Well-managed pipelines are a salesperson’s North Star, their bread and butter. Poorly-managed pipelines are an entirely different story, filled with false promises and deals that will never close. They are the shaky foundation upon which incorrect sales forecasts are built.

Sadly, we don’t live in a world where every pipeline is accurate.

Sales trainer Mark Hunter thinks he knows why -- poor prospecting.

“We wind up with prospects in our pipeline that aren’t prospects,” Hunter said at InsideSales.com’s virtual Sales Acceleration Summit 2015. “They’re merely suspects. They’re not going anywhere.”

When a pipeline is bloated with prospects that are not ready to buy or will never convert into customers, it’s near impossible for reps to focus their time on the right leads. Instead, they “spray and pray,” Hunter said.

In his session, “High-Profit Selling: Five Critical Qualification Levels,” Hunter outlined the five questions he asks himself in sales conversations to separate prospects from "suspects" -- leads that aren’t nurtured enough to enter the sales process.

1) Have they shared proprietary information?

A prospect that is willing to share private information with you is one that has confidence in your relationship and a real interest in talking substantively about how your product or service would fit into their business.

“I listen for my prospects sharing confidential, proprietary information early on in the sales call,” Hunter said. “The sooner they share it with me, the sooner I know they’re beginning to reach a level of confidence with me.”

2) Are they willing to share a critical need?

Like proprietary information, sharing a critical business need signals that a prospect is ready to talk seriously. Prospects that tell you exactly where they’re struggling likely want your help.

If a prospect is reluctant to divulge pain, it means they’re not yet confident you’ll be able to provide them value. Don’t make prospects feel you’re pushing them to close too soon, Hunter said. Instead, be willing to make the prospecting phase as long as necessary. Keep in mind that gathering information up front will make for a faster close.

3) Do you know the prospect’s timeline for making a decision?

The single biggest factor responsible for inaccurate pipelines is time, Hunter said.

Salespeople should prioritize prospects looking to buy sooner rather than later. You can’t make projections for the quarter without a sense of how soon a prospect will be ready to buy, and spending time working a prospect that won’t close for another two years is a huge mistake.

“The most critical asset you have as a salesperson is your time,” Hunter said. “Don’t think for a moment that your most valuable asset is your price.”

Ask your prospects for their timelines early on, and move them back over to Marketing if they’re not ready to make a decision.

4) Do you know the prospect’s conception of value vs. money?

This is a tricky piece of information to discover, because you can’t just ask a prospect this question -- they probably won’t know how to answer. Instead, Hunter uses this “million dollar question” to get his answer: “How have you made purchasing decisions like this in the past?”

Some prospects will tell you the quality of the solution was the most critical factor in past decisions. Others will point to timeline. Still others will discuss price. But once you understand how your prospects think about their problems, you'll have better insight into how to structure a proposal and increase your chance of closing the sale.

It’s important not to wait too long to ask this question.

“If you ask this during the negotiation phase, it’s going to be about price,” Hunter said. “But if you ask this in the prospecting phase, [your prospect] will tell you the truth.”

5) Are you dealing with the decision maker?

This is one of the most basic parts of qualifying a prospect. Selling to someone who's not the decision maker is like interviewing for a job with somebody in an entirely different department. If your contact keeps referring to other people when talking about their company's past decisions, there’s a good chance they don’t have final say when it comes to making a purchase.

Hunter warned against bringing up price when you aren’t dealing with a decision maker. You need to get in front of the person who will be assessing their needs against your solution and price. And you can’t structure a good deal for a person who doesn't have the power to determine what's a fair price for the value and what's not.

If your prospects are unwilling to cooperate with you on any of the five points outlined above, it’s too early for them to be talking to Sales, Hunter said. Take the prospect out of your pipeline and hand them back to Marketing to further nurture. 

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Originally published May 27, 2015 7:30:00 AM, updated July 28 2017


Sales Qualification