Monday, September 22, 2008

Calibrating the Sales Process

Years ago, I received a call from the environmental manager at a large manufacturing facility who was interested in outsourcing their wastewater treatment plant. He had concluded that it would be in their best interest to sell the plant to another company, then pay for the treatment services. He asked if our firm could do that. I was happy to respond that we could.

This seemed the breakthrough I had been waiting for. I had pursued this client, located in the small town where I lived, for years. Yet we had only secured a couple of small contracts. I called a couple of experts in our firm and invited them to come to Colorado to meet with the client. I was about to learn another painful lesson about the need to understand where the client is in the decision process.

My biggest mistake was failing to account for the other decision makers involved (what's known as the "complex sale"). My contact had done his homework and come to the conclusion that outsourcing was the way to go. So our team came prepared to talk about how that transaction would take place. Besides my contact, we would be meeting with the facility manager, engineering manager, and wastewater treatment plant operator.

Research suggests that people go through five stages in making a purchase decision (or most any kind of decision). These are:
  • Recognize a problem or need
  • Search for information about both the need and possible solutions
  • Evaluate the possible alternatives
  • Make a decision (or purchase)
  • Assess the decision (post-purchase evaluation)

In sales, it's important to recognize where in this process the client is and align your approach accordingly. In the complex sale, of course, different buyers can be (and often are) in different stages of the decision process.

You can guess where the story goes. The environmental manager was ready to make a decision, and we had come prepared to help him. The facility manager, however, was still searching for information, aware that there were problems but not sure what to make of them. The engineering manager was a little farther along, considering various alternatives, one being outsourcing. But he was leaning against that option. Finally, the operator was incredulous. "What's the problem?" he wanted to know.

It was a rancorous meeting, one we were hardly prepared to moderate. The outsourcing opportunity never materialized, nor did any other contracts with this client. My contact, the environmental manager, left the company shortly after to become a consultant. Maybe he thought he could do a better job than we had that day!

In my experience, not many technical consulting and design firms excel in managing the complex sale. It takes time and can be difficult at times. That's all the more reason to give it priority. Understanding the players involved enables you to calibrate your sales approach to respond to their concerns and goals, as well as to where they are in the decision process.

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