Speeding Up Your Sales Pipeline

How wonderful would it be if your prospective clients would just hurry up and make a decision about if and when they’ll give you a sale? Even if 80% decline, as predicted in Pareto’s 80/20 rule, think of the time and aggravation that you’d be spared.  There’d be no more chasing so-called prospects who either can’t or won’t green-light a sale for you.  Your numbers would probably increase, if for no other reason than you’d stop wasting time on lost causes and look for better possibilities.

Getting a commitment to either fish or cut bait in maybe a week or two is a fantasy, but learning how to get better at qualifying prospects is within reach and here are four tips to help you do just that.  Implement these tactics and you’ll move prospects through your sales pipeline faster than ever before.

1. Sell to the decision-maker

Is the person who you think is the prospect really the prospect? Does this person have the authority to make the decision and approve the budget? If not, there will be no sale until and unless you get in front of the real decision-maker.

Especially in B2B sales, a gatekeeper or other lower-level employee could be enlisted to find out the details and then report back to the actual decision-maker.  Alternatively, the decision could be made by a committee of senior staff members, one of whom may be speaking with you, but s/he alone cannot give the green-light without getting agreement from other committee members.

In either case, you’ll need to get around the stand-in, learn the identity of who has the most influence and focus your attention on addressing that person’s hot buttons, so that the sale can move forward at a faster pace.

Step One in ferreting out the identity of the real decision-maker is noticing the job title of the person with whom you’re speaking.  If s/he ranks lower than Director or Vice President, most likely there’s someone in the background pulling the strings.  Unless you’re selling office supplies, ask the stand-in if s/he is able to directly approve the budget and if there are others who might like to directly ask you questions about your product, service, or project.  Be respectful of feelings, but do encourage the participation in the sales process of the one who can sign the check.

2. Discover what worries your prospect

Get a big-picture understanding of your prospect’s most urgent and top-of-mind challenges and near-term objectives, as they apply to what you can bring to the table in terms of a product or service.  What does your prospect think will happen if the product doesn’t get purchased or the project doesn’t get done?  How will company leaders feel when the problem is resolved and objectives are achieved?

Learn as much as possible about what your prospect wants and how committed s/he is to achieving goals and resolving issues.  Ask “what” and “how” questions to discover these key insights.

3. Confirm that your solution is a fit 

Ultimately, all salespeople want to close deals. But ironically, it’s sometimes better to walk away from a potential sale if the product or service isn’t a good fit for either you or the prospect.  Pushing for a sale that won’t bring about the best outcomes never ends well and it should be avoided, even when you’re desperate to do business.

In these situations, your objective is about getting to “no” faster.  Then you can move on and pursue other prospects who may be better positioned to buy from you.  It’s  preferable to speed inappropriate prospects through the pipeline and devote the time saved to identifying and meeting with qualified prospects who might say “yes.”

To ensure that your product or service can solve the problem or help the prospect meet a goal, ask pointed questions and listen well to determine whether your solution will produce the best results and be cost-effective in the long run.

4. Learn the prospect’s timetable

Is there an urgent need or deadline that compels your prospect to take action and implement a solution quickly? If you know that to be true, you can most likely expedite the sale (and get the price you want, as well).  Ask questions to help yourself evaluate whether the prospect could be ready to do the deal in a week or two, or in months.

One important line of questioning should concern available funding for the proposed sale or project.  In some cases, the prospect would sincerely like to move forward, but there is insufficient political support in the organization for his/her agenda.

The information will allow you to adjust your expectations for the sale and decide if you should continue to pursue, pick up the thread in a few months, or close the book on a pipe dream.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: Portrait of Evdokiya Nickolayevna Chesmenskaya (1780) by Jean-Louis Voille (1744 – 1806) courtesy of the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

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Freelancers: Agile Talent For Your Organization

While cruising through the Harvard Business Review online http://hbr.org, I happened upon an article that told of a most interesting book that has good information for Freelance consultants and those who hire us.  Agile Talent was written by two experts in the talent development, leadership and strategic HR fields,  Jon Younger and Norm Smallwood and published just last month.

The book was written as a guide for the growing number of organizations that rely on professionals like us to come through in the clutch and get the job done,  on time and within budget.  Getting the most out of a team comprised of internal and external talent is the book’s theme.  I read an excerpt and confirmed that within,  the book contains as well a few pearls of wisdom for you and me,  primarily providing us with a new and improved way to package and promote our services to potential clients.

As Smallwood and Younger point out, so many organizations–for-profit and not-for-profit, late-stage and start-up, large and small–continue to rely on Freelance consultants to augment their lean workforces when insufficient expertise (or time) exists in-house.  Salaries are a large fixed expense on Income Statements and organizations for 30 years have been loathe to hire a worker unless the skill set is frequently needed to keep the business operating.  The authors provide useful recommendations to those who hire,  collaborate with or manage the external talent,  so that good outcomes for all parties can result.

