I wrote the following article a while ago on the subject of pre-sales qualification. I work in B2B sales and if you're reading this because you do too then I invite you to hook up with me on a few sites and resources that I find useful. I'm happy to give a plug and invite you to join and connect with me at The Fox Den. The Fox Den is a newish community for alumni of Holden Power Base Selling or for anyone that enjoyed the book. If you haven't read Power Base Selling then you can read mine/others reviews and buy the book on Amazon, I also reviewed it on the Goodreads website. If you haven't read it then I think anyone in B2B sales, (particularly major account type sales) will get something from it.
Jim Holden, author of best-selling sales book 'Power Base Selling' once said "Know this about yourself: there is only one reason salespeople lose orders and that is they are OUTSOLD."
I believe this is a true statement but I don't think that he meant that a sales person was supposed to win every single opportunity that came their way, rather I think we can agree he meant those opportunities that we considered were winnable and therefore pursued - and then lost.
It is probably true to say that the biggest waste of resources occurs when a sales-person commits his own time, and those of his organisation, into trying to win a sale which does not come to fruition.
For his own good then and for the good of his organisation it is vital that the sales person be able to qualify which opportunities are winnable and those which are not as early as possible in the sales cycle.
The ideal scene of course would be that the sales person would be able to know without any error exactly which opportunities his organisation will win and those he will not up front. This may be impossible in practise but pre-sales qualification is all about moving as close to this ideal scene as humanly possible.
This is sometimes easier said than done. The reasons a sale might be won or lost may be an obvious reason such as the product does or doesn't do some function that is deemed to be vital to the customer, or it might be something a bit more difficult to discover, such as having or not having a particular reference or having a better or worse one than someone else.
Also, as much as companies purchasing departments may try and level the playing field for bidders it is not unknown for a senior executive's personal favourite to still find themselves the recipient of additional advantage.
To complicate matters further the 'sands' of the sale can be constantly shifting as you and your competitors try and move the goal-posts to suit your own particular offering - so the landscape of the sale may change as the customer re-evaluates his requirements as he spends more time learning about yours and your competitors offerings.
In a nutshell then, pre-sales qualification can be extremely complicated and our questioning must also reveal areas where we might shift the sands and areas where our competitors could also do so the same.
The ability to formulate questions around all these areas without alienating yourself or your organisation but at the same time actually getting the answers you require is the difference between the amateur and the professional. But it is also something that sales people get better and better at as time goes on, after all there is no worse feeling than getting to the end of a sale where you have invested months of yours and your colleagues time to find out that you were probably playing catch up all along.
It's therefore important to know what you know and even more important to know what you don't know and resist falling into the trap of assuming you know when you don't.
This is the area where I think most sales people fall down: they get so excited about the opportunity to bid for a major piece of business in an important client that they get blinded by their own excitement and optimism.
I'm not suggesting that pessimism is a good thing but I do think that a healthy sense of paranoia can get a sales person a lot further than unbridled enthusiasm.
Call it caution if you will; the cautious sales person will be looking for gaps in his knowledge, will be playing all sides of the game and anticipating the moves of his competition whereas the super confident one may miss important pieces of the picture. There is a time and place for confidence and enthusiasm and a place for the exact opposite in every sale.
Some final thoughts
Once you have committed yourself to bidding and the client knows it you always lose a little bit of power, and depending upon your relationship with a client you might want to delay committing if you are uncertain about the strength of your bid.
The phrase 'before we decide to bid' followed by a clinch making question can be very powerful if you are in a position where the client needs or expects you to bid and you are unsure whether you're wasting your time. You may think that this can come over as arrogant (it can) and I'm not suggesting you use it all the time but if you've done a good job you may have got the potential client in a position where they do want you to bid.
When you use this phrase you will usually want to get some form of commitment from the client so it's not a phrase that you want to overuse, but in the right hands with perfect timing and sincerity it can clarify areas of the sale faster than any other method. It can also backfire though so in some ways it's safer to prime the CEO/MD to ask this kind of question when you involve them in the pre-sales qualification process. Do it with sincerity though - these aren't tactics for manipulation, it should be a shift in your attitude more than anything else. In other words, foster an mindset that yours' and your company's time is as valuable as your clients.
Expanding upon this last point, if you feel you are weak in a particular area that is going to lose you the sale further down the line (or could potentially) then there is a lot to gain from calling a meeting with the client to explain your reasons for not bidding 'at this stage.' I add the phrase 'at this stage' because you always want to leave the door open in case you are wrong.
Two things can happen: now that they are no longer under pressure from you and are probably respecting you for your honesty:
a) They may reveal that you are correct or
b) They may also share with you why you are wrong which they would be unlikely to do under any other circumstances.
Either way you win. And in the worst case scenario that you are correct you've probably improved your relationship for future business opportunities.
I'm always interested in hearing from like minded people so feel free to drop me a line via my personal website or LinkedIn.
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