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.

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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.

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