Agile Talent Freelancers allow organizations to access the services needed only for the scope aand length of time that the organization requires.  We bring great insight, heightened productivity and relevant experience to countless organizations.  Yet organization decision-makers and those with whom we collaborate are sometimes unsure of what to expect from the arrangement with the agile talent,  or how to successfully onboard and work with us.

In order to maintain or expand our billable hours,  it is imperative that we are able to anticipate how the relationship might go off the rails and come to an unfortunate parting of the ways.  Before encountering a prospective client,  we must communicate our benefits  to them.  Packaging and promotion are essential when selling an intangible service.  Intangibles are the most difficult sale and in the knowledge economy,  these specialties represent a large percentage of B2B sales dollars.

So how can we exert some measure of influence and get ourselves paid?  It is aalways necessary for us to sell our expertise,  trustworthiness and usefulness.  When organizations are faced with a….

  • Project
  • Challenge
  • Opportunity

….the agile (or external) talent tag line gives us another way to communicate our benefits to decision-makers.  Incorporating the resonant buzz words makes us look smart and capable and makes hiring managers and project sponsors feel that they’ll look smart to superiors and subordinates when they bring us on.  Inertia,  that is,  tabling a decision indefinitely because leaders lack the confidence to move forward except in the most obvious emergencies,  is the  Freelance consultants most formidable competitor.  Anything that we can do or say to persuade prospects to become clients is a win-win.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

 

When “No” Is the Best Answer

“No” can be the starting point of the biggest sale of your career. Experienced and successful sales professionals know that “No” should not be confused with “Never”. “No” can mean that this is not the time to ask for the sale. “No” can mean that you are talking to the wrong person. After doing some homework to verify who can impact the sale and give the green light (that could involve more than one person), you may ask to speak with the real decision-maker, who will advocate for you and also re-allocate the budget if necessary, and you will strike it rich.

Rejection is a part of life and it is most certainly part of sales and entrepreneurship. Rejection is a challenge. In Mandarin Chinese, the same character represents crisis and opportunity. Resilient people — and I know that you are resilient, or you would not be a Freelance consultant — use a crisis to:

  • Re-examine the proposed value-added of your product or service
  • Reevaluate the competitive landscape
  • Refine your sales pitch
  • Re-engineer yourself to become more competitive
  • Re-approach that rejecting client and others as well
“No” can make us improve ourselves and become more relevant to prospective clients, now armed with a better message and better value proposition, or perhaps even an upgraded or more specifically tailored service or product. Try these tactics the next time rejection rattles you:
Listen
While it is a natural response to counter prospect objections, one would be advised to listen well. Is that prospect doing you the enormous favor of telling you how to re-shape, re-position or at least better describe your product or service?  Try to curb the reflexive defensiveness that every human has and listen with an open mind. What weaknesses are being pointed out to you?
Objections are not always rooted in misunderstanding or hostility. Learning the ways in which your product or service does not measure up is the most valuable information that can be presented to you.  After giving your perspective on the merits of the offering in question,  honor the client’s perspective as you do yourself  a favor and ask more questions about the preferred outcomes and what changes would perhaps be helpful.
Analyze
The negative feedback that you receive is just one person’s opinion or the report of a single experience.  Nevertheless, listen and do your best to be objective about what has been revealed to you. Some or all of the negative report may be accurate.  Separate the probably relevant aspects from what may be unreasonable or unfixable. Here begins your list of action items.
Adjust
After you’ve heard the complaints, thank your prospect for his/her candor. Hearing the truth is always a good thing, even when it hurts. On the spot, think of improvements or adjustments that can be made quickly and inexpensively (If it appears that might be possible). Has the prospect made suggestions that you can incorporate?
Reassess
After you’ve reviewed what transpired a couple of times, you may decide that revisions need to be made in your services or products; business model; operations process; sales distribution; quality control; or marketing message. Before institution any permanent changes, do speak with other clients and assess their experiences when doing business with you. Are you hearing similar complaints,  or wish-list type of suggestions that clients had not previously revealed to you?
If common themes emerge, then changes are definitely in order. Draw up a list of recommended upgrades or alterations so that you can take the full measure of what needs to change. Which changes be made quickly? Which can be expected to have the greatest impact on customer satisfaction or billable hours?  Create a budget and time-table and then prioritize the tasks and if budget allows, perform first those that will have the greatest potential for positive impact.
Freelance consultants, entrepreneurs and sales professionals will face rejection for the entirety of our careers. In order to withstand the ongoing assault,  we must believe in ourselves, in our abilities and in our products and services. Yet over-confidence is not useful and is not a true indicator of resilience.  The ability to hear and accept occasionally painful truths and the courage to re-vamp, re-group, move on and succeed are the attributes that distinguish the winners among us.
Thanks for reading,
Kim

