May 24th, 2013
By Phil Shipperlee
How have the last 12 months been for you? I have asked a lot of people this question recently and almost all of them said that that business has been tough, tight, difficult or delayed. Almost universally, they admitted to problems where previously they would have tried to put a positive shine on whatever had really happened. So it seems that there is now a general acceptance that this prevailing economic gloom is the new normal for a while at least. None of us like it but we have to accept it.
Digging a little deeper, a number of other common themes started to emerge.
The first complaint was that after what appeared to be a positive first meeting with a potential new customer who has expressed real interest in the solution being discussed, nothing happened. No response to follow-up calls, no further meeting and in some cases, the prospect failed to do something they had committed to do. The supplier may have sent a proposal or quotation but still could not get a response.
Many people have told me they have a sales pipeline full of great prospects, but no one is making decisions. Prospects are often difficult to contact and their buying process has become convoluted and drawn out.
These points interested me partly because they are real show-stoppers for anyone in B2B selling and hence are really important to solve, but also because they can be solved and the solutions are not especially difficult to implement.
Take the first theme; following an apparently positive first meeting, the prospect goes quiet and is difficult to contact. The root cause can be found beneath the word “apparently”. You felt the meeting was positive but do you know – actually know – the prospect felt the same way? If they did they would probably be calling you, sending you e-mails and delivering on whatever they committed to do. So you need to check when summarising at the end of the meeting that there is a shared understanding and mutual position as to what will happen next and by when.
This means that you need to be prepared to ask blunt questions: “I now have a good understanding of your issues and know that our service will solve the problem; do you agree?” If no, ask “Why not?” If yes, ask “So, do you want me to invest the time and effort to do the technical analysis work?” If no, ask “Why not?” If yes “When would you like me to come back to present the findings to you?” and you get your diary out.
This is not intended to be a selling master class, but you get the point. Keep asking direct questions until you get a concrete result. What you need is a definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’, not a ‘maybe’ or a ‘yes-but’. The other thing to note is that you never complete one stage in the process without a firm commitment to at least the next stage, and ideally several stages beyond.
Now to the second theme; a sales pipeline stuffed with great opportunities but no one is making a decision. To some extent this problem is a consequence of the first issue. You felt, but did not actually know, that the relationship is was good and the prospect is was genuine so you sent them a proposal. You even felt they wanted you to send the proposal as you said you would and they did not disagree; why would they? Why would they pass up the opportunity to get some free independent insight into their problem and a possible solution?
What has actually happened here is that you have got to the point in your selling process where it is time to send a proposal. So you have sent a proposal because that is what you have always done when you reach “Stage-X” in your process. But is this is still (if it ever was) the right thing to do? Perhaps prospects now expect something different from suppliers and therefore your proposal fits your selling cycle but it may not fit their buying cycle. You need to understand what the prospect expects; content, timing and sequence and give them what they need.
Recent research established that buyers can be as far as 65% through their buying process before engaging with suppliers, so you really must put in the work to find out where they are before deciding how you will proceed with your bidding activities.
The solution is similar to that in the first case; you need to continually ask searching questions and ensure you get definite answers from the prospect. You will need to employ objection handling techniques, using your superior market knowledge to anticipate and pre-empt. You will need to be firm about your position to influence the prospect’s buying process and decision making criteria so that they find in your favour. You need to navigate your way through the prospect’s process.
To the final theme; the buying process seems convoluted and drawn out. The first thing to consider is whether the prospect actually has a process for buying or decision-making. When they get your proposal or quotation, what will they do to make a decision and to make the right decision when choosing between different suppliers’ proposals? This pre-supposes that receiving a proposal is actually a part of their buying process in the first place.
If you want to influence the buying and decision-making process, you need first to understand it. At a very early stage in the sales engagement cycle you need to find out how they will make the decision, what you need to provide, how and when, and anything else you need to do to make it easy for them to evaluate your offering.
If you establish that they do not have a defined buying process one of the first things you must do is to agree a process with them for the purpose of the transaction you are intending to complete. Document it, send it to them and get their written agreement that they will adhere to it. Do this before you invest a lot of time and effort otherwise you may be pursuing something that is not actually available to be caught.
You will need to establish what matters to them and how different things will be weighted in terms of relative importance? For example; if delivery by 08:00 every Monday morning is critical to them, you must demonstrate that you understand this, can comply and have in place mechanisms to ensure it will happen. Any references you send must attest to your delivery reliability.
“If you keep doing what you have always done you will keep getting what you have always got.” This is something of an old cliché, but it could be the reason people are not making decisions, not getting back to you or the buying process they are using seems convoluted. So do the same things differently but try to do some different things as well. The market has moved on, so you must move too.
Phil Shipperlee is co-founder and CEO of Performative, where he combines his knowledge of sales and selling with his extensive practical business experience to help other people to grow their businesses and transform their sales performance.