According to some of the latest research published by CSO Insights and others, an increasingly common outcome for forecasted sales opportunities is neither a win nor a competitive loss, but a decision by the prospect to “do nothing”.
Now, I’m not really suggesting that sales people should ignore the competition when formulating their account strategy - simply that you should always be aware that your prospect always has other options. I can think of at least five. They could:
- Choose to buy a competitive solution
- Address the issue in a different way
- Defer their decision without killing off the project
- Allocate the budget to a completely different project
- Do nothing, kill the project, and keep the money in the bank
Faced with this, I think it’s obvious that companies can’t afford just to position themselves against the competition - they have to position their solution against all the other options their prospect may have for addressing the issue.
Only Critical Issues Drive Buying Decisions
So where do we start? I’d suggest that the prospect’s issue needs to be accurately diagnosed as either interesting, important or critical. Interesting issues get explored. Important issues get seriously evaluated. But only critical issues are likely to drive buying decisions.
That’s not to say that marketing to interesting or important needs isn’t valuable - simply that once you get engaged with the prospect, you need to find ways of elevating those interesting and important issues to critical ones, qualify out, or set aside for nurturing.
Identify the Consequences of Inaction
I coach my clients to equip their sales people to probe for the consequences of inaction when initially qualifying every opportunity. What bad things might happen if the prospect fails to address the issue? And are they serious enough to spend money on fixing it?
Let’s assume that the opportunity passes this first test. Now you need to equip and encourage your sales people to uncover the real competitive landscape - and by this, I don’t just mean the “usual suspects” competing vendors.
Getting Selected is Just Part of the Battle
How has the prospect tried to deal with the issue? Have they created internal workarounds? Have they tried a competitor’s solution, and failed? Might they try to implement an internally-developed solution? Your solution, no matter how good a fit, is vulnerable until and unless you’ve uncovered all of your prospect’s options and developed a strategy to deal with each one them.
Let’s fast-forward now. You’re told that you have been selected, and that all of your obvious competitors have been excluded. The sales person is confidently forecasting the deal. It may even have been committed to the board. What could possibly go wrong?
Competing for Final Approval
Actually, there are an awful lot of things that could still derail the deal. Your sponsor could make a less-than-watertight business case. They might not have the political nous to navigate the approval process. In fact (and this happens a lot more than you might hope), your sponsor may not even completely understand the current investment approval process.
What often happens here is that your project gets sidelined by something else that is deemed more critical to your prospect’s current priorities - which might be another completely different investment opportunity, or the simple comfort of holding on to their cash.
You might not be able to negotiate direct access to this final approval process, but you must at least equip your sponsor to put forward the best possible case. Remember the consequences of inaction? Help your sponsor incorporate them into a clear and compelling economic case for change. And find ways of associating your solution with the achievement of at least one corporate-level strategic business initiative.
Improving the Odds
Now, the nature of complex high-value sales means that even if your sales people execute all of these recommendations well, you’re not guaranteed success - but they will certainly have been able to improve the odds.
What role can marketing play in all of this? A great deal - throughout the buying process - and here’s how: Identify the critical issues that will force your prospects to take action, and market to them. Equip your sales people to explore the consequences of inaction. Create tools that help them develop a compelling business case. And enable your sales people to equip their sponsors to make the strongest possible submission to the final approval process.
How Well are You Doing?
I’ve incorporated many of our findings about building sales and marketing momentum into a 20-point self-assessment questionnaire that could help you identify areas for improvement in your customer development process - you can download it here.
About the Author: Based in Reading, UK, Bob Apollo is the founder of Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners. Inflexion-Point’s Momentum Framework equips B2B technology companies to align their sales and marketing activities, to “Cross the Chasm” from early adopters to mainstream markets, and to systematically build sustainable, scalable businesses. Bob blogs regularly on sales and marketing issues, and can be found on twitter at bobapollo.