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 22: Turning Financial Analysis Into A Value Discussion

photo-30By now you may be chomping at the bit, wondering when you get to do your PowerPoint or demo.  After all, your competitors have already given their presentations, and here you are, still asking questions instead of talking features and benefits. Steady…stay on target…we’re setting the table here, not going straight to dessert.

In Chapter 21, we looked at how to turn soft, hard, or inferred data into a form of impact. The degree of financial analysis required will depend on your industry and the order of magnitude of the problem to be solved.  It is important to not get too bogged down in the early stages. Consider the problems of a traditional detailed financial cost analysis:

  1. Determine the project’s cost savings impact over 3-5 years (a guess)
  2. Determine the project’s cost over 3-5 years (another guess)
  3. Subtract #2 from #1 for the project’s total cost savings (guess – guess = guess²)
  4. Factor in the average weight of capital to the equation (the mother of all guesses)

That is a lot of guessing. And there are obviously many more steps than in this simplistic example; imagine how all of those guesses keep skewing the results! And what happens if you or your clients aren’t happy with the numbers you generated? Be honest…you most likely go back and tweak the numbers until you end up with something closer to what you were expecting.  Guessing and manipulation – that’s a recipe for disaster.

The art of getting useful results out of this process will depend heavily on how you take the exercise and turn it into a discussion, not a complete financial analysis. After all, your goal is to help your client understand the problem and its impact, help place you in the role of a trusted advisor, and of course, help you continue to qualify your prospect. Besides, if you are like most salespeople, you are not a spreadsheet genius who delights in the world of credits, debits, and pivot tables. Fortunately, if you can help your 4th grader with math homework, you have all the financial skills necessary for this phase.

In How To Take Data And Turn It Into Impact, we used the example of rekeying the locks at a university to illustrate how to create a very basic understanding of the financial impact of a problem. This type of financial analysis is obviously simple, often referred to as “back of the envelope” math. The exercise reduces the amount of guessing (or makes it obvious to you and your client that you are guessing and agree that you are using round numbers to get a general understanding of the problem). You are now in a position to take your ballpark numbers and talk about them in a way that not only starts to firm up your mutual understanding of the problem, but may also allow you to uncover additional problems that your company can solve.

You both need to work this together

Besides the obvious face time this gives you and the client buy-in it produces, it will give you additional insight into your client’s opinions, allow you to test your assumptions, and enable better, more educated guesses (yes, we’re still guessing at this point, but that’s okay). As you talk about the problem, you will need to put your findings into the language of money. After all, the solution you offer will be based on money. In the end, if your client can’t apply a viable ROI to your solution,  even the biggest problem won’t get the funding to solve it.

HP-12C

Yes, they still make the trusty HP-12C

Keep the math simple, and keep things centered on positive and negative numbers. This is not the place for percentages or ratios, and it certainly is not the place to show off your MBA skills with your trusty HP-12C calculator. If the numbers come up larger than expected, your client may start to distrust the process, even though you both contributed to that process. If this happens, take the conservative route  and say something like, “That seems a little high…is this what you were expecting?”

Pay careful attention here…you are about to either get solution buy-in or problem abandonment

If they answer that the number seems about right or might actually be underestimated, keep moving forward. If they answer that the number seems high, work with them until you both reach a conservative number that you not only believe, but can later prove to the client’s senior management who ultimately will write the check for your solution. Then ask one final question:  “Is this problem big enough to require a solution?” Because while your solution might solve a problem with an annual ROI of $100,000, that might mean nothing to a $50 billion company with other priorities.

If after all of your work together you get to the point where your client is not seeing numbers that justify moving forward, you need to take a deep breath and evaluate where you are. Should you keep pushing and try to get to a number that works? If you have been lazy with your qualifying over the past few meetings, you may be fooled into pushing forward. If you have been constantly qualifying your prospect throughout your entire engagement, you will probably see that you have reached the point where further time will not pay off. That’s a tough call, but an important one. Don’t keep trying to push that rope uphill. Move on.

But wait, not so fast. There are few absolutes in business. It may make sense to continue on with what appears to be an unqualified prospect. What if there is more to this problem’s ROI than can be easily measured financially? Just as there are soft costs, there is also soft data. We’ll look at soft data and how it impacts your client in Chapter 23.

Chapter 21: How To Take Data And Turn It Into Impact

You’ve followed Chapter 19 and 20, assembled a massive pile of facts and figures, and now have to find a way for it to make sense and show how it impacts your prospect.  You have probably found that the data can be grouped together in some obvious categories.  There are two bigger categories that all of the data will fit in:  Problem Data and Impact Data.  We covered Problem Data in Chapter 18, but what is Impact Data?

This is where you want to spend your time, as Impact Data is where the C-Level prospects spend their money.

