.). The point is that much of the data that you thought would be hard to quantify is really an issue of your ability to drill down with a series of questions that will turn that Soft Data into Hard Data, and ultimately into Impact. The goal of course is to walk down this path of discovery with your prospect, unearthing different types of data, quantifying it as best as you can, and then helping your prospect understand the problem. A side benefit is that this process will help your prospect explain these findings to his or her colleagues who may become a part of the final decision of moving forward with your solution.

What if you uncover issues that just can’t be quantified? We’ll cover that next in Chapter 24.

 

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Chapter 20: Helping Your Prospect Find Missing Data

In Chapter 19 we learned about the five types of data.  Knowing the different types of data (hard, soft, inferred, none, and fantasy) allows us to figure out if our prospect is dealing with real facts or not. Your first step is to ask questions to get a feel for just how solid those facts are.

Sometimes these can be easy softball questions (“You say that you don’t have a problem with shrinkage here at XYZ Retail Store…congratulations, that’s great, and very unusual!  Can you show me the audit records?  Maybe I can learn something here…”). Sometimes you may need more of a hardball statement (“You say you don’t have a problem with shrinkage here at XYZ Retail Store?  Really?  I’ve never heard of a client with zero shrinkage.  Why don’t we take a look at how the company has been auditing your inventory just to make sure…”).

How you ask questions about your prospect’s data depends on how deeply you have developed your relationship.  Obviously, a softball question is more appropriate for a first or second meeting – you can’t ask a hardball question right out of the gate unless you have established that personality trait as part of your hard-hitting, no-nonsense brand. Nobody expected that they would get easy questions when Mike Wallace showed up at their door, and if that is your image in your industry, feel free to charge ahead full speed.

Here’s the good news about data:  it either exists or it doesn’t exist:

  • What if the prospect has the data?
    • If it is soft or inferred data, can you help them solidify it with additional hard data?
    • If it is hard data, is it complete?
  • What if the prospect doesn’t have the data?
    • Does someone else have that data?  Can your prospect connect you to that person?
    • If nobody has the data, is there really a problem?
    • If nobody has the data, would your prospect like help in finding it?

You are not necessarily ahead of the game if your prospect has the data necessary to build a business case for your solution.  If you were not a part of the gathering process, you will never know how trustworthy that data is.  It is always a good idea, no matter how sure your prospect is, that you try to help them by furnishing additional data that you know is solid.  It will also serve as a reality check to see how the data that you bring is accepted by your prospect or his team.

When you bring any type of data into a team dynamic, it can be fascinating to see how different people react.  Put on your best x-ray glasses and look for those who may feel threatened that they are no longer the provider of data.  Healthy skepticism towards an outsider’s data is normal – unreasonable hostility to an outsider usually means problems for you down the road.

If your prospect doesn’t have the data necessary to build an effective business case for your solution, you are often better off.  First, if you bring or assist in bringing the data to the prospect, you will have a higher degree of faith that the data is accurate and useful. Second, if you both work together to find the data, you will be able to spend more time together and build a higher level of trust.  Collaboration is a much better way to work with a prospect, especially if the problem and solution is complex or technical in nature.

What if the client doesn’t want your help in obtaining the data?

This can be quite common.  Often, prospects can be a bit embarrassed when they realize that they were about to spend money on a project that is not supported by enough facts to create a solid business case.  They may push you off and say that they will go and get the data.  This can bring you back to square one, wondering if they are gathering hard, soft, inferred, or fantasy data.  You need to delicately push to assist them in this important part of the process.

You can help them realize that they need your help with a carefully worded question.  In the past, when I have encountered a prospect who didn’t want help finding or creating the necessary data, I have said something like, “I’m glad we agree that it is important to get this data before proceeding.  It’s great that you can go and get it now.  But I have to ask, if it is so important, why don’t you already have it?  It sounds like this may take some digging…I’d love to help so you don’t get too bogged down by this…”  Careful here – you need to walk that razor’s edge between being helpfully insistent and insulting.

