Answering every new customer's 4 key questions
If your prospective customer is seriously evaluating a new project that involves both a significant investment and a change to their existing approach or environment, it is close-to-inevitable that they will be seeking clear answers to 4 key questions (and a clear consensus across all key members of their decision-making and approval stakeholder groups) before they will be prepared to make a commitment:
- WHY do they need to CHANGE (rather than stay on their current path)?
- WHY should they choose YOU (rather than any other option)?
- WHY do they need to act NOW (rather than later)?
WHY should they APPROVE this project (rather than a competing investment - who will benefit, and how)?
If there is any uncertainty, ambiguity, lack of substance or doubt about any of the answers, your prospective customer is likely (at best) to delay their decision until things have been resolved, or to abandon their project and stick with the status quo (statistically the most common outcome).
That's why it is so important that salespeople follow a process that ensures that all of these elements are covered in their sales conversations and captured in their proposal to the customer - and it's why we've updated our "why commit" value story framework...
Here are all the elements that support these four questions. If you'd like to receive a copy of the full framework, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org:
Question 1: WHY do they need to CHANGE (rather than stay on their current path)?
Your goal in answering this question must be to establish the strongest possible contrast (and the widest possible outcome gap) between sticking with their current business situation (i.e., the status quo) and their desired business outcome(s). This is usually best established using the following sequence:
Current Business Situation (Status Quo)
Briefly summarise the most significant issues your prospective customer has acknowledged they need to fix, avoid or accomplish, focusing on the ones you are particularly expert in dealing with.
Negative Business Consequences (Pain = The Cost of Inaction)
Summarise the key costs and consequences (such as avoidable cost, lost revenue, delay and/or risk, reduced productivity and/or customer satisfaction, and so on) associated with their current situation.
Desired Business Outcome(s)
Summarise the different and better desired business outcome(s) your customer is seeking, focusing on the ones your organisation is uniquely good at addressing.
Positive Business Benefits (Gain = The Benefits of Change)
Above and beyond addressing the costs of inaction, highlight the additional benefits associated with achieving their desired outcomes, focusing on the ones you are uniquely good at delivering.
Relationship to Strategic Initiatives
How does this issue relate to and affect their high-level strategic issues initiatives and priorities? What is the issue stopping them from doing? What would resolving the issue enable them to achieve?
Current or Potential Obstacles
What are the current or potential obstacles that could prevent them from achieving their desired outcomes (with a particular emphasis on the obstacles you can help them to remove)?
Question 2: WHY should they choose YOU (rather than any other option)?
Your goal in answering this question must be to establish the strongest possible contrast between their other options (which are likely to include “do nothing”) and your unique approach to delivering the better outcomes they are looking for.
Their alternative options
Once you have established the strongest possible case for change, you need to understand what they regard as their other credible alternative options. Remember that these may include in-house developments, attempting to address the issue in a completely different way and deciding to “do nothing”. It’s important that you identify and understand all their credible potential solution options.
What are the minimum required capabilities that any credible solution needs to offer? Wherever possible, you should seek to influence the customer to include capabilities that you are particularly strong at delivering.
How is your approach different?
You now need to identify the key thing or things that sets your approach apart from all their other options. It is always best to focus on a simple memorable theme rather than a long list of reasons. Imagine that your champion is asked by another stakeholder “so - what is it about your organisation that sets you apart?” Assume that their response needs to be short and to the point. What would you want them to say?
What makes your approach better?
Based on all that you have learned about their current situation, their desired outcomes, the cost of inaction and the benefits of change, their initiatives and obstacles, their alternative options, their required capabilities, and the things that set your approach apart, how would you summarise and highlight the unique advantages to their organisation of adopting your proposed solution?
Question 3: WHY do they need to act NOW (rather than later)?
Your goal in answering this question must be to establish the strongest possible business change, to give them the confidence in the decisions you are asking them to make (why change + why you), and to establish urgency by highlighting the costs and consequences of delay or inaction.
What are (or should be) the key elements of their internal business case, including the cost of inaction, the projected return on investment (ROI) and payback period, any other important investment criteria, and the relative importance of the project?
What evidence can you offer (from both your own and external sources) to give them confidence in the decision to change, the importance of urgent action and their choice of your organisation, your proposed approach, and your specific solution?
Cost of Delay
What are the likely costs and consequences of any delay to the project? These will often include avoidable costs or risks, and lost potential revenue. You need to convince them that each incremental delay will cost their business more money and expose them to greater risk.
Question 4: WHY should they APPROVE this project (rather than a competing investment - who will benefit, and how)?
