Many sales pipelines include a stage labelled “qualified”. But if – like most of the companies I work with – you’re selling complex, high-value solutions with multiple stakeholders involved in the decision process, qualification isn’t an event – it’s a continuous process.
And you’re not the only party doing the qualifying – your prospect is going through a similar exercise throughout their buying decision process. In fact, you might think in terms of two parallel streams.
While you’re thinking about “will they do anything?”, “are they likely to buy from us?” and “will it be worth winning?”, your prospect will be wondering “why should we change at all?”, “why should we change now?” and “what should we change to?”
Sales Qualification Isn’t An Event: It’s A ProcessAnd at the end of the day, after a lot of time and effort has been consumed on both sides, the statistically most likely outcome is that your prospect will decide, after all, to do nothing. If they don’t have to change, they probably won’t.
No better than a coin toss
It’s no wonder that the latest studies of sales forecast accuracy have concluded that at an individual deal level, and measured in terms of “did the deal close when expected, at the value expected”, your odds of getting it right are no better than tossing a coin.
It’s no wonder that improving sales forecast accuracy is a key imperative for many B2B sales organisations – or that focusing on more effective qualification can help to significantly improve the situation.
BANT won’t help
Changing B2B buyer behaviour patterns mean that relying on the traditional BANT (Budget, Authority, Need and Timeframe) qualification approach isn’t going to improve the situation. You can read why here.
But you can’t afford to abandon formalised qualification guidelines, either: that way lies madness, and a huge waste of time, money and other resources. The only practical option is to see qualification as a continuous process, and not as a singular event.
Requalify at every stage
Effectively, you need to requalify opportunities at every stage in the pipeline using well defined and increasingly stringent criteria. And it’s not just a matter of uncovering new facts or pieces of evidence: you also need to recheck and requalify factors that have previously “passed the test”.
You need to take into account the fact that your prospect’s buying decision journey is unlikely to be completely linear. At every point, your prospect could decide to move forwards, to move backwards, to loop around in a circle or to abandon the journey altogether.
Measure progress based on outcomes
It’s particularly important that you measure progress in terms of what your prospect has done or said, and not on whatever sales or marketing activities you may have undertaken. When qualifying, provable and observable outcomes are much more valuable than activities.
When qualifying, hope is never an acceptable strategy. You need to back up your assessment with clearly observed evidence of the necessary changes in your prospect’s buying decision journey – or hold back from promoting the opportunity to the next stage.
Top performers qualify differently
The instinct of top performing sales people is to qualify out unless there is sound evidence to the contrary: they have too much respect for their own time to chase opportunities that have a low-to-no chance of closing.
In contrast, many middle-of-the-road sales performers are inclined to hold on to opportunities (to qualify them in, and keep them in) until and unless they are confronted with overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
The role of management
This is where first level sales management has such a critical role. I believe – and I strongly recommend – that frontline sales managers need to act as devil’s advocates. They should be pressing the sales people to justify why their deals should remain in the pipeline.
They should demand evidence that the deal is real, that the prospect is motivated to change, that genuine urgency exists, and that the sales person can articulate a clear reason why they are going to win – backed up by a coherent strategy.
Qualification isn’t an event – it’s a process
It’s time to return to our prospect. As I’ve pointed out, they are doing their own qualification. Sales people need to be aware of – and must find ways of validating – whether the prospect has established an internal case for change, whether that case is urgent, how this project compares to other priorities, and whether the vendor is in prime position.
Whatever the situation is today, it’s likely to be fluid. It’s likely to be affected by the entry of new stakeholders, or by changes in the prospect’s priorities. And, of course, it’s likely to be affected by changes in the prospect’s environment and by competitive activity.
When it comes to qualification, there is no role for complacency, and no substitute for a little healthy paranoia. Heraclitus was right. Change is the only constant.
What have you found to be the most effective qualification criteria? And how can you get all of your sales people to qualify as effectively as your top performers?
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