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The First Call Conundrum: What Buyers Vs. Salespeople Want to Talk About [Research]

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"I'm tired of prospects who want to talk about our product and pricing options on the first call,"  said no salesperson ever.

HubSpot Research completed an analysis of what customers want to talk about versus what sales reps plan to cover in the first sales call. As you can see in the chart below, the disconnect is wider than the Grand Canyon.

(Click to enlarge):

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Fifty-eight percent of prospects want to talk price on the very first call, while only 23% of reps are ready to do that. Similarly, 54% of prospects want to learn how a product works on the first call, while only 23% of reps are ready and willing to break it down.

Unfortunately (and ironically), it seems like most salespeople don't know how to (or even want to) handle a product and pricing conversation on the first call. But should they? After all, don’t most sales experts advocate for discussing needs and pain points before pitching a product?

Who’s wrong here -- the buyer, or the seller? Neither. In my opinion, both are partially right. Let me explain.

Learn more about bridging the buyer-seller divide at HubSpot's Inbound Sales Day.

There is a danger in being too willing to talk price and product on the first call -- even if the buyer wants to. In my experience, overly accommodating and optimistic salespeople who are "more than happy" to answer the prospect's every question miss their chance to differentiate and add value over the competition. On the other hand, rigid and selfish salespeople too hell-bent on sticking to their own agenda -- evading their prospect's pricing and product questions and rattling off their own questions instead -- squander their opportunity to earn trust by being helpful.

Presumably, when a prospect wants to talk price or product functionality, they are a serious buyer. Alternatively, they could be a curious, budget-conscious tire-kicker, but that shouldn't stop reps from engaging in a dialogue about product and price when the prospect prompts it.

However, that said, reps shouldn't take "prospect accommodation" too far either. Prospects don't always know best. It's not that they are ignorant or unintelligent -- they just don't know what they don't know. So just because a prospect is ready to talk product or price doesn't mean they are ready or willing to buy. Salespeople must answer their buyer’s questions, but also ask their own in order to clarify needs and uncover opportunities for improvement that the prospect might not even be aware of.

You're probably thinking, "How the hell do I do that, Pete?" No doubt about it -- finding the middle ground between serving your buyer and challenging them to think differently is no easy feat. What's a thoroughly confused salesperson (AKA most of our survey sample) to do? How should salespeople figure out whether or not they have a qualified buyer while also delivering a positive experience for the prospect?  

Here are some recommendations.

Don’t Evade Your Prospect's Questions

First of all, let's be clear that there are no valid reasons to ignore your prospects’ questions. These days, many prospects who reach out to a company are "ready" to buy a solution. They've done their research, narrowed down their options to a few contenders, and want to talk product and price -- in the very first call.

While it's still important that salespeople help prospects understand how their company's differentiation benefits the buyer, most will lose the chance if they ignore the prospect's questions. So don’t do it.

Ask the Prospect What They'd Like to Discuss

In fact, one of the first things salespeople should do is ask prospects what they want to talk about.

Recently, I was reviewing an exploratory call guide for a software company whose primary sales challenge is differentiating enterprise opportunities from smaller ones (at least, that's how they see their problem). Since they have a freemium business model where companies can use certain features for free for life but may eventually have a need for premium paid features, prospects usually reach out to a salesperson once they have questions about the premium product and its pricing.

As should be a part of any sales call, I suggested incorporating an agenda-setting step into their call guide, and they consequently wrote one in. But, after listening to a few recorded calls, I realized that the reps were consistently skipping the question, "What would you like to cover today?" When I asked the sales manager why this was the case, he said, "Reps are afraid that the prospect will go down a rabbit hole." The reps weren’t asking what the prospect wanted to get out of the conversation, and instead focused solely on qualifying the business opportunity. As a result, prospects were not getting their questions answered in the majority of calls I reviewed. Feeling ignored, they weren't forthcoming about their business challenges when the rep went through his or her qualification questions.

Many of the calls ended with the buyer saying, "Okay, great. I'll check out your website and let you know if I have more questions." Translation: "This was a waste of time. I really didn’t want to talk about my business; I wanted to talk about my technical challenge. I'll go to the website and see if it can answer my question there instead since you didn't."

Because the reps were so laser-focused on having the conversation they wanted to have instead of the conversation the prospect wanted to have, they were not only missing opportunities to be helpful, but also squandering the opportunity to turn the lead into an opportunity.

