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January 6, 2016 // 8:30 AM

The 3 Questions You Must Ask Yourself Before Trying to Close Any Prospect

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If you've been reading HubSpot's Sales blog long enough, you know that we're firm believers that sales is about advising and helping, not disqualifying and closing. "Always Be Helping" is one of our mantras, a play on Glengarry Glen Ross' "Always Be Closing" quote. Unlike in decades past, before the internet changed the sales profession forever, today’s buyer is more informed and doesn’t fall for cheesy closing lines or techniques. They buy when they’re good and ready, and when they’re convinced you can help them better than anyone else can.

But, what does this mean in practice? Of course, sales is about helping. How do you actually do it on a day-to-day basis? How do you help when you feel the urge to disqualify? How and when do you close when you know closing early and often doesn’t work anymore? How do you embrace a focus on helping and still exceed your sales goals?

The trick is to never let your prospect think you want the sale more than they need and want to buy from you. To do this, I encourage salespeople to ask themselves three simple questions -- in sequential order -- before they even think about closing:

  1. Can I help them?
  2. Do they need my help?
  3. Do they want my help?

1) Can I help them?

This is the first question I ask, and usually the easiest one to answer. Depending on what you sell, you may even be able to figure out if you can help the prospect before you pick up the phone to call them.

For example, if you sell a service that helps a company's website pages load faster for a site visitor, you can measure the current speed. Or if you sell a product that helps organizations improve employee happiness, you can look bad Glassdoor reviews and build out your list of targets. If you sell roofing or painting services, you can drive by and look at someone's house. Maybe you’re an expert at online marketing; you can use tools like Marketing Grader and Website Grader to identify mistakes your prospects are making.

But in other cases it might not be obvious whether or not your service could help a prospect. To determine if your offering could truly benefit a buyer, you'll have to do some research. Talk to employees, customers, vendors, or anyone else who can give you insight about the company’s current situation and priorities. Eventually, you'll strike up a conversation with influencers and decision makers within your target company.

Regardless of how you figure out if you can help, the point of this question is to determine whether you can improve a person’s world or business in some way; that is to say, whether you can help them save money, make money, or avoid some risk. Keep in mind they may not be willing to admit that you can help them early on. They may not yet understand how you can help them. But that's not that important at this stage -- the key is to figure out if you can help them or not under the right conditions.

If the answer to this question is "yes," then you have a prospect. Now it's time to move on to the next question -- where the selling actually begins.

2) Do they need my help?

This question can be tricky for salespeople. Many assume that if the answer to the first question is "yes," then the answer to this question must be "yes" as well. But that's not always true. In fact, I find it's rarely true. Problem is that salespeople are often predisposed to thinking that everyone with a specific problem will need their help.

Instead of determining whether or not a prospect needs your help by immediately trying to match your product’s benefits with the prospect’s problem, I suggest taking a different approach. I suggest you put on your skeptic hat and say to yourself, "I can definitely help them, but let's really figure out if they'd be successful with my product or service." If they won’t be successful with your product, then they certainly don’t need it.

To do this, the first thing to ask is whether or not they have goals that require changing from the status quo. If a company is happy with the status quo, they probably don't need help. For example, if you sell services that reduce employee turnover, but the company is happy with 20% annual turnover, they don't need your help. Or let’s say a business owner's goal is to simply do what they did last year -- in this case, he probably doesn’t need your time-saving, money-saving, profit-making device. Every company sets priorities. Chances are slim that your services will line up perfectly with the current priorities. If this is the case, don’t be too eager to pitch them what you do. They probably don't need your help.

However, this doesn't mean you should give up right away, and certainly not forever. In fact, I often cite Warren Greshes (author of The Best Damn Sales Book Ever) when counseling salespeople: “They need what I have. They will buy it from someone. So, they might as well buy it from me.”

To really figure out whether someone needs your help now you must listen and explore their past, present and future. Put yourself in their shoes and make an objective decision from their perspective. It’s helpful for me to map out their situation in the following eight buckets:

  1. Goals: What are their personal and business goals?
  2. Plans: What are their current plans for achieving these goals and how confident they are that the plans will help them achieve the goal? What other plans are they considering?
  3. Challenges: What are the previous, current, and anticipated challenges that might get in the way?
  4. Timeline: What is their timeline for achieving their goals, implementing their plans, and overcoming any challenges?
  5. Budget: What is the budget dedicated to achieving their goals? What is the budget that can be reallocated from other expenses if needed? What is the anticipated upside of achieving the goals that we may be able to invest now?
  6. Authority: Who are the influencers in the decision making process? Who gets affected by change?
  7. Consequences: What are the negative consequences of inaction? What happens if they are unable to achieve their goals or execute their plan? What happens if they simply miss the timeline?
  8. Implications: What are the positive implications if a goal is achieved within the timeline and budget?

Read more about this qualification framework in this blog post (and if you need proof of its effectiveness, here’s some sales conversion rate data.)

If you come to the conclusion that the prospect does in fact need your help, it’s then time to figure out whether they want it.

3) Do they want my help?

As you’re figuring out whether or not your prospect needs your help, you'll probably get your prospect to acknowledge that they have a need, an important goal, a frustrating challenge, or maybe multiples of all three. If you can get them to really open up, they’ll acknowledge the negative consequences of failure and the positive implications of success.

At this point, put your expert hat on and start laying out the solution with them. Before presenting a demo, writing a proposal, or sending over a contract, however, I recommend that you verbally and collaboratively create a new plan with them (where you play a key role, of course). Detail how given their individual and specific situation they will achieve their goals and/or overcome their challenges. Include everything they’ll do once they buy, but also describe every step they’ll need to take in order to achieve their goals. By exploring these points together with your prospect, you'll get them thinking and imagining -- even dreaming of -- what their world could look like if they hire you to help.

During this process, draw on the best practices you (or your company) have learned when you've helped others like the prospect. By adding success stories that resonate with them, they’ll begin to believe that you can really help them. Secure verbal buy-in and commitment from your prospect as you go through the plan together.

At the end of this process, don’t be afraid to ask the final question: “Do you want my help?” The answer should be a simple “yes.”   

However, I don't recommend asking the question until you believe the answer will be yes. Remember, you're wearing your skeptic hat and you never want them to think you want to make the sale more than they want to buy. The best close happens when they ask you to buy. That’s when you know you’ve nailed this process.

Are You Ready to Embrace “Always Be Helping”?

That’s my three-step process for figuring out whether I can help someone, whether they really need it, and whether they want it or not. It’s never failed me. It’s always helped me figure out whether I can help someone achieve the level of success they desire.

For many sales reps, this process is contrary to what they’ve been taught. It goes against the decades-old “Always be Closing” and it flies in the face of the approach of “disqualify early and often." But in my career, I’ve found that being helpful always wins in the end. I often have old prospects or customers come back to me after more than a decade because they trust I’ll be able to help them, or that I’ll honestly tell them when I can’t.  

As a result, I have no shortage of people who refer me to friends and peers or references who speak highly of my expertise, and I’m sure many of you do too. But I know that some salespeople don’t. If you’re one of the latter, I hope this process can help you get better at helping. If you truly embrace helping, I promise it’ll also help you close more business more effectively than you’ve ever dreamed.

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