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Qualifying, A Primer

by David Brock on September 26th, 2022

I’ve been writing a series of posts about selling basics. Too often, we take for granted that people understand these. We toss the words around, assuming people understand what we are talking about, what it means, and how it works. In reality, people don’t understand. The link to the series is here. I’ll be adding more over the coming weeks.

Today, I’m focusing on qualifying. Yeah, I know many of you will say, “Well dugghhh, Dave, we know all about it and how important it is, after all, we’ve been selling for years…..” The reality, as I review pipelines, win/losses, deal strategies, the biggest challenges most people face is the opportunities aren’t really qualified. And, research data tends to support this, suggesting over 50% of opportunities in qualified pipelines shouldn’t be there–either because of ICP mismatch or because they are not qualified.

Our focus, in qualifying, is mostly on us. Is this a real opportunity? Is this one where we have a strong possibility of winning? Should we invest the time in working this? But this approach is broken, just reread the previous paragraph. Reflect on your own success or lack of it.

In focusing on our interestToo often, we think, because the customer is meeting with us, because they don’t disagree, they must be qualified. In reality, they are not, they may be doing research, they may not be totally committed. Or we fail to recognize qualified opportunities become disqualified. Qualification is not an event, it is an ongoing process.

I have a bit of a non traditional view in this discussion on qualifying. I won’t pretend to force it on you, but would hope you think about it in your own qualifying processes.

What is Qualifying? Qualifying is the process of committing to a change initiative. It is the process of establishing a goal, a date to achieve that goal, and understanding the consequences to missing this. It is focusing on the right customers (enterprises/personas). It’s those customers that have the problems we are the best in the world at solving.

Who Is Qualifying For? As you look at the definition of qualifying, you notice something unusual. Most of us have been taught that qualifying is for us. We use criteria like BANT to determine, “Is this a deal we should chase, is it something we put in our pipeline. Are they likely to buy from us, if we do our jobs?”

But there’s a very different perspective. We cannot qualify an opportunity, only the customer can do this. Qualifying is where the customer commits to themselves—They commit to working together as a group to managing consensus through the process. They commit to the problem they are trying to solve, they commit to the critical importance to making a change, they commit to the goal they want to achieve and the date they want to achieve it. They commit to the consequences of not doing it.

In qualifying the customer isn’t committing to a solution, they are committing to a change. If the customer buying team can’t come to consensus on what they want to achieve, by when, and the process by which they will achieve it, they haven’t “qualified” the project for themselves. Even if they are interested in talking to us about solutions, if they haven’t qualified themselves, as a group, the project isn’t a qualified project/opportunity.

And customers constantly struggle with this, most of the time failing. They struggle with gaining and maintaining consensus around the problem, the urgency of changing, what they, as a group want to achieve, and when. Without this, they wander, endlessly. They start and stop, they backtrack, they lose interest, the project just withers and dies, even though they thought it was important.

Change is difficult for every organization. Aligning around the change that’s needed is difficult–everyone has differing priorities, experience, and agendas. They need help. And because we spend so much time working with customers in supporting their change efforts, we can create great value in guiding the customer through their self qualification and commitment.

Qualification happens when the customer has answered and agreed upon these issues themselves. We can help them with this process, not only in initiating a change effort, but through the process, helping them remain committed to achieving the goals they identified at the outset.

But What About Sellers? We’ve always been taught we do the qualifying, we make the assessment about whether the customer is likely to buy and whether they are likely to buy from us. Sure, we have criteria like BANT and others, but those aren’t really about us, they are about commitments the customer has made to themselves. Things like budget, authority (the right people engaged), need and timing. Those are customer criteria, not ours! And it has nothing to do with buying from us, though we want it to be. It’s only about the commitment they make to themselves, their management and their organizations.

While having them commit their interest in our solutions is a great aspiration, it may not be reasonable or realistic. If they are qualifying themselves and their commitment to change, they probably haven’t begun to think seriously about solutions and vendors. They may have done some research, but there concern is about the commitments to change.

So how do we make sure we aren’t wasting our time? How do we make sure we are focusing on the right opportunities?

First, we have to focus viciously on the right customers. Who are the customers that are most likely to have the problems we are the best in the world at solving? This is our ICP.

Too often, this is where we fail. We don’t understand our ICP, we cast a wide net. When our pipelines aren’t full, and our managers are harassing us, we cast a wider net. As a result, we fill our pipelines with marginal prospects–wishful thinking on our part, but people that have very low likelihood of ever needing our solutions.

Even though those customers may be committed to change, the probability that our offerings are even a marginal fit is low.

As a result if we focus viciously on our ICP, we know we can help them and create value–if only they have the need to change. And we know that we have powerful solutions for their problem.

We have no business doing anything with customers who are outside our ICP!

So if we are only focused on customers within our ICP. And those customers have committed, to themselves, to make a change–we have a strong opportunity to help them through that process, and making a decision.

A different angle: At the risk of being repetitive, let’s look at this slightly differently. If we viciously focus all our prospecting efforts on our ICP, it is unnecessary to assess the customers’ interests in “buying our solutions.” Because they are in our ICP, we know we can and have solved the problems they have.

