Of Boy Scouts and Lighthouse Keepers…

Sales Qualification

In my previous posting, I talked about the vital role of objections in sales, and the role they could play—among others—in maximizing your productivity. That brings me to the subject of "qualification."

In sales terms, qualification is the process you go through to determine whether the person you’re talking to is actually likely to buy what you’re selling. It sounds pretty obvious, doesn’t it? You’d be surprised, though, how often it’s not done—or done inadequately, if some of the accompanied sales visits I’ve been on are anything to go by.

There are two fundamental elements to qualification: can this company buy what I’m selling—and can this individual buy what I’m selling? They’re very different propositions.

Let’s look at the company first. Are they likely to buy what you’re selling? If you’re trying to sell direct mail services to Amazon, for example, it’s unlikely to be a productive process. Are they likely to have a problem your product or service can solve? Will they be able to afford what you’ve got? Do they have a long track record of buying what you’re selling from a competitor? (You don’t want to be used merely as a stick with which to beat the incumbent supplier.)

And then there’s the individual you’re talking to. You’ve ascertained that his company fits the profile. You’ve had several really interesting meetings with this person. You’ve developed a good relationship, and he or she seems receptive and positive. It’s that time in the process, and you ask your closing question.

“Well, I’ll need to talk to my boss. I don’t have the authority.”

Wait? What?? You’ve spent all this time—with the wrong person. Yes, he or she may be influential, but a key part of the early sales process is to determine who are the influencers—and who can actually place the order. To all intents and purposes, you’ll need to start the sales process again—with someone else. 

The BANT question

Why is qualification so often done inadequately? Why aren’t we asking what IBM, many years ago, called the BANT question: “Does this person have the necessary budget, authority, need and timescale?” In my experience, there is always a single root cause: an insufficient number of prospects. If your prospect list is small, it can be very hard to qualify rigorously. If you qualify those prospects out—well, you’re left with no prospects. If, on the other hand, you’re inundated with prospects, you want to separate the wheat from the chaff as fast as possible so you can prioritize the companies where your time is likely to be spent most productively.

The same with talking to the wrong person. If your inadequate prospect list means you don’t have anyone else to talk to, it’s going to be hard to ask them directly if they have purchase authority—especially as the two of you seem to be getting on so well. You have that pleasantly fuzzy illusion of productivity. If, on the other hand, you have more warm bodies to meet than you can reasonably schedule, you’d better believe you’re going to be asking some very searching questions very early on so that, if necessary, you can move quickly on to someone who can and will buy.

You’ll have heard the somewhat derogatory expression “tire-kickers”—people who won’t buy, but aren’t averse to wasting your valuable sales time. A colleague once described them as “boy scouts and lighthouse keepers.” The art of sales qualification is to ensure that you spend as little time as possible with tire-kickers, boy scouts and lighthouse keepers—and the sure fire way of doing that is by having more prospects than you know what to do with.


Ian McMurray's picture

Ian McMurray

Ian McMurray started his 40-year career in the technology industry back when 4K wasn’t the latest TV resolution — it was as much memory as you needed to write a complete, integrated accounting system for a computer. He started life as a mainframe salesman but eventually succumbed to the lure of marketing, and has since held a variety of European and worldwide marketing management positions, as well as occasional forays into sales training and development. He’s now the PR guy for Abaco Systems, and is based in Towcester, England.

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