How many times have you pitched a potential client, or sent a proposal, only to get a “Thanks, we’ll think about it and get back to you” email or phone call?
If you’re like most agencies, you pitch way more often than you close. And after awhile, you can become so discouraged you want to throw in the towel. Many agencies struggle with cash flow and thus leap at the chance to pitch anyone, hoping to get some business, any business, to keep the cash coming. And while we all need to put food on the table, is that really the best way to use what limited resources (time, energy, and money) you’ve got?
Of course getting work is important. But we’ve seen time and time again that getting the right kind of work from the right kind of customer is more important. Otherwise you’ll wind up selling your soul and that wonderful agency you started and love becomes nothing more than a job you hate.
There is a better way. The most successful agencies have a disciplined sales process they follow religiously. So if you haven’t mastered the fine art of sales or don't have a clue about where to start when qualifying a prospect, there’s no time like the present to get started.
What Is Qualifying?
Qualifying is determining whether or not that guy who called to find out about your services is worthy of the time and effort it will take for you to convert him into a customer. That’s right -- worthy of your time and effort. Because your time is valuable. Time is a non-renewable resource. Once gone, you can’t get it back. So it makes sense to use it as wisely as possible.
Just because some guy has raised his hand (filled out a form online, dropped a business card into your booth’s fish tank, or called to ask about your services, etc.), that doesn’t make him a lead. It just makes him kinda, sorta interested. It’s still too early in the process to know whether or not it’s a genuine opportunity. The courtship hasn’t even begun.
Why Does Qualifying Matter?
Let’s put it this way, would you marry the first guy (or gal) you met just because he (or she) looked or sounded nice? Aren’t there are thousands of other things you’d want to know before you got engaged? Dating is nothing more than a way to qualify a potential mate. In the days of arranged marriages, parents did that for you, or they hired matchmakers. The modern day equivalent of that is the agency search consultant -- if the client has enough money to hire one. Otherwise both sides are stuck with DIY solutions -- referrals and online research.
When you methodically qualify sales inquiries, you are using your time and energy wisely. Research has shown that qualified sales leads have a higher return on investment and a higher close rate. CEB's study shows that 57% of the sales process is complete by the time you get a phone call. Prospects are far more educated today than ever before. That’s good and that’s bad.
It’s “good” because you can take advantage of this DIY world to educate them. That process can be used to qualify them (to a certain degree) while they come to know, like, and trust you, or they disengage when they decide you’re not a fit for them. It’s “bad” because the sales process is far more out of your control than it used to be.
Know Your Best and Worst Types of Clients
When you’ve got a clear understanding of what types of clients are happiest and most successful in working with you, qualifying sales inquiries becomes much easier to do. Your first step is to get clear about what kinds of clients -- their size, their products or services, the industries and markets they’re in, their company’s cultural philosophy, the resources they have, the competitive climate, their mission and values, the style and personality of the individual you’ll work with most closely, the challenges they face that you love helping to solve or fix and are good at it. There may be other things that you consider to be more important. Make sure you spell them out.
And it’s equally important to understand what types of clients are the worst match for you (and for them). Because those are the ones you want to refer to other agencies.
Luckily, HubSpot CRM gives you access to a database of tens of millions of companies that you can sort through using dozens of different criteria like geography, revenue, and company size. Get the free HubSpot CRM here.
First Goal: Eliminate Non-Opportunities ASAP
Assuming you’ve got a funnel full of interested sales inquiries, your next step is start qualifying them. Your goal is to eliminate those companies that aren’t opportunities as fast as possible. The sooner you do that, the quicker you’ll find the ones that are most likely to convert into customers. The biggest mistake you can make is to keep working leads that will probably never convert. The most successful business development execs ruthlessly eliminate non-opportunities as fast as they can. They don’t make money by deluding themselves they can change a prospect’s stripes. Prospects are what they are. Get the facts. Size them up and eliminate. Move on.
Ask Good Questions
There are lots of different sales methodologies you could use. IBM’s groundbreaking BANT (Budget, Authority, Need, and Timing) is probably the most common and well known. But BANT was developed back in the days when sales reps controlled most of the information that was shared with prospects. It’s no longer enough.
Today, because the shift in power has gone to the buyer’s side new methods have evolved that address this dynamic. Peter Caputa, vice president of sales at HubSpot, and his team developed a method they call GPCTBA/C&I (Goals, Plans, Challenges, Timeline, Budget, Authority, [Negative] Consequences and [Positive] Implications). This method sets up the HubSpot sales team to add value to the prospect’s decision-making process.
Good questions are provocative. They cause your prospect to think through challenges, and they elicit information you can use to determine if the prospect is a good fit for your company, diagnose their problem or challenge, and decide if you can have a mutually beneficial relationship.
Map Your Questions
Match your questions to where you are in the relationship. You don’t want your questions to feel like an interrogation, and you don’t want to spook someone away before they’re comfortable enough with you to answer.
Keep in mind that your first goal is to disqualify the non-opportunities ASAP. Ask those questions that could take them out of the running for you. This goes back to your best/worst types of clients. Find the “worst” ones and disengage.
22 Provocative Qualifying Questions
Here are some great questions we’ve heard asked at various stages of qualification. Use these as a jumping off point to create your own list so you can quickly disqualify non-opportunities and engage with the golden ones:
For what reasons are you looking to hire a new agency now? What triggered your decision to hire an agency? What’s made this so urgent or important?
What experiences, good and bad, have you had with other agencies? What do you want to be different this time around?
What results do you expect to see from the work we do together?
What are your company’s goals?
What’s your most important priority? What’s your most urgent priority? If they’re not the same, ask: What will it take to focus on the most important priority? How can the urgent priority get downgraded? What’s your company’s biggest challenge?
What’s keeping you from overcoming or meeting that challenge?
What internal resources do you have to apply to this challenge?
How well are your competitors doing?
What are your competitors doing that you’re not and wish you were?
What do you want to be the best at? What do you want your company or department to be renowned for?
What are you willing to stake your reputation on?
What’s your current return on investment for this type of project?
Out of all your company’s departments, which one does your team most struggle working with?
How could you improve your relationship with (internal department named in No. 13)?
What’s your process for choosing an agency? Have you used this process before? What worked or didn’t work? What will you do to get a different result?
Who’s involved in making the decision? Who signs the contract?
If you don’t hire an agency, how will you meet this challenge? What will you do?
How will you know we’ve been successful?
If [pain point] doesn’t improve, what will it cost your company?
If we deliver on agreed upon goals, what’s that worth to your company?
What problems do you see down the road that could obstruct or constrain our working together?
What makes you lose sleep at night? Or what do you need so you can sleep at night?
“She Wrote Back ‘Hello.’ We’re Going to Get Married!”
A prospect might say he is interested in your services, but this doesn’t automatically make him worthy of a proposal, pitch, estimate, or conversation to help him figure out a solution to his problem.
Create your own sales process. Come up with the ideal client profile. Know the “make” and “break factors” that are good predictors of a successful relationship with your agency. Qualify fast for theses factors, and eliminate the leads that don’t make the cut. Focus your energy and time on qualifying the remainder.
You won’t get it right the first time, the second, or even the third time. You have to keep tweaking it until you get your process and questions to work for you. With persistence, you’ll get there. The sooner you do it, the better clients you’ll get, the more fun you’ll start having, and the more successful your business will be.
Originally published Aug 11, 2015 8:30:00 AM, updated June 15 2021