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Clarifying Things That Count: How to Use Qualification Criteria to Improve Your Salespeople's Results

by Michael Webb | Comments (0)
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The primary reason why the scientific method works is that it relies on observable facts and data to drive clarity and specificity of language. In practice it means working with people to clarify specific aspects of reality so they can be counted.

Making Sales and Marketing More Visible and Measureable

Unfortunately, in sales and marketing so much of what matters has defied our ability to identify it so it can be measured. Any activity which clarifies things so they can be counted in sales and marketing is bound to make things more observable, which makes it much easier to improve results.

This is exactly what defining and measuring qualification criteria is about, and some companies are reporting tremendous successes in this area.

What Salespeople Know Already

Salespeople intuitively tend to get some aspects of qualification criteria: Teasing out exactly why some prospects buy while others don't is something near and dear to most salespeople and their managers.

However, the potential for leveraging qualification criteria goes far beyond,"Do they have money?" and "Do they have a budget and a time frame to spend it?"  In our experience, few people intuitively realize  the powerful potential of clarifying these things so they can be counted.

The salesperson's view of "qualifying an opportunity" and the quality professional's goal of specifying and counting are actually similar. We are using the term “qualification criteria” to mean observable characteristics: facts and attributes that can support the salesperson's evaluation of a selling situation, opportunity, or account relationship.

Just as in manufacturing where quality metrics or specifications mean comparing things to a known standard, in sales and marketing “quality characteristics” refer to observable, concrete things: What the customer says or does, the presence or absence of things such as their pains or needs, relationships, or the presence of the competition in an account.

These kinds of characteristics can be organized into four categories:

  • Is there an opportunity?
  • What's in it for them? (i.e., value to the customer)
  • What's in it for us? (i.e., value to us)
  • Can we win? (e.g., access to decision makers, coaching relationships, or gatekeepers)

With some effort, a team can work though these categories and develop a series of 20 to 30 (sometimes more) characteristics and evolve them into well-worded questions or statements, usually on a Likert scale (e.g., 1 to 5), with the highest score the one that seems to be most desirable or conducive to a successful outcome. Here are two simple examples:

1.1) What is my access to the decision maker?

  1. No access; our contact person cannot effectively influence the decision maker
  2. Our contact person has limited influence on the decision maker
  3. Our contact person can recommend and will influence the decision maker
  4. Our contact person(s) has/have significant influence with the decision maker
  5. Our contact person is the decision maker

1.2)  Is the hospital's business expanding or contracting?

  1. Trouble/declining mode (census or population is dropping)
  2. Mixed or unclear picture (different people have said different things publicly and privately)
  3. Steady state (our information shows the business is neither expanding nor contracting)
  4. Positive outlook (there is evidence that the business and the surrounding area is growing and prospering)
  5. Growth (they are adding more beds, expanding departments, or building new additions)

How Qualification Criteria Help the Salesperson

When salespeople have participated in the development of a qualification instrument like this, they are more receptive to trying it out to see what can be learned. When they begin applying it to their live account situations, it enables them to be more organized in their thinking.

For example, comparing what they know about an account situation to the questions on the assessment enables salespeople to identify specifically what they know and don’t know about the account. This alone changes behaviors: They are better able to ask questions that might help them learn the information they need.

One regional manager reported an experience we frequently hear. He had responded to a request for proposal from a large prospect, and in the morning before his meeting, he and the salesperson pulled out the list of qualification criteria and began filling it out. They realized very quickly that they didn't know many of the things they needed to know about the organization’s business environment. Instead of launching off into a presentation about their products and services, they used their meetings to gather information from this and other departments in the organization, explaining that they wanted to do their homework before they made their proposals. By the end of the day, they found two additional opportunities in this same organization and had developed coaching relationships with several individuals who would be instrumental in helping them win the business.

Usually salespeople have some control over what they know about an opportunity and the relationships they have with people in an account. There are usually other factors, such as geographic location or size of a given prospect, over which salespeople have no control.

In this way, the qualification assessment gently influences salespeople to focus on the kinds of things they can change and avoid the things that are least effective (such as hoping for miracles but taking no actions that could lead to those miracles). A consistent set of qualifying criteria allows for scoring the opportunities, which enables prioritizing deals to spend time on first.

