Many sales experts will tell you that the bookends of the sales process -- prospecting and closing -- are the most important. However, while they are certainly key, my experience tells me that most deals are won or lost during the sales qualification process.

In 2005, I hired sales experts Rick Roberge and Dave Kurlan to help me learn how to sell. I had started a company because I saw a need and an opportunity. We built a product during nights and weekends. Eventually, we went full time with it and began selling. But, I didn't close much until I hired Rick and Dave and learned how to properly qualify.

A few days into my training, I realized where I was going wrong in my sales approach. I was willing -- eager, actually -- to explain what our service did and how it worked to anyone who would listen. I wasted a lot of time talking to unqualified people who I would never be able to help -- and who would be unlikely to ever help me. Worse, I turned them off by talking all about me.

After hiring Rick and Dave, I wasn't an overnight success in sales. But, by the end of three months, I got better at qualifying and started closing more deals than we could handle. Soon after I joined HubSpot, I remember Brian Halligan saying, "I've never seen anyone qualify as effectively as you." Over the years as a HubSpot sales leader, I’ve taught and coached many salespeople how to do it, and they, in turn, have trained thousands of our marketing agency partners to do it better, too.

As you can see, I've been on a mission to teach the importance of a thorough sales qualification process ever since I learned this hard-won lesson from Rick and Dave. At this point, I've seen many of the traps that reps, managers, and entire teams fall into.

Here are eight reasons why your sales qualification process might suck -- and how to fix it. These issues fall into three distinct categories.

1) Salespeople Can't Qualify Effectively

The salesperson is often the problem. Do your salespeople suffer from any of the following issues?

  1. Salespeople think they can be successful without qualifying. Sometimes, a salesperson has experience selling successfully without adhering to a sales qualification process. Salespeople who have sold based on relationships, in an account management type role, or in a transactional sales environment -- where thorough qualification is usually unnecessary -- often have trouble qualifying thoroughly. They try to get away without it even when they need to sell a complex product or embrace a more consultative approach.
  2. Salespeople are unwilling or unable to qualify properly. Some salespeople are afraid to ask difficult questions. They may have a need for approval, fear of rejection, or a money weakness that prevents them from asking questions they think are rude or inappropriate; questions they fear would make the prospect dislike them. 
  3. Selfish salespeople. Some salespeople think it is about them. They think sales is about them "winning" instead of about helping people solve problems. These salespeople generally don't care about their prospects, and they give us all a bad name. But, a few are still successful even though they rarely qualify effectively, preferring to prospect at a high rate and close early and often. I don't think these salespeople will win in the future as more and more prospects demand a partner, not a player. But some still get away with it today. 

To avoid qualification problems that stem from the sales team, my recommendation is to not hire people who demonstrate any of the above three traits. Screen them out by using a sales assessment and asking them to role play a qualification call. 

However, if you find yourself with a team of people who can’t or don’t qualify for whatever reason, or you are a rep who wants to get better on this front, start by reading and implementing what you'll find in the following three books:

  1. The Best Damn Sales Book Ever
  2. New Sales. Simplified.
  3. Baseline Selling (Start with this one.) 

2) Ineffective or Nonexistent Sales Processes

The issue could also be a failure to equip the sales team with the right sales process and training, as in the below scenarios. 

  1. No qualification framework. If a salesperson doesn't have a defined sales process and qualification framework, they won't know the right questions to ask prospects and they won't know what areas to explore. A good sales process contains scripts that give sample questions and statements, as well as playbooks that describe possible scenarios that might occur on sales calls. I find that most smaller and early stage companies hire salespeople before establishing sales process, which is usually a recipe for disaster. Salespeople rarely have a documented framework for establishing a prospect's likelihood to buy, leading to inconsistent performance. Pick a methodology and use it. You'll be amazed at how it helps you scale your organization. 
  2. No sales process training. If a salesperson doesn't receive at least some level of classroom training before being thrown onto the phone, they're not being set up for success. Typically, this training should last at least the first few months, even after they're actively selling. At HubSpot, we put people on the phone after one month of training, which includes a more intense version of our customer onboarding process -- implementing our inbound methodology and software for their own website. They walk a few miles in our customer's shoes. People joining teams that sell to more specialized buyers don't carry a quota until they've completed two months worth of solid training. Finally, all teams receive several hours of training tailored for their role for several months after they get on the phones. 
  3. Inability to diagnose due to lack of data. Well-run sales organizations should have data on the salesperson's activity levels at every step of the process, as well as the ratios between steps. For example, every salesperson's number of attempts per lead should be measured on a daily basis, while the number of qualification calls should be reported weekly. It's relatively easy to detect when a salesperson is not qualifying thoroughly by looking at data. For example, if a salesperson gets a lot of no-shows on their first scheduled call or a low close rate after presentations, they are most likely not qualifying effectively. Companies that aren't tracking the volume of activities and conversion rate between each step of the sales process are often unable to diagnose a qualification problem. 

