Sales: Gauging sales opportunity

Over the many years that I traveled in the trenches with salespeople, I have heard a handful of questions that seemed to be part of the salesman’s playbook.

“What’s your timing on this decision?” was among the more common. It’s obvious why the question was so pervasive: the quicker the decision, the quicker the sale. 

My advice? Lose the question. In fact, I recommend losing the majority of the timing-related questions that salespeople ask. Let me illustrate with an example, then suggest some alternative approaches for getting what you’re really trying to get by using such questions.

A few months ago, I was strategizing a sales opportunity with a group of client salespeople. We were discussing a deal Sam had been working for a few months.  Sam walked the group through everything he knew about the account, which was a large refrigerated warehouse. Sam’s company was proposing mechanical systems that would be part of a major redesign of the entire warehouse.

Sam had offered this one up for discussion by the group because it had stalled and he was hoping the group analysis might shed light on the situation. “Based on what I know, this thing should have happened by now,” Sam lamented to the team.

As the discussion unfolded, it was clear to me that Sam had a good grasp of what was going on at his account: he understood the company’s organizational dynamics; he seemed to understand their business; he knew who his competition was and how to position his solution against theirs; he’d done a thorough payback analysis to satisfy himself that this would be good business if he won it; and he certainly understood how his solution fit from a technical perspective. 

Dead fish in August

Sam seemed to have all the pieces of this account analysis in place – except one … the timing. Or as I prefer to describe it, the urgency.

I asked Sam what his basis was for saying that the deal should have been done by now. He responded that he’d asked the prospect about the timing of the project.  “We’re shooting for an Aug. 1 completion date,” they told Sam. With that information, Sam backed into when they’d need to make a decision and still have enough time to meet that deadline.

I asked Sam, “What happens if they miss that deadline?” Sam hadn’t really given that much thought; he largely took the prospect’s response at face value. I opened my question up to the group – blank stares. But I pressed on with the question, forcing them to think it through. There was a painful silence, or should I call it a stare-down. Then, like Calaf finally figuring out Princess Turandot’s third riddle, Jeff’s face lit up. “Dead fish” he exclaimed.

His coworkers looked on in puzzled amusement at Jeff (the newest member of the team). But Jeff was right! If Sam had asked his prospect what was driving that date, he would have learned if it was driven by some compelling business circumstances, like three truckloads of Alaskan halibut arriving on Aug. 2, or if it was just some relatively arbitrary date set by the team evaluating the merits of the warehouse expansion.

Salespeople, often because of natural optimism, believe that a sales “opportunity” is hotter than it truly is, even to the point of pursuing opportunities that aren’t real at all.  In other circumstances, customers themselves can create a heightened – and artificial – urgency. A customer contact might have a personal agenda that is served by the salesperson’s believing “the deal is hot” or the customer contact doesn’t want to destroy the salesperson’s optimism.

For these reasons, it’s important that salespeople go beyond basic timing questions in order to determine how real and hot an opportunity is. Here are three questions that will help you:

  • What specific business or political circumstances are causing the customer to seek/need my company’s type of solution?
  • What are the implications to  the account’s business of making a change?
  • What are implications to the account’s business of NOT making a change (or delaying)?

Add these questions to your arsenal and watch your forecast accuracy and hit rate sky-rocket.

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