Some salespeople will like the idea and readily do the work needed to answer the questions. Others will need more proof that it is worth their time and effort.

Once enough information has been gathered (assuming a well-designed assessment instrument), it isn’t difficult to demonstrate its value to the sales force. Although it can take some time and adjustment to the instrument to get it right, most people will agree that the approach provides a more consistent way of making decisions that makes more money for them. Further, a low score on the qualification assessment can provide the justification necessary to walk away from poor business. These kinds of things minimize sources of variation in the sales process and provide guidance that makes selling somewhat easier for salespeople.

How Qualification Criteria Help Management

Of course, applying the qualifying questions to live accounts actually requires thinking, which means practice is required for people to clearly understand the concepts and how they apply to various situations. Not everyone will be able to do it the first time. The qualification assessment helps managers do their jobs in many powerful ways.

  • Common language and framework of issues

    The assessment questions provide the sales manager with great coaching opportunities, enabling them to get to the heart of an opportunity or account relationship quickly. That's because they are designed from the start to specify essential characteristics. For example, if a salesperson believes someone he or she has met in an account is a coach (someone who will help them win the business), what makes them think so? If they believe they know who is going to make the decision, how do they know this? If they are not sure whether a customer’s need is severe enough to take an action, how can that be determined? The common language and specific issues in the qualification assessment enables a skilled sales manager to tell very quickly how well a salesperson understands their situation.

  • Improved sales forecasting

    Most statisticians believe that Likert scale data of people’s opinions is not very useful or predictive for statistical purposes. However, our work has demonstrated that just the opposite is true in this application. When properly defined, the qualification scores provide a powerful and statistically valid means of forecasting the close ability of sales opportunities. In fact, it is not uncommon for the answers to the questions to account for 85% to 95% of the outcomes. One client reported that every opportunity the salespeople had closed in the first 6 months of this year had a qualification score of 60 or above on their assessment instrument. This type of information is invaluable for management decision making.

  • Enabling objective, measurable improvement

    Here are just two (of many) ways this happens: First, after a company has applied a set of perhaps 28 qualification criteria to several hundred opportunities and statistically analyzed the results, they usually learn that only eight or nine of the questions are relevant to the outcomes. Rather than relying on someone’s guess regarding which issues drive results, they now have factual knowledge. This is profoundly important for many reasons. First, it enables salespeople to decide which deals are the good ones much earlier in the cycle. Second, the simplified criteria help counterbalance salespeople’s tendency to chase after “bright shiny objects” in the form of tantalizing opportunities they have little chance of winning.

    Improvements also happen in another way: Predictions from some of the assessment questions used by one client were the opposite of what was expected. In other words, a higher score was expected to mean a higher chance of closing, but on these specific questions, the evidence showed that a lower score meant a higher chance of closing. These kinds of discoveries provide clues regarding which aspects of customer relationships need improving and clarification. It enabled the company to revise the wording on the problem questions, which revealed previously hidden issues driving the outcomes.

  • Feedback for promotional campaigns

    Marketing managers often wonder how they can improve their marketing campaigns to produce more highly qualified prospects. Qualification assessment scores can provide valuable clues for tweaks to their campaigns or for improving ways of nurturing prospects until they are ready to close. For example, one client had many prospects who felt they were too small to justify the expense of their product. Yet some salespeople were able to close some of these small prospects. An examination of the qualification criteria of the accounts that closed provided clues to the kinds of needs and pains that could enable smaller companies to justify the company's offer. This led to the development of a white paper aimed specifically at nurturing this type of prospect.

Conclusion

Salespeople’s use of qualification criteria is definitely not a new idea. What is new, however, is salespeople helping create criteria specific to your company (rather than using some consultants’ generic material), using statistical techniques to identify which issues are relevant to your company’s outcomes, and then validating their predictability. That development changes the sales and marketing game.

Being explicit and deliberate about what words and concepts refer to in reality is a valuable exercise for any organization. It makes generalizations more powerful and improves the company's ability to make the right decisions. When this kind of improvement takes place in sales and marketing, their credibility improves. When this department knows what it is talking about, what they say comes true more often.

This also makes it more difficult for other departments to say no to the sales and marketing department’s requests and enables companies to act in more customer-focused ways.

Michael J. Webb

October 23, 2007

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