Are Your Sales Leads Really Qualified?

A sign and digital graphics business cannot have enough sales leads. Whether leads come from inbound phone inquiries or walk-ins, Internet searches of specific industries or markets, or current customer referrals, one never knows which sales leads will morph into either great customers or tail-chasing wastes of time. Nonetheless, many sales professionals assume every lead is their next best customer. And, you know what is said when one assumes, don’t you?

The fact is too many sales professionals introduce their company’s capabilities, its products and services features, and benefits prematurely. Sales people, of the inside or outside variety, should dedicate the first conversation when pursuing a sales lead to qualifying the opportunity, rather than mashing down the sales-pitch accelerator and charging forward. Anyone who has competed in a long-distance race knows that you cannot win the race in the first mile, but you sure can lose it by starting too fast.

This month’s column addresses why, especially in this target-poor economy, it is in one’s best interest to methodically convert a suspect into a qualified prospect first before investing precious sales resources—time and effort as well as money—making the case that your company, compared to the competition, is the best thing since sliced bread. How to qualify a sales lead is equally important and that, too, will be discussed. We have a lot of ground to cover, so let’s go.

As much as some salespeople may protest, there are five simple truths about selling that require all sales organizations to prospect often, efficiently and effectively in order to grow and thrive. Allow me to share and then draw conclusions relevant to the importance of lead qualification.

  • Eventually, every current customer will no longer do business with you.
  • Most new contacts will never buy a thing from you…ever.
  • If prospective customers don’t call you, you need them more than they need you.
  • In the world of sales, time is not on your side.
  • A sales person is only as good as her next scheduled, pre-planned appointment.

It’s naïve of one to bank on today’s customer base buying from you infinitum. It may be next week or next decade, but someday each one of your current clientele will no longer exist, will quit or fire you. Further, studies have repeatedly shown that, on average, only one out of every 10 business contacts will ever place an order with you. If you only have four selling opportunities in your prospect pipeline and you hope to close two pieces of new business each month, history tells us that you have a slim-to-none chance of realizing that goal. Therefore, daily sales prospecting is not an option; it’s a requirement.

Let’s face it, you may unearth the perfect prospective customer, but unless they invite you into their world, you are perceived to be more of a nuisance than a problem solver. And, last time I checked, there are still only 168 hours in a week. Realistically, even the hardest working sales professional can be face to face or voice to voice with customers and prospects only 17 hours out of that week or roughly 10 percent of the time. Finally, and this is based on the sales reps who have called on me over the years and the ones with whom I’ve had the privilege to work, far too few sales calls are scheduled, well-planned and well-executed.

Pull all of these facts together and then consider that critical “moment of truth” when a sales person makes first contact with a sales lead—regardless of its origin. It must have purpose, direction and be orchestrated with precision and panache, given the fact that sales suspects will generally not grant you an audience and, if they do, will not see you for a long period of time. The consummate sales professional must have razor-sharp objectives for the first-time sales call and answer the following question: Is this opportunity worth my valuable time, and what potentially is in it for me and my company if I choose to invest my time and effort pursuing it?

Before I share with you the methodology of lead qualification, please allow me to “qualify” when this technique should be incorporated. It is unnecessary to qualify a new prospect that waltzes into your place of business, states emphatically they need X dozen signs for a corporate event, selects the size and style of the signs, gives you the artwork and a means to pay for the order and leaves. The windfall sale need not be qualified. However, if you would like to explore the opportunity to become that company’s preferred sign and/or digital graphics vendor for every occasion in the future, you will likely have to sell at a higher level in their organization and perhaps to more than one person.

In my first sales position, my sales management was adamant about what a qualified prospect was and what it wasn’t. Here are the criteria they chose to define a qualified prospect:

  • The key people at the prospective account—Could the sales person accurately identify the decision maker, any influencers, key players and gatekeepers? Is there the presence of a ratifier above the decision maker that will ultimately bless or quash the deal?
  • The value of the account to the sales organization—Could the sales person, within reason, determine the potential value in invoice dollars that the account would be worth on an annual basis? What is all of the business worth, and what portion of it is available at the present moment?
  • The strongest unmet customer need—What is the problem the prospect wanted to solve? What goal does the prospect want to achieve? What are the circumstances surrounding the customer’s situation? Are they experiencing pain as a result of their circumstances—pain that can be expressed in real dollars? What does the customer know about possible options and alternatives?
  • The time frame for a decision—When will the prospect be in a position to make a decision to change from what they are doing at present? Is there a contract in place precluding an immediate change, and, if so, when does it expire? Is there an early opt-out clause in the contract? For how long will the prospect be willing to make a new commitment, e.g., length of a potential contract with your company? Is there an upcoming key event, for example, a newly approved budget that has significance about when a decision can be made?
  • The available resources at the prospect—Does the prospect have the resources to do business with seller’s company? What is the creditworthiness of the prospect? What size of an order or contract can the prospect’s decision maker authorize? What has the prospect spent on similar goods and services in the past? Is the prospect willing to complete a credit application, and will the prospect be given credit terms by the seller’s organization?

Sounds too complicated? It isn’t really. Besides, try making an assertive attempt to sell a big customer when you don’t know who the real decision maker is, you haven’t a clue about the value of the opportunity or when they will be in the best position to make a change, and you’ll regret not collecting that information earlier in the romance phase of the sale.

Qualifying a key prospect may take several sales calls to gather the necessary information. Be patient. If all you need to fully qualify the prospect does not come your way in the first sales call, schedule another meeting for the near future. Asking the right open-ended questions gives the prospect time to become comfortable with you, grow to like and trust you, and builds rapport toward a long, mutually beneficial business relationship.

Think of the unique impression you can make on a new prospect if the first 20 to 40 minutes you spend with them is designed to “get to know each other” only, not to pitch a product or ask for an order. Certainly, if the prospect gives you a strong buying signal, run with it, but, realistically, most large selling opportunities aren’t going to make a substantial buying decision and long-term commitment after only talking to you for a half hour. No one is that good a sales person.

Before you go into your first sales call, do your homework and prepare wisely. Try to answer some of the qualifying questions, typically from the same source of the original lead, prior to your scheduled appointment. The most important part of the pre-call plan is the questions you prepare for your meeting. Go into the call “dumb like a fox” and listen carefully to confirm facts you thought were true and uncover information you’ll need to transform the suspect into a qualified prospect.

Here are some great questions you may want to ask:

  • How are suppliers selected at your company, and what do you look for in that supplier?
  • Who else, besides you, will participate in the selection/decision process?
  • If you could make one aspect of your job easier, better or more efficient, what would it be?
  • What have you tried in the past?
  • What budget and timeframe have you set to procure these signs?
  • If I can show you ways to improve your situation without giving up what you’ve enjoyed to date, will my company be given a chance to earn your business?
  • Who are your top three vendors? Why are they the best? Does your company present a “supplier of the year” award, and, if so, how is it earned?
  • What question should I be asking that I haven’t asked yet?

Good luck!