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.

 

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 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 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 11: Yes Is Good, No Is Good (But Maybe Will Kill You!)

Salespeople, it seems, are pre-programmed from birth to always be seeking approval. We strive to get to Yes, not just because it can mean a commission check, but also because of our deep-seated need for an “attaboy.” At least that is what all of those management seminars try to tell us. You’ve probably been to them; they carve up the working world into a four groups, with salespeople ending up in the top righthand quadrant. This is the space for not only salespeople, but also for entertainers, evangelists, and other overly talkative people.

CEOs are usually in the top left quadrant, along with others who believe in no-nonsense, straightforward methodologies. Other examples for this group include sports coaches, generals and admirals, and Machiavelli. The bottom right typically is for those who think (and think and think and think) and include engineers, scientists and other ponderers. The final quadrant is reserved for the bane of all salespeople:  those in charge of making things the salesperson promised actually work. This group is full of project managers, estimators, and administrative people.

There is quite a bit of science that has gone into these types of categorizations. Some are quite complex, such as one that classifies people into 13 different groups with 3 modifiers. On several occasions I have worked directly with one firm, Personalysis, who teach a standard quadrant analysis but takes it to a higher level by teaching how to be more successful interacting with the different types of people you will encounter.

How each of these groups address good news, bad news, and ambiguous news is important when working with a client, but for now lets just try to understand how the different answers you get during your questioning process affect you.

Good news is good news. Simple enough. It is easy for the client to give us a Yes and it is easy for us to feel good about it. Examples are that the budget is established, our product or service can be offered in a way to meet the budget, and we have a great relationship with the client. We tend to push all good news to the front of the line and give it ample weight. But as we’ll see below, Yes is not always good news.

Bad news is also good news.

That’s right. Bad news is good news because it is definite, and a defined No means we have reached an understanding on a topic of discussion. Bad news may not be good news, but it is always better than vague news. Why is this?

Bad news is usually more accurate than good news. For example, if you were to ask your prospect if the project has a budget and he gives you a Yes, that may not be 100% true. There may be a committee that is talking about the budget, or maybe he is digging around for enough information from you to put together a rough budget for next year. So a Yes may not really be a firm Yes – it might just be a Qualified Yes. A Yes can be (and often is) fudged. But if the answer to the budget’s existence is No, that is usually a very Definite No.

No” is the most truthful thing your client can tell you.

In this example, your prospect has revealed the most critical part of the sales process…there is no budget! Better yet, because this is an easy Yes/No answer and the answer was No early on in the sales process, you have discovered that no matter how many presentations, how amazing our proposal, or how tight your relationship is, you may be spinning your wheels on someone who at best is twelve months away from a purchasing decision. A No is good because it keeps you in the qualifying process, helping you decide how much time you should spend with your prospect.

When a prospect says No, it does not mean that the sale is dead and you should move on. In fact, during any large, complex, or technical sale, you will be told No many times throughout the engagement. Usually, No just means there are more questions to ask, more people to meet, and a joint strategy session with your prospect to look at the project more realistically and find out if there is a qualified pathway that would allow you and your prospect to move forward.

The title of this chapter is Yes Is Good, No Is Good, But Maybe Will Kill You.  In Chapter 12, we dive into the shark-invested waters of Maybe.

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.

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