What if they still want to do it themselves?  Enter the deadline statement: “No problem. To keep things moving, how about we set a date to review the data you are getting.  If you don’t have it by then, lets agree that at that point I’ll jump in and give you a hand.”

This can be very time consuming.  But it is time worth investing, as there is the possibility that you can use some of the data gathered with other prospects (stripped of anything that identifies your current prospect, of course) in similar industries as inferred data. More importantly, this is a great way to keep qualifying your prospect.  After all, is it really a good use of your time to work on a project with someone who is not concerned with supporting a business case for your solution with hard data?  That would only increase the odds of the solution failing to solve the real problem, or having the project cancelled before it starts because there was no convincing data that the solution would have an impact on the problem.

Chapter 19: Hard Data, Soft Data, Inferred Data, And Fantasy Data

As you help your prospect Confirm The Business Case, you may become frustrated to learn that she has been operating her division without much data on the problem at hand. In fact, you may learn that she has been working with no data or even wrong data.

Is that a problem?

Not necessarily. Some of the best time you can spend with a prospect is time discovering together what is real and what is not. Because you are a part of this discovery phase (and presumably your competitor is not, as he is just responding to an RFP), you can use this time to show your expertise, integrity, and desire for an optimum solution. Instead of handing over a 30-page proposal or clicking through a 2-hour slide deck, you are showing that you can be a long-term partner who will be an asset on not just this project, but on others in the future.

Who knows…you may just uncover the need for a much larger solution than originally planned.

Some of the facts needed to confirm your prospect’s original business case will be easy to understand. There are probably plenty of straightforward metrics to show that the old servers are slower, that new copy machines use a less expensive toner, or a new automated payroll system will reduce headcount requirements. Your prospect has probably already used this data as part of her own business case creation and ROI calculation. Ultimately, at some stage someone in senior management will ask something like, “Why should we spend money on this?” That is a not-too-subtle code for, “This may solve your problem, but what does it do for me?” The hard costs mentioned above may not be compelling enough for each person involved in the decision process for your project.

There are five types of data that you will need to address, and we will use a retail store for our example:

  • Hard data – often found in the finance department. For example, a store could perform an inventory and find that over the past six fiscal years they have experienced 5% shrinkage (a retailing industry term meaning, in our example, that the clothing store lost 5 out of every 100 sweaters they sold due to shoplifting or employee theft).
  • Soft data – often anecdotal, word of mouth, or from general statistics. For example, loss prevention specialists have historically told retailers that they will experience a shrinkage rate of 3%. This comes from years of studies over many companies, and can be used to help establish a standard of expectation.
  • Inferred data – often confused with soft data, it is instead a more focussed version of it. For example, the 3% shrinkage rate has been pulled from years of studying all kinds of retail stores. But this generalization may not apply for a consumer electronics store or a shoe store.
  • No data – not necessarily a bad thing, as discussed above. For example, our store may know nothing about their shrinkage rate because they have never performed an accurate inventory before. We can start at the ground level to help build the business case (and qualify the prospect).
  • Fantasy data – the worst kind of all! It is surprising how many prospects I have worked with who “believe what they want to believe” and disregard the hard, soft, or inferred data that doesn’t line up with the project they are working on. For example, the store may believe they have no problem with shrinkage, no matter how unlikely that may be.

Your prospect may believe that all of her data is hard data. It will take a bit of time and finesse to soft-pedal a quick lesson in the types of data that she really has versus what she thinks she has. Once your prospect understands this, you can begin the process of turning the other types of data into hard data. Yes, this will create extra work for you, but the relationship benefits that the extra effort creates will help you continue to qualify the opportunity, build additional trust, and keep your less involved competitors at bay.

Chapter 17: How To Ask Your Prospect Questions That Help Prioritize

In Chapter 16 we looked at the first part of the process called Confirm The Business Case.  As you would expect, an important part of this phase is creating an understanding of all the issues facing your prospect.  The next part of this phase is to help your prospect prioritize these issues.

