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3 Questions Top Salespeople Always Ask Prospective Customers

If you know who’s doing what and when, you can avoid waiting in limbo while the big decision is made.

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BY Geoffrey James - 15 Feb 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Probably the most frustrating aspect of selling to businesses is waiting around, wondering what's going on. You've had a conversation and written up a sales proposal. You've been told they'll make a decision--one way or another--soon.

So, you wait. And wait. You consider sending a "nudge-o-gram" to find out what's going on, but you don't want to seem desperate. So, you wait some more.

Sometimes you get that welcome email telling you that your deal is going through. Much of the time, though, you eventually find out that somebody else got the business or that they decided to do nothing at all.

Ironically, you can completely avoid this "Waiting for GoodDeal" angst and greatly increase the likelihood you'll make the sale by asking three simple questions before you write your proposal:

 

1. Who are the decision-makers?

In most companies, decisions are made through consensus. While the person or group you're talking with may be the most affected by a decision to buy, there are usually other people and groups that need to be brought on board. If you know who needs to sign off on the deal, you can customize your proposal to match their likely concerns.

For example, if you're selling supply chain software to a manufacturing group and discover that the CFO must sign off on all software purchases, you know that you'll need a projected ROI that will convince an accountant-type that the investment is worth it.

By contrast, if your proposal only deals with the technical issues that are of interest your techie contacts and the CFO asks them (as she undoubtedly will) what's the ROI, your contacts will probably say something like "Because it will make us more efficient!"--an argument that CFOs hear all the time and usually dismiss out of hand.

 

2. How will the decision be made?

Just as you need to know the players, you need to know how they're playing the game. Even in chaotic organizations, there's an informal process by which purchasing decisions are made. If you know the process, you know when and how you might need to help if things get blocked up.

For example, suppose you learn that budget decisions are made during a quarterly budget meeting attended by representatives of all the groups that draw on the budget for funding. In that case, you'll want to provide your contacts with the core of an internal presentation that will make your offering seem more important than competing priorities.

One way to accomplish this would be to work closely with your contacts in preparing their materials so that they can fend off competitive threats. An even better solution would be to have your contacts sponsor you so that YOU can make the presentation to the budget committee.

If you don't know what's going on, though, your contacts will be forced to make the case on their own--a sales job for which your contacts may not have the appropriate skill set.

 

3. What's the timetable?

Finally, you want to know when the decision will be made so that you can set your expectations appropriately. It's much less painful to wait when you know when a decision will be made (or even might be made) than when everything is happening in a customer's "black box."

In addition, if a decision isn't made within the promised timeframe, you have a perfect excuse to revisit your contacts and ask for a status update. Rather than sounding desperate, a timely "what's the status" makes you seem like you're on top of things. Plus, if there's a delay you may be able to help your contacts break the logjam.

Knowing the decision timeframe also helps you balance your workload. I remember a sales situation where I got the "good news" that my proposal had been approved. I put "good news" in quotes because, to get hired and paid, I needed to provide the customer's purchasing group with a massive amount of documentation that I didn't have readily at hand.

This "fire drill" happened right before I was about to leave for vacation, which meant that I had work serious overtime. If I'd known the timetable (as well as the other two elements above), I could have prepared the material ahead of time and saved myself unnecessary grief.