Recently, I asked my colleague Dan Sally, a HubSpot and sales veteran, what he thinks is the most important skill a sales rep should develop. His response was profound.
"It’s the ability to determine, out of all the people you speak with, who is actually going to buy something from you," he said.
Our idea of what defines a great salesperson has evolved throughout the years. First it was the relationship-builders, then the consultants, then the Challengers.
But Dan’s remark made me think that a whole new category of reps are on the rise: Qualifiers. They’re the reps who can pinpoint the prospects who will buy vs. the ones who won’t, and spend their time accordingly.
One of my favorite strategies to separate real buyers from casual ones is assign homework to my prospects. Here’s how to use this tactic to qualify your prospects.
Where you spend your time makes or breaks you
Sales success is dependent on resource allocation.
In any given month, quarter, or year, you only have so many waking hours to get your prospects over the finish line. You can be the best consultant, product expert, negotiator, or Challenger in the world, but if you spend your time on prospects who are not going to buy, it’s all for naught.
This principle is simple: Spend your time influencing people who are actually qualified to buy, and you will be a successful salesperson.
How do you know who actually is qualified to buy? That’s where things get tricky.
Qualifying is no easy task
On a fundamental level, you need to know three key things to effectively qualify a prospect:
Fit: Do they actually have a problem/goal that your product and/or service can help them solve/reach?
Desire: Do they actually want to solve this problem or reach this goal?
Ability: Do they actually have the means to act on this desire immediately?
If the answer to even one of these questions is "No", odds are you’re building a deal on a foundation of popsicle sticks (hopefully they are at least the kind that have jokes on them).
Fit and desire are relatively easy to assess, because the prospect can reliably provide this information. All you have to do is ask them straightforward questions around their process, objectives, and frustrations. But ability is much more difficult to suss out, and is the step that makes qualifying so tricky.
When it comes to their ability to implement a product, prospects are unreliable narrators. Ability is not something you can determine by simply asking them a question.
Here’s a real scenario that demonstrates why.
Fit and desire are not enough to drive action
Earlier this year, a VP of sales booked time on my calendar to evaluate the HubSpot CRM and Sales Pro tools.
We quickly established fit. HubSpot CRM would solve his core problem -- his team hadn’t adopted their current system.
After digging into the repercussions of this lack of adoption -- for example, no forecasting for the sales team or any activity tracking -- it became clear he truly wanted our solution. So I checked the box on desire to change.
I then asked a disqualifying question: Did he truly have the time and ability to enact this change given the effort required (including a data migration and internal process changes)? In a convincing manner, he responded yes.
At this point, I got "happy ears” and was so confident the deal was coming in I took an hour to help him set up the CRM. Then he no-showed to our next meeting.
Fast forward two weeks and numerous reschedules and no-shows, when I received the following (paraphrased) email:
Apologies for the drop off, but due to other commitments we are unable to devote the time and resources to see this change through.
Let’s circle back to this in Q4 -- I really appreciate your help.
I was devastated. I had spent a lot of time -- my most precious resource -- on a deal that was ultimately unqualified.
Here’s where I went wrong: While I believe his desire to change was 100% sincere, I incorrectly assumed that he could act on it based on his word alone. In order to truly qualify and determine if he had the ability to act on his desire, I needed a completely different kind of answer.
Prospects who are serious about buying will demonstrate their commitment
Sometimes a pointed question is all you need to disqualify someone who does not have the ability to change. But in this case, it was not enough.
When I reviewed this call with my manager, he suggested I give the prospect “homework” next time.
"The only way to test for action is by having prospects demonstrate it,” he said.
Human beings love to please and are prone to wishful thinking -- a dangerous combination when you are qualifying. We need to make sure buyers aren’t just telling us what they think we want to hear, or what they want to believe.
I designed an assignment that anyone who was truly serious about moving to our CRM would need to take prior to a purchase. Going forward, whenever I encountered a prospect similar to the VP of sales above, I asked them to complete the homework before offering up my time to help them.
I began to notice that prospects who took the time to complete the homework typically bought, while those who didn’t complete it wouldn’t buy. By introducing this extra step into my sales process, I not only closed more deals, but was also able to spend time helping my best prospects.
How to design a good homework assignment
The approach I used works especially well for software since you can leverage a trial or freemium version of your product and create tasks for the lead to complete in the system, but you can find equivalent tasks for any sales process.
1) Pick a piece of content that educates the prospect.
This could be anything: Reading a case study and/or blog posts, watching videos, or attending events can all be great ways to get your prospect to show if they truly have an ability to act on their desire, while helping them determine if they really are a good fit for your product. This makes it a win-win, not just an ask.
2) Make the workload significant.
The homework should be substantive enough that its completion is meaningful, but not so daunting that it is unrealistic or unfair to expect the prospect to complete it -- this could end up unnecessarily discouraging them. Make sure your homework is actually adding value and isn’t just busywork.
3) Provide structure.
Make the required tasks and criteria for completion as explicit as possible. I like to use numbered lists so it is clear what my expectations are, and the prospect can track when they have completed the work.
Additionally, it is imperative to put a strict due date on the homework itself, typically marked by a prescheduled meeting to go over questions.
Test for action by asking for it
Here’s how assigning homework works in practice.
First, I get buy-in from my prospects that they’re willing to complete an assignment. I usually say the following:
In order to make sure this solution is the right fit for your process, I would recommend walking through a few steps in the software before our next call so you can get a better feel for it. Do you think this would be helpful? If so, I can send them over."
Then, I send them an email template I’ve set up with the assignment outlined in detail. Here's the one I use:
As discussed, here are some steps I think will help you get a real feel for the system and whether or not it is right for you:
[Custom recommendation based on what I've already learned about their sales process]
Customize your deal stages to fit your process (help guide)
Work a real deal from prospect to close in the system (help guide)
Once you have completed these steps, if you find the system is working for you, book some time with me and we can go over any questions and/or next steps.
Get stuck? Try the knowledge base, and if they does not work feel free to reach out to me directly.
The assignment is long, but every step will add value to someone who’s serious about buying. Prospects who aren’t will disqualify themselves, and you can invest your time elsewhere.
Time is a sales rep's ultimate resource, and the best performers know that you have to allocate it selectively with the prospects that are actually going to buy.
Buying requires change, which requires action. There is no better test of action than asking for it. Give your prospects homework and then invest in the ones who have the ability to act on their desire. I guarantee your close rates will go up as a result.
Originally published Oct 2, 2017 6:14:00 PM, updated October 30 2019