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 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 16: How To Qualify A Prospect By Confirming Their Business Case

In Chapter 15, we discussed the five phases of a Client Centric Sale.  If you have in the past tried some of the more popular multi-step sales program, you might be a bit leery of yet another.  I don’t blame you – I’m skeptical of these “one size fits all” approaches as well.  Every aspect of the Client Centric Sales methodology may not work for everyone or every industry, but there is enough useful information in this series that you should be able to customize it to suit your own unique requirements.

While not all phases need to be taken in any particular order, I have found that the order outlined below, if the situation allows, is the best way to begin.  As a review, they are:

  1. Confirm the Business Case
  2. Confirm the Budget
  3. Confirm the Scorecard
  4. Confirm the ROI
  5. Maintain the Client

The purpose of these phases is not to create a solution, but to solve a problem. You will need to be careful and not get absorbed with your own solution at this point.  It is difficult for salespeople to enter a prospect’s office and not have a preconceived notion of what they need.  Your prospect may even be telling you exactly what they think they need.  Please reread Chapter 8 and Chapter 9 for background on these troublesome assumptions and how you should treat them.

We are going to explore Confirm the Business Case first.  This phase includes both the salesperson and the prospect examining the problems to be solved, creating an agreement on terms, eliminating assumptions, and verifying that a solution exists.  We then conclude this phase after we jointly understand the impact that our solution will have on the prospect’s business, both the positive impact and the negative impact.

Don’t talk about your solution; instead listen for the REAL problems

It has become very fashionable these days to talk about solutions.  I keep hearing salespeople saying variations of “Mr. Customer, I don’t want to sell you a product; I want to sell you a solution.”  But a solution doesn’t mean anything unless it is applied to a real problem and creates some kind of ROI.   That’s why it is so important to have a full understanding of your prospect’s problems.  Even if you can control your own predisposed inclination to talk about the great solution you can offer, your prospect will be pushing you to do so.  Resist this with all your strength.  Solutions are a dime a dozen; the value you bring to your prospect is the experience and integrity that you apply to clearly understand the problems facing them.

How do you keep the conversation focused on understanding a prospect’s problems?  I have found the best way is to take each statement they make and turn it into a question that asks about problems, results, or issues.  Let’s use the example of a Visitor Management System, or VMS.  If a prospect were to ask you to sell them a VMS (a system which manages all aspects of a non-employee’s visit to a facility, including a temporary photo ID, safety briefing, NDA signatures, mandatory escort, etc.), you could answer in several ways:

  • “A Visitor Management System, or VMS, means different things to different people.  What does that term mean to you?”  (define terms)
  • “What kinds of problems are you experiencing by not having the right kind of VMS in place now?”  (define problems)
  • “What kind of results would the perfect VMS give you that you aren’t getting today?” (define results)
  • “What kind of issues are you trying to address by installing a VMS?”  (define issues)

Each of these questions helps to understand the core problems our prospect is experiencing, the results they are hoping to achieve (and thus the scorecard that will be used to measure us), and the issues that they are facing.  This process of question and answer will help you to continue the important task of continuously qualifying your prospect.  We all know that sales is about addressing the pain/gain issue.  If their problems aren’t big enough or real enough, no product or service will be a good solution for them, so never stop qualifying.

As you work through this process, focus on developing your questions so that they continuously clarify your prospect’s problems, desired results, or existing issues.  Every time a solution pops into your head, adamantly push it right back out.  This is not the time to jump into features and benefits.  An independent consultant gets all the issues on the table before trying to find a solution.  If you are to be a trusted advisor and consultant to your prospect, you will need to act in the same way.

Chapter 15: A Sales Process For Salespeople Who Hate Sales Processes

How many sales seminars have you been to that involved a lengthy or complicated sales procedure? Or perhaps they had a canned presentation with a general methodology that worked in their industry back in the days when they were carrying a bag? Too many, I’m betting. You’ve seen all kinds, from spreadsheet-intensive flow charts that require you to fill in all the blanks with names and titles whether they are pertinent or not, all the way to complex wall size documents that could have been used as a planning guide for the invasion of Normandy.

