Definitions are an important factor in sales success, talk to the best sales people, best here being measured in results, not likability, and you will find that they thrive on clear definitions, it is their competitive edge. To identify weak sales people, look for those with plenty of opinion, but little or no clarity in approach or definitions for core elements of their success. One common example is “Value”, it is part of almost every sales conversation, yet there are numerous, at times conflicting definitions. I ask a group of five also rans to define value, and you’ll end up with seven different definitions, because the first two will change their mind based on what the next three say.
Another common element of successful selling that is all too often undefined (and usually unenforced), is the discipline of next steps. Sure, everyone pays lip service to “next steps” (or advances, or other synonyms), but what they say is not what they mean, and not at all defined, agreed on, or universally supported.
I was brought up in the sales school that held that without a “next step” you are likely working with someone who is fully not engaged, if at all, and therefore not a prospect, but a lead. This makes a “next step” a crucial delineator between real opportunities, or those pretend opportunities, taking up space in your pipeline or CRM, but lack any empirical evidence to suggest that you are working with a real prospect or an opportunity that will convert in a predictable time frame.
There is not an opportunity review that goes by where a reps is asked:
“Do you have a ‘next step’ with this prospect?”
Rep: “Sure do!”
“What is it?”
“I’m calling him Monday to set a meeting”, or “I told him I would call Monday to see what he thought of the proposal”
“What time is the call scheduled for?”
“I don’t have it formally scheduled, I told him I’d call Monday, and he said fine, I’ll do it after I am back from the Northern demo.”
Sorry, but that’s not a next step. It’s a plan, may even be a good plan, but at this point it is little more than hope in the form of a thought, and you know what they say about hope, and people addicted to hopium.
For a “next step” to be real and productive it needs to have three attributes, that when combined and successfully executed form a platform for sales success that can use to plan, strategize and execute their sale, usually in a shorter time frame than they had anticipated.
1. Must Be Agreed On By Both The Buyer And The Seller – by agreed I mean that it is booked and confirmed, not just a “ya OK”, whispered as you are walking out. These days you can have an invite fired from your phone while you are still there. The physical act of pulling out your phone to put in the time and date will lead them to go to their calendar, if they don’t you may have a problem that you need to address right then and there. It is not unusual for my prospects to have accepted the next meeting before I leave or by the time I am checking e-mail in the parking lot.
Many will settle for this as a “next step”, but I don’t want you to be one of those. There are people, even with the demands on time, who will meet with a sales person without a specific reason. This is why the next attribute is so important, in fact of the three the most important.
2. Moves The Journey Forward – going back without a clear purpose is a waste of time, you can sit at your desk twiddle your thumbs without adding to you carbon footprint. You want to go back to continue to move the process forward in a way that helps the buyer make the decision that you can help them achieve their objectives. This can be asking them to do something that will validate their engagement, involvement and commitment to the buy/sale moving forward.
I suggest that you think in advance what that may be, leveraging your personal and organizational experience, map out the journey, understand the critical milestones, and how you have successfully arrived there in the past. If you know that achieving something opens the door to the next phase of the process, then think of what has to transpire in the meeting to get the buyer to see that as a logical path forward. This could be any number of things based on what you sell. One example is to ask for the opportunity to interview other people impacted by the decision, and set a time to comeback, debrief and plan the “next step”. You’ll often hear me say:
“So we’ve agreed that it would help if I had a chance to get the front line view, if you can give the names of three sales people to interview, I can set that up for next week, and be in a position to come back to review with you by next Wednesday, does 2:00 work for you?”
Now if they do not agree to the action requested, i.e. the team interviews, but do agree to meet next week to hear my recommendations, you have some choices to make. Does it make sense to have that meeting without the input, can you viably make progress without that. If not, then you need to understand where you and the buyer parted ways during the meeting, what you may have missed, whether it is an indication that they are not a real buyer, or do you need to retrace and build the value up again.
This is where “next steps” drive success long before the meeting, and how you bring the past to help you now. Perhaps the most important aspect of “next step”, specifically how they help you plan, strategize and execute. Since we can only speculate based on experience, it makes sense to visualize the meeting unfolding in a number of ways. Again, we are not shooting for perfection, but to cover the most likely set of outcomes. Therefore you need to have multiple “next steps” going into any meeting. In essence, Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, and more base on your reality. Based on the above if Plan B is the follow up meeting without prior interviews, fine. But if your experience shows that second meetings without an interview end in no sales, or lower margin or quality sales that take 50% longer than the average sale; you can comfortably walk away know you did not go into a trap. Remember you can always revisit the opportunity down the road, rather than wasting time and energy traveling that unproductive road.
3. Agreed On Timelines – This ties the first two elements together. And while it may seem too obvious, too many sales people have a plan going into a meeting, find areas of agreement and action, but leave the timing open ended. Don’t believe, lock your office door, and have a true look at the opportunities in your pipeline, and see if you have any with no time lines.
Seems to me that if you are going to propose specific actions you and the prospect will take as a result of today’s meeting, and prospect agrees that it is something worth doing and they take on doing it, why not agree on a deadline or timeline. Some sales people tell me they don’t want to seem pushy, when I hear that it sounds like “I am afraid of seeming professional”.
By suggesting a specific time you are helping the buyer (and yourself but let’s keep focused on the buyer), people have a lot coming at them, a lot of demand on the time. Those things with times attached, deadlines, in their calendar, in their face, with purpose, leading to a desired and agreed on outcome, will be the ones that get done. Those with any elements of looseness, like no specific time, who know, could be today, tomorrow, “hell, I lived with it this long, could be next quarter”. Solidify you sales success using time.
Above I asked you to look at your pipeline and see how many opportunities are without a time line. While you are in there, take a look at the 3 attributes highlighted above, and see where some opportunities in your pipeline come up short. And then go and fix them, set a meeting, execute your plan, and secure the “next step”, as defined.
So if you are not using “next steps” as success driver, not just in the meeting, but long before, then you are probably working harder than you have to. Further, if you are not clear on what “next steps” really are, and are working with a different definition than above, you are likely not as productive as you could be.
Your next step now, put the above into practice, it is a discipline. Need help, your next step is call me: +1416 822-7781.
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