Not All Sales Qualification Is Equal (The Harsh Reality)
Why do so many B2B sales forecasts bear a closer resemblance to great works of fiction than to reality? Why do “top opportunities” regularly slip and slide from month to month and then often disappear altogether? Erratic sales forecasting is a joint symptom of superficial qualification and an inadequate business to business sales strategy resulting in a failure to get close enough to the key influencers or decision makers that can actually make things happen.
The more business critical the solution or service being offered, the more complex the sales forecasting challenge as people making or influencing the choice of supplier will have more to lose if a bad decision is made. There are however proven ways to progress towards more reliable sales forecasts and the good news is that in doing so you will develop a stronger sales strategy that will serve to improve sales performance over time.
Eliminate Superficial Sales Qualification to Improve Sales Performance
What many salespeople refer to as qualification is nothing more than a superficial attempt to garner some information which is perhaps more self-serving than it is customer focussed. Is it any wonder that senior influencers and decision makers might see little value in engaging with them? What value do such salespeople really add for the busy executive with a significant business challenge to overcome and perhaps a business case to build in support of addressing it?
Too many salespeople assail prospects and customers with their own objectives (targets, pressure from boss, commission payments, etc.) foremost in their minds and then talk too much! The need to qualify an opportunity fully is often over-ridden by a salesperson’s strong desire to “lay out their stall”. Presenting, proposing and demonstrating often come more easily to them than intelligent questioning and listening. Carefully selected sales coaching can help salespeople engage in an intelligent “probe and listen” mode that builds bridges rather than barriers.
Multi-layer sales qualification is key to winning strategic clients, getting inside their heads to understand their thinking and gaining mind-share in an often politically complex environment. Superficial qualification is a sign of a weak business to business sales strategy and approach and is at the root of the issues that plague sales forecasting reliability whilst defying attempts to improve sales performance. All is not lost however as many salespeople can up their game provided they have the right coaching and guidance on effective strategies for complex sales scenarios.
Getting close to the “powerbase” (key influencers and decision makers) is crucial for business to business sales of a value-add or business critical nature. These people are making vendor selection decisions on which their careers may depend. They look for potential suppliers that support and contribute to their business case rather than those that seek to pitch and shoehorn the prospects problem into whatever solution they may have to sell. Professional salespeople tend to engage “top-down” and qualify deeply to simultaneously build their knowledge and credibility at senior level. These behaviours support more reliable sales forecasting and perhaps more importantly their consistent application can significantly help to improve sales performance over time.
The Foundations for An Effective Sales Forecast Dashboard
Trying to drive sales opportunities from the top-level forecast down is a common and seriously flawed approach. Sales forecasts should be a dashboard, but they will never be effective in isolation. The foundations for reliable sales forecasting are good account planning combined with deep qualification, ability to engage and converse at senior level and adept negotiation skills. Sales opportunities should be driven from these solid foundations upwards. Effective sales coaching can help salespeople win client mind-share to drive more consistent sales performance and thus more reliable forecasting.
The account planning required to underpin more reliable sales forecasting needs to take a realistic up to date read on each major sales opportunity, highlighting vulnerabilities and exposures to be addressed to secure your company’s position. Any account plan is only as good as the level of intelligence and credibility gained through qualification and senior engagement. It’s important that salespeople are constructively challenged on a regular basis to ensure that they consistently work to develop quality “trusted advisor” business relationships that put them more in control of the sale. There are significant benefits to using an external facilitator for these account reviews.
Salespeople tend to be naturally optimistic and this often works against them when it comes to pragmatically determining where they are with any given sales opportunity. Too often they may hope for the best, failing to qualify deeply enough. It’s important that they learn to ask the hard questions early on as genuine prospects are likely to respect them for it, whilst those with a hidden agenda may well get irritated (often a good acid test). The true value of multi-layered sales qualification lies in its ability to establish early on whether an opportunity is real or not and what is needed to move towards deal closure. Approached with the right mind-set, multi-level sales qualification is an effective tool to establish senior level credibility and build trusted advisor relationships.
A Note on CRM:
Beware the flawed belief that CRM is the answer. Whilst it may provide easier data retrieval, filtering, management reporting, etc., a CRM system is only ever as good as the data it contains. If the sales qualification and business to business sales strategy are lacking then so will the CRM system be. For sales forecasting software or CRM to be effective, they must sit on the foundations of good account planning and effective sales strategy and approach and this is where the primary focus should be.
And the Bottom Line on Reliable B2B Sales Forecasting Methods….
Too often what prospects get is an eager salesperson pushing their wares rather than taking time to fully understand their needs. Fix this and more reliable forecasting becomes possible (along with increased actual sales). Fail to address it and even the best sales forecasting methods won’t help you. The business reality is that intelligent prospects and customers do not want to be sold to; they want “contributor providers” or trusted advisors that will bring them solutions to the business pain they are suffering (“the pain behind the project spend”).
Of course sales forecasting accuracy can never be 100% as there will always be factors beyond a salesperson’s control – spending freeze due to merger or acquisition, abrupt disappearance of a key player, etc. However it can be greatly improved across the sales team with the aid of consistent and pragmatic sales coaching from someone with the relevant actual experience.
My views may sound slightly harsh at times, especially to some hardworking salespeople. However this is the reality as I see it after ten years as a successful sales individual followed by another ten years leading B2B sales teams selling business critical solutions and services at CXO level across Europe. The good news is that significant improvement is possible in many cases, the bad news is that not all salespeople have the calibre to make the grade. Effective sales coaching can identify those worth investment and those whose development is unlikely to yield sufficient return on that investment.