Market Research Matters

“If you build it, they will come” is a myth. When evaluating the likely prospects of a business venture, new product or service, or entrance into a new market, good market research is your non-negotiable Step One.  The ability to create and sustain profitability must be demonstrated up front, in advance of committing time and money to its launch.  The only way to reliably predict whether your shiny new idea has broad appeal is to carefully research the marketplace and examine the story that emerges.  The good news is that if you are onto something, market research will help you define the size and potential of the market; decide how and when to enter it; reveal how target customers prefer the product or service to be described, packaged and delivered; the acceptable price range; and show you how to achieve market penetration and profitability goals faster.

Many decision-makers are uncertain as to the type of data that is relevant and the advent of big data has unfortunately complicated matters.  There is copious data available, but what will help your team to make the best decision?  Dionne McPhatter is a market research guru and co-founder of The Strategy Collective, a New York City and Los Angeles marketing firm that builds custom analytics that help clients better understand their customers and make more informed business decisions.  McPhatter  recommends that decision-makers identify what is called in market research circles the “path to purchase” and arrange for the product or service to touch as many “landmarks” as possible.

Some relevant data is free, or inexpensive.  Google Trends is free and a decent place to start your search and learn how many people in your city last year searched key words associated with the product or service (I found the now-defunct Google Wonder Wheel far superior, however).  Learning about competitors who provide your service, or something similar or complementary to it, is also revealing.  Tour a few of their websites and figure out business models and marketing messages.  If you are thinking about launching a business, you will write a business plan and do lots of research.  Contact your local library to learn about business reference material such as industry magazines and demographic information.

Further, there is value in spending some money and visiting professional organization meetings and attending conferences, so that you can meet prospective clients and learn the expectations and value they place on your product or service.  Listen and learn and discreetly take notes.

As you collect and examine data, a picture of the target customer groups,  competitors and the overall marketplace will begin to emerge.  The downside is, those who amass a large amount of data can become confused about what is relevant: the data threads may be too numerous to easily prioritize.  The challenge of decision-makers is to discover the relationships and triggers between the data points and eventually see what motivates clients along the path to purchase.  From there, you can confidently develop goals and objectives, strategies and action plans and a business model that will build and sustain a profitable launch.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

 

 

Prospects and Tire-Kickers

Tire-kickers, those self-absorbed time-wasters who parachute into your life, present themselves as interested buyers, pepper you or your sales staff with questions, raise red-herring objections and then slide away without spending any money. Freelance consultants, business owners and sales professionals regularly contend with “prospects” whose mission in life, it seems, is to squander others’ valuable time. Tire-kickers feel completely entitled to mislead honest working people by feigning interest in products and services that they have no intention of purchasing any time soon.  They also get their jollies by inviting marketing consultants to meet for coffee and discuss projects that have neither official support nor budget.

Tire-kickers are the bane of a Freelancer’s existence.  A method to politely expose and dispose of them is a useful time management skill. Posing questions and raising objections while in the buying process is responsible behavior and all whose livelihoods depend upon making a sale welcome serious prospects, including those who do not buy at that time. How does one tell the difference between a tire-kicker and a prospective customer? It all starts with asking the right questions (but you knew that).

The Zero Pain Hypothesis developed by Liz Ryan, founder and CEO of Human Workplace, assumes that a caller has no need for what you sell and it is an effective template to follow. Keep your tone friendly and helpful throughout. You might be able to persuade the tire-kicker to either make a purchase in the near term, or make a referral to a colleague who has money and motive to do business with you now.

1.  Who?

To whom are you speaking? Get the name, title, company, phone number, email and location of the person who makes contact. Get qualifying info up front and begin to make that person commit to the buying process. Questions are cheerfully answered, but this is not a game, it is business. The job title can help you know whether this person is likely to be the decision-maker or key influencer.

2.  What and Why?

What is the product or service that is being investigated and why is it needed? What business imperative is a priority for the caller? If the caller can provide a logical reason for contacting you and/or describe what has been done that is not  working, then you probably have a genuine prospect. The counter-intuitive genius of the Zero Pain Hypothesis recommends that you offer up an inexpensive, maybe DIY alternative to your services. Tire-kickers should back off once told of a cheap and easy path to what they want. As well, tire-kickers will reveal themselves by their vague and evasive answers to your questions.

