Do you ever find that you are slogging through meeting after meeting with a prospect, month after month, without reaching a sale? You have lots of conversations, but there is no forward progress. In today’s economy, there are in fact lots of sales conversations that go on and on without ever arriving anywhere. You can avoid this by asking a series of incisive questions that help you verify if the preconditions for a sale are present.
The first precondition for a sale is that there must be a significant perceived problem or opportunity.
If there isn’t, why would anyone hire you?
To ascertain whether a truly significant problem or opportunity exists, you should ask questions like: “What is this costing you right now?”; “If you don’t fix this problem, what will the consequences be?”; “What do you think this opportunity is worth to your organization?”; “What other issues is this causing for you?”; “Would you say this is one of your top two or three priorities?” And so on.
A second precondition is that you must be speaking to someone who owns the problem and is empowered by their organization to fix it. In big companies, there are always lots of problems—and plenty of people willing to talk about them. But unless you are talking to the owner of the issue, that’s all you’ll do—talk. Questions you can use here might include: “Who owns this problem?”; “Are you responsible for fixing this?”; “Who would authorize an expenditure to address this?”; “Who needs to be involved in the solution?”; and “Who would lead the implementation of a solution?”
A third precondition is that the buyer must have a healthy dissatisfaction with the current rate of change or improvement. The client may have a problem, and it may be significant—but they will not bring on a new service provider or supplier unless they are unhappy with progress or current solutions. Questions that can help to ascertain this would include: “Would you say this is a minor irritant, at one end of the scale, or something you’re truly fed up with, at the other end?”; “Why do you feel that now is the time to put extra resources against this?”; “What solutions have been tried already?”; and “How effective have your own efforts been to address this? Why or why not?” (Remember–if there have been no internal efforts launched to address the issue, how important can it really be?).
A fourth precondition is that the client must trust you are the best resource for the job—better than your competitors and better than internal efforts. How do you determine this? This is harder than the other preconditions, because it’s difficult to ask someone point-blank if they trust you! More likely, you’ll sense a hesitation or reluctance. Nonetheless, you can questions such as “What other solutions are you looking at?”; “How do you view our capabilities in this area?”; “How do you see your alternatives right now?”; and, “What concerns do you have about us or our approach?”
Lastly: A sale will get stalled if all the right stakeholders have not been aligned. The first four conditions may have been met, but if there are key influencers or important constituencies who are not on board with hiring you, your client won’t become a buyer. To ascertain this, you need to ask questions about the decision-making process. For example: “Who needs to be involved in making this decision?” “What key stakeholders in your organization need to sign off on this?” and “With other clients, I’ve found that an important initiative like this rarely gets off the ground without the support of multiple constituencies. In your organization who would these be?”
The prospect you are talking to may have had ten other meetings on the same day. If you want to be memorable, be bold about asking incisive, thought-provoking questions that demonstrate you’re a peer and help you ascertain if the client is truly ready to buy.
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