If this stuff is foreign to you, I recommend picking up a copy of Mark Roberge's Sales Acceleration Formula

In the book, Mark shares how we implemented these three things at HubSpot -- a sales process with a qualification framework, training for our team, and a measurement system that enabled us to detect sales issues at the rep level -- on our path to $100M in revenue.

3) Sales Managers Do Not Know How to Coach Effectively

Finally, the issue could be the salesperson's immediate manager.

  1. Poor coaching. A salesperson struggling to qualify effectively might not be receiving the right skill coaching from their sales manager. Scripts, playbooks, and process are important. But coaching at the deal level through pre-call preparation and post-call debriefs is the best way to teach sales qualification skills, as it allows sales reps to immediately apply what they’re learning. Coaching sessions should involve a mixture of call reviews, next-step brainstorming, and manager-rep role plays. To be efficient, effective coaching sessions should use a consistent qualification framework to dissect a deal and help a sales rep determine next steps. Frameworks help reps detect patterns that they can then apply in future similar situations. Coaching should happen one-on-one where the approach and instruction can be tailored to the individual, but group coaching helps significantly with brainstorming, as well as sharing and reinforcement of best practices. Further, it helps achieve buy-in for one-on-one coaching as reps hear other reps' success stories. 
  2. Lack of accountability. When salespeople are performing well, it’s especially hard to hold them accountable for doing things they don't naturally enjoy. You might have trouble breaking high performers’ bad habits. But, when salespeople aren't achieving performance targets consistently, it is critical they are held accountable to changing. This requires some tough love at times and gentle reminders other times. Most importantly, don’t forget to celebrate wins for positive reinforcement. In general, try to avoid hiring uncoachable salespeople. Since that's difficult to avoid completely, spend coaching time with salespeople who seek out improvement. Let the rest come to you or manage them out of the role. 

As Dave Kurlan explains, different salespeople respond to different coaching approaches. Some want to figure it out themselves while others want to be told exactly what to do. Some need their ego stroked, while others want to be be told what they did wrong. 

If your sales managers need development in this area, I recommend reading Keith Rosen's Turning Salespeople into Sales ChampionsConsider assessing your sales managers, too.  

Effective Sales Qualification Starts With the Right Mindset

Chances are that your company, your manager, and you aren't perfect. None of us are. Hopefully, the checklist above helps us all get better at sales qualification.

But I find that all of the tactical pointers in the world won't help if you don't have the right mindset. The right mindset means to absolutely, always prioritize helping over selling. Don't think of qualification as a trick to get someone to buy from you. Don't ask questions for your benefit.

Instead, focus on collaborating with prospects. In a survey of 700 buyers, RAIN Group found the two most important things winners do is "educate their buyers with new ideas or perspectives" and "collaborate with them." So focus on exploring opportunities together, not qualifying or disqualifying fit. In fact, I’d recommend you refer to these calls as “exploratory conversations.” Compared to “qualification call,” it's a prospect-friendly term -- because it's what they want.

To master exploratory conversations, you need to ask the questions that help your prospect understand how they can be better. As a service to them, you need to help them imagine a world that's better for their company and for them. You need to open their minds to possibilities by making them think about their world from a different viewpoint. It's not easy to do this, and you certainly won't achieve it every time you run a sales process. But you'll know you've accomplished it when your prospect thanks you at the end of your sales process -- then promptly hires you.

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Originally published Feb 16, 2016 8:30:00 AM, updated February 01 2017


Sales Qualification