Unfortunately, this thinking is too common on sales floors. What many reps don’t realize is that they will often find a quicker path to a sale if they just ask their prospects what they want and need. Many times, what a prospect wants to discuss is really the same as what a salesperson needs to discuss. And if not? There are plenty of ways to be immediately helpful, and then redirect or expand the conversation (read on for examples of how to do this).

As our survey data suggests, the two topics prospects often want to cover in the first sales call are product and price. Let's talk about how to handle those.

Go Ahead -- Have the Product Conversation

Most salespeople are trained to qualify first and present their product second. I agree wholeheartedly with this approach as most prospects need advice tailored to their unique situation to make an informed decision.

However, if a prospect wants to talk product right away, I have no issue talking about the product. If they're disqualifying your offering, so be it. But, most of the time, they're just trying to understand whether a given product or service can help them solve a problem they've identified. When a prospect comes in as an inbound lead or they're asking questions to compare your solution to ones they already know, you shouldn’t avoid the product conversation -- you should welcome it. It’ll help you understand their needs.

So when a prospect asks for a live demo on the first sales call or says they were expecting one, a salesperson can reply with something like, "I wasn't prepared for that today, but I can adapt. What were you hoping the product would do for you?" Alternatively, you might say, "No problem. Among other things, I'm an expert at how our product works for companies like yours. What specific questions do you have?"

From there, it's best to get an exhaustive list of questions. Sometimes, I'll ask, "Do you have these questions written down? Would it be easier to just send them to me?" On the off-chance a prospect doesn't have any questions and simply wants to learn, propose a few they should be asking that helps them understand the most common reasons people choose your product. Bingo! You're now having the conversation you want to have.

Based on the questions the prospect puts forward, the salesperson can make an informed decision as to whether they can help or not. Usually, when a prospect wants to talk product from the jump, they’re trying to determine if the product will do what they think it needs to do. Why wouldn't a salesperson want to help the prospect answer that question (and discover what the prospect is hoping it will do at the same time)?

The best part about understanding all of a prospect's product questions is that the salesperson can then start to tie down a potential purchase. Find out if the product features are likely (or not) to progress the sale by asking, "If our service can solve this problem for you, would it be a big deal?" and "Do you think you'll use our product if it can do X for you?"

In the event it becomes clear that the product can't solve the prospect's immediate problem, expand the conversation by suggesting other ways you can help the prospect: "Our product won't help you with X, but I'm wondering if you've thought about Y challenge that you'll most likely encounter next?" Or let’s say the product can help the prospect avoid the challenge they're currently facing in future scenarios, but can't do much this time around. In this scenario, you might say, "There are ways to avoid this issue altogether. Would you be interested in discussing how you can prevent this issue from coming up again?" If the salesperson knows someone or something else who can help the prospect, they can say, "We can't help you, but I know someone who can. Would you like an introduction?"

And if the salesperson can't help the prospect with their immediate challenge, but think they could help in the future, they might say, "I can't help you with that problem. Our product doesn't do that and I don't know how you'd avoid it. But there are a handful of other problems that we solve. While it might not be your highest priority, if we could help you avoid risk X and save cost Y, would you be interested in having that conversation at some point?"

And Have the Price Conversation, Too (It's a Budget Conversation in Disguise)

"How much does your product cost?" shouldn't be a question salespeople are afraid to answer. It’s true that some budget-conscious prospects are simply shopping around, but just because a rep answers the question doesn't mean they will lose the opportunity to establish the potential value of an investment.

We've all heard the old advice "The person who throws out the first price always loses the negotiation." The salesperson who names a number runs two risks: one, the prospect might go elsewhere if they think the price isn't justified; or two, the salesperson might leave money, margin, and commission dollars on the table if they quote too low.

However, there are a bunch of ways to deftly handle this conversation so that no one loses. How you structure the conversation will usually depend on what type of product or service you sell and who you sell it to. In software sales, it's quite common for pricing to be published on the company website. According to a study of 389 SaaS startups, 39% chose to publish their pricing publicly. But another study of more established software companies showed they were half as likely to publish pricing as their younger counterparts.

Similarly, some professional services companies list ranges and packages for their services even though the scope of every engagement varies. Here's an example of a marketing agency that publishes pricing (although most professional services companies don’t):  

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The conversation should be fairly straightforward in these instances. I usually start with, “Our pricing is on our website. Do you need help figuring out what your investment will be?”

If your organization doesn’t publish pricing, giving a range is a good way to answer the question even though you don't know what the ultimate cost for that customer will be. Try, "It's a bit difficult to quote you a price without understanding your unique needs. But would you like me to give you a range so we can start to have a conversation about the relationship between your investment and the ROI you should expect?" Prospects usually say “yes” to this because they want to hear the price, so be prepared to respond with something like, "Our typical client pays us as little as $5,000 per year and as much as $60,000 per year. Just based on looking at the size of your business, I'm guessing you'll fall in the $8,000 to $12,000 per year range. Does it make sense for us to talk about your needs a bit so we can narrow that down for you?"

For your particular sale, you should be prepared to handle this conversation in a way that the prospect is satisfied and that you can redirect the conversation towards value. In the past, I've used humor to disarm prospects. When a buyer asked for the cost of a service, I'd quickly answer with, "Our software costs $1 million dollars." After a gasp or a prolonged silence, I'd say, "Did you expect it to be more?" Often times, they would laugh, and I would as well to let them know I was joking. And then, I’d circle back to value, with "I'd never suggest you spend a dollar unless we were both confident you could make at least a few bucks back. Does it make sense to have a conversation about ROI as well as price?"

Share Success Stories

Prospects want to hear success stories. In my opinion, more reps need to learn how to tell them.

As experts in their space, salespeople should be ready to answer a prospect's questions, but also to ask insightful questions of their own and tell stories as the dialogue progresses. One of the best ways to communicate your product’s value is by telling stories about how similar organizations to the buyers’ have used it successfully. Unfortunately, our research shows that only 33% of reps are ready to tell such stories, even though 44% of prospects say they'd like to hear them. It seems reps are just not equipped to have these types of conversations.

Hopefully, your company prioritizes the publication of case studies. HubSpot produces new case studies on a regular basis. Our top reps can recite the facts and quotes from many of them.) If your marketing team doesn't do this for you, follow seasoned sales and marketing expert Todd Hockenberry's advice: "Smart salespeople will stop waiting for their marketing teams to create case studies for them. They’ll take things into their own hands. Salespeople will more consistently ask up front for the right to create a case study when they deliver the value promised to their client. Then they'll interview and help craft the case study story, making it about the value delivered to their client in the client's own words.”

Phrase Questions in a Way That Doesn't Make the Prospect’s Alarm Bells Go Off

Another secret of balancing the initial sales conversation so that it serves both the prospect's interests and the salesperson's desire to be efficient is to ask questions in the right way. For example, don't ask "Why does your company need to make a purchase?" As the chart at the top of this post shows, only 37% of prospects want to talk about that. Instead, try "What is your company trying to achieve with the purchase?"

The phrasing might not seem all that different, but the meaning is -- not to mention that our data shows that both prospects (47%) and salespeople (65%) are interested in talking about what the prospect is trying to achieve with a potential purchase.

Let that sink in for a second. That's 10% more prospects who are not just willing, but actually interested in having that conversation simply because the question is phrased a tad differently. My theory for the difference in the survey response is that prospects want to speak positively about what they're trying to do. In the course of talking about their goals and aspirations, they might reveal that they "need" to buy something, but most won’t take too kindly to being asked the question in such a presumptuous way.

The First Call Is Too Soon to Talk Budget, Timing, and Decision Making Processes

According to our study, salespeople are eager to talk about budget (33%), authority (42%), and timing (42%) on their first call with a prospect. In contrast, prospects are ready to talk about budget, authority, and timing only 24%, 15%, and 24% of the time, respectively.

Why is that? Most prospects don't want to talk about these things because they haven't decided to buy yet. Duh!

If a prospect is giving buying signals and expressing urgency on the first call, by all means, ask, "How will you make a purchase decision and who will be involved?", "How much budget do you have set aside?", and "When do you need this solution in place?" These are perfectly fine questions to ask in a purely transactional sale. But for most complex purchases, budget needs to be created and purchases need to be justified before they are sent up for approval. Salespeople should help to figure out budget, timing, and decision factors, not demand the buyer shares them immediately.

To put yourself in a position to help your prospects make budget and timing decisions in complex sales, I suggest focusing on a prospect's goals, challenges, and plans on the first call instead. Once a challenge is identified that is a priority to overcome, ask, "If we could help you overcome this challenge like we have for companies such as X and Y, would you be interested in exploring that further?" If you discover an important goal their current plan isn't going to help them achieve, ask "Would it make sense for us to schedule a longer conversation where we can discuss how we can help you achieve this goal more assuredly than your current plan can?"

When they agree, set the expectation and get agreement that you'll discuss investments, timing, and important decision making factors on the next call.

