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This is an article on helping your sales reps uncover their prospects’ primary business objectives and the challenges preventing their fulfillment. This discovery phase is critical to helping reps align their products or services as solutions to their customers’ key business challenges.

We will focus on qualification, which involves getting customers to quantify their challenges. Without this critical step, it’s impossible for sales reps to show their prospects the cost of doing nothing and motivate them to make a change.

The following are questions that will help your reps quantify the financial gain customers stand to achieve by using your product or service.

Impact Questions. It is important to elicit from the prospect the impact that the overall pain has on the company and the individuals involved. Understanding the consequences motivates the prospect to take action.

  • “What kinds of problems is this causing for you?”
  • “What impact is it having on sales and profitability?”
  • “Seems like this might affect….., does it?  Can you tell me more?”
  • “What happens if it doesn’t get fixed?”
  • “Who else is involved or impacted?”

They’ll say things like:

  • “I’m under a lot of pressure to turn sales around and we’re having to offer discounts to move product. Our margins are down by 20%.”
  • “It’s affecting our ability to meet our customers’ expectations.  We’re starting to lose business.”

Commitment Questions. Commitment questions help determine how important it is to rectify the situation and what action the prospect might take if you were able to provide a solution that they felt would work.  Although they might have a problem, it’s wrong to assume they are committed or have a budget to fix it.

Ask questions like these to see how strong their commitment is:

  • “How important is it to fix this problem?”
  • “What priority is it to fix the problem?”
  • “Is doing nothing an option?”

How will you feel when your prospect starts to say things like this?

  • “We’d want to get started as soon as possible.”
  • “We’d be willing to start switching some of our business over by (date) if we felt you could do the job.”

Budgetary Questions. These questions that will help you uncover what kind of budget your prospect has to fix the problem.

  • “Do you have a budget to take care of the problem?  What would it be, approximately?”
  •  “Assuming we could make the problem go away, how much would you be willing to invest to fix a $_________ problem?”

They’ll say things like:

  • “We have a $200,000 budget for training and development.”
  • “Our server outage is costing us over $1 million annually, so we’re willing to invest quite a bit if we were confident the new solution will decrease downtime by 99%.”

These financial questions will help your sales reps complete a critical final step in the qualification process – getting their prospects to put a dollar value to the challenges they’re facing and discuss what kind of budget they have available to fix them.

Many sales reps lose opportunities not because they have poor presentation or negotiation skills, but more often because they have not done a thorough job understanding their prospects’ primary business objectives and challenges.

In order to maximize their chances of success, the best reps don’t force feed objectives, challenges and budgets to their prospects, but use a series of intelligent questions to encourage their prospects to come up with these on their own. As a sales professional, your credibility comes from the kinds of questions you ask, and your success depends upon your ability to help your customer achieve their objectives.

 

People are most convinced by ideas they themselves originate, so getting your prospects to define their own objectives and challenges is critical to getting their buy in throughout the sales process. 

The following are three types of questions designed to get your prospects talking about their challenges. 

Open Questions.  Your prospect has discussed his primary business objective – now how do you get him talking about why he’s not able to accomplish that objective. These questions are designed to do just that. They uncover the tip of the iceberg, and are the first step in the discovery process. 

  • “What are the main concerns you’re having with respect to…..? 
  •  “Usually people come to us for help in one or more of the following areas (list 2-3 problems you solve for people); are any of these issues for you?” 
  • “Tell me more…” or “Tell me why…” 

When you ask questions like this, look for the prospect to make statements like: 

  • “My sales are not where I want them to be.” 
  • “We’re spending too much on….. 
  • “We’re not happy with….. 

 

Cause Questions.  Now that you have the problem defined, the next step is to look for what’s causing the disparity.  Typically, there are several causes.  Pay close attention as these are the issues you will ultimately try to resolve. This information leads you to your presentation. 

  • “What are the reasons this is going on?” 
  • “Why do you suppose this is happening?” 
  • “Do you know what’s causing these problems?” 

