One of the most significant mistakes any sales person can make is to assume that their prospective customer is inevitably going to buy something, and that the only remaining questions are what, when, and who from.
Some purchases are admittedly inevitable - for example when an organisation needs to guarantee a source of raw materials for an essential process. But the vast majority of business purchases are discretionary in some way or another.
It’s no wonder that - according to a wide range of research - the most common outcome of a potential B2B buying exercise is actually a decision to “do nothing” and to stick with the status quo.
You’d think it obvious, wouldn’t you, that any credible sales proposal ought to promote the need to take action as well as promoting the distinctive advantages of the vendor and their recommended solution?
And yet - unless my experience is particularly unusual - the vast majority of sales proposals still tend on focus almost exclusively on why the customer should buy our solution, rather than on why the customer needs to take action at all.
That strategy may work when the purchase is indeed inevitable. But it’s a hopelessly inadequate approach when the purchase is discretionary, or when there is any doubt as to whether or when the prospect will take action.
As regular readers will know, I’m no great fan of using “BANT” [Budget, Authority, Need and Timeframe] as the primary means of opportunity qualification. But even BANT qualified opportunities can fall prey to “do nothing” or “do it later” decisions.
And whilst of course we need to help our customers to justify the return they can expect to get as a result of investing in our proposed solution, we first need to help them to recognise the costs and consequences of inaction - and what bad things could happen if they choose to continue on their current trajectory.
The perceived Cost of Inaction often turns out to be pivotal to a decision to spend money on a new solution, and there is solid psychology behind this. Research by the Nobel prize winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman proved that buyers are 2-3 times more likely to respond to the threat of loss than they were to the potential for gain alone.
So, one of the very first things we need to qualify a potential opportunity for is the current likelihood that the prospect will take action. We need to determine whether this action is inevitable, probable or possible. Many sales methodologies use the term “compelling event” to identify inevitable purchases.
A compelling event might - for example - be the potential to run out of a critical raw material for an essential process. Or it might be a legal requirement to comply with a particular piece of legislation by a defined date.
These examples are probably genuinely compelling. But there are many other so-called “compelling events” that could in fact be subject to slippage without the customer’s core business actually being compromised. These opportunities are probable rather than inevitable.
Failing to identify a truly compelling event should not by itself be a reason to qualify out an opportunity. But if - as in the vast majority of typical opportunities - timely customer action is not actually inevitable but merely probable or possible, we need to take responsibility for developing the perceived Cost of Inaction to the point where action becomes significantly more likely than it would have been without our intervention.
When our customer acknowledges a need that we are confident we can address, many sales people’s natural reaction is to respond by immediately telling the customer how their solution can deal with the identified problem. But they would do far better to stick with the customer’s issue instead.
Before pitching our solution, we need to know more about our prospective customer’s current situation. What caused them to identify the need in the first place? And what would happen if they failed to address the issue and decided they could afford to stick with the status quo?
What would be the consequences to their business? Would they be critical, significant or merely frustrating? How might they have tried to deal with the issue before, and with what sort of results? And why is now the right time to take action?
What about the other as yet-unrecognised implications and consequences of the issues they have already identified? And what about the other related issues, implications and consequences they may not even be aware of or have considered?
Whenever we rush to pitch our solution in response to a declared need, we miss the invaluable opportunity to assess the true impact of the problem, and to persuade the customer that action is more urgent than they might have previously thought.
And it’s far more difficult - and somewhat unnatural - to try and retrace our steps once we have made the switch from “discovery” to “pitch” mode. In fact, it’s often too late to reverse the damage.
This is one of the main reasons why apparently promising opportunities end up stalling in the middle or towards the end of the sales process. The sales person moved ahead too quickly and created false momentum in the pipeline.
Presentations were made, demonstrations done, and proposals delivered. All without having really understood how important the underlying problem was, or how motivated the customer was to take action.
Mike Bosworth coined the phrase “premature elaboration” to describe this behaviour. It’s an unfortunate affliction, but it’s also an eminently treatable condition. All we have to do is to have the discipline to conduct a thorough diagnosis of the prospective customer’s condition before we propose any form of solution.
And that’s true even if the customer is pressing us for a presentation, a demonstration or a proposal. We wouldn’t trust a physician who prescribed a solution to a potentially complex health issue without first conducting a thoughtful diagnosis, and nor should the sort of customer we would want to do business with trust a vendor who operated in this mode.
Let’s make it our mission as sales people to always fully understand the circumstances behind our customer’s situation. And let’s make an informed judgement about whether the likelihood of their taking action is inevitable, probable or possible before we invest significant resources in the opportunity or make it part of our forecast.
CEO at Inflexion-Point, the UK-based B2B sales and marketing performance improvement specialists. Inflexion-Point helps B2B organisations to design and implement highly effective customer acquisition systems based on a combination of the winning habits of their top sales performers and the latest industry best practices.