Early in their change or buying process, they may not even be able to assess their interest or the potential fit of our solutions. They simply don’t know it, they haven’t done the work to figure it out. So asking them, “are you interested in considering our solutions,” becomes an unreasonable question. One they can’t really answer.

If we are focused within our ICP, our only concern becomes their commitment to address the problem and make a change. We know if they do that, we can, ultimately, demonstrate the value of choosing us to help.

Customer qualifying is a centering process. This process of helping the customer buying group qualify themselves is a tremendously powerful centering process. We know they may not understand how to approach this, after all, they don’t do this every day. We know customers wander and lose their way as they are managing the project.. Their attention gets diverted, their interest wanes.

If we have gone through the process of helping the customer qualify themselves, we can use this to recenter the customer as they lose their way and their interest. It’s easy to take them back, “When you started this process, this is what was important, this is why you were doing it, this is when you needed to produce a result. Has something changed?”

We need to continue to help the customer remain focused on what they are trying to achieve and it’s urgency. We know we have to help them navigate the process.

Qualifying never stops! Our qualified customer has committed, to themselves. They have developed a project plan to help them achieve their goals (ideally with our help.).

But, however well qualified the customers are, stuff happens! Opportunities become disqualified. The mistake sales people make is they leave it at whatever stage the opportunity was in their pipelines. And they execute the things their process tells them to do, even though the opportunity is no longer real! So our pipelines become bloated with opportunities that once were real, but no longer are.

If an opportunity is no longer qualified, we have to go back to the beginning, we have to go back to go, not collecting $200! We have to start the process with the customer all over, we have to take the opportunity out of the qualified pipeline, moving it back into a prospecting or qualifying stage.

Consider focusing on disqualifying! When we are focused on qualifying, we tend to have a mindset that wants to see the opportunity as qualified. We tend to be hopeful, even wishful.

We often do much better by being slightly and politely skeptical. We help the customer think more seriously, and commit more strongly to the project when we push back politely. Why is this so important to do? Why do you need to do it now? What would happen if you didn’t do this? Is this really the right time to do this? Are there other projects that might be more important to you? Are you really certain this is important to you?

While we want to find an qualify enough opportunities to achieve our goals, the less qualified they are, the more likely we will waste a lot of time on deals that aren’t urgent and real. And the customer may not know this, they may not know what’s critical to their successful completion of the project.

If we ask the customer the tough questions, those they should be challenging themselves with but may not know, we help the customer think more seriously about the project and commit more strongly to it.

The fastest way to improve your win rate. One of the benefits to thinking about disqualifying is that it’s the fastest way to improve your win rate. You are focusing on the deals the customer believes are most urgent and important. You are focusing on opportunities that are in your ICP, opportunities that you know you are the best in the world at helping the customer solve.

When the going gets tough, narrow your focus. When the going gets tough, traditionally, we broaden our focus. We relax our qualification process, we cast a wider net. What this does, is wastes our time on opportunities that are not “our opportunities.” Our win rates and average deal sizes plummet, our sales cycles skyrocket. While it’s a little counterintuitive, when times get tough, we do better by narrowing our focus. We concentrate on the core of our ICP, the customers and problems where we are known to be the best in the world.

But Dave, this is the opposite of what we have been taught! The snarky side of me wants to respond, “Well, how well is that working for you?” But look at your traditional qualifying techniques, whether it’s BANT, or you may be leveraging the MEDDIC process, or some other qualification techniques. Everything you are looking for, using those techniques, you get with this approach. You will understand budget, authority, need, timing. You will understand urgency and consequence of doing nothing. You will understand everything any other technique has given you.

BUT….

Those techniques require you to make judgments, estimates, wishes. And they are yours, not the customers.

The approach I’m suggesting puts the customer at the center of the qualification processes. It enables them to make decisions around budget, authority, need, timing, urgency, consequences of doing nothing. It enables them to own the qualification for themselves, leveraging us to help them manage the process. If they aren’t doing this for themselves, then our guesses on qualification are just that.

Final thoughts. Leveraging this approach to qualification changes everything about how you sell. First you create huge differentiated value in helping the customers qualify themselves and manage that qualification through their whole process. Your win rate will skyrocket, because you are focusing on the very best deals. You may find huge compression of buying/selling cycles. And, at least based on personal experience, your deal size may grow. As a result, this completely changes your pipeline dynamics. You have to find and qualify fewer opportunities to make your number (or you can grow and outperform your number). You invest your time where it counts and has real payback. And, through the changing pipeline dynamics, you have to prospect less–and your prospecting will be more effective because of the vicious focus on your ICP.

And you’re skeptical! I’d be concerned if you weren’t. I’d be concerned if you weren’t pushing back on these ideas. But what do you have to lose if you try it? Based research, it seems we waste a lot of time on lots of unqualified deals. Imagine how your performance and productivity would change if you focus on just the right few.

Call me up, let’s discuss these ideas. We actually have great data from our work with our clients that support this approach.

Afterword, I’m writing a series of posts on “Basic Selling Skills,” just to remind us what/why we do what we do. The link will take you to that collection.

From → Performance

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