How to qualify prospects & leads

by Steli Efti

Qualifying is all about gathering insights necessary to make a good judgment.

Should you sell to a given prospect? What is the best course of action to close a deal? Is this prospect a good fit for your offer? Is it a viable sales opportunity? 

Only after you've qualified someone can you really know whether it's worth to invest your time and effort into trying to sell to this prospect.

However, many inexperienced salespeople jump to the pitch too quickly, without having first gained a proper understanding of their prospect. 

Download your free list of 42 B2B qualifying questions to start asking prospects the right questions.

What happens when you don't qualify leads?

You're essentially throwing darts in the dark, operating like a mindless sales monkey, and it will hurt your performance on several levels. You'll waste your time and energy chasing the wrong leads, barking up the wrong tree. You become a crocodile salesman—big mouth and no ears.

Crocodile Salesmen are people who are always talking. They’re pitching to you. They don’t take the time to realize what your true motivations are because they’re too busy telling you what they THINK you want to hear. Trust me – your chances of selling are much lower if you’re talking rather than actively listening.—Mark Suster, The Danger of Crocodile Sales
Don't become a crocodile; we have two eyes and one pair of lips for a reason. 

Wasting time

If you're not qualifying your leads properly, you'll waste a lot of time following up, and attempting to sell to prospects that aren't a good fit for your company. Spend this time on qualified prospects, and you'll close substantially more valuable deals.

Missed opportunities

Some of your best prospects might only become a customer if you invest a certain amount of effort into getting them on board. If you don't know who those high-value prospects are, you'll miss out on the chance to sell them.

Closing bad deals

Sometimes you might successfully sell to people who shouldn't buy your product. This isn't just bad for the customer whom you persuaded into a bad buying decision—selling to the wrong customers is also bad for you and your company.

Not knowing how to sell to them

What are their pain points? What's the context in which they evaluate your solution? What kind of person are you dealing with? What type of organization? If you don't know the answers to these questions, then you can't customize your pitch for your prospects.

Unable to close the deal

What's their buying process? How long does it take this company to buy a product? What's the deal value? Not knowing these things can lead to bad "surprises".

Most surprises you'll encounter in sales aren't actually surprises, they're just a result of a sales rep not properly qualifying a prospect. 

How to Qualify

It's all about asking questions and eliciting the right information from the prospect. Get started by downloading your free list of 42 B2B qualifying questions.

There are four areas you want to focus on with your questions.

1. Customer profile

How well do they match your ideal customer profile? How big is the company? What industry are they in? Where are your ideal customers located? What's the ideal use case? Which tools have they used in the past? What kind of ecosystem are they playing in?

When qualifying prospects for our sales pipeline management software, we ask people how many leads they usually have in their pipeline. If it's less than 100 a year, we recommend they not buy our solution and instead just use a whiteboard or a spreadsheet.

2. Needs

What are this customer's needs? Is it about reaching certain goals in revenue? What are the needs of the individual, the team, and the company?

When I interviewed Gary Vaynerchuk on how he is selling to Fortune 500 companies, he dropped some interesting insights on how B2B sales is fundamentally no different to B2C: you're selling to people, not companies.

You have to know how to fulfill their wants and needs. What are the results they want to get? And how will those results affect them, their team and their company?

3. Decision making process

How do they make decisions? How many people are involved? Which departments are involved? What's their typical buying process like? How much time does it takes them to buy a product?

For instance, some organizations have 12 month purchasing processes. If you need to close deals in three months, that's no good for you. When do they plan to buy? Maybe they're not ready to buy now, but will in the future.

4. Competition

Who are you competing against? Which other vendors have they worked with? Are they evaluating your solution vs. building their own solution? What are the criteria they base their decision on?

If you know all these things, you'll have a really great idea if someone is a qualified prospect or not. Create a simple, one-page document that lists all the crucial questions you want to ask or the information you want to elicit.

How NOT to qualify

While the most common problem is without a doubt that sales reps don't qualify their prospect well enough, there are also some people who take qualifying too far, and simply do it badly.

interrogation

You can't just rapidly fire questions at your prospects. Qualifying is not interrogating. Be smooth about it. Weave the qualifying into the natural fabric of an engaging conversation, and approach them with an open sense of curiosity.

Identify red flags during qualifying

During the qualifying stