There's no "one right way" to excel at this critical part of the sales process. Start by assessing your own talents and strengths.
In conducting scores of focus groups with great salespeople over the past four decades, Gallup researchers have heard many illuminating observations about sales. We heard such a gem while conducting research with a group of top account executives at one of the world's leading software companies. The company hires sales professionals with apparent promise, yet some of them don't pan out. Why? We asked the seven account executives why good people fail at that company. "It's because those reps chase bad opportunities," one sales rep said as the others nodded. "You have only so much time. You have to know when a pursuit just isn't worth it. Some people don't know when it's time to quit."
I pulled the plug on a prospect recently. I just didn't feel he was emotionally invested.
The researchers probed further, asking the executives how they know when it's time to walk away. The group members described an innate ability to look dispassionately at opportunities and to compute the odds for success. They said that many unsuccessful salespeople not only fail to do that, but they also chase the wrong chances, incur substantial opportunity costs, and waste time and resources that could be better directed at other pursuits.
They were right about every point. In many sales arenas, focusing on matching your product to your prospect instead of assessing your overall sales opportunities wastes valuable time. "I pulled the plug on a prospect recently. It was a huge risk, but I just didn't feel like he was emotionally invested to the extent that would be required for [the deal]," one rep told us. "This was a huge decision of mine that people might have gotten fired for. But I just didn't feel he was emotionally invested."
Salespeople must be able to evaluate prospects and decide which ones to pursue. That sounds like a basic research project, and it is. But don't assume that there is only one way to do prospect analysis. All talents and strengths can be useful, and you will do better at gauging opportunities if you apply your unique talents to the job. While some salespeople may be calculating the prospect's financials and stock market evaluations, others might take a completely different approach.
For example, if your top five themes from the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment include Self-Assurance, Command, or Activator, you can push people to take action. If you lead with these talents in your sales activities, you're likely the kind of person who gets things done, and that's great. But the need to get started or to take action might blind you to the pitfalls of a prospect. So don't let these talents shortchange the evaluation process. Instead, use them in the process to find real opportunities and to keep yourself and your team motivated.
If you have strong Relator talents, you may look for ways to foster and sustain relationships over time. You might ask prospects about their team, their customers, and even their family. You might also notice how much an executive assistant shares about her personal life or whether or not members of a team eat lunch together consistently. These important emotional insights allow you to use your Relator talents to cultivate relationships that matter.
Emotions play a key role in how people make decisions. Salespeople who have a talent for sensing the underlying emotional aspects of a potential sale can be adept at assessing prospects and knowing how to move them toward a decision. If you lead with Empathy or Individualization, you might be very good at perceiving a prospect's emotional needs -- essentially, sensing the buying style of the customer. Knowing that buying style might give you an edge. You can pick up clues that others miss.
"You need to know what you're setting out to do, what the steps are, and who's going to do them," said Rita Robison, senior vice president at Jones Lang LaSalle, an international commercial real estate company, whose top five themes include Input and Learner. "I'm constantly using the resources around me, and that's something that I have to teach a lot of the youngest reps -- get up, walk down there, and ask, 'What's the cost of drywall per linear foot today?' Let's ask property management, let's ask the guys in sales. Let's ask corporate finance, let's find out." That's exactly what you'd expect to hear from someone with Learner and Input, and Rita is using both to research her opportunities. She demonstrates how curiosity leads to asking the right questions.
Gauging opportunities through information gathering can help you see situations for what they are. "When I meet people for the first time, I try to interact with them. I try to let them do more talking; I do information gathering," said Ron Barczak, a sales rep from Stryker. "I am not one to go in and try to wow you with my blazing personality. I want to figure out what are you doing. I'll take that information and formulate it into a game plan and try to give you some solutions that can help you. Maybe I can help you save some money or do something more efficiently or easier. It's about developing a game plan of how we're going to try to work together -- or if we even want to work together."