Don’t Throw Darts in the Dark
Identify effective customer prospects by learning to qualify their capability and intent
Throwing darts in the dark is a waste of time, not just because of unintended consequences, but because you’ve only got a limited number of shots at the big prize.
As a beginner in business development, my favourite set of customers were the amiable ones. I’d be given time to stumble through my pitch, be forgiven my mistakes, experiment with my ideas and encouraged to explore the options.
It’s only in hindsight that I discovered, all to often, how much valuable time I’d burnt - because the nicest contact in the world isn’t going to help your business if they just aren’t able to buy.
When time is money, it’s not just the hours that you’ve wasted, but the cold hard cash you’ve invested in your products and services that simply isn’t getting a return.
But time wasting may be the least of your worries with poorly qualified sales pitches:
- Time spent with an inappropriate customer is time you’re not spending with a customer who has the time and inclination to invest
- A customer with poor payment history can mean success or failure for a small business
- If you sell to customers who can’t buy, you waste time and energy developing solutions that may have no fit with your real customer base
Be Hard on Yourself
It’s your choice to spend time with customers who can’t buy, and this means the biggest obstacle to growing your business is you.
Qualifying your customers is about putting yourself under the spotlight, knowing that in doing so you’ll be doing a favour not only to yourself, but also to the person you’re dealing with to ensure that you’re not wasting their valuable time either.
Understand Your Goals
Finding out whether a customer is a good fit for your business revolves around four key ideas:
- How much of your time you can offer
- Whether your products or services best fit for their needs
- How much are they able to invest
- If they are good partners for your business
But whilst these issues are perfectly clear for you, it may be considered abrupt and self-seeking to demand answers before you’ve even established a common ground.
Your customers, just like you, are searching for good business relationships. You'll need to find an approach that maintains the relationship whilst establishing the opportunity.
Establish Common Ground
Launching an assault on your potential customer to work out what the opportunity means to you is a bad way to start. It will feel like an interrogation, because that’s exactly what you’ve made it.
If you can imagine what it feels like to be interrogated by a stranger, you can also imagine what it will feel like to your customer. They are likely to become defensive and unresponsive.
In fact, qualifying customers by approaching it as a mutual benefit might be a good way to start:
“Would you mind if I asked you a few questions to find out about you and your business, so I can be as useful as possible?”
If you need further support, try explaining further:
“We deliver a wide range of services that have delivered results for companies both big and small, so I want to make sure I only talk about the ones that might be relevant for you”
If your customer won’t help you establish common ground, then don’t be afraid to thank them for their time and move on.
If you can’t find cooperation this early in the relationship, it represents a significant risk further down the line.
Bear in mind that the qualification process is about mutual discovery. At the same time as you’re finding out about your potential customer, they’re finding out about you.
Aim to be open, be engaging and be honest.
Be careful about asking silly questions. For example if you know a company is famous for one service don’t ask them what it is, simply explain that this service is what the company means to you, and ask what the company means to other customers.
A few of these options might help you get things going:
Customer profile questions
- What are you famous for
- What are your company goals
- What are your priorities
- Who are your biggest competitors
- How do you position yourself in the market
Customer need questions
- What holds your business back
- What advantages do your competitors have
- What is the lifetime value of a customer
- How do you measure success
- What makes you lose sleep
Decision making process questions
- What internal resources do you dedicate to meeting these challenges
- How do your internal departments interact
- What is your role in the process
- How do you choose suppliers
- What is your typical investment in suppliers
- What is their response to your typical price range
- Is there an established selection process
- Who is involved in the decision
- What are the criteria for selection
- How do you set performance targets
If you can create a free-flowing conversation that addresses many of these issues, you should have put yourself in a pretty good position to understand two issues:
- Can your company help them
- Is this the right person to start the conversation
If the answer to both questions is ‘yes’, you’re probably good to get started.
Look for Red Flags
Sometimes answers can throw up situations that make you feel uneasy.
- If a contact is inconsistent and lacks a coherent message, it may be that they are not sufficiently on top of their business to make a good contact or customer
- If a company hasn’t used similar services to yours in the past, that might result in a drawn-out process that ends in failure
- If previous companies have had issues with them, these may be repeated when it comes to you
In these situations, try and find other colleagues or partners that may be able to give you a bit of insight when making your decision.
In the end, if a potential customer ‘feels wrong’ then don’t be afraid to thank them for their time and walk away.
In a bad relationship it is you who will end up paying the price.
Just like the first twenty seconds of your call, the qualification process works best if you prepare for it first.
The questions you need to ask for customers to qualify are likely to be unique to your company and industry. Sit down with colleagues and create a list of questions that you need to ask.
When you have your list create a set of priorities. Split the questions into those qualifications that are nice to have in a customer, and those which are critical. If customers answer no to critical requirements, it’s time to walk away.
But most importantly, get in front of your potential customers and put them to work!
Best of luck!