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.

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Chapter 7: Earning Trust Before You Ask the Tough Questions

To fully succeed at sales, we must think and act with a client-centric mindset at all times.  To do that, we need to first gather accurate information from our prospect, and to get that information, we must have trust.

We can’t have trust until we earn trust.

What happens if at our first meeting, we ask, “what were the three biggest failures of your department last year?”  Count yourself lucky if instead of a door in the face, you only get a blank stare followed by a variation of, “our department has had no major issues over the past fiscal year.”  Either way, you are shut out, possibly for good. But you read “Chapter 6:  Partnering with your Prospect,” and you understand the need to ask those tough questions.  Why are our prospects afraid to answer those questions?  Don’t they want to help their company by doing a better job?

People are people, and whether it is due to personal ego, petty internal politics, the inability to get to useful information, or just because there has been so little trust built with past salespeople, most prospects have built up wide moats and massive walls to protect their world from people like you.  Don’t take it personally – it is just part of the dysfunctional sales dynamic that was built long before you were born.

How do you ask 100 MPH hardball questions when your prospect is used to underhand slow pitched softballs?  Or maybe even even used to hitting off the Tee?

(A note to my international friends:  sorry for the baseball sports analogy.  While I understand your puzzlement with an American sport that has an event called the World Series but negates to invite teams from outside North America, my shameful lack of cricket or rugby analogies forces my hand here.  Client-Centric Sales will endeavor to keep sports metaphors to a minimum.)

If you haven’t already, read Chapter 3:  Becoming an Expert in Order to Qualify Successfully.   When you become an expert on your prospect’s industry, company, and problems, you are taking down the first set of barriers that prospects usually put up. They will open the door quite a bit wider for you if they have “discovered” you through your previous industry networking on LinkedIn, through trade associations, or by referral.  If you managed to invite yourself for a meeting to discuss industry best practices and how upcoming regulations may impact their business, they may drop their defenses even further.  If you keep your corporate brochures and PowerPoints under lock and key (believe it or not, they don’t want to see your 12 slides of org charts), you have the possibility of opening up a real dialog.  And if during that initial dialog, which may take place over several meetings, you can keep your mind off your quota and instead focus on your prospects issues, you may become successful at avoiding the salesperson’s biggest offense:  Listening With Intent To Sell.

We’ve all done that.  We get a great dialog going and then 20% into the discussion, we start to tune out and figure out how we are going to sell the prospect the new POS-2150 GlurpMaster 2.0 with an extended warranty agreement.

Wrong.

Keep listening.  Don’t think solutions yet – that’s a ways off.  Listen some more.  Ask questions that help you both discover the deep sources of the problem instead of the more easily recognized topical symptoms.  Your competitors have already tried to sell bandaids; you, my friend, are going to do surgery. So listen.  When the prospect comes to what he or she believes is the end of the answer, keep digging. Your prospect may declare that he or she has reached a conclusion, and that you are ready to discuss a solution.  Don’t take the easy way out and stop there.  If you are working on what appears to be a promising line of questioning, keep going.  It is often as easy as taking a short pause, and asking, “what else?”

Asking “what else?” is an amazingly powerful question.  A local Fortune 500 company turned into a long term client due mainly to the fact that I kept asking that question. When the prospect got to the point that he thought he was done, I would ask “what else?” It was only after asking “what else?” 14 more times that we finally drilled down far enough for us both to understand the problem.  Reaching that understanding allowed us to zero in on a solution which saved the client almost $1M.

I didn’t sell anything that day.  I helped someone understand his business, identify a problem, and enact a solution.  The solution was simple and had nothing to do with my company or what I had to sell.  But you can bet the next time I met with this company, I was treated as a trusted advisor, not a salesman.  At that point, I was in a position to ask the really tough questions, discuss the elephants in the room, and mutually engage with this company to look at other issues that I could directly help them resolve.

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