Timing isn’t everything…

Over the many years that I traveled in the trenches with salespeople, I 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; the quicker the sale, the quicker my commission.

But if you want to improve your odds of really understanding the timing and winning the deal you need to, first, change your thinking about that question, then, change the question.

Let me illustrate with an example, then suggest some alternative approaches for getting what you’re really trying to get by using such questions.

The stalled deal

Some time ago, I was strategizing a sales opportunity with a group of client salespeople. We were discussing a deal Bob had been working on for a few months.

Bob walked the group through everything he knew about the account and the opportunity, which was a large refrigerated warehouse. Bob’s company was proposing mechanical systems that would be part of a major redesign of the entire warehouse.

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

As the discussion unfolded, it was clear to me that Bob 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.

What’s that smell?

Bob seemed to have all of the pieces of this opportunity analysis in place— except one: the timing.

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

I asked Bob: “What happens if they miss that deadline?” Talk about deer in the headlights! Let’s just say Bob hadn’t really given that much thought. I opened my question up to the group — similar 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…tick…tock. Then, I could tell by the smirk on his face, that Jeff may have figured it out. “Dead fish” he exclaimed.

As soon as he said this I knew Jeff had it. His co-workers looked on in puzzled amusement at Jeff (the newest member of the team). But Jeff was right!

If Bob had asked his prospect what was driving the Aug. 1 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 just some relatively arbitrary date set by the team of internal bureaucrats evaluating the merits of the warehouse expansion.

Key questions

Salespeople, often because of natural optimism, believe that a sales “opportunity” is hotter than it truly is, even to the point of pursuing deals 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 the implications to the account’s business of NOT making a change (or delaying)?

Add these questions to your arsenal and watch your forecast accuracy, hit rate and customer credibility and respect skyrocket.

Jerry Stapleton is the founder of Waukesha-based Stapleton Resources LLC (www.stapletonresources.com). He is also the author of the book, “From Vendor to Business Resource.”

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