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There Is No Disqualification Fallacy! Disqualification Is Critical!

by David Brock on August 31st, 2016

It’s not often that Anthony Iannarino and I disagree.  When we do, it leads to a richer discussion where we both learn and converge on a new, shared point of view.

Recently, he wrote, The Disqualification Fallacy.  I found myself disagreeing–or perhaps reframing what he was saying.  I think it is a critical issue, and I think too few organizations and sales people do good jobs of disqualifying and focusing.  As a result, huge amounts of time and resource are wasted, both the customers’ and ours.

Anthony approaches the issue of disqualification both from a “client/customer” point of view and a deal point of view.  Disqualification is critical to each.

Why is disqualification of certain types or categories of customers so important?

We are most effective and create value for only certain customers.  We have to be very clear about who those customers are.  The process for doing this is clearly identifying our sweet spot.  We discover are sweet spot by addressing, ruthlessly, “What problems are we the best in the world at solving?  Who has those problems?”

The “who” needs to be richly defined–it includes certain types of industries/markets, or companies.  It may be organizations of a certain size, with certain operating philosophies, in certain regions.  It may be organizations at a certain maturity level within their own industry (e.g. pioneers, early adopters, late adopters).  It’s certain people within those enterprises–personas or people that “own” the problem we solve.

Everything outside the space defined by the problems we solve and who has those problems need be disqualified!  It’s a waste of everyone’s time and resources, and diminishes your and your company’s brand value.

For example, if we sell HIPAA Compliance Solutions to Healthcare Administrators, Branch Managers at Retail Banks are outside our sweet spot.  We should disqualify them!

You may be reacting, “Dave, you’re being too nitpicky, that’s obvious, we’d never do anything that stupid!”   Look at your own inboxes!  Look at the prospecting messages you are getting that are totally wrong and inappropriate—from reputable companies!

The unfortunate reality is most companies, marketing, and sales people don’t have the courage to honestly answer the question, “What problems are we the best in the world at solving?  Who has those problems?”  If forces them to have great clarity and understanding of what they do best.  It’s difficult and often painfully revealing.

Furthermore, when we do this, we often ignore it.  Recent data show 72% of emails have little or no targeting.

Focusing on the customers that might have the problem you solve, disqualifying everyone else is critical to our effectiveness.

Using Anthony’s great terminology, these become “dream clients.”

Here, I tend to agree with Anthony–we never disqualify a dream client.  We always try to engage them, nurture them, educate them and build some level of relationship.  While they may not be experiencing the problems we solve today, inevitably some day they will.  It’s at that point you want to have build enough knowledge and relationship they will eagerly engage with you.

This brings us to the second issue of disqualification.  And here, I’ll admit that I’m possibly splitting hairs.  It’s finding real opportunities, customers with a compelling need to buy.

We may see these customers having severe challenges–problems that we are the best in the world at solving.  But until the customer recognizes the issue and has articulated a compelling need to change and owns it as one of the most important things we can do,  we are wasting their and our time.

We are obligated to help them learn and discover, we want them to say, “Our current operations are unacceptable, we have to change!”  If they say this, we may have a qualified opportunity.

Until the problem we solve becomes important to them, we will never be successful in selling.  If we can’t make the problem important enough to them, then we need to disqualify the opportunity–at least for now.

I think Anthony and I agree on this point, we have to work on discovering what’s important to the customer,  we have to work at educating them and perhaps shifting their priorities, we have to move them to a place where they have a compelling need to change.  If we can’t do that, they need to be disqualified.

Too often, sales people don’t do this.  They think they can get the customer to buy without this commitment to change.  Whether it’s through sheer force of personality, inundating the customer with content, talking about how cool the solution is and how wonderful things could be, they never force the issue of “Why Now!”

Some years ago, I was the EVP of Sales for a large technology company.  A sales person had been persistently trying to reach me, he had been spending a lot of time with my team.  He was doing discovery calls, demonstrations, providing proposals and trying to close.  It was diverting the time of the team and his calls to me were distracting.  It became clear we were an “opportunity,” qualified in his mind because we had the problem he could solve and he had a compelling value proposition.  He was going to keep selling to us because of his need to sell.

Finally, I met with him.  He did a very good presentation, talking about the problem and how much money he could save.  He tried to close me.  I finally said, “I don’t disagree.  I see what your solution can do for us, I understand your value.”

Reading his body language, I could see him salivating over the potential of getting the order.