All companies have problems, and some just sit there, year after year, annoying people who ask, “Why doesn’t the VP of Operations know about this and fix it?”  It is likely that the VP of Operations knows about the problem.  It is also likely that the problem has been evaluated, and one of two things have happened:  the impact of the problem is less than the money or time it would cost to fix the problem or the impact of the problem has not been supported by enough data to prove that fixing it is financially viable.

Understanding the impact of a problem is crucial for proving the business case for any solution you hope to provide.  There are five questions that form the basis of understanding the impact a problem can have on an organization:

  • How do you measure the problem?
  • What is the current situation?
  • What results would you like?
  • What is the value of those results?
  • What is the value of those results over time?

This is relatively straight forward when dealing with hard data.  For example, let’s say that you are trying to sell a university an electronic dormitory room key lock system.  Your conversation might sound something like this:

  • Prospect:  Your electronic dorm room key lock system would increase the security of our 400 dorm rooms.
  • You:  What is the biggest problem that our system would solve? (measurement)
  • Prospect:  We have too many old keys floating around.  We only know where about 80% of them are.
  • You:  That’s about 200 keys that you are missing. (current situation)  What would be an acceptable percentage of unaccounted keys?  (desired results)
  • Prospect:  We need it to be zero, because it costs us $65 to rekey a lock.
  • You:  Let’s see, 400 dorm rooms times $65 dollars a lock…that’s $26,000.  (value impact)
  • Prospect:  And students are constantly losing keys, getting duplicates, moving in and out of dorms…we just aren’t as safe as we could be.
  • You:  If this is a continuing problem, then over four years at two semesters per year, you could have a total of over $200,000 in rekeying costs.  (value impact over time)

Other types of products and services can be more difficult to prove impact, as they often rely on soft or inferred data.  For example, let’s say that you are trying to sell a mass notification system to a university that would alert students to dangerous situations on campus.  Your conversation might sound something like this:

  • Prospect:  Your software would help keep our students safe from gun violence on campus.
  • You:  Other than the possibility of fatalities, what is the biggest problem that gun violence would create for the university?  (measurement)
  • Prospect:  Our students and staff would feel very unsafe, and the bad press we would receive would severely harm the university’s reputation.
  • You:  How do your students and staff feel now, and what is your university’s reputation for security?  (current situation)
  • Prospect:  We’ve never had a major incident, so our students and staff feel safe, and we have a reputation as a place where parents can send their kids and know that they are safe.  This is especially important for our foreign students and their parents.  (prospects implies desired results)
  • You:  What would happen if you had an incident that made the evening news?  (value impact)
  • Prospect:  Other universities have seen their enrollments decline by 10%…almost 25% for foreign students.  (inferred data)
  • You:  Let’s be conservative…if we take your 20,000 students, reduce enrollment by just 5%, and multiply it by your $15,000 tuition…that’s about $15,000,000 in lost tuition alone, not counting the fact that foreign students pay more and stop attending at a higher rate.  (value impact)  How long would it take to regain your reputation, and ultimately your students?  (value impact over time)
  • Prospect:  Others have recovered in three years, some never fully recovered from their foreign student losses.
  • You:  If that is the case, your university could face well over $30,000,000 in tuition losses.  (value impact over time)

This is of course simplistic and scripted, but hopefully you can see how there needs to be a process to help both you and your prospect understand the impact of the problem, especially the financial impact, so that you can create a better business case.

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 18: Is Your Prospect’s Problem REALLY A Problem?

Part of the process of Confirm The Business Case (Chapter 15) is to guide the conversation so that your prospect is actively engaged and not just giving you the same pre-programmed answers that he is giving back to your competitors. You know that if you focus on developing your questions (Chapter 16) so that they continuously clarify the prospect’s problems, desired results, and existing issues that you can then help them prioritize (Chapter 17).  Now it is time for two very important questions:

Is there really a problem?  Does it really matter?

Let’s break these down a bit.  When I ask if there is really a problem, we both know that the answer is yes.  After all, you’ve done the work associated with the above listed chapters. If you are meeting with the person who actually writes the check, then you are well on your way.  However, if you are working on a large, technical, or complex sale, you are going to have to help your prospect justify to others within his organization that there is indeed a real problem, and that takes evidence.

What evidence am I talking about?  Let’s go back to the example we used in Chapter 17 of replacing an antiquated e-mail system with a new one.  We asked our questions, and were told that “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.”  We then helped our prospect prioritize these issues, and in the middle of that process found out that the president had a brand new iPad, which changed the priorities again.

Now that we have this kind of data, we need to ask the Who, What, Where, When, and How questions.  This is old school stuff, and you probably already know that you need to add hard data to some of the soft statements your client is making.  In the e-mail system example above, let’s take the first thing our prospect said, “The existing system uses old servers which are becoming unreliable.”  To properly build a business case, we need to ask questions such as:

  • Who manages the existing servers?
  • What are the existing problems?
  • Where will funding come from?
  • When will the budget be approved?
  • How will this project be managed between multiple stakeholders?

