July 21, 2011

The Danger of Proposing Too Early In The Sales Process

I had planned to write about what I learned during an amazing day in the field with a French-speaking salesperson, but a few recent conversations pushed that post back a few days.

I got all charged up speaking with Spencer Jackson from Houston. Spencer is a new friend from Linkedin and he attended a webinar session I helped lead a few months ago. He gets new business development sales and has been a great source of encouragement to me. We spoke in-depth today about the sales process he’s instituted at his company and it fired me up to write about the dangers of proposing too early in the process.

I realized recently that a good deal of my coaching is directed at helping salespeople see themselves, and having prospects see these salespeople, as problem-solvers and value-creators, not as pitchmen pushing products or services. That’s a lousy sentence but it’s as important as anything I’ve written. How we view our role as professional salespeople, how we approach prospects, how we tell our story, how we structure sales calls and how and when we deliver proposals all contribute to how prospects perceive us. I’ve written about this in a couple different ways. Check out “Preventing The Buyer’s Auto-Reflex-Salesperson-Resistance Mode” and also “Who’s Making It About Price, You or The Customer?”

Many salespeople across a variety of industries suffer what I’m going to call Premature Proposal Syndrome. They’re too anxious to provide a quote or too quick to offer to send a proposal.

Before going too far down this path, I’d like to give credit where credit is due. Dave Kurlan and his excellent book “Baseline Selling” have significantly influenced my views on this topic. If you’re struggling with sales process or want a great read that is really helpful in picturing what I call “the path to a sale,” check out Dave’s book. It’s one of the best I’ve read on that topic.

Here’s the deal: It’s dangerous to rush into providing pricing (or a full-blown proposal in a more sophisticated sale). Quite simply, we probably haven’t followed good sales process or haven’t learned enough to confidently propose a solution. And the prospect knows it! When we rush to the proposal stage, we look, smell and feel like we’re pitchmen, not problem-solvers. Just like it makes zero sense to show up to an initial sales call and turn on the projector to make a presentation, it’s not logical to write a proposal before fully understanding everything possible about the prospect’s situation, etc.

At the company where I headed up sales before returning to consulting full-time, there was an incredibly talented woman who headed up one of the business units. She was an expert at what she and the team did for clients. She was credible and likable. The sales story was compelling. The case studies of what they had achieved for clients were powerful. And believe it or not, all this excellence created quite a sales problem. They would conduct an initial exploratory meeting with a key prospect and right there in that first meeting, the prospect would fall in love. Very often the prospect would ask this woman if she could give them a proposal. And thinking that was a “success,” the natural answer from a salesperson when asked for a proposal is “yes.”

But that natural response is a bad response. Proposals, particularly in the case I described above, take a lot of time, energy, creativity and even money to produce. And that doesn’t even touch on the opportunity cost of all that is not getting done when we get bogged down creating a major proposal (see the giant book pictured in the post image). Even worse, though, is the reality that very often we aren’t in a strong enough position to do the proposal. We skipped steps in the sales process. We didn’t ask enough hard questions. We didn’t dig to find out if they were really willing to make a change. We never truly discovered the decision criteria for how the decision would be made. We didn’t really get a grasp on the dollars available to spend or who else would be involved in approving the project. And possibly even more damaging to our case is that we didn’t work hard enough to thoroughly understand the prospective client’s situation to the point of being able to demonstrate tremendous value along with the proposal.

Think about what you’re communicating to prospects by rushing to provide a price quote or proposal. And also consider what valuable content your premature proposals might be missing because they were delivered too early in the process.