Your goal in answering this question must be to establish the widest possible support for the project - from both the executive team and all the other key functions and stakeholders who may be involved in approving or implementing the decision. Remember - by the time it comes to the final approval stage, your “competition” is probably no longer other similar vendors - it is now the other projects that are competing for investment.
You need to understand and address the top priorities of each of the following constituencies and how they relate to this project, be clear about how your proposed approach will help them achieve their objectives, and highlight any significant additional benefits:
The Executive Team
You need to show how this project, and in particular your approach to implementing it, will help to support the executive team’s key business priorities and initiatives. This is particularly important if the project is seen as a significant investment that requires the direct approval of the executive team.
Line of Business
This is the function or department that is most significantly affected by the business issues that your proposed approach is intended to fix, avoid, or achieve. The executive sponsor of the project will typically be a senior member of this part of the business and will have a critical role in driving the project forwards.
If you are proposing a technology-based solution (and even sometimes if you aren’t), IT will have a critical role in evaluating and approving your proposed approach. Data security is often a particularly critical gatekeeper in this process.
If the project requires any significant level of investment (these thresholds are often quite low in the current climate), the Finance function is likely to play a role in evaluating the internal business case. It is important that you understand their investment criteria and are clear about how you satisfy them.
The project may impact other stakeholders and functions over and above the ones identified above. You need to be clear about how your proposed approach will benefit these other key players.
The Value of Verification
It can be tempting - particularly when you first try and apply the value story framework - to come up with generic responses. You might choose to start by going into an opportunity with an informed hypothesis based on your experience of other similar situations (particularly regarding their likely issues), but it is important that you progressively test, tailor and verify the story to ensure that it is uniquely relevant to each specific customer.
The “Why Commit”? Value Framework and the Executive Summary of your proposal
The executive summary is the most critical element of every sales proposal - it is likely to be read by decision-makers and final approvers who have not previously been involved and are unfamiliar with the details of the project, some of whom may be inclined to question whether the project needs to go ahead now rather than later, or at all.
Unfortunately, many sales proposals and their associated executive summaries focus largely or exclusively on the vendor’s offer and on the “why you” part of the story - and are far less effective as a consequence. When you can incorporate all 4 elements of the customer’s value story - why change, why you, why now and why approve - into your executive proposal summaries, you dramatically improve your proposal’s chances being approved.
Following the value framework enables you to qualify the opportunity more accurately, identify and engage key stakeholders more effectively, and progressively build towards a winning sales proposal from your very first conversation with a prospective customer. Here’s a potential framework for your executive proposal summary, which you are free to adapt and customise:
- [THEIR ORGANISATION] is seeking to address [CURRENT SITUATION] in order to [DESIRED BUSINESS OUTCOME(s)]. You have recognised that continuing on your current path is likely to [NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES]. We are confident that our proposal will enable you to [BENEFITS OF CHANGE], eliminate [POTENTIAL OBSTACLES] and support your goal of [STRATEGIC INITIATIVES]
- Your options include [THEIR ALTERNATIVE OPTIONS]. Your chosen solution will need to incorporate [REQUIRED CAPABILITIES]. What sets [YOUR COMPANY]’s approach apart is [YOUR DISTINCTIVELY DIFFERENT APPROACH] that will enable your organisation to [THEIR DISTINCTIVELY BETTER OUTCOMES]
- The investment required is [HEADLINE COST], which is projected to deliver a return on investment of [HEADLINE ROI]. You can have confidence in our proposed approach because [EVIDENCE]. We expect the project to pay for itself within [PAYBACK PERIOD]. You have acknowledged that every month’s delay is likely to cost your organisation [COST OF DELAY]
- We believe that our proposal establishes a compelling case for change. What this means for [ORGANISATION] executive team is [TANGIBLE BENEFIT] and for [OTHER FUNCTION], [TANGIBLE BENEFIT] (repeat as necessary).
- We are confident that our approach will enable [THEIR ORGANISATION] to achieve the expected benefits and that within [INITIAL PERIOD] you will see [INITIAL BENEFITS]. We trust we have demonstrated that there are clear advantages to timely action.
- Full details are included in the attached proposal. We welcome your feedback and are ready to initiate the project within [TIME PERIOD] of receiving your final approval. We look forward to your decision to proceed, and to working with you to ensure that your outcomes are achieved.
About the Author
Bob Apollo is a Fellow of the Association of Professional Sales, a founding contributor to the International Journal of Sales Transformation, a recognised Sales Futurist, an active member of the Sales Experts Channel, and the driving force behind Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, the leading proponents of outcome-centric selling.
Following a successful corporate career spanning start-ups, scale-ups and market leaders, Bob now works as a strategic advisor, mentor, trainer and coach to ambitious B2B sales organisations - teaching them how to differentiate themselves through their provably superior approach to achieving their customer's desired outcomes.