There’s abundant evidence to show that when sales people rush the all-important discovery stage of a complex B2B sale they store up a bunch of problems for the latter stages of the sales cycle - and often find that that the deal ends up stalling or (to continue the motoring metaphor) that they spin off the road long before reaching the finish line of a successful sale.
It's clear that the old adage “more haste, less speed” applies just as strongly to selling as it does to many other aspects of our lives. When we look at what experienced, effective sales people do differently to their less productive peers, we see that they tend to move more deliberately and slowly during the early stages of the sale, and invest more time in deeply understanding the dynamics of the deal.
This has been borne out by a series of analytic assessments of sales performance: all other things being equal, a deliberate and thoughtful approach to discovery allows effective sales people to identify and eliminate poorly qualified opportunities early in the process, and to create the foundation for swifter progress through the remaining stages of well-qualified deals.
By focusing their time on better-qualified opportunities, shortening the overall sales cycle and increasing their win rates, top performers create the capacity to win far more business than their less-disciplined peers. It’s perhaps no wonder that the research that underpinned “The Challenger Sale” found that high-performers in complex sales environments delivered nearly three times the revenue of their middle-of-the road colleagues - a far higher differential than in simple transactional sales.
So what can we learn from their example, and how can we coach the “willing middle” of our sales organisations to follow the lead of the top performers?
IT PAYS TO SLOW DOWN + STICK WITH THE PROBLEM
An effective discovery process involves far more than simply uncovering a need that we believe that we can solve, and then hitting the accelerator hard and racing ahead to propose our solution. It requires that we stick with the problem far longer than may at first seem natural. It requires that we deeply explore the implications of the issue, and identify who else is or might be affected.
It also requires that we discover what - if anything - they have already done to try to deal with the problem, and what the results of those initiatives have been. Perhaps most important of all, it requires that we hold our nerve, keep our foot off the fast pedal, and do not advance beyond this discovery stage until and unless our prospective customer has acknowledged a compelling reason to act.
Uncovering a need we can satisfy is irrelevant unless the prospect has a compelling reason to act - and the problem with needs is that we (and our customers) always have many more needs and wants than we ever have the capacity to satisfy or fulfil. So, even if they start off with the intention of addressing them, our prospects end up parking most of their needs for a later date.
IS THE NEED INTERESTING, IMPORTANT OR CRITICAL?
That’s why it’s so important - during this all-important early discovery phase - that we establish whether the need the customer has just acknowledged to us turns out to be merely interesting, clearly important or obviously critical.
Interesting issues can get a sales discussion started, but unless the problem is particularly easy or cheap to fix, it will fall by the wayside sooner or later. If we recognise that the customer’s acknowledged need is no more than interesting, we have to do our best to elevate its importance, or conclude that we are probably better off qualifying out.
Important needs can get a serious evaluation started, but they always run the risk that the project will be usurped by something that is seen to be even more urgent. If we cannot help or persuade our prospect to elevate the importance to critical, we must at least try and associate the project and our solution with a bigger issue that has been declared to be a strategic initiative for the organisation.
Solutions to critical needs are almost guaranteed to get approved - but that doesn't mean they are plain sailing even if we believe we have a superior solution. Because of their strategic nature, any potential vendors are likely to come under significant scrutiny, so we had better prove our credentials to the decision-making group.
IS OUR PRIME CONTACT A CHANGE AGENT?
There are of course a number of other factors that need to be explored during the discovery process, but there is one that particularly stands out: is our current prime contact someone who has the qualities of a proven change agent, capable of championing the cause of the project and persuading their colleagues of the need for change (also known in some quarters as a mobiliser®)?
If not - if the person we have initially engaged with is a relatively junior functionary acting on someone else’s behalf - it is unlikely that they will have the necessary insights about the business to enable us to properly qualify the opportunity. At this early stage, before we get permanently locked in to a low-level contact, we need to find constructive reasons why it’s in the interest of all concerned that we engage with the owner of the underling business problem.
If we fail to establish this early, we will find ourselves at a continuing disadvantage throughout the remainder of an often-protracted and usually unsuccessful sales cycle. Negotiating access to power early is another of the characteristics that separate top performers from the rest, and the foundations are best laid during the discovery process.
A QUESTION OF SELF-RESPECT
What this really boils down to, in my experience, is that top sales performers always have too much respect for their own time to waste it pursuing opportunities that they are never likely to win, whilst their less confident sales colleagues tend to cling on to any and every opportunity like a shipwrecked sailor holding on for dear life to a sodden piece of wood in the hope it might rescue them.
Invest in discovery, treat the sales accelerator pedal with caution in the early stages, and respect the value of your own time: whilst it may not be the complete answer, I think that this represents some key elements of the sales success formula.
The next time you conduct a sales pipeline review, I suggest that you focus as much attention on how your sales people are opening their opportunities as you do on when they expect to be closing them. There’s no doubt, in my experience, that if you help them become better openers, they will inevitably become more effective closers…
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bob Apollo is a Fellow of the Association of Professional Sales and the founder of UK-based Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, home of the Value Selling System®. Following a successful career spanning start-ups, scale-ups and corporates, Bob now works with a growing client base of tech-based B2B-focused high-growth businesses, enabling them to systematically establish their distinctive business value in every customer interaction.