Pipeline management – make sure what you’re chasing is worth catching

In a 2011 survey by the Sales Executive Council, the researchers report this interesting trend – “Across the board sales people are getting decreased access to potential customers.”  In fact sales people report that time spent in front of customers decreased 26% compared to three years prior.  This trend has a number of drivers and several important implications.

One implication is – if it is tougher to get in front of customers, you better make extra sure you pursuing the right ones.  This means that the spotlight on the age-old topic of lead qualification just got a little brighter.

Sales Lead Qualification

Since lead qualification best practices tend to be somewhat specific to the type of sale, lets focus this discussion on the major B2B sale.  We like to thank our colleague Mike Smith of Ohio State University for his contribution to this discussion.

Lead qualification has two components.  First, it is important to determine “priority” – how high is the opportunity on the list for funding?  The second consideration is “fit” – to what degree are the customer’s specifications and preferences for the opportunity aligned with your capabilities?  Let’s explore both components.

Determining “priority”. Finding out information about funding can be difficult but in the end it is absolutely necessary.  For making it easier, the first step is to remember it is okay to ask about funding.  Second, it is important to make sure you are talking with someone who knows the answer to the funding questions so you don’t get poor information or end up asking the same questions again and again to different people. So, keep in mind:

  • If funding has been identified, asking questions about their estimated budget is fair and can yield beneficial results.  It helps you competitively and it can enable you to continue to shape thinking about a realistic price if the customer does not understand what is a reasonable project cost.
  • If funding has not been identified, there is an opportunity to help the customer seek the right amount by carefully determining the estimated cost and pre-selling them on that amount.

Identifying “fit”. It’s good to remember that fit is a two-way street.  You must determine in an objective fashion the degree of fit between the customer’s specifications and preferences, and your capabilities.  In addition, you must obtain the customer’s perception of that fit.  In analyzing the alignment of those two points of view, some noteworthy best practices are:

  • Get a sense of clarity and priority of the various aspect of the solution. The customer’s specifications and preferences can vary from criteria that are very concrete (e.g., the extent of experience) to ones which are more difficult to define (e.g., capability for innovation).  It is important to develop a shared view of the meaning of the criteria and to get a sense about the relative priority in regard to importance. Only after you get clarity can you assess the degree of fit.

It may also be true that you see a need not yet recognized by the customer, so gaining clarity can also be about helping the customer develop an awareness of that need by helping them understand related goals that can be achieved.

  • Check the customer’s perception of your capabilities. This best practice seems straightforward.  Unfortunately, it frequently is not followed.  The customer often has a history with you and therefore they know a lot about your capabilities.  But any particular person making a judgment about a particular capability may have less than an accurate assessment. It is important to find out the customer’s view and if, in fact, that view is not objectively accurate, then finding a way to correct the misperception is both important for the customer and for you.
  • Recognize when shaping is legitimate. There are times where it is legitimate to help a customer change their point of view.  The just noted misperception about a capability is one example.

A second example is when a customer has deemed a particular specification to be extremely important and it is your experience that priority is misplaced.  This, of course, is a road to be walked with care.  If the customer would end up making a better decision if they changed their assessment, then that brings value to the customer and that’s legitimate.  Obviously, it is not legitimate if the viewpoint shift is strictly in your self-interest.

When it comes to developing a high performance sales team, a number of topics have over the years received their deserved attention: how to ask questions and how to handle objections are two good examples.  On the other hand, some competencies have been under-emphasized – getting smart about lead qualification is a great case in point.

It’s better than a 50% bet that spending more time in sales training and in coaching on getting better at lead qualification will lead to improve revenue results now and in the future.

If you found this post helpful, you might want to join the conversation and subscribe to the Sales Training Connection.

©2011 Sales Horizons, LLC

About Richard Ruff

For more than 30 years Dr. Richard Ruff and Dr. Janet Spirer - the founders of Sales Horizons - have worked with the Fortune 1000 - such as UPS, Canon USA, Smith & Nephew, Boston Scientific, Owens & Minor, Textron - to design and develop sales training programs. During his career Dick has authored numerous articles related to sales effectiveness and co-authored "Managing Major Sales", a book about sales management, "Parlez-Vous Business" which helps sales people integrate the language of business into the sales process, and "Getting Partnering Right" – a research based work on the best practices for forming strategic selling alliances. Dr. Ruff received his Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology from the University of Tennessee and a B.S. from Rennsselaer Polytechnic Institute.
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