If you plan your day the way most experts say you should, you probably write down everything you need to do, prioritize the list, and then work on the most important things first.  We all agree that this is an intelligent and efficient way of doing things.  So why is it that when working with a prospect and asking the questions that reveal the true depth of the problems, desired results, and issues we will be dealing with that we become so haphazard and random in our methodology?

We start well enough.  “What keeps you up at night?” is an unoriginal, but often good place to start.  We may even have the discipline to ask a few more questions, but then our inner-salesperson takes charge and we start to talk about our wonderful solution.  All of a sudden, our dialog has become a monolog, and there is a good chance we will be going down the wrong road with our prospect.

Why wouldn’t we want to discuss the first things that come up first?  Wouldn’t those be the most important things on the prospect’s mind?

Maybe.  But that’s an assumption.  And it could keep you away from other critically important opportunities that you may be able to help with.  And your prospect’s stated #1 issue may be only a minor issue for his company.  We need to fight our human nature of immediate problem solving and instead keep asking and asking until we have exhausted ourselves and all of the problems, desired results, and issues are down on paper.

How do we know when we have asked enough questions?

Perfecting your listening skills is critical for your success.  Let’s take the sale of a new e-mail system as an example.  Your first few questions will probably draw out the obvious answers.  “The existing system uses old servers which are becoming unreliable, we have a hard time pushing large attachments through the system, it won’t do web-based e-mail, and it is hard to keep anti-virus software up to date” could be a response.  While you may have the perfect solution to solve these few problems, it is likely that others do as well. Stopping here means that you are the same as all the other salespeople, which means pricing will matter more than you would like.

If you ask more questions and drill down with “what else?” (Chapter 7), you can learn about the impact these issues have.  If you were to ask, “Why are large attachments a problem?” you might get a response that ultimately leads to problems with the existing network, not just the e-mail system.  If that was the case, imagine the time and angst involved in explaining how your new software didn’t solve the large attachment problem.

After patiently asking questions, you will probably see patterns emerge and will be able to start grouping answers together.  When you believe that you have narrowed down your large set of questions into the key issues, you can qualify those issues by asking your prospect to prioritize them.  There is a good chance that they will say that all of the issues are important, and they probably are.  But it is essential that you prioritize them, as it helps establish the value of each issue, a crucial part of understanding the ROI of your eventual solution.

“We’ll probably need to replace our servers regardless of what we do, so that’s the highest priority,” your prospect may say.  “Attachments are the second priority, and I’ll have my network people take a look at some of the bandwidth problems and see if they can diagnose that.  We are going to expand into healthcare records next year, and by then we’ll need better antivirus software in place, so that’s number three.  Our traveling executives have been complaining about access to their e-mail when they don’t have their own computers with them, so that’s number four.”

It is a good idea to summarize and ask, “If we could solve these stated problems and give you the results you said you were expecting, would our e-mail system do everything you want it to do?”  Give your prospect time to think about this.  Endure the silence.  “Well, the president just got a new iPad, but he’s the only guy using one.”

Wait just a minute.  Did your highly tuned listening skills just hear that?  Did your experienced ‘corporate politics’ brain just process that?

This is the part where the smart salesperson says, “Tell me more about the president and his new iPad…”

Keep this up until you have all the issues on the table and re-prioritize them as often as needed.  The president’s new iPad may not be important to our prospect, but it could be very important to him, and helpful in justifying increased funding for the project.

Chapter 14: Is Your Customer Lying To You?

Your customer may not deliberately lie to you during the sales process, but it is quite possible that they are not telling the whole truth. This may be because they don’t know enough to give you the whole truth (Chapter 3), they think they are giving you the whole truth but are basing it on assumptions (Chapter 8 and Chapter 9), or believe that they cannot divulge all the information necessary to tell you the whole truth (we’ll cover this in future chapters).

How can you tell?

Experience from years in sales certainly helps you to develop a “sixth sense” about what is true and false when asking questions. There are plenty of books out there on how to read body english, decipher the tone of a prospect’s voice, and other soft sciences, but I have found a much simpler filter to apply when asking questions:

When words and actions conflict, believe the actions!

