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Savvy sellers know that trying to win a deal with partial information is akin to Tiger Woods expecting to win a golf game with only one club in his golf bag.  Depending on who he’s competing against, it’s not impossible, but the odds are stacked heavily against him.  And, if sharing information is critical to buyers getting the right solution, why do customers hold back?  The good news is … it’s rarely intentional.


The 80% Your Customers Don’t Tell You

I still have vivid memories of a time I was making an important purchase for my company.  A vendor raked me over the coals when she found out that I had shared a piece of information with her competitor and not with her.  She lost the bid, and held my unfair act responsible for her loss.  I suppose I should feel some guilt or remorse.  I don’t.

The reality is … buyers rarely share the breadth and depth of information you need to build a winning proposal.  The onus is on you to draw it out of them.

Savvy sellers know that trying to win a deal with partial information is akin to Tiger Woods expecting to win a golf game with only one club in his golf bag.  Depending on who he’s competing against, it’s not impossible, but the odds are stacked heavily against him.

And, if sharing information is critical to buyers getting the right solution, why do customers hold back?  The good news is … it’s rarely intentional.

I’ve observed four fundamental reasons for this phenomenon:

1.     Buyers make assumptions about how much, and what, you need to know.

2.     Buyers are time-starved and may not have fully thought through their issue.

3.     Your contact doesn’t have an understanding of the full picture.

4.     This buyer doesn’t want to provide you the full picture.

1.  Buyers make assumptions.

They provide you – and everyone else – what they believe is “enough” information to enable you to submit a recommendation.  But guess what? It’s never enough!

If you’re working with the same information as your competitor your proposal comes dangerously close to looking like theirs.  And, if you all look the same – guess what threatens to raise its ugly head as the prime differentiator? PRICE!  If you want to get to the 80% that will win you the deal, or be in a position to decide if a deal exists, then you have to work for it.  And that means pre-planning important questions and shifting the conversation into territory the customer has neglected to cover.

Territory that is often overlooked, may be sensitive, and that requires forward planning in terms of what you will ask, and how you will ask includes …   Current business priorities and how this initiative contributes to, and is perceived in context of, critical strategic objectives  …  Key stakeholder preferences and interests – there are people formally and informally involved in the process that the client may neglect  to mention … The specific conditions and criteria that will decide how, and if, they will move forward – and with whom … Who and, more importantly, what are you competing against – traditional competitors, new forms of competition,  or the status quo?

2. Buyers are time-starved.

The buyer may not be the expert on the issue that confronts them.  And they don’t have time to think of everything. That’s why they talk to you.  But they don’t want sellers who simply spew product features and benefits.  They’re looking for . . . an expert to ask valuable customer-centric questions that help them decide “the right path of action,” and not just “the path to your door.”

My favorite personal sales success is the time I met with a client who had just verbally awarded his business to one of my competitors.  Talk about bad timing.  With no immediate opportunity on the table I took advantage of the meeting to learn more about his business.  As I listened I found incongruence between his problem and the solution he had selected.  And, with no intent other than curiosity, I asked him, “Given your current acquisition strategy and ultimate goal, why do you believe this to be the right solution?”

He thought about it and started to question his decision.  He asked me for input. I provided my thoughts in context of the business priorities he had shared earlier. He liked what he heard and asked for a proposal.  This buyer walked away from his previous verbal agreement.  And awarded me the contract. I had just earned what was to be one of the most loyal, and enjoyable, business relationships of my entire selling career.

3. Your contact doesn’t have the full picture.

You already know what I’m going to say about this one.  “YOU’RE TALKING TO THE WRONG PERSON!”   And / or you’re not having the right conversation with ALL of the relevant people.

Organizational decision making has become increasingly complex in recent years with a greater cast of characters playing key roles.  Get clear on where the real influence lies.  Do it early in the sales process.  Identify who has most at stake and who has vital information before you get “locked in” with a go-between or gatekeeper lower on the food chain.

Deepen your understanding of the critical influencers, specifically what’s important to them now, and use this knowledge to give them a reason (from their point of view) to answer your questions directly.

4. The buyer doesn’t want to provide YOU additional information.

It happens.  Customers do, on occasion, hold back intentionally.

First find out why.  There may be a valid reason that you need to understand – before you decide how to get them to spill the beans.

Often there’s an unspoken cause and, if it’s one of the following, that’s a BIG red flag:

Lack of trust. They’re not confident that your intent or capability is in their best interest.

They’re shopping.  You’re either the required third bid and there is no intent to hire you; or there’s no legitimate opportunity – they just want ideas.

If you believe this may be the case, don’t even think to proceed without getting straight answers to some tough questions.

Is this a real opportunity for you?

What is their disposition to your company?

Why would they consider a change?

And why would they consider you?

And don’t accept the “polite” answers.  Get to the truth, even if it hurts. I’ve done this and been told, “Jill you can’t win.  We’re very happy with our current partner.  We need an extra bid.”  Ouch!  But now I know where I stand and I have a choice…  Be the extra bid, do my homework to best show my stuff, and start to slowly build a relationship over time.  Or walk away.

Remember, buyers don’t intuitively provide all of the information you need to develop a differentiated recommendation.  You need to work at retrieving it.

Focus time and energy on preparing powerful relevant questions that will get both you and the customer the information you need.

Think like the customer so you are able to give them a valid reason to respond to your tougher questions.

Be prepared to listen with new ears.  Not just to the customer’s words but to the implication behind the words.

Be prepared to go deeper for meaning and broader into missed territory.

You want to win in golf?

You need a full set of clubs.

You want to win in sales?

You need to work at uncovering the hidden 80%.

About the author

Stu Schlackman

Stu Schlackman

Stu has spent over 25 years in sales management, sales and sales training with…

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