You get the idea.  These are all proof points that different people within the organization will want to understand, even if they are not directly responsible for the project.  These questions can seem obvious, but they help to clarify to others that there really is a problem.  The other aspect of building a business case is to quantify how the problem is negatively impacting the organization and then how a successful implementation would positively impact the organization.  For example:

  • Who is impacted by the server’s reliability problems?
  • What hard costs and soft costs are absorbed because of the reliability problems?
  • Where is the data that could verify those hard and soft costs?
  • When could the investment in the project reach a break-even point?
  • How can we measure if the project is successful?

These questions help to establish not only the impact that the problem is having on the prospect’s company, but to also set up a scorecard that can eventually be used to prove the success of your solution.  When you can answer these kinds of questions, you will be able to help your prospect show that not only do they really have a problem, but that it really matters.  It is surprising how many clients ultimately take this alternate way of exploring issues to assemble a compelling business case and use it in their daily life.  If they have been shot down in the past for projects that they worked on, they usually find that building a business case that the C-Suite can relate to is a skill that will pay dividends for years.

A side effect to this kind of questioning is that your contact may come to the realization that they do not understand the problem as well as they thought they did, especially when dealing with the financial impact.  In fact, it is likely that many of the answers are scattered throughout the company’s departments (silo alert!), and that some information is simply nonexistent.

This is not necessarily bad news.  In Chapter 11, “Yes Is Good, No Is Good (But Maybe Will Kill You!)” we discussed how bad news isn’t the end of the road, but just an inflection point.  We can show our value to our prospect not only by asking them tough questions that they can’t answer, but by showing them how to go about getting those answers so as to help build a strong business case for their project.

This will become very important down the road whether you submit your solution in a written proposal or as an in-person presentation.

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 9: The Problem with Problems (and too many Assumptions)

There is more to the problem of assumptions than making sure that all parties have mutually agreed upon terms.  I have found that there are many different kinds of assumptions that can keep you from giving your client a great solution to their problem.

For instance, your client may assume that there actually is a problem when there isn’t.  Maybe there once was one, but for whatever reason, it is now gone, or that there never was a real problem in the first place.  It is also possible that the client may be focusing on a single problem, when there are really several problems.

While every salesperson may believe that his or her company has the best solution to the problem, there is a chance that there is no solution to the problem.  Alternately, the client may believe that there is only one solution to the problem when in fact there may be many. Or what if the reality is that the solution may be worse than the problem?  (Insert your favorite “the government made the solution worse than the problem” story here).

What if nobody cares about the problem?  While your contact may think that the problem is a mission-critical issue that could affect the very survival of the company, there is the possibility that nobody else believes him.  And if the person who signs the contracts and writes the checks for projects doesn’t think there is a real problem, then you have a very steep road ahead of you.

As more companies focus on ROI as part of their purchasing decisions, it may be a poor assumption that the problem and solution can be measured in a way to prove ROI.  In fact, it may be impossible to measure any aspect of the problem or solution.  Also, if the client has many people involved in the project, there is a great chance that each of them will have their own perception of the problem and the solution.  How do you handle this if your client has a team of twelve people who all want a piece of the decision?

One of the worst assumptions is that your client perceives your solution will solve the entire problem.  While it may be true that ultimately there are only two kinds of problems (people problems and money problems), the world of large, complex, or technical sales usually means that many problems within the client’s organization are causing varying amounts of influence and these can greatly affect any solution you may be proposing.

Let’s go back to our cloud-based CRM example from Chapter 8.  After lots of questions (Chapter 7), we all agreed that the client’s problem was that they couldn’t keep track of key data for their staff and customers, and they didn’t have a large budget to solve this problem.  In reality there would be much more to this, but let’s agree your product or service met the client’s stated needs.  How could this project possibly fail?

While your solution may solve your contact’s problem, it may cause real or imagined problems elsewhere, creating friction within the client’s organization that could  result in a failure of your solution.  For example, the IT department may not like the fact that your cloud-based CRM stores sensitive data offsite instead of on their servers.  The HR department may not like the additional responsibility of training staff on how to use the new system.  The finance department may not like the monthly software license costs, preferring to make a one-time purchase of a software program that the company would then own.  The CEO may not like spending any money at all.  And those always annoying, whiny salespeople?  Instead of efficient data management, they see management asking them to do more reports.

How do you overcome all of those problems?

Don’t get too overwrought by all of this.  Everyone involved in your project will have problems with assumptions – that’s just human nature.  However, if you are  aware of the multitude of assumptions that are being made, on both sides of the table, you can better navigate the sales process, keep qualifying, and reduce the possibility that some of those assumptions will have a negative impact.  Keep your eyes and ears open to these issues and you will walk a straighter path towards a successful sale and implementation of your solution.

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