Sometimes a salesperson realizes within the first few minutes of a call that a prospect is not a good fit for their offering, or doesn’t have the adequate authority to approve a purchase. Most reps will continue with the call as if nothing has happened out of courtesy, and curse their bad luck when they hang up. But besides spending valuable time on a non-opportunity, extending a relationship past its natural end can actually do long-term harm.

I’ll explain. Maybe the rep realizes soon after joining the call that their contact is an intern tasked with researching vendors -- not a decision maker. The project is in a very early stage, and the intern tells the salesperson she’ll be gone by the time a purchase is made. Should the rep stay on the phone?

Absolutely not. This intern can’t help you in making a sale, but she can definitely hurt you. If you run through your entire presentation, you give the intern a chance to make a negative judgment about your product, and pass this determination along to her boss. A month down the road, the intern might be gone, but her notes remain.

As soon as you realize the person you’re on the phone with or the company they work for is a bad fit lead, get off the call immediately. How do you do this without hurting feelings or burning bridges? Here are three tips that have proven useful for me.

1) Deploy the conversation-ending case study.

I always ask Marketing to provide me with a content asset that’s not available on the company’s website -- ideally a case study that didn’t pan out -- to assist me with my break-ups. The longer it is and the more charts and graphs it includes, the better.

I structure my calls so that the red flags signifying a bad fit pop up within the first five minutes. As soon as one of these flags starts waving, I’ll stop the prospect, and say:

“Mike, I want to put a pause on our conversation for a moment. You’ve said a couple of things already that remind me of a case study we haven’t published yet. The subject is in a very different line of business than you but you share similarities in [X]. I would prefer it if we could talk to that document for the rest of our conversation, so I’m going to send it to you right now. Call me back at the number in my email signature when you’ve finished. Thank you.”

Guess how many calls back I’ve gotten? Zero!

I just broke up with this prospect, and yet, they feel guilty about it. Now I can wait a week and contact the true decision maker with no fear of reprisal. I can honestly say, “I was waiting to hear back from Mike, but he never called. I just figured he read the case study and didn’t want to talk to me anymore, so I thought I’d reach out to you.”

2) Slow down your responses.

Sales reps often equate speed with investment. In other words, the quicker they return a call or email, the more important the prospect will feel. But I’m not sure I agree with this. From my perspective, overly fast responses can come off as needy or desperate.

I’m not concerned with being the fastest responder, but I do strive to be the most engaged responder. So when I want to break up, I slow down my response rate and shrink my availability, but I never water down the quality or depth of my messages. After all, I might be planning on reaching out to a different contact within the company, and what if a bad reputation precedes me?

No matter how badly you want to break up, doing a bad job is never excusable -- and will more often than not come to haunt you later.

3) Use reverse closes.

A sales close is when you get a prospect to make a commitment -- whether big or small. On the other hand, reverse closes prompt a prospect to walk away from a deal of their own accord.

For example, if I determine the company wouldn’t benefit from the product, I might say, “You know, Mary, this doesn’t sound like it's a good fit, is it?” Nine times out of 10 the prospect responds, “Why do you think that?” But I don’t let them flip the question -- instead, I counter with, “Why do you think I think that?”

Yes, it sounds silly. But if you ask the question and just stay silent, the prospect will break up with themselves: “Well, we’re in our contract for another 18 months, and we’re not even sure we want to change, and … ” They’ve just done your disqualifying for you. As soon they utter the words “It’s not a fit,” you’re free to end the call.

Note that the phrase “I don’t want to waste your time” is not on this list. I’ve always felt that’s a very egotistical thing to say. Your buyers are adults, and it’s up to them to determine if you’re wasting their time. Trust me, they’ll let you know if they don’t see value in talking with you.

Salespeople often feel awkward about breaking up with a bad fit prospect. But in my experience, if you want to break up, chances are the prospect does too. Instead of being angry when you let them go, they’ll probably be relieved. You wouldn’t string a romantic interest along, so don’t string your prospects along, either.

If you are new to sales management or want to learn how to better motivate your team, check out my ½ Day Sales Coaching Seminar. Both offerings will take place on May 11th at the Seaport Boston Hotel.

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Originally published Apr 17, 2015 7:00:00 AM, updated February 01 2017


Sales Qualification