Many sales people seem to have an abiding fear of hearing the word “no”.
As a result, they go to often-extraordinary lengths to avoid asking questions that might cause the prospect to give them a negative answer that will kill the deal.
But this desire to avoid negative answers usually turns out to be an entirely counter-productive strategy, and here’s why…
Avoiding wasted effort
One of the abiding differences between top b2b sales performers and the rest seems to be that top sales people have too much respect for their own time (and too much confidence in their own abilities) to waste it chasing opportunities that are going nowhere, whilst their weaker minded colleagues often seem to cling onto opportunities until all hope is lost, for fear that letting go of them will make their pipelines appear smaller.
Top sales performers know that even in a highly-effective sales environment, the majority of “opportunities” entering the top of the funnel are destined to either decide to do nothing, or decide to do something else. So they determine to systematically qualify prospects in or out early.
Their sales funnels tend to narrow quickly from the top as they exclude these poorly qualified “opportunities” early on in the process, and their average sales cycles are typically shorter because the remaining opportunities have real momentum, and they can afford to pay enough attention to each remaining deal to do every one of them justice.
Logjams and zombies
Meanwhile, the middle-to-late stages of their serially underperforming sales colleagues’ pipelines are often log jammed with poorly qualified opportunities that - by any rational assessment - they have no chance of winning, and should have been thrown out long ago.
They won’t give up until the prospect has finally said “no”. Of course, many prospects never actually get around to saying a definitive no. By denying the sales person closure, these (for the most part) unwittingly cruel prospects contribute to a lifeless army of directionless zombie deals.
Needless to say, even if their pipelines appear larger at face value than those of their more discriminating colleagues, the value is illusory and never likely to be converted into revenue. It’s not unusual to find deals that have hung about in the same place for months or years without any real signs of life.
Knowing when to say “no”
There are a number of reasons why you will want to say “no” to an opportunity:
- The prospect is unlikely to do anything - usually because the problem or project isn’t sufficiently compelling, or because the champion lacks the authority or political nous to get the project approved internally
- The opportunity is a poor fit for your solution, or the organisation is nothing like your “ideal customer” profile - so that even if you can persuade them to buy from you, it’s unlikely to ever turn into a successful implementation or a referenceable customer
- The opportunity is unlikely to ever be profitable enough to justify the effort required to win the deal - so that your efforts would be much more productively applied chasing more attractive opportunities
- The prospect’s requirements or decision process are unfairly biased to another solution or vendor - so that the odds are heavily stacked against you from the start and you end up being disrespected and treated as “column fodder”
- As a specific variation of the above situation, you receive an unexpected RFP that you have had no involvement in shaping or which appears to have another vendor's fingerprints all over it
If any or (heaven forbid) many or all of these characteristics apply to a potential opportunity, you are usually far better off politely declining to bid at the earliest possible stage in your sales process.
Assuming a negative outcome
Despite the obvious common sense in qualifying out opportunities that are a poor use of their sales time, it’s remarkable how many sales people come up with reasons why they should not abandon them just yet.
Unfortunately, most of their arguments depend on either a miracle or an unnatural act happening - and neither of these are a sensible basis for a rational sales strategy.
So I'd like to suggest an alternative approach to opportunity qualification, which I’ve seen used to very great effect in a number of sales organisations: the sales manager starts from the presumption that the opportunity should be qualified out unless the sales person can come up with a credible rationale and strategy that depends on neither miracles nor unnatural acts.
So the onus is on the sales person to justify why their resources - and those of their colleagues - should be invested in pursuing the opportunity. If nothing else, this mind-set (the presumption of a negative outcome) forces the sales person to be much more rigorous in thinking through why the opportunity is worth the organisation’s continued attention.
Implementing this strategy does not guarantee that the customer will not say “no” at the end of the day. It is also possible that an occasional outlier deal will get rejected that could - through extraordinary effort - have been closed. But the remaining opportunities are much more likely to be closed and average sales cycles are likely to be significantly shorter.
That’s why it’s better to say “no” before your prospect does…