It’s awfully hard for many sales people to resist the “itch to pitch” when they come across a prospect that seems a perfect fit for their solution. After all, why would they want to hold back? It turns out that there are many compelling reasons why rushing to present your solution is a really bad idea.
Closing a sale in one call might be possible in some transactional sales environments - in fact it may be the only economic way of dealing with low-value opportunities. But in complex, high-value buying decisions, the last thing most prospects are interested in at the start of their buying journey are the fine details or unique capabilities of your solution. Here’s why…
When the vast majority of B2B customers make significant investments, they do so thoughtfully (even if it may not always appear that way to sales people). They typically follow a buying journey that - although it may differ in its details - tends to evolve through three critical phases:
- First, they need to acknowledge why they need to change
- Then, they need to decide what they want to change to
- Finally, they decide how to accomplish the change
I’m not suggesting that these are always neatly defined discrete stages that are followed in a completely linear fashion. The boundaries are often blurred and the decision-making team (it is almost never one individual) will often revisit a previous phase - but these phases reflect the general evolutionary path that most successful buying decision processes seem to follow.
One of the key factors that appear to separate top sales performers from the rest is their ability to accurately assess where their prospect is in their buying decision journey and to adapt their sales strategy accordingly. As a result, they often spend longer at an earlier stage than their less patient sales colleagues making absolutely sure that the opportunity is real.
They tend to qualify more deals out earlier in the sales cycle - but from that point on, the rest of their sales cycle is usually significantly shorter and their win rates appreciably higher. So what are the tell-tale signs that can enable sales people to assess where their prospect really is in their decision process?
Any organisation will always have dozens - maybe hundreds - of interesting issues that appear to be worth investigating. But a much smaller subset of those issues will be regarded as important enough to merit a serious evaluation. And fewer still will be seen as compelling enough to ensure that your prospect takes action.
Let’s face it; change is hard. It carries risks. It consumes time, money and resources. It may distract attention from other even more important issues. That’s why the default decision is usually to stick with the status quo. Organisations can only be guaranteed to do something when the costs and consequences of inaction are so high that they outweigh the perceived cost and risk of change.
This is the critical question that buyers need to answer (and sales people need to know) before they decide to move to the next stage of their buying journey: is sticking with the status quo likely to be so painful and costly that we are going to be forced to take action?
Top sales people have a critical role to play at this stage of the process - by helping the prospect acknowledge the full implications of their current situation, by highlighting who else might be affected, and by enabling the prospect to recognise the full cost of inaction.
The prospect may have recognised the need for change - they may even have assembled a coalition of willing stakeholders who agree the need for change and are going to form the nucleus of the decision-making team - but their next challenge is in working out what they need to change to.
They now know what bad looks like: it is their current situation. But now they need to define what good looks like, and what sort of solution they are going to have to implement in order to achieve it. This is the phase during which their vision of a solution and a potential vendor shortlist emerges.
But as well as trying to align around a coherent vision of their future solution, membership of the decision making team needs to be finalised, as well as a clear and (hopefully) rational process and timeframe by which the solution selection decision will be made.
Forrester recently conducted some research showing that vendors who played a significant role in shaping the prospect’s vision of a solution were three times more successful than vendors that only managed to engage after that vision had already been established. The time invested by sales people in ensuring that the prospect has a clear vision of a solution that aligns with the capabilities of their solution usually proves to be time very well spent.
In the third and final phase of their buying journey your prospect is trying to select the best available option of all the solutions available to them. That may still result in a decision to “do nothing” although that possibility is made much less likely if a truly compelling and urgent reason to change has already been established.
Imagine the difficulties faced by a vendor who only arrives at the party when this stage has already been reached. Yet this is exactly the situation faced by vendors who decide to bid in response to an RFP whose content they have had no previous influence over. You can understand how the odds are heavily stacked in favour of vendors that manage to engage early.
Even if you have been involved from an early stage, simply complying with the prospect’s defined requirements may not be enough to win. You still need to amplify the costs of inaction and establish your solution as the highest-gain, least-risk option available to your potential customer.
And one last thought: if you want to stand out from all the other options, make sure you focus not on demonstrating features and functions but on proving how and why your approach is different from all the solutions they might be considering - and why it is likely to result in superior outcomes. Do that, and you will put yourself in pole position to have your prospect answer for themselves “Why You?”