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Separate Suspects From Prospects and Watch Your Sales Revenues Skyrocket

How Efficiently Do You Qualify Your Sales Prospects? Before you spend hours preparing, presenting and then jumping through hoops for any prospect, take a little time to figure out if it’s worth your effort.

"In the world of sales, there are prospects, and there are suspects," says Jeff Callahan of Sandler Training New Jersey. "Prospects are real, live potential clients who have a need for your services or products, are willing and able to pay for them and have the authority to make the buy decision. On the other hand, suspects will devour your time asking for more and more information, without ever actually committing to a deal. Suspects will leave you hanging, and any salesperson knows that 'hanging' is not where they want to be."

Separate the suspects from the prospects by systematically qualifying them. Before you can sell anything, three conditions have to exist: Customers must be in need of your products or services, they must have the means and the desire to purchase whatever it is that you’re selling, and they must have the authority or ability to make the decision to buy. These are the three essentials that you’re looking for when you qualify someone; this is how you separate the prospects from the suspects.

A surprising number of sales professionals do little or no qualifying of potential customers. Maybe they don’t know how to do it; maybe they don’t feel comfortable taking control of the sales process right from the beginning (which is a necessary part of qualifying). Or perhaps they are reluctant to qualify customers because they don’t really want to find out that this prospect isn’t going to pan out and they need to move on. Optimism is in the genetic code of every good salesperson, and too many hold on for too long to the idea that the prospect can be convinced to buy no matter what. They just don’t want to hear no. But successful salespeople “go for the no” since it’s better to hear that word sooner than later.

The cost of not qualifying prospects is high: The time and energy (and sometimes financial resources) you devoted to selling to an unqualified potential buyer is wasted. Somewhere out there is a real customer that you didn’t have time to sell to because you were busy with a dead-end suspect. On top of that, if you’re wasting time on the wrong prospects, you’re probably nursing the false expectation of new business. For many sales organizations, a low conversion rate — the number of prospects that actually turn into customers — is really a problem of not properly qualifying your prospects. Other signs that you or your salespeople aren’t properly qualifying customers include painfully long selling cycles, overly optimistic sales forecasts, price discounting, eroding profit margins and the kind of over-promising that can breed intense customer dissatisfaction.

Before your first meeting with the prospect, it’s important to find out whether it’s worth spending any time to meet with them. This is an early qualification round that requires checking on your meeting time (“We are scheduled to meet tomorrow for 45 minutes, do you still have that time to meet with me?”), getting permission to ask questions (“I need to ask you some questions to see if we’re a good fit, is it OK to do that?”), and authorizing the party to say no (“Most people are hesitant to say no, but if you feel this doesn’t work, would you feel comfortable telling me?”). It also requires the salesperson to establish a strong next step if there is a good fit with the prospect. (An example would be telling the prospect that if both parties agree that there’s a possibility of doing business, the two of you should set up your next meeting before you leave that day.) If a prospect isn’t willing to go along with these basic requests, you need to think long and hard as to whether he or she should be disqualified right then and there.

In order to qualify someone’s need for your product or service, you need to uncover the prospect’s “pain,” or their emotionally compelling reason to change or act. People don’t buy the features and benefits of your product or service, they buy solutions to their problems. If they feel no emotional reason to change, you won’t make a sale. There are many layers to pain, including surface, business and personal pain. Say, for example, you’re selling copiers. You might ask a prospect why they’re interested. At first they may just tell you that their current office copier breaks down frequently. But by digging further (asking how long it’s been a problem, what else they’ve tried to do to solve the problem, and what has been the cost to their business in time or money, for example) you may find out that they were late getting a report out, or that their staff is falling behind schedule.

That’s the business pain. There’s even a deeper level — perhaps the broken copier means they’re getting home late at night, or the boss is yelling at them. By probing for the personal pain you can learn even more about the prospect’s reason for buying. When they share their personal reasons for change (after all, you are selling change), you can qualify them for whether they have a need for your products or services. If someone can’t express an emotional need for your product, you may have to disqualify him, although there are some instances when there doesn’t need to be “pain” per se. These are the times when someone has already convinced himself of his need.

To qualify someone for financial ability (and willingness) to pay, get all money issues out on the table early. Otherwise, you could spend hours of your valuable time making detailed sales presentations to someone who not only can’t make the ultimate decision, but may also lack sufficient funds to make a purchase.

Begin qualifying a prospect’s financial status by inquiring about a budget. Consider asking them to discuss investments they have made in the past for similar projects. Many prospects won’t give you a budget, so try offering them solutions using price brackets. Remember not to sell yourself cheap by offering a price bracket where you can’t make any money. It might sound something like this: “Recently, we completed two projects similar to the one you are asking about and they ranged between $10,000 and $15,000. Does this make sense, and can you see yourself making an investment of this type?” In addition, you may need to qualify for payment terms in some situations (for example, you may tell them you require a retainer or 50% of payment up front).

Budget decisions are not only about money; they are sometimes about time. You must test the prospect accordingly. For example, a Web designer needs to have a customer who is willing to devote the time to provide enough input for the designer to do a good job. The designer should ask a prospect, “We’ll need to meet for two hours when we begin to discuss the design, then we’ll need to meet twice after that for an hour each time to review preliminary designs. Are you prepared to do that?”

Always make sure you find out who else might share in the decision process, and be sure to learn specifically how and when they make decisions. The timing of their purchase is important, too. You may need to know if they can’t commit to a deal before the next quarter or fiscal year.

Regardless of how you ask qualifying questions, the important thing is that you do ask them. Always keep in mind it is not just what you say, but how you say it. If you manage other salespeople, insist that they qualify prospects, too. When they come back to the office from a call, they should be able to summarize how and why the prospect is qualified.

One big advantage of doing a good job in qualifying prospective customers, if you’ve done your job well: you’ve already addressed many of the excuses and obstacles that prospective customers commonly use to put off salespeople. For example, if you’ve established that you’re talking to the ultimate decision maker, they can’t put off making a decision by saying they need to consult with a superior.

Once you’ve qualified a prospective customer, you’re not home free. You still need to craft a solution to their problem, and allow them to discover for themselves that your products or services are their best alternative. But effective qualifying is the necessary first step in the journey from first contact to final sale.

©2009 Sandler Systems, Inc. All rights reserved.

Jeff Callahan of Sandler Training New Jersey is a nationally recognized trainer, author and speaker who leads a team of proven sales development experts helping leaders enhance revenue generation through superior sales teams. Our clients range from individual sales professionals looking to achieve the highest levels of success they deserve, to the sales forces of Global 1000 companies who must achieve sales excellence in any and all world economic conditions. We provide growing companies with the timeliest and most accurate insights for growing sales, profits and market share by objectively examining your people, processes, strategies and systems. “We earn our reputation as Sales Development Experts every day by helping leaders who are dissatisfied because sales revenues are down, margins continue to shrink and the only thing they can count on from their team is more excuses. We help companies who are sick and tired of hiring sales people who look good on paper and sound great in interviews, but who do not sell in the first 90 days,” says Callahan. “Which of these, if any, do you have on your plate?”

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About the Author

Jeff Callahan, Sandler Training New Jersey
Freehold, NJ 07728

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