Jim Burns of Avitage drew the distinction between finding versus creating sales opportunities in an article on LinkedIn a couple of years back (I’ve included a link to his article below) and I’d like to offer some additional perspectives on an issue that sometimes isn’t given the attention it deserves.
How we deal with a sales opportunity depends the nature of the sales opportunity, how we uncovered the opportunity and how we choose to react to the opportunity.
We have three basic options: to respond to what the customer already believes they need, to attempt to reframe the customer’s thinking about a current need, or to create a fresh opportunity where none existed before.
As you can appreciate, our sales strategies need to vary very considerably between these three situations…
Responding to an existing opportunity
If – without any prior engagement with us – our prospective customer is already actively in the market for a solution to a defined problem, it is likely that they are already well along the way in their decision journey.
They have already recognised an issue or problem, they have already concluded that they probably need to do something about it, and they have probably already researched their options.
We may have uncovered the opportunity through our marketing or business development activities, or they may have found us as a result of their research into potential solution suppliers.
They may have already developed a very clear sense of what they need – perhaps reflected in a formal tender document or RFP – and if they have already reached this stage, their buying process may be in some form of “lockdown” that precludes the normal discovery interaction.
Our initial engagement with the prospect will probably make it clear whether we have any chance of influencing or reframing their thinking. If not – if they expect or require us to respond to their already-defined requirements – we need to think very carefully whether the opportunity is worth pursuing.
We need to take into account that if we haven’t influenced their specification, then somebody else almost invariably will have done. We need to be very aware that – according to research by Forrester – the vendor that got in early and did the most to influence the prospect’s thinking tends to win three deals out of four.
If our choices are either to respond to their already defined needs or walk away, we need to take the following factors into account:
Do we have any existing relationship with the prospect, and if so, how strong is it and how can we leverage it?
Do we have any evidence that the prospect’s thinking has been influenced by our marketing efforts?
Can we detect any evidence of a competitor’s fingerprints in their requirements document?
Can we realistically offer any compelling differentiation if we are unable to reshape their requirements?
Are we likely to be able to win on price (and are we willing to discount down to the levels required)?
Are there any rational reasons why they are likely to choose to buy from us?
Having to respond to a specification we had no involvement in shaping is a tough sales task. Win rates against unexpected RFPs are – at best – in the low single digits. If we cannot stand out or if we are not prepared to discount to whatever levels are required to win the business, we are likely to lose, and to waste a lot of energy in the process.
Reshaping an existing opportunity
The situation is somewhat different if the prospect expresses a willingness to listen to alternative perspectives about both the scope and nature of the initial problem and the potential solution options.
Even if the opportunity is active, we can still seek to reshape the prospect’s current perspective on the project. We can leverage our experience to introduce previously unconsidered needs or implications.
Rather than simply responding to what the prospect initially believes they need, we can seek to reshape their perspective and introduce a credible alternative point of view. Our goal must be to help the prospect recognize that they are actually facing a more significant problem or opportunity than they might have originally recognized.
If we can persuade our prospective customer of the importance of these previously unconsidered or undervalued needs, we can then progressively refocus the conversation around the key capabilities they are going to need to address the newly redefined issues.
We can use intelligent questioning techniques, relevant insights and compelling stories to make the point. We need – assuming we have the discipline – to avoid rushing to pitch our solution until we have re-engineered the foundations of the problem.
Our goal, of course, is to lead towards, rather than with, our solution. And it’s a strategy that if successfully implemented can dramatically improve our chances of winning an already-underway opportunity.
If we do this well, our expected win rates for reframed opportunities will inevitably be far higher than those where we simply responded to what the customer thought they wanted.
Creating a new opportunity
But our greatest chances of success come where we are able to initiate a brand new opportunity – by bringing a fresh perspective about key industry trends to key people in organizations (existing customers or targets) that we recognize as satisfying our ideal customer criteria.
This, of course, requires that we have a clear profile of what an ideal customer looks like and that we have identified the roles that are typically capable of acting as change agents within their organizations.
It also requires that we have a clear understanding of the key trends that are affecting our prospective customer’s industry, and that we have a distinctive point of view and an effective solution to offer.
But if we can be proactive in this way, and if we act as the catalyst for our prospect’s buying decision journey, our ability to influence their conclusions is far higher than if we restrict our focus to already active opportunities.
We can justify our role as a trusted adviser. We can help shape both their perception of the problem and their vision of a solution. And because we can influence their sense of urgency, getting involved earlier does not necessarily mean a longer sales cycle – in fact, these opportunities often move more quickly as a result.
Shaping their vision of a solution
Let’s remember that Forrester found that the vendor that did the most to shape the prospect’s vision of a solution – either because they got in early, or because they were able to reframe the prospect’s initial perspective – won three out of four deals.
Whether we reframe our prospect’s existing requirements or stimulate them to initiate a new project, becoming the driving force in shaping our customer’s vision of a solution is perhaps the most important thing we can do in any sales situation.
It takes confidence. It takes industry knowledge. It takes relevant insight and stories. It requires that we ask intelligent questions and offer intelligent responses. It requires that we avoid the itch to pitch.
But if that makes the difference between being the front-runner or an also-ran, isn’t it worth it?
By the way, here’s the link to Jim’s article.
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