You’d hope, wouldn’t you, that most salespeople understand what their prospective customers want to buy. You’d expect, wouldn’t you, that your salespeople understand what their prospects think they need before making a proposal.
That may, of course, be sufficient in a relatively simple, transactional environment where the prospective customer is in the process of making an inevitable purchase.
But no matter how good a job your salespeople do when it comes to understanding and hopefully influencing what their prospects think they need, understanding what their prospects want to buy is only part of the picture.
In complex, discretionary B2B buying environments it’s just as important - often more important - to understand why your prospective customer has embarked on their buying journey.
In fact, I’d go as far as to say that no matter how perfect your salespeople’s understanding of their prospect’s needs is, and no matter how good a job your salespeople have done in influencing those needs in your favour, if you don’t understand why your customers are buying, you’re flying blind.
Too many salespeople - faced with an apparently well-qualified prospect that matches their ideal customer profile and key buyer personas - make the dangerous assumption that the prospect is inevitably going to buy something, and that their role is to persuade and convince the prospect to buy it from them.
The statistics tell a different story. Around half of all apparently well-qualified opportunities end up not buying anything. In any discretionary buying environment, your salespeople’s most significant competitor is typically not another vendor, but the status quo.
That’s why it’s so important to understand why any prospective customer set off on their buying decision journey in the first place, and if and why they are currently completely convinced that they need to change, or whether they still need to be persuaded.
This is a critical lesson - the presence of a defined significant need (even the presence of an RFP) does not guarantee that the customer will actually do anything. And the absence of a defined significant need virtually guarantees that your prospect will not do anything.
This is why answering “why change” is the first and in many ways the most important of the four questions every prospective customer needs to answer before they agree to implement a significant buying decision:
- Why should they change (rather than staying on their current path)?
- Why should they choose you (rather than any other option)?
- Why should they act now (rather than later)?
- Who is going to benefit from the change (and how)?
Your prospective customer’s decision to abandon the status quo and move in a new direction involves a number of interconnected elements.
First, they need to see their current situation as being unsatisfactory and to accept and acknowledge that continuing on their current path involves unpleasant consequences - the cost of inaction. Unless and until they associate staying on their current path with significant and growing pain, they will have little motivation to change.
Next, they need to have a vision of a future better outcome that justifies the inevitable disruption associated with change. The benefits of change need to be clear, significant and - preferably - to continue to grow over time.
The contrast between their current situation and their better future outcome - the perceived “outcome gap” needs to be as wide as possible. When the outcome gap is small and stable, they are likely to stick with the status quo. When the outcome gap is large and growing, they are far more likely to acknowledge the need for decisive action.
The chances of change are further amplified if the project can be associated with and seen to support one or a number of the organisation’s high-priority corporate priorities or initiatives.
Finally, change is more likely if their preferred approach is seen to eliminate some of the obstacles that may have previously prevented progress towards their objectives.
Salespeople have a critical responsibility to understand their prospective customer’s change drivers, to do all they can to stretch the outcome gap to a point where their prospect concludes that action is essential, and to have the discipline to qualify out opportunities where the outcome gap is weak or non-existent.
What was the trigger event?
In addition to identifying and shaping their prospective customer’s outcome gap, salespeople also need to understand what triggered the prospect’s interest in searching for a solution in the first place.
Typically, something happened to draw the prospect’s attention to an issue. This could have been an internal change such as new leadership being appointed to a key function, a new initiative or priority, or the failure of an existing system or process.
External trigger events often involve new legislation or regulation, changes in the competitive environment or changes in customer behaviour. But if there is no obvious trigger event, the motivation to change is also likely to be weaker.
Discovery and qualification
Effective discovery and rigorous qualification are both fundamental to assessing the likelihood that a prospective customer will decide to take action. I hope that I’ve managed to persuade you that understanding why your prospective customer embarked on their buying decision journey is at least as important as understanding what they think they want to buy.
And I hope - if your salespeople cannot identify or create a wide enough outcome gap – that they will have the good sense to politely and professionally disqualify the “opportunity” rather than wasting their time on something that is never likely to come to fruition.
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.