As an example, let’s say we are trying to sell our prospect a new security video management system for their headquarters and outlying offices. In this example, the old system is only five years old and serves the headquarters well, but  it uses older technology and retrieving video footage from the remote offices is difficult. New advantages in IP-based security cameras and video management software would make it much easier and more reliable to retrieve video footage from those outlying buildings, but the people at the main office would have to learn (and fund) a new security system.

As you ask questions that will help you continue to qualify your prospect and identify the right system to sell them, you start to notice that their words and actions don’t line up. For instance:

  • They say they want the system to do things that it cannot do
  • You think their budget is too small, or not even defined (Chapter 10)
  • Their current system is from a competitor (Chapter 13)
  • You think they are using you as a price check

In any of these examples, the simplest way is to confront your suspicions tactfully, but directly. There are only three things to remember:

  • Show your concern

    • “We may have a problem…”
    • “I’m concerned that…”
    • “Maybe I’m not understanding this…”
  • Tell them the specifics

    • “Our security system can’t do ‘X’ and won’t be able to for 18 months…”
    • “Upgrading the security system to a newer version will pay for itself in 24 months, but your budget is not large enough…”
    • “Your existing system was installed by my competitor, and you seem happy with them…”
    • “It seems like you’ve already made a decision…”
  • Ask them what the next step should be

    • “What should we do about your request for the feature we don’t have?”
    • “The ROI is solid; what should we do about the budget?”
    • “If you’re happy with the current vendor, why change now?”
    • “Am I just a price check, or are you really interested?”

In each of these examples, the prospect’s words and actions conflict.  Believe the actions! It is important to slow down the conversation and address these conflicts directly and professionally. You may at first feel uncomfortable about being so direct. However, to be a truly effective sales executive, you need to push not only yourself to be accurate, but also your prospect (Chapter 9). If you dance around difficult issues, you are wasting your time and your client’s time.

What about less obvious warning signs? For example, what if a key stakeholder cancels the meeting, or part way through the sales process assigns the decision over to a subordinate? What if you get the feeling that even though you are following the Client Centric Sales process, you start to feel that you still aren’t getting anywhere with your prospect? How do you handle the prospect who keeps sneaking glances at her iPhone or watch?  We’ll cover these next week in Chapter 15.

Chapter 13: Can You Displace Your Competitor?

Yes is good, No is good, Maybe will kill you. We covered that in Chapter 11 and more in Chapter 12. There’s no doubt that Maybe is a dangerous word. Can you grab that marquis account from your toughest competitor?

Maybe.

If you are trying to break into an account that is currently using a competitor’s product or service, you will, sometimes despite solid assurances from your prospect to the contrary, have a very steep uphill battle before you.

But what if your product or service is clearly superior to the entrenched competitor’s product or service?  What if it is so obvious that even a casual observer to the process can see that your solution is a no-brainer?

It has always amazed me how over the years I have seen great effort expended in the pursuit of a new client, only to see it all fall apart at the end, leaving everyone scratching their heads wondering what happened. I remember one large company who was very frustrated with one of their technology suppliers. This wasn’t just a quiet grudge – high level executives flew in to justify why they should be kept on as a supplier. Promises were made, promises were broken, and the cycle repeated itself over and over.

When it was time for a major overhaul of the client’s system, many companies came knocking on the door, offering a better system at a better price. Thousands of man-hours were spent to land this Fortune 50 account, because everyone assumed (Chapter 8) that the customer had reached such a boiling point that they would finally throw out the competitor. But in the end, the client stayed with their existing supplier and system, even though they stated that they knew they would continue to have major problems.

Why would a buyer do this?  How could they justify their decision?

If you remember from our discussion of personality quadrants (Chapter 11), there are four basic personality traits, and an infinite combination of these four traits. Different people will make decisions for different reasons, but in the case of the example above, the client was a plodding administrator who chose to go with the safe decision. We have all heard the old phrase, “You can’t get fired by hiring IBM,” and even though this was a progressive global technology company, the decision to stay the course was made out of fear and uncertainty.

