I’ve lost count of the number of clients who call me in because they think their sales people have a problem closing new business opportunities, and whilst there often appears to be an issue in that area, in my experience the real problem typically starts much earlier.
You see, when I really dig into the client’s situation, I invariably discover that one of the primary reasons that opportunities aren’t closing is that the opportunities weren’t “opened” the right way in the first place - and no amount of closing skill can make up for that.
No amount of slick language, alternative closes, the introduction of a puppy dog, special pleading or any of the other traditional sales closing techniques can compensate if the opportunity is currently fundamentally un-closable.
How you open determines whether you'll close
It should be blindingly obvious that the first few interactions with the prospect set the scene for the rest of the sales process. Start well, and you give yourself a fighting chance. Start badly, and it’ll take a great deal of skill and luck to pull the opportunity back on track.
One all-too-common symptom is confusing interest with need - and confusing need with a compelling reason to act. I’ve observed before that the failure to identify a compelling reason to act is one of the main explanations why apparently promising opportunities fail to close.
This is one of the areas where the naive application of “BANT” qualification often generates false signals. Your prospect may have access to funds, the appearance of authority, a defined need, and a timetable, but that still does not guarantee that they will buy - from you or anyone else.
Why should they do anything?
That’s why the identification of an agreed compelling reason to act is such a critical stage in the evolution of any sales opportunity - and yet many sales people insist on delivering often-lengthy proposals simply because the prospect has asked them to provide one.
Recognising the problem too late, I’ve seen many b2b sales people attempt to invent a compelling reason for the prospect to act as desperate tactic at a very late stage in the sales cycle. When this is done in a manipulative way it is almost always a bad idea - doing it early and naturally is far more productive and much more effective.
The curse of premature elaboration
Another classic and related reason for apparent closing problems is the dreaded “premature elaboration”. The moment the prospect admits a need, the sales person can’t wait to pitch their solution. There is no holding back, and as a result the chance to learn more about the problem, or who else is affected, and to better qualify the opportunity is lost.
So how can you give your sales people a better chance of enjoying a natural, unforced close? Insisting on them agreeing (and documenting) what the compelling reason to act is with their prospect before completing opportunity qualification would be a good start.
Aligning with their buying process
Basing your pipeline stages around the key phases in your prospect’s buying decision process is another excellent discipline - as is insisting on the completion of defined buying activity milestones as required exit criteria before opportunities can be advanced to the next stage.
The effects are interesting. Many opportunities end up being re-qualified back to a much earlier (but far more accurate) stage in the buying decision process. A number of opportunities will fall out of the pipeline completely.
You close more when you have less to close
Many of your sales people will end up with fewer “closable” opportunities - but those that remain will have a far better chance of closing on the date and for the amount forecasted. The others were probably never real in the first place.
Your win rates - and your forecast accuracy - will go up, and probably significantly. Your sales people will be in a better position to bring fewer but far better opportunities to a natural close. Close dates will move out less often. And your customers will feel better about doing business with you.
Perhaps best of all, by qualifying better early on in the sales cycle, and by recognising and excluding “no hoper” deals early on in the process, they will have the capacity (and the ability) to uncover more, much better qualified opportunities.
So the next time you wonder whether your sales people have a closing problem, avoid the temptation to trot out the infamous Alec Baldwin “always be closing” speech from Glengarry Glen Ross. Focus instead on whether they are opening deals as well as they could be, and on what you can do to improve the process.