A Golden Nugget of New Business Development

This past year (2009) was tough for most businesses, and 2010 will be tough too. Current account lists have been trimmed (in both numbers and profitability) because of the global economic contraction, and the focus of most business has turned to new business development to drive revenue growth. In fact, the majority of sales job listings on careerbuilder.com and monster.com are for salespeople that can develop new business, rather than organically grow existing business. Because new business development is so important to so many, I thought I would post an article on what I consider to be one of the “golden nuggets” that sales executives should think of to help boost his/her sales organization’s new business productivity.

The golden nugget is your sales force’s ability to QUALIFY NEW PROSPECTS. To better understand the implications of good/bad qualification on new business development, I find it’s insightful to take a look at the sales funnel. There are two characteristics of the sales funnel that I find to be telling about new business development. The first is that as opportunities move down the sales funnel, they require an increasing investment of your company’s resources (time and money). The implication is that if you let an unqualified opportunity move down the funnel it will become very expensive (in time and money) very fast, and you will lose out on the opportunity to invest those resources in other opportunities. The second characteristic is that the greatest number of prospects sit within the first stage of your sales funnel (often called prospecting or initial contact). The average amount of time that your salespeople spend qualifying a prospect in the first stage has a HUGE impact on your sales force’s time. If your sales force reaches out to 100 prospects a week, an average qualification time of 30 minutes versus an hour can free your sales force of 3,000 hours per week; that’s equivalent to adding 75 full time employees per week.

So where does qualification fit into the sales funnel? Qualification is the process by which your salespeople identify the quality of the prospect, and determine if the prospect is worth pursuing. In the sales funnel this is reflected by the movement of a prospect either from the first stage (often called “initial contact”) to the second stage (often called “needs analysis”), or the elimination of the prospect from the sales funnel altogether. Qualification has a profound impact on both the number of expensive bad opportunities that leak into the advanced stages of your sales funnel, as well as the time your salespeople will spend trying to qualify prospects. If you could use 75 new salespeople, or would love to have invested more resources in a big opportunity that got away, here are a couple tips to help your sales force qualify opportunities efficiently and effectively:

–Define Qualification: Generally speaking, a qualified opportunity is one in which the salesperson has spoken with someone involved in the decision making process, has found that the target company has a need, and is certain that the target company has an interest/commitment to take action to meet that need. As I am sure you know, there are different degrees of quality and you will want to invest your resources accordingly. I generally find that there are roughly three characterizations that businesses gravitate to once a prospect is deemed to be over the quality threshold: 1) Good enough to let a salesperson invest their time. 2) Good enough to assign local resources (engineers, regional marketers, local sales managers) to the opportunity. 3) Good enough to assign corporate resources (regional sales VPs, directors of product management, C-level suite) to the opportunity.

–Create Qualification Questions: After you have defined what a qualified opportunity looks like, you will need to determine the key questions that your sales force must answer to determine the quality of the prospect. I’m a big believer in looking at my best employees for insight, and almost always find that the best new business development salespeople will have a good understanding of the questions they ask to determine if the prospect is worth putting more effort into. For example, a good qualification question I see elite salespeople answer is “Does your prospect have an assigned budget for the project/product/service?” That might give you insight as to whether the prospect has made a commitment to meet their need.

–Answer Qualification Questions: Once you’ve determined the right questions to ask, it’s time to ingrain these questions in your sales management, sales process, coaching priorities, and CRM software. The key here is to emphasize the importance of answering these questions in as many places as possible; this will help to create an environment (as opposed to a “flavor of the week” initiative) that exudes the importance of answering qualification questions. You can always just require that they answer them, but unless they see those questions as important they are likely to game the system.

–Training!: As a manager and a leader, whenever you set a strong direction for your people it is important to surround them with the resources they need to do accomplish their goals. Seek out an internal or external sales training group that specializes in helping salespeople qualify, and follow up with support: here are a few tips that will help you with sales training.

–Set Goals and Measure Results: As with anything, measuring progress towards your goals is crucial. If you aren’t sure about what goals you need, set-up your qualification infrastructure (steps above) and then start to gather data to help you set a baseline. Set up your goals so that they are consistent with the other goals for your sales force.

One important note: The reason why I see most companies struggle with qualification is that they over rely on one of the two different types of questions they make their sales force answer: objective and subjective. An objective question requires a black and white answer, such as “Is there an assigned budget for the project/product/service, and what is the amount?” Customers have never fit neatly into objective boxes because they are all unique, and a salesperson’s value often lies in their intuition. Holding back your investment in all prospects unless the answer to this question is “Yes” might be a mistake. A subjective question relies solely on the perspective of the salesperson, which often varies from salesperson to salesperson. Of a ten prospect account list, one salesperson might see five qualified prospects while another might see two. This makes it very hard to truly see the ripe opportunities that you should invest resources in winning. In order to be as accurate as possible, it is vital that you use a mix of both subjective and objective questions.