There's that elephant again...

There’s that elephant again…he’s not going anywhere until you address him!

Years later, after reconstructing this example, I realized that the fault was mine, not the client’s. In short, I had not qualified the prospect with a very simple question, which ultimately prevented me from setting the table properly for the sale to move forward. In this example, after building a high level of trust with my prospect, I needed to ask the most obvious question that nobody wanted to discuss:

“You have been doing business with ‘Company X’ for a while and have been happy enough to keep doing business with them. What do you need to see from me that would be so compelling that my company would have at least an even chance of winning your business?”

That wasn’t so hard, was it? And yet it took me years to learn this question, even though the answer to it would determine how (or if) I would proceed with my prospect. Let’s look at two types of answers you may receive:

“Your price needs to be lower.”

This is a Maybe. How much lower do you need to be? Why does it need to be lower? Can it be quantified, or is it just a gut feel by one person who only thinks about price instead of cost and value? If you can get this answer quantified, you will be able to move on if it is a Yes or form a strategy to deal with it if it is a No.

“You need to have a product that has been in use for five years.”

For you, this is either a Yes or No. Either is good, as it is definitive. If the answer is Yes, you can move on to other questions that will help you build your compelling case for change. If your answer is No, like the pricing example above, you can form a strategy to deal with this issue.

Often, the prospect’s scorecard is measuring irrelevant things that don’t really apply to achieving a successful solution. Asking up front what you need to do to be compelling to your prospect will help you not only form a strategy, it may help you complete your qualification process by deciding that pursuing this customer is not a good use of your time.

Walking away from a prospect is the ultimate No. But if you believe as I do, a No is good. The good news is that if you finally reach that ultimate No, you then become free to pursue a prospect that is a better fit for your product or service, instead of being stuck in the purgatory of Maybe.

Chapter 12: Why A “Maybe” Should Force You To Requalify Your Prospect

You are itching to write that proposal.

You know you are. All those glorious charts and graphs, just burning a hole in your hard drive. The hours spent drawing the mother of all org charts, topped off with the finest writing you’ve ever cut and pasted from Wikipedia and your previous proposals. You’re so clever, you brilliantly copied a low-rez, pixelated logo from your prospect’s website and pasted it on the front cover.

Yeah, yeah, me too. I eventually learned from my mistakes, and called this kind of effort my “rush to mediocracy.”

So let’s slow down a bit and do a quick review of the work you’ve done so far. You’ve become an expert in your prospect’s industry and company (Chapter 3), you’ve managed to to meet the right people at the prospect’s company to establish trust (Chapter 7) and further explore their real needs with tough questions, all the while keeping in mind (and in check) the assumptions that both sides of the table may have (Chapter 8 and Chapter 9). You’ve sorted out all the Yes and No answers to your satisfaction (Chapter 11).

Don’t start writing that proposal yet..now its time for the hard work.

Wait, wasn’t it hard already? Yes, it was hard in the same way that prepping the room before painting it is hard. But prepping a room (or prospect) is very straightforward, as long as you follow a process. If you follow the process detailed out in the first 11 chapters you will have completed the very important prep work. The tough old grizzled sales veterans know that the real work starts when it is time to figure out what to do with all of the “Maybe” answers to your questions.

Maybe might seem self-evident when used to describe the give and take of yes and no questions and answers. But there are lots of other kinds of Maybe out there. Depending on the era of business book you have read in the past, these Maybes have been called inflection points, road blocks, paradigms, yellow lights, and a host of other names. What they all come to mean to us is a warning sign that will require us to dig deeper with more questions, change our strategy, or requalify our prospect before moving forward.

An obvious Maybe is a vague answer to the question, “Does this project have a budget?” Other Maybes may be a little harder to address, such as vague answers to questions such as, “Who from your company will be making the final purchasing decision?” or “What are the factors that will make up your score card when it comes time to award the project?” In those cases, the truth might be that the prospect does not really know the answers. Perhaps he thinks he gave you a correct answer, but his answer could be right, wrong, vague, or incomplete. That little voice deep inside you, the one who has become more vocal as you become a more experienced salesperson, is quietly gnawing at you that things aren’t quite right.

