There’s a reasonable case to be made that the most important moment in the management of any successful sales opportunity is the point at which you receive a bookable, revenue recognisable order - and it’s hard to argue anything different.
There’s also a pretty good case to be made that the second most important moment in the management of any successful sales opportunity is the point at which the project can be shown to have satisfied your (hopefully thoughtfully-defined) qualification criteria.
But I want to suggest - particularly for complex B2B sales environments - that there’s another critical phase in the evolution of successful sales opportunities that can make all the difference to whether or not you ultimately succeed.
I want to introduce you to the concept of “vision lock”. It’s that defining moment when the prospect’s vision of their future solution is inextricably aligned with the unique strengths of your product or service offering.
If you can achieve strong vision lock, the opportunity is yours to loose. In the absence of vision lock, at best you will simply remain one offering amongst many, and your chances of winning will be dramatically reduced as a result.
The later you leave it, the harder it gets
The earlier you get engaged in the prospect’s decision-making process, the greater your chances of securing vision lock. The later you leave it, the harder it gets. If you only get involved after the prospect has defined their vision of a solution (influenced, no doubt, by your competitors), you either have to change the game - difficult, but not completely impossible - or resign yourself to breathing your competitors’ exhausts.
So what do we mean by “vision lock”? It’s when the prospect’s vision of their desired solution is closely aligned with your own unique capabilities. It’s when many of their “must have” features are only available if they were to adopt your own solution. And it’s when their rational and emotional criteria have been shaped by their exposure to your approach.
It doesn't happen by accident
Vision lock does not happen by accident. It can best be achieved by engaging the prospect at an early stage in their decision making process. It can best be achieved through genuine thought leadership that profoundly shapes their thinking. And in most cases, it can only be achieved through a stream of informed conversation.
It’s easier to achieve if your organisation provided the catalyst that first sparked their recognition that sticking with the status quo was not going to satisfy their future needs. It’s made stronger if your organisation helped them to identify and acknowledge the issue, and if you helped them to shape the case for change.
You need to shape their agenda
It can only be achieved if you have truly shaped their buying agenda - if their functional requirements closely match what you can deliver, and if their priorities and decision criteria are sympathetic to your key strengths.
Once you have established vision lock, your primary goals are to systematically eliminate the obstacles that might prevent them from doing business with you, and to watch out for and fend off other competitors trying to hijack the prospect’s vision late on in the buying cycle.
If the prospect reaches a late stage in their buying process without having a really clear vision of a solution, you may still have an opportunity to reshape what they believe they are looking for. But you need to be careful that this lack of vision isn’t indicative of a weak case for change.
The RFP dilemma
And if you arrive in an opportunity after the prospect’s vision of a solution has already been established - for example when an RFP whose content you have not influenced lands on your desk - you face some tough choices.
If you’re forced to stick with the prospect’s vision of a solution that was not designed around your core capabilities, you will simply be one of many, and you’re going to have to compete on sales execution alone. But you need to be very, very aware that another organisation probably holds the advantage, and that you may simply be in the race to make up the numbers.
Or you can choose to politely refuse to play unless you’re granted an opportunity to get to the heart of what the prospect really needs and given a shot at reframing their vision. If your request is accepted, you may be back in with a shout. If rejected, then at least you can reinvest the time you would otherwise have wasted chasing a lost cause in creating vision lock with other, more promising prospects.
Leading their thinking
And if, as I hope, you choose the latter path, you can best create vision lock through “thought leadership” that genuinely leads and shapes your prospect’s thinking, brings them fresh perspectives, and challenges them to think differently. Unfortunately, much of what masquerades as thought leadership today simply rehashes what your reader already knows or thinks - this won't do.
White papers, ebooks, blogs and articles can start the process and get them interested. But your best chance of establishing lasting vision lock through a series of informed conversations that make the prospect want to learn more at every stage. Before vision lock, you’re establishing their vision of a solution. After vision lock, you’re proving how your solution best meets their needs.
But if your sales people (as so many still do) are jumping straight in and pitching their solution before they have established any form of vision lock, you shouldn’t be surprised if their win rates are less than you hope for and need.