3.  When?

Assess the urgency. Is there a deadline for completing the project or making the purchase? If things are open-ended, then you are speaking with a tire-kicker. The Zero Pain Hypothesis recommends that if possible,  you recommend a “place-holder” alternative, an inexpensive band-aid that will help out for the short-term, since there is no defined timeline.

4.  Where?

Where is the organization in the buying process — early stage vendor list making, soliciting proposals, or close to finalizing the decision? Is your questioner the decision-maker and who else may need to weigh in? What is the budget? If the caller has a deadline and/or a budget, then you probably have a genuine prospect. If the caller’s budget does not meet your minimum, then refer back to the cheap alternative. Restate what the project or product means to the caller’s business. If something big is on the line, that person might be able to perceive the “pain” point that your qualifying questions encourage him/her to acknowledge and proceed to talk him/herself into increasing the budget and selling him/herself on the value of your services.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Know the Stakeholders, Close the Deal

Freelance consultants,  business owners and sales professionals rise,  fall and are measured on our ability to make sales and form strategic alliances that supply vital revenue to the businesses we represent.  To get those deals done,  we rely on stakeholders within the prospective client’s organization to advocate for us.  While there is but one signature on the proposal contract,  there are always powerful influencers whom the decision-maker is inclined to consult.  To successfully close an important deal,  you must identify the three types of stakeholders who powerfully influence important buying decisions: champions,  decision-makers and blockers.  Learn the motivations of these stakeholders and figure out what is on the line for them if the deal goes through,  or is allowed to fade away.

Step 1 is getting your foot in the door,  the first hurdle of the deal.  Step 1 requires that you enlist a project champion,  for it is s/he who invites you to pursue the deal and helps you achieve Step 2,  learning the identities of whom you must convince or outwit.  Your champion knows the decision-maker for the deal and will facilitate your access.  The champion influences the decision,  but s/he is not the decision-maker.  Some champions have relatively little power within the organization.  What they do have is the respect and the ear of the decision-maker.

Paul Weinstein,  an investor and adviser to technology,  media and entertainment companies,  notes that   “Champions understand the personalities and processes on a granular level and can navigate the culture in an organization.”  Weinstein also points out that the primary motivation of the champion is often status.  Champions want their colleagues and superiors to know that they not only can recognize an innovative opportunity when it appears,  they also have the ingenuity and power to build support and get approval.

The champion is typically at a point in his/her career where risks can be taken.  S/he is deeply invested in getting the deal signed.  The key to working effectively with the champion is to collaborate on a strategy and convince the decision-maker to green-light the proposal.

While champions are comfortable with risk,  decision-makers are invariably risk-averse.  They are C-suite executives who have the power to say yes or no to big deals and they will be held accountable for the final outcome.  Their name would be on the contract and if the deal goes sour,  it would be their reputation  (or possibly their job)  on the line. Because this individual has a lot to lose,  the anxiety level associated with the decision to give thumbs up or down will be in exact proportion to the level of expected scrutiny  (and embarrassment)  should they pass on a deal that subsequently brings big profits to a competitor,   or sign off on a deal that proves to be unfortunate.

Be aware that the decision-maker is unlikely to actually use whatever it is you’re selling,  or even know much about it.  Decision-makers focus on macro issues.  They rely on others to help them reach decisions,  because they don’t have time to immerse themselves in the details of anything other than big picture issues.  They will understand a strategic alliance,  however.

Win over your decision-maker by working with your champion to supply credible evidence that portrays the deal as a winner that will make him/her look good.   Help your champion to help the decision-maker perform due diligence by providing third-party validation,  analyses and other data that refutes all naysayers,  meaning the blockers.

We perceive blockers as haters and sometimes that is true.  Blockers seldom have the power to say yes,  but they do have the power to persuade decision-makers to say no.  Like champions,  blockers are also motivated by status.  They use the power of their relationship with and access to the decision-maker in a negative way and pour on the doubt to undermine and discredit you and your proposal.  Be advised that your blocker may be a sworn enemy of your champion and that s/he may be most willing to play dirty.  Your blocker may have a competing proposal for which s/he is champion,  his/her own bid to impress the higher-ups.

Paul Weinstein urges that you take blockers very seriously and strive to either win them over to your way of thinking or devise with your champion a method to neutralize their complaints.  If there is no personal enmity between your champion and the blocker,  then relevant and credible third-party support should rectify the problem.

In summary,  Weinstein says  “the secret to closing deals lies in mastering this balance.  If you can support your champion,  coax your blocker and  convince your decision-maker,  you’re golden.  Each of the three stakeholders brings a unique set of motivations to the table.  Your job is to understand them in order to align their interests and get the deal done.”

Thanks for reading,

Kim