Listen to that voice!

You may be tempted to move ahead, belittling those doubts about the budget, the competition, the specification, the timeframe, or even your own company’s ability to do the job well. What that soft but persistent voice is telling you is to slow down and reevaluate things. It is time to re-qualify your prospect by asking yourself some important questions.

elephant in the roomIs the existing supplier well entrenched in the prospect’s organization? Do I fully understand not just the specification being used, but the full intent of the solution? Is there an ROI angle that will ultimately grab the attention of the C-Suite? Can a lack of clarity on the specification work to my advantage by putting me in a position to develop a deeper dialog with my prospect? Are these Maybes obvious to everyone working on the project, but nobody wants to talk about the elephant in the room?

These examples of potential problems are very common in any large, complex, or technical sales. Most of us breeze right by them, hoping that they won’t get in the way of the sale. But according to author Rick Page, a guru of complex sales, hope is not a strategy. There are, however, tactics that can help you reevaluate these warning signs, dig a little deeper, ask even more tough questions, and then determine if you should continue with this prospect or cut your losses and start on another.

One of the most difficult situations for any salesperson is trying to unseat an incumbent service or product supplier. There are no shortages of Maybes in this situation. It is not easy to wedge your way into a longterm, stable relationship when you have only promises to offer. In Chapter 13, we’ll look at this situation in greater detail, and introduce a tactic that I and others have used with great success to get our foot in the door.

Chapter 10: Are You Afraid To Ask About Their Budget?

Of course you are.  Well, maybe afraid is the wrong word.  Maybe apprehensive is a better word.  Or cautious.  Maybe we can just keep thinking up words so we run out of time and can’t ask our prospect all those squishy questions about his budget.

Why is it so difficult to ask our prospect questions about the project’s budget?

Talking about money, in any kind discussion, business or otherwise, tends to make us feel very uncomfortable.  But not having an understanding of the budget can lead to false assumptions (see Chapter 8 and Chapter 9) and waste both your and your prospect’s time. It is important to realize that the budget needs to be discussed up front and early.

Early in my sales career, I was so excited to be talking to an interested prospect that I forged ahead at full speed, asking about everything except the budget.  “I better not ask about money at this point,” I reasoned to myself.  “She’ll be so impressed with my proposal that it won’t matter what what my competitors price is.”

Let’s look at the assumptions I typically made.  Besides the 13 (yes, 13!) assumptions discussed in the previous two chapters, I typically increased the odds against myself by assuming that:  1, there was a budget;  2, there was a budget with enough funds for the project;  3, there were more funds than I was assuming;  4, project funding was only coming from one budget…and so on and so on.

Did unspoken budget questions stop me?

It didn’t even slow me down.  Many hours, and then many more would go into my glorious proposals.  Company history, corporate organization charts, staff backgrounds, charts, graphs, drawings, all printed out and bound into an inch thick booklet, dripping with fresh ink – customers were impressed with the sheer weight, if not the content.

As I would thump the proposal down on my prospects desk, all those assumptions would rear their ugly heads.  Bypassing all that carefully crafted prose, those detailed charts and graphs, and going straight to the last page with the pricing, I would hear one of two things:

“Wow.  This is way over our budget.”

or

“Wow.  This is way cheaper than I thought.”

Neither of those statements is what a salesperson wants to hear.  Not once did I hear, “Wow.  This price is exactly what I expected.”  Sadly, this problem is typical with not only most junior salespeople, but with quite a few senior salespeople as well.

It may be uncomfortable for you to ask questions about their budget, but if you have established trust (Chapter 7) and expertise (Chapter 3), you can accomplish this in a way that is acceptable to your prospect and furthers the sales and qualification process.