It’s vital for you to understand – even better than the prospect – what’s causing their challenges.  You’ll hear things like: 

  • “Our current supplier is having quality and delivery problems.” 
  • We don’t have the right software and our people need training.” 

 

Keep Them Talking. Learn to direct the conversation and keep your prospects talking.  When they are talking, they are giving you valuable information. When you’re monopolizing the conversation, you’re losing an opportunity to discover what will motivate them to take action.  Add these types of questions to your repertoire and you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the issues. 

  • “Tell me more about that.” 
  • “What else is there?” 
  • ”Is there anything else?” 
  • “Could you be a little more specific?” 

With these three types of questions, your sales reps should be able to encourage prospects to fully define their key challenges, which is a critical first step in the qualifying process. 

           

The use of stories to transfer information has been around as long as humans have walked upright and used language to communicate. Even before we had a written language, humans have used stories to teach, to entertain and to track their histories. We are innately drawn to stories as a result, even in the digital age. That makes storytelling a compelling method for the sales person to master, both the engage prospects and discover opportunities.  

Using Stories in Sales 

The use of storytelling in sales can help a sales person enter into a dialogue with a prospect to connect with them before going into a questioning sequence. There should be some situational fluency exercised by the seller to get to the primary business objectives that the prospect or customer would like to discuss.  

We encourage our customers to enable their sales people to be ready to share a story at any point in early opportunity development, as it is a powerful way to introduce ideas, and then get the prospect to speak. However, it’s not enough to simply tell your sales people to tell stories. They need to be trained in an approach in order to be effective.  

The STAR Story 

We suggest using a storytelling format called the STAR Story. STAR is an acronym for Situation, Trial, Ah-ha, and Result. Each element is explained below:  

  • The Situation helps to set the stage for the rest of the information you will share as part of your story. It describes the environment that another customer was in when you first met them as a prospect. This narrative should be described in a way that the person you are speaking to can relate to in a similar capacity, by job title or the role that they play in their organization, or by the business environment that was unfolding.  
  • The Trial part of the story describes the challenges(s) that your other customer was facing during the situation described above.  
  • The “Ah-ha” moment is the part of the story when your customer made the connection to the capabilities or solution that you offered as a way to solve their challenges.  
  • The Result is the positive outcome that you helped your customer to accomplish. Be specific in your description of the quantifiable outcomes that resulted, whether it was monetary, a percentage increase, a numeric value improvement or a morale lift. 

Stories are told to transfer information. They demonstrate to the prospect that you have insight into their industry, and have helped others to meet their primary business objectives. But they also generate interest because stories appeal to people. A story can make possible a dialog that you might not otherwise be able to enter into with a prospect.  

Ask to Hear Their Story too 

Conversely, you should also try to have the prospect share their story with you. In this way, you can learn more about their business objectives and challenges, and the capabilities they are looking for to improve their results. And since we all like stories—both telling them and listening to them—this exchange should do a lot to move your relationship with the prospect forward, either closer to a sale or closer to realizing this is not a solid lead after all.  

Prospecting Spotlight: 3 Trigger Events to Watch For

Artist Jenny Holzer says in her piece Truisms, “A sense of timing is the mark of a genius.” This couldn’t be more accurate within the world of prospecting.

When you’re cold calling and someone picks up the phone, the first question on their mind is often “Why are you contacting me?”

A well-researched answer providing your prospect with a potential benefit is the key to unlocking access from the gatekeeper. This step is critical for reaching your decision maker as soon as possible.

We spoke with a woman who was a Business Development Representative at NetSuite, responsible for setting introductory meetings for Account Executives. This series discusses the top three trigger events she had the most success with and why they work:  they are Leadership Changes, Expansion and Awards & Accomplishments.