The problem? One size does not fit all. In fact, one size does not even fit one.

The reason is that every industry is different, with a unique sales cycle complicated by a multitude of factors. If you consider the individual nature of your prospect and the other people who will be a part of the decision, add the complexities of your own company plus your own sales style, it is easy to see why these overly complicated “fill in the blank” template sales seminars rarely have any lasting impact on salespeople. While they may make sense on paper, they become more of a hindrance than a help after just the first few minutes of your sales call (“Slow down Mr. Customer, I’m still filling in the blanks”).

After slinging all these arrows at sales processes, am I really going to offer you my own sales flowchart procedure? Yes, but I promise it won’t hurt. Much. It doesn’t fit into a nice format having exactly 10 steps or have the first letter in each step spell out a word. It would be great if the sales process was that predictable and linear, but so far, I’ve never seen that happen. At Client Centric Sales, there are ultimately only five phases:

  1. Confirm the Business Case
  2. Confirm the Budget
  3. Confirm the Scorecard
  4. Confirm the ROI
  5. Maintain the Client

It would be great if the last one was “Confirm the Client” so I could call this my “5 C’s Sales Program,” but then I would be as guilty as anyone else who was putting out a mnemonically titled program. You could argue that “Qualify the Prospect” should be added in there somewhere. But as regular readers of Client Centric Sales know, qualifying is done continuously within each of these steps. We will cover the above in more detail in coming chapters, but for now let me explain each a bit so that they make a bit more sense as we move forward:

Confirm the Business Case – We need to mutually examine the problems to be solved, agree on terms, eliminate assumptions, and verify that a solution exists. We must also understand the impact that our solution will have on the business, both positive and negative.

Confirm the Budget – We need to verify that there is a budget approved for the amount that is required for our proposed solution. It is also important that we align ourselves with our prospect’s expectation of not only the financial side of the budget, but also the time and people who will be required from both sides.

Confirm the Scorecard – There are many parts to the scorecard. We need to not only confirm that the person we are talking with is a decision maker, but we also need to verify who, if any, the other decision makers are. At this point we should have mutually created a scorecard that will be used to clarify what problems the product or service will solve, how it will solve them, whom it will impact, and how the purchase decision will be made.

Confirm the ROI – Here we finalize the business case with data gathered by our prospect and by our company. This data will be used to confirm in great detail how our product or service meets or exceeds the solution required for the prospect. This step is often the creation of a formal proposal or presentation, and it will summarize the data gathered in the first three steps.

Maintain the Client – Whether you won the sale or not will affect your future relationship with the prospect. If you were awarded the sale, it is only the first half of the relationship. Over the next five years, a well-maintained client relationship can produce additional revenue equal or greater to the original sale. If you were not awarded the sale, that doesn’t mean your engagement with this prospect should end with a slammed door.

We have covered all of the above in Chapters 1-14. Next we will spend more time getting into the detail of each of these steps.

Will the Client Centric Sales method work for all sales situations? Obviously, the answer is no. The depth of engagement that I am asking from you is best served when dealing with large, complex, or highly technical sales. And if you take the lessons we will be discussing in coming chapters as a guide, and then add the particulars of your personality, your company, your prospect, and your industry, then you can use these five simple steps to develop your own unique sales process that fits you perfectly.

Chapter 14: Is Your Customer Lying To You?

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

How can you tell?

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

When words and actions conflict, believe the actions!

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

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

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

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

  • Show your concern

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 13: Can You Displace Your Competitor?

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

Maybe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There's that elephant again...

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

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

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

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

“Your price needs to be lower.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are itching to write that proposal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to that voice!

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

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

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

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

Chapter 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.

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