This is an important part of any business-to-business sale, and it is critical to any large, complex, or technical sale.  We will be spending quite a bit of time honing in on tactics to enable a mutually beneficial discussion on budgets and assumptions.  Otherwise, you are wasting time, killing trees, and annoying your boss.

Chapter 7: Earning Trust Before You Ask the Tough Questions

To fully succeed at sales, we must think and act with a client-centric mindset at all times.  To do that, we need to first gather accurate information from our prospect, and to get that information, we must have trust.

We can’t have trust until we earn trust.

What happens if at our first meeting, we ask, “what were the three biggest failures of your department last year?”  Count yourself lucky if instead of a door in the face, you only get a blank stare followed by a variation of, “our department has had no major issues over the past fiscal year.”  Either way, you are shut out, possibly for good. But you read “Chapter 6:  Partnering with your Prospect,” and you understand the need to ask those tough questions.  Why are our prospects afraid to answer those questions?  Don’t they want to help their company by doing a better job?

People are people, and whether it is due to personal ego, petty internal politics, the inability to get to useful information, or just because there has been so little trust built with past salespeople, most prospects have built up wide moats and massive walls to protect their world from people like you.  Don’t take it personally – it is just part of the dysfunctional sales dynamic that was built long before you were born.

How do you ask 100 MPH hardball questions when your prospect is used to underhand slow pitched softballs?  Or maybe even even used to hitting off the Tee?

(A note to my international friends:  sorry for the baseball sports analogy.  While I understand your puzzlement with an American sport that has an event called the World Series but negates to invite teams from outside North America, my shameful lack of cricket or rugby analogies forces my hand here.  Client-Centric Sales will endeavor to keep sports metaphors to a minimum.)

If you haven’t already, read Chapter 3:  Becoming an Expert in Order to Qualify Successfully.   When you become an expert on your prospect’s industry, company, and problems, you are taking down the first set of barriers that prospects usually put up. They will open the door quite a bit wider for you if they have “discovered” you through your previous industry networking on LinkedIn, through trade associations, or by referral.  If you managed to invite yourself for a meeting to discuss industry best practices and how upcoming regulations may impact their business, they may drop their defenses even further.  If you keep your corporate brochures and PowerPoints under lock and key (believe it or not, they don’t want to see your 12 slides of org charts), you have the possibility of opening up a real dialog.  And if during that initial dialog, which may take place over several meetings, you can keep your mind off your quota and instead focus on your prospects issues, you may become successful at avoiding the salesperson’s biggest offense:  Listening With Intent To Sell.

We’ve all done that.  We get a great dialog going and then 20% into the discussion, we start to tune out and figure out how we are going to sell the prospect the new POS-2150 GlurpMaster 2.0 with an extended warranty agreement.

Wrong.

Keep listening.  Don’t think solutions yet – that’s a ways off.  Listen some more.  Ask questions that help you both discover the deep sources of the problem instead of the more easily recognized topical symptoms.  Your competitors have already tried to sell bandaids; you, my friend, are going to do surgery. So listen.  When the prospect comes to what he or she believes is the end of the answer, keep digging. Your prospect may declare that he or she has reached a conclusion, and that you are ready to discuss a solution.  Don’t take the easy way out and stop there.  If you are working on what appears to be a promising line of questioning, keep going.  It is often as easy as taking a short pause, and asking, “what else?”

Asking “what else?” is an amazingly powerful question.  A local Fortune 500 company turned into a long term client due mainly to the fact that I kept asking that question. When the prospect got to the point that he thought he was done, I would ask “what else?” It was only after asking “what else?” 14 more times that we finally drilled down far enough for us both to understand the problem.  Reaching that understanding allowed us to zero in on a solution which saved the client almost $1M.

I didn’t sell anything that day.  I helped someone understand his business, identify a problem, and enact a solution.  The solution was simple and had nothing to do with my company or what I had to sell.  But you can bet the next time I met with this company, I was treated as a trusted advisor, not a salesman.  At that point, I was in a position to ask the really tough questions, discuss the elephants in the room, and mutually engage with this company to look at other issues that I could directly help them resolve.

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