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

You are itching to write that proposal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to that voice!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did unspoken budget questions stop me?

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

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

“Wow.  This is way over our budget.”

or

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

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

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

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

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