Step 1 of the 4-step pipeline plan: Objectively Assess Your Sales Opportunities (From “Get Real with your Sales Pipeline” Series)

I will assume since you are reading this post that you’ve bought into the idea – or, are at least intrigued by the idea – that it’s time to introduce and leverage some process into wrangling (aka managing) your sales pipeline.

We introduced this idea of a funnel management process in the first post, “Get Real with your Sales Pipeline.” We made the case that for start-up companies the ability to accurately forecast sales is a key business need. We proposed that managing and assessing the sales pipeline is more effective if you have a good process to fall back on. Then, we introduced a 4-step plan to act as a process for managing the sales pipeline.

This second post discusses the first step in that 4-step plan.

Step 1: Objectively assess the strength of the sales opportunities in your pipeline so you can focus your efforts on the right ones.

The first step in creating an accurate and reliable sales forecast is to have a handle on where each prospect is in the buying process and what it will take to close the sales objective for that prospect.

The important word here is objectively. As you objectively qualify an opportunity, you will determine the strength (aka probability of closing) of each opportunity. As you learn more about the sales situation you will also flow naturally into developing the next steps and actions required to move each sale forward –either to a close or forward and out of the funnel.

Fortunately, there is a bonus to putting time into qualifying! When you can more effectively assess where your opportunities reside in the sales funnel, you can prioritize your account management efforts. Including, for example, when you need to put more effort into prospecting for top-of-funnel activity (aka lead generation efforts), so your funnel doesn’t dry up.

So, let’s get started by going through the key questions you can use to objectively qualify where a prospect is in their buying process.

As I mentioned earlier, the nice thing about these questions is they also will foster great discussions with your prospective clients about their vision and needs, and they will lead you into defining next actions to move the opportunity forward.

Key Questions to Assess your Sales Pipeline

Is this something that your team has decided to implement? Or, are you currently researching and gathering information about going in this direction?

The good thing about this question is that the answer lets you know how close your prospect is to buying.

If they are gathering information or researching an approach, you are entering in at the beginning of their process and the sales opportunity needs to be developed before will close. Not a bad thing, but not low hanging fruit either.

Your aim here is to understand the customer’s needs and vision, and begin to understand (and/or help define) their high-level requirements. Once you understand their concept, you can begin to share client success stories that match their experience.

Ultimately, your goals at this stage: show interest, ask good questions, establish credibility and trust, establish their need, understand their problem and whether you can solve it if you can solve it then define how your offering resolves the problem. Be sure to tell them what your unique strengths are vis-à-vis getting delivering the solution to their problem. Happily, as you go through the process of gathering this information you’ll be building the foundation of a relationship and defining a single sales objective (SSO) that they can buy-in to. What you want to end up with is a shared vision of their needs, and of how you can solve them.

Ask additional questions, like these, to uncover their vision, needs and requirements:

What problems are you trying to solve?
What does a (winning) solution look like?
What results do you want to achieve?
Are you able to do this now? (If yes) How do you do it today? What is working and what isn’t working in your current approach?
Tell me more about what is prompting the change?

Many sales professionals feel that uncovering an opportunity that is early in development is positive because your company can set the bar in your favor by helping the customer define a vision and requirements to meet their objective in a way that aligns well with the unique strengths of your product/offering/company. You can also establish trust and credibility by the consultative nature of this type of selling process.

Defining an SSO (SSO=customer problem + your solution that customer buys into) is what normally triggers forecasting of an opportunity in time and dollars. Prior to defining an SSO, the opportunity is still in the prospecting phase. Once you have defined and have buy-in to an SSO you can begin to gather information about timing, decision budget, and decision process, etc.
On the other hand, if you learn that your customer has a well-defined need, and is ready to find, buy and implement a solution you can ask if they have documented their requirements, and if they will share that document with you.

Then you’ll want to move quickly to understand their requirements and determine their timeline, stakeholders and decision process and the process/plan they intend to use to assess solutions, as well as any steps they’ve already completed (i.e. be sure to ask about and understand the competitive landscape).

If you find that they already have an RFP (Request for Proposal) out, you may want to consider closely whether there is still an opportunity worth pursuing or if you may be too late to the game.
In either case, the answers to these additional questions will help you determine the probability of a close and timeline for forecasting the sale.

A good question to get them talking more about their process is: Tell me how you are going about finding your solution?

As a part of this discussion you will want to understand the following:
• How will they make a decision?
• Who are the stakeholders involved in the decision process?
• What are the stakeholder roles, or expertise, vis-à-vis the process?
• Who else is in the mix? I.e. competition?
• How much are they willing to spend? A good way to ask this is: Tell me what your thoughts are on spend? Or, how much are you willing to spend? What do you want to spend? How did you arrive at his amount?
• When do they want to implement?

As you gather the answers to these key questions you’ll gather more detail about where your customer is in the sales process. You will also understand how your client views your solution, strengths, and weaknesses, and as a result, you will be able to engage them on next steps. The more thoughtful the questions are that you ask, the more you will build trust with your customer.

The last point to consider: as you go along, be sure to ask questions in order to get your client to confirm that you are reading their situation correctly. You will also want to ask for their commitment to next steps and outcomes, and align these next steps with what you’ve learned about their decision process and the stakeholders that need to be involved. Non-committal replies or a hesitation to engage in next steps are red flags that indicate things are not on track.
These “trial close” questions will serve you well and will test your client’s interest in having your company provide the solution.

About Lilly Ferrick
Lilly Ferrick LLC offers services in part-time or fractional sales management, contract sales, sales process consulting, and one-on-one sales coaching. We help companies win larger, more profitable engagements, decrease length of sales cycle, manage pipeline, and improve closing rates. Please contact us to learn more, or to schedule a complimentary session.