While salespeople need to discuss budget, authority, and timing eventually, it has to be done in the right order and the right way -- that is, when the prospect is ready to have that conversation. To determine the right time, salespeople must understand where prospects are in their buying journey. When an inbound, educated, ready-to-buy prospect asks about cost, it's okay to talk about the price and budget (in fact, it should be celebrated like the buying sign that it is). But if they are at the awareness or consideration stage of their journey, don’t ask these questions until the prospect has agreed that the solution will help them overcome their challenges and achieve their goals.

Don't Be Afraid to Ask About Competition

Many buyers today have identified (some of) their own problems and short-listed (some) solutions by the first sales call. As a result, more prospects than ever want to talk about pricing options and product features right away. But, even though they want to talk product or price, it doesn't mean they are ready to buy, and it certainly doesn't mean they are ready to buy your solution. In fact, they're probably comparing your product’s features and pricing to several of your competitors'.

What's a salesperson to do in these situations? How does a salesperson differentiate from the competition and establish value when the prospect isn't asking the right questions, and especially when they are asking the wrong ones?

The truth is that buyers don't always know what they need. While they might know what they want, they probably don't know how they can best benefit from a specific product or service. Salespeople do need to answer their prospect's questions. But, they also need to ask questions that help the buyer understand they might not have the whole picture yet.

Salespeople should ask about the competition so that they can determine and influence whether or not their product is preferred choice. To start the conversation about competition, I recommend asking, "What other ways are you considering solving this issue?" or "Are you considering alternative ways of accomplishing your goals other than using our service?” If you can tell which competitor they are considering based on the product questions they are asking, don't be afraid to say, "Based on your questions, I'm guessing you've spoken to competitor X. I often hear these questions when a company is considering their solution versus ours. Does it make sense to have a conversation about how our solutions are different and whether that difference will matter for you?"

Be careful how you handle this conversation, though. Too many salespeople bad-mouth the competition. When reps do this, prospects conclude that the rep is more interested in making the sale instead of helping them find the best solution.

Always focus on helping prospects pick the best solution for them. Do not try to convince them that your offering is the best option right off the bat. Instead, find out what they think they need and what they value first.

To differentiate your offering against a competitor’s without slinging mud, you could ask, "Do you think you'll need X?" (assuming X is part of your product and not the competition's), or even, "Does it make sense to spell out the pros and cons of each product, so that you can weigh them?" If your competitor's salesperson is sowing fear, uncertainty, and doubt, ask the buyer if they’d be willing to share what the rep has said about your product and company so that you can fact check, explain differences from your perspective, and defend where appropriate.

Let's Fix the Disconnect Between Buyers and Sellers

At HubSpot, we spend a lot of calories helping companies fix the disconnect between the way their buyers want to buy and the way they are marketing and selling. There’s clearly a sizable disconnect between what buyers and salespeople want to talk about in that first call. If we don’t fix the divergence in the first sales call, it’ll be hard to fix it later. And everybody loses when salespeople run ineffective sales calls: the buyer, the salesperson, and their company.

So how do we bridge the gap? Prospects want to be in control of the conversation, and salespeople need to be in control in order to spend their time wisely. The good news is that both parties can feel in control if the salesperson handles the conversation correctly. Prospects don't always know best, but ultimately they know their situation better than any third party, and they get to make the final decision about any purchase. Salespeople need to answer their prospect's questions directly, but also ask the questions that help uncover hidden or unknown needs and differentiate their product from the competition.  

In closing, here are a few short maxims to live by:

  1. Don't evade a prospect's question.
  2. Ask prospects what they want to talk about.
  3. Agree on a call agenda.
  4. Sell value, but don't be afraid to talk price.
  5. Go ahead and talk about product features, but tie them to prospects' challenges and goals.
  6. Write, memorize, and share success stories.
  7. Phrase questions so that the language focuses on the prospect's goals, not your own. Use words like “goals,” “challenges,” and “plans.”
  8. Avoid using words like “budget,” “authority,” and “timing.” Don't even worry about these qualification factors until you've established a need that requires fixing.
  9. Ask about and help buyers compare the alternative solution paths they are pursuing.
  10. Don’t be afraid to address the pros and cons of competitive offerings.

How are you bridging the buyer-seller gap in your conversations? Learn more about how to focus calls on what buyers want to talk about at HubSpot's Inbound Sales Day, a day of free sales content brought to you by industry leaders like Dan Pink.

Editor's note: This post was originally published in April 2016 and has been updated for comprehensiveness and accuracy.

 

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