One of my stranger pastimes is to take a look at all the different sales training methodologies out there. I consume sales books, breaking them down chapter by chapter to glean any new insights I can. I’ve also been through most of the major sales programs out there, and I’ve attended countless workshops and seminars on the topic. It’s safe to say that I’m a lifelong student of sales.
One of the biggest criticisms I have of what’s often called “sales training” is that it’s not focused on the fundamentals. Instead, they focus on the “tips and tricks” of sales technique. Some of these things can be useful from time to time, but without a firm grounding in the core principals of sales, they tend to come across as pretty desperate.
You’ve probably encountered this “magic bean” approach to sales. There are a lot of people selling the idea that you can make millions of dollars by “just asking this one simple question.” That’s utter B.S., as any experienced salesperson will tell you. If you want to see real results, you have do to the real work of sales.
The good news is that these basic sales activities aren’t actually all that hard to do. In fact, you can sum up these activities into just five easy-to-remember steps. These are: Qualification, presentation, evaluation, proposal, and agreement.
These are fairly intuitive concepts, and they form the basis for most professionalized sales systems. Let’s take a quick look at them.
Qualification: Are you actually qualified to sell to the buyer? Do you meet their criteria? That’s an unusual question to come right out of the gate with, because we’re usually thinking about whether or not the prospect is qualified to buy from us. That’s the wrong place to start, because you can’t sell to someone who will never buy what you’re offering.
If you sell high-grade industrial construction equipment, you aren’t qualified to sell to a corner bakery. It’s obvious that no level of persistence or any magical sales technique will ever get a small-scale baker to invest in a $250k bulldozer. But even if you’re in the right ballpark, and you sell industrial kitchen equipment, you still might not be qualified to sell to them, because what you’re selling might be only a few degrees less absurd for their needs than a cement mixer.
In other situations, you may not be qualified because of license and bonding requirements. This happens all the time when you’re responding to a “request for proposal” (RFP) from a government agency, large company or non-profit organization. Even if you have the perfect solution to their needs, if you don’t meet their requirements you aren’t qualified and won’t be considered.
Most salespeople are far more familiar qualifying potential customers. This means trying to determine if the would-be buyer is a good fit for your product or service, and if their business is worth pursuing. This is where you ask questions to find out if they have the ability to buy what you’re selling, for instance. Getting great results from this kind of qualification means having some real discipline, and being willing to walk away from a deal that isn’t a good fit.
Presentation: Once you’ve qualified the prospect, it’s time to start talking about how your product fits their needs. You’re trying to establish a premise for a business relationship, and looking to see how well reality aligns with it. This step includes all the demos, testimonials, case studies and other kinds of convincing content you have to make that case. What form these presentations will take will vary greatly depending on what’s both needed and expected by the prospect in order to move forward.
This step can be tricky for startups that haven’t yet brought their products to market. If you’re in a software company, for instance, and you have a new app that you’re selling, that’s generally going to require at least a tech demo showcasing the core functionality. If you’re selling a physical product, you are most likely going to need a physical prototype. If you’re pitching a service, you will need a clear outline of what that service will actually do and how it will operate.
The key here is to make sure that your sequencing is right. You want to capture the buyer’s attention, and lead them through the product experience as naturally as possible. This means knowing what their questions will likely be at each stage, and having the right answers ready. This allows you to get to an “agreement in principle” — that they want and need what you are selling — even if your actual product or service isn’t yet available. Not doing this is more like throwing spaghetti against the wall and hoping something sticks, which is a horrible way to see consistent results.
Evaluation: This step is all about determining the final actions that are needed before a final decision can be made. Before you can start on the evaluation stage, it’s absolutely essential that you establish an “agreement in principle” first. If you haven’t reached this agreement during the demonstration phase, you aren’t ready to move to this step.
Once the prospect has agreed that they do need the kind of product or service you’re selling, the question then becomes one of how well what you’re selling fits those needs. This step is all about testing that fit. At this stage, it’s appropriate to let them test the product for themselves. This is where the test drives, free trials and product studies take place.
This process is driven by the buyer’s internal needs, and it’s all too easy for the seller to try and overcompensate by offering evaluation tools too early. That can get expensive, and in many cases the most costly part of the evaluation are things that the buyer doesn’t expect or need to make their decision. Instead of offering an expensive trial set up and integration for a technology product, for instance, all the buyer may actually need is just to talk to a previous client about their results. There’s no better way to find out what they need than to ask them.
Proposal: A proposal is simply your recommendation about what the prospect needs to see the results they want. This can be a formal proposal, like the contracts you would see in everything from a mortgage agreement to a cell phone contract, or it can be an informal agreement, like a verbal quote. The important thing here is to get confirmation on the contents of this proposal.
You never want to simply assume what the prospect needs. Even if every agreement you’ve ever had with a customer has been identical, you want to make sure that the prospect’s needs are reflected. Another approach to the proposal is to ask the prospect “What do you need to see from me in this proposal order to move forward?”
Agreement: This is the final step of the process, and it’s also one of the most obvious in terms of getting to a successful result. That said, it’s important to make sure that you handle the agreement stage properly, and with the same style as the other stages. This means seeking direct feedback from your buyer. The last thing you want to do is make a big, deal-breaking mistake as you’re wrapping things up.
This means asking them “What do you need to see from me before we finish the agreement?” What you might find is that the types of agreements that you have are problematic for your buyer, or that those standard agreements are overkill for their needs. You’re going to have your own legal needs, and terms and conditions that serve to protect your business, but in some cases these agreements can be simplified to take the anxiety out of the deal for the buyer.
With this important topic out of the way, it’s time to start thinking about the bigger picture in the overall “Process” step of the Four Ps of Sales. I’ll talk about that in my next post.