When I was a sales manager reviewing a sales forecast and later in my career a sales executive reviewing major opportunities with my management team, I’d focus discussion on the qualifying process of each opportunity. The reason is poorly qualified sales opportunities waste a lot of time and clutter a forecast, making revenue projections volatile and unreliable — the kiss of death for a business and career.

If you’re a sales manager, I can’t think of anything more important than challenging your sales staff on how well a sales opportunity is qualified, before it’s added to the forecast. This is arguably the single most important factor to consistently meeting and exceeding quota.

[note]The simple fact is well qualified sales opportunities have a much greater probability of closing in your favor than poorly qualified ones.[/note]

Another reason to focus on qualification is it’s commonly done poorly. Many, if not most sales people don’t know how to qualify a sales opportunity. If you think I’m wrong, please read on.

Here is what qualifying is all about

Qualifying an opportunity means you understand what you’re getting into before you begin, if you begin at all.  Here are the things you expect to learn in the qualifying stage of a given opportunity:

  • Is the project real or a window shopping event?
  • Are you working with the right person, capable of completing the purchase?
  • Is there a driving mechanism at play that will force a decision in a given time-frame?
  • Do you have a realistic chance to win or are you there to merely let the host company check the box for having surveyed the market?
  • Is there money ready to spend on this project? If so, where does it come from and who is authorized to spend it?
  • Is there an incumbent vendor and others competing for this project? If there is an incumbent vendor, what’s driving the opportunity to replace them?
  • Why are they considering my company?

To get answers to these questions and more, salespeople seek audiences in a given account and probe for answers from those who brought them into the opportunity.

Here is how most salespeople qualify an opportunity

Talking with an entry-point in an account, the salesperson begins a series of questions to help them understand the sales environment and assess the opportunity to compete. A problem is the salesperson often asks questions seeking to get agreement to continue in the opportunity as opposed to qualifying the host company on the odds of winning their business. The difference is huge.

It’s not entirely their fault, salespeople are encouraged to quickly get to demos, trials, and proposals, the thought being each leads to a sale. Reality is many vendors who have no hope of winning are walked through this process — they’re sometimes invited to compete to give the impression competition is open and fair. Other times, vendors are added to the competition to give a buyer leverage over other vendors.

Quickening the story, salespeople enter opportunities wanting them to be real, sales management wants more on the forecast, and companies want more demos, trials, and proposals as a sign of market acceptance. What results is a qualifying process that doesn’t disqualify many opportunities — quote and hope becomes the norm.

We know we should qualify accounts, but we don’t want to walk away from anything. So, salespeople are unwittingly taught to ask a series of questions that sound good, but in reality offer little qualifying value:

  • Do you have a budge for this project?
  • How much money is budgeted?
  • What is your time-frame for making a purchase decision?
  • Who is involved in the decision making process?
  • Who is your existing suppler?
  • Are there other vendors competing for this project? Who are they?

These appear to be good questions that will provide reasonable answers we can use to understand the competitive landscape and determine our chance to win. But they aren’t.

Answers to these questions have put a lot of bad opportunities on the forecast that later disappear without warning, leaving salespeople and revenue managers backpedaling to explain how the forecast suddenly changed and expectations were missed.

Here is how salespeople should qualify an opportunity

What is wrong with the questions above is they don’t probe for information. They’re too easy for the window shopper or information gatherer to address.

Here’s an example of better qualifying questions:

  • Can you explain the budget you have for this project — how the budget was determined and whose budget will ultimately fund the project?
  • What’s driving the time-frame for this project and what happens if the date is missed?
  • Is this a purchase decision you’ll be making alone or is there a team involved? What is the role of each team member?
  • What criteria will be use to evaluate competing proposals? How will you pick the winner?
  • Most strategic purchases like this we’ve been involved in have an executive sponsor: Who is the executive sponsor for this project and what is his/her role in the decision making process?
  • Who is your current supplier? Why not just continue working with them?
  • What other vendors have you invited to compete for your business on this project? What do you like about each of them and what led you to invite us?

Notice how the first set of qualifying questions only scratch the surface of the topic being explored? The second set of questions are pointed and solicit fuller responses that can help the salesperson assess the sales environment and determine their chances to win.

The idea isn’t to learn the answer to the simple questions like Do you have a budget?, but understand what’s driving the project, how decisions will be made and who is involved, as well as test the person you’re speaking to as to their role and authority to complete the purchase. You want to qualify the opportunity to determine whether or not you should invest company resources and your time in it…or move on to an opportunity you have a better chance to win.

[note]There’s more to qualifying, but this post points you in the right direction.[/note]

Don’t underestimate the quota crushing power of well qualified sales opportunities — they save sales teams valuable time and create stable and predictable revenue forecasts. Less qualified opportunities produce volatile forecasts that suck an organization dry of resources and create false expectations.

Don’t look at the qualifying process as a few duty-bound questions to ask to quickly move forward. Instead, look at qualifying as the most important part of a larger sales process that directly leads to meeting and exceeding quotas and drives consistent revenue growth.

What do you think about qualifying? What are your best qualifying questions?

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