1.     Leadership Changes

Reviewing press releases, company blogs, and other news sources like corporate LinkedIn pages are the best ways to learn of any changes in executive leadership. Setting up some sort of news alert feed that summarizes from these sources is an easy, time-efficient way to stay on top of your target accounts.

Executive promotions often go hand in hand with some sort of bigger strategic agenda. Understanding why this person has a new role could ultimately lead to a new opportunity. Start with a congratulatory note or call and see where that takes you.

If your congratulatory email gets a nibble – congratulations to you! How you respond sets the stage for the course of your relationship with this individual.

The key to success here is establishing yourself as someone who is genuine, can provide value, and who has their best interests first. Even though we all know you’re here in hopes of closing a deal, one must remember the old proverb “The best archer never reveals his target until it’s been hit”. In this case, your target is the deal.

Sometimes you will luck out and there is an immediate need for the products or services that you are offering. If not, patience is required (see our previous post, Building Patience into the Sales Process).

Illustrate how your company is an industry expert in their field. Thoughtful whitepapers, articles on industry trends, and any other resources you come across are helpful tools you can share with your decision maker to keep you on the top of their mind.  The secret is not to overwhelm.

When the buying time arrives, you’ll be far ahead of the competition because you already have a relationship with the decision maker. You are the one informing them of best practices, the tough questions to ask, and will be the one they’re comparing everyone else to. In a sense, they are deciding why not to go with you – pretty amazing position to be in all from a little “Congratulations on the new gig!”

Sales can be a numbers game and prospecting is a key success factor we must not underestimate. Effectively tailoring your prospecting strategy enables a sales force to work smarter, not harder. Analyzing and addressing the right trigger events will distinguish you and provides a head start against the competition.

Check in on our next post elaborating on how to leverage a prospect’s news of expansion into closing a new deal.

 

Business ProposalThere are six things you must know in order to let your prospect pass – in other words, before you reward your prospect with a proposal. Your ability to conduct a professional and complete qualification of your prospect during the meetings leading up to this point in the sales cycle will provide you with the answers. Here are the checkpoints.

 

1.  You understand the prospect’s problem thoroughly and are able to provide, at a minimum, a satisfactory solution.

If you don’t understand the problem completely, how can you be sure you can suggest a solution that would be enthusiastically endorsed?

2.  The prospect has to do something – it is NOT an option to keep things the same.

If keeping things the same is an option for the prospect, they might very well select that option.  Problems tend to fall into the “fix it” or “forget it” categories. Unless there’s a compelling reason to change, most find it easier just to do nothing. No pain, no change.  Find the compelling reason why they’d want to go through the hassle of changing suppliers or implementing something new. If they can’t present a compelling case for change, they probably won’t change.

3.  You have access to the decision maker and will make your presentation to him/her. 

A good rule of thumb is never to make a presentation to someone who can’t say “yes.”  It’s that simple.

4.  The prospect needs to implement a solution in a time frame that makes sense for you from a business standpoint.

Time kills deals. What’s the point if your prospect doesn’t want to do anything for 18 months? Too much can happen to in the interim to send the deal sideways.

5.  You understand the prospect’s selection criteria, and have a reasonable chance of meeting those criteria successfully. 

What are the top three things they’ll evaluate when selecting a business partner, and why are those things important?  This will give you a good handle on just how good your chances are.  If this is a price driven deal, for example, and you can’t or won’t compete on price alone, why try to compete at all?  It’s a very competitive world out there and your competitors are trying just as hard to win the business as you are.  You’ve got to know their strengths and weaknesses, how they’re likely to react in certain situations, how hard they’ll fight for the opportunity that you’re trying to win.

6.  The prospect is considering only a small number of suppliers and is not putting the deal out to every company in the area. 

Generally, “RFPs” are not the most optimal type of business to win, since price plays such a major role in the selection process and the opportunity to communicate openly with the prospect is often quite limited. Prospects whose attitude is “the more, the merrier” are more interested in price than a relationship. Finally, increasing the number of options for the prospect decreases your chances of winning.