The qualifying conversation – Why it’s the most difficult sales talk of all

Qualifying! It’s probably the most under-valued and under-performed activity in sales. If almost any sales organization were to double its effectiveness at qualifying – which is painfully easy to achieve – it would deliver at least 10 percent to its bottom line overnight.

To be sure, there are reasons many salespeople don’t even try to qualify, but that’s fodder for another cannon. Assuming you truly want to determine how real, how winnable, how profitable, an opportunity is likely to be, you are in for the most demanding sales conversation of them all. Surprised?

Most sales organizations have a list of carefully crafted questions that describe the information that’s needed to qualify. These lists typically result from plenty of internal discussions, which are then married to criteria gleaned from some strategic sales training program, and this becomes the company’s qualifying process.

Salespeople then dutifully refer to their list and start asking the questions. Seems simple enough, right? It is in the classroom, but not in the trenches.

Here’s why. When a prospective customer sends a vendor, supplier or sub-contractor an RFP, or in some way throws a potential opportunity at them, there is one assumption the prospective customer makes in 98 percent of the cases: the vendor is going to pursue the opportunity!

Here’s an example anyone can relate to: Mark Williams is in sales for a mechanical contractor. He received the voicemail below.

“Hi, this is Al Smith calling from Acme Tractor Manufacturing Company in Hartford. We’re going to be adding a new paint line in our facility and would like someone from your company to come out and see what we’re doing and give us a quote on the mechanical systems. Please call me back at 920-555-1212 so we can schedule a time. Thank you!”

Mark knows who Acme Tractor is, and it’s the kind of company that, on the surface, would be a sweet opportunity for his company. But he’s done no work with Acme in the past. So as a very real, practical, financial matter, Mark has no earthly idea if there’s an opportunity here or if it’s a colossal waste of time and money.

“Ah, but who cares?” Mark might say, “Even if this opportunity isn’t real it’s at least an opportunity to get in front of a customer we’d like to have.”

Really? Even if Acme has already committed the project to a mechanical contractor they’ve been working with for years but, just before awarding the contract to them, someone from Acme’s corporate group in Connecticut calls and says, “Hey, don’t you guys know the policy? You have to get three bids!?” Let’s remove the rose-colored glasses. This happens more than we care to acknowledge.

In other words, this could be a bluebird flying in Mark’s window or a colossal waste of time and money. For Mark to get in the car and head to Hartford he is committing about two days’ time: the trip up there, and then the estimating, preliminary designs, etc. etc. If Mark stands zero chance of getting this or any work – ever – from Acme, does he really want to do this?

Now’s the moment of truth. Before Mark agrees to get in the car he has to call Al to qualify the “opportunity.” Let’s listen (to Mark’s side only) of the qualifying conversation with Al:

  • “Hi Al, Mark Williams calling from XYZ Mechanical. Returning your call about the paint line. Sounds like an interesting project. Could I ask you some questions before I come out?”
  • “How did you hear about XYZ?”
  • “What’s your role in the company?”
  • “Why are you expanding the paint line?”
  • “Oh, you’re getting into a new line of business. Is business good?
  • “What’s the timing on the project?”
  • “Interesting. What’s driving that timing?”
  • “How many other mechanical contractors have you called?
  • “Do you have a contractor you usually work with?”
  • “Ahh, sure, umm, yeah, happy to…let’s look at calendars”

What do you think Al said that caught Mark off guard at the end of the conversation? How about something like: “Hey, are you interested in looking at this or not?” Why would Al say that? It’s simple: he assumed when he left Mark the message that Mark was interested in looking at his “project” and Mark did nothing to change Al’s assumption. So he lost patience with all of Mark’s qualifying questions, which seemed either irrelevant or at least like something that could have been handled during Mark’s visit.

Bottom line: you must change the customer’s default assumption that you are going to pursue their “opportunity” before you can hope to have any luck with a qualifying conversation.

Next month: what Mark’s conversation with Al should sound like.

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