I continued, “But I don’t care.  I simply am choosing to pass on that opportunity.  We have bigger problems, different priorities, and I want my team to focus on that.  And your efforts are distracting them from doing what’s most important now.  I’m not saying I’ll never be interested, but it’s wasting our time now and the more of our time you waste, the less likely we will ever do business with you.”

We did end up calling him in a couple years later and ultimately bought his solution.

Perhaps, the issue I’m reflecting on is less the terminology of disqualifying or qualifying, but more a mindset issue.  Sales people with a disqualifying mindset force this type of discussion very early in the sales process.  It’s a way of creating great value for the customer.  If it’s not important now and there is no way we can make it important, they stop and come back when it is important  (they continue to nurture and educate the customer to help raise it’s importance.

On the other hand, sales people anxious to qualify opportunities tend not to force this discussion, instead they avoid it, hoping and dreaming the customer will buy.

Disqualifying is not simply the flip side of qualifying.  It’s a vicious focus on finding the right customer with the right problem at the right time.  It’s devoid of wishful thinking.  It’s driven by valuing both your customers’ time, the resources you use in your own company, and your own time.

We shouldn’t only be disqualifying, we should be doing so viciously.

From → Performance

  1. We aren’t in disagreement here at all, Dave.

    Let’s say we do sell HIPAA Compliance Solutions to Healthcare Administrators. There is no way to tell from a list of Healthcare Administrators whether or not they have a compelling reason to change or whether or not our solution is right for them by looking at a company name, a contact name, and contact information.

    The fallacy here is presumption. We presume we know things that we simply can’t know from the limited information we have. Yet, many salespeople disqualify the lead without making a single call to test their presumptions.

    If you can’t create value for someone (for whatever the reason), by all means disqualify them with prejudice and move on. But until you make that call, you are better off believing you know nothing and being curious enough to investigate.

    • Agreed, within our sweet spot, there is no excuse for not contacting all our customers. They will buy sometime, we have to learn from them, understand their drivers, begin developing relationships so we can earn their business when they do start to buy.

  2. Great post Dave. I learned the hard way that managing time & opportunities is like managing a stock portfolio – each investment has its own maturity cycle. Investing too much time in long-term results can have disastrous impact on your quarterly results.

    So I see this debate as a question of threshold. It’s important to pursue dream clients. But at some point it becomes counter-productive. I speak from experience here. I am guilty of having over-invested in dream client efforts in the past only to have my quarterly results suffer.

    So my question is. What allocation of effort is empirically the best? Does that vary with each organization and sales cycle? It’s an important question because of the expense and impact it can have on an organization’s results. What is your experience here?


    • Thanks for the great/thoughtful question James. It’s one of those where the only right response is “It depends.” But we can’t make that determination until we engage them and start to learn what they are doing, as well as assessing the opportunity/interest in changing.

      I think there are a lot of things sales people do poorly. I think they waste too much time calling on accounts they have not business doing–outside the sweet spot. These should be stopped immediately. Alternatively, they are calling within the sweet spot, but through wishful thinking, keep calling on the same customer who has no intent to buy–at least now, blindly ignoring all others.

      I think my disagreement with Anthony is more nuanced. Let’s take my HIPAA example. Within, hospital administrators, we will prioritize and invest differing amounts of time. A rich sweet spot definition would help us do this, and even help us exclude certain hospitals and administrators that don’t fit. For example, if our solutions don’t fit small enterprises, then it’s senseless to call on customers that are hospital administrators, but in hospitals that can’t buy our solution. If they are in our sweet spot, we might have enough insight into the account that we might deprioritize them, focusing on others.

      Where Anthony and I are in absolute agreement is these decisions are made on an informed basis, using data, not just because the sales person thinks it may be a waste of time.

  3. Chuck Sena permalink

    Understanding the importance of qualifying prospects and opportunities is something that made a tremendous impact on my sales abilities. AS I get older I think I get a little more impatient. I am not willing to spend my energy on trying to force things to happen. Instead, I focus on spending my time where it will have the most impact.

    I think many people get hung up on what it means to disqualify an opportunity.

    Disqualifying means that you are not going to devote resources to it at this time. That does not always mean forever. Part of being a sales professional (in my opinion) is knowing when to walk away and knowing when to walk back.

    One of the books that helped me see the light about this was “High Probability Prospecting” – by Jacques Werth. I believe he has re-titled the Book “High Probability Selling” . In his book he emphasized that in order for a sale to occur there had to be a mutual basis of trust and benefit for both parties. Qualifying prospects is critical to ensure that you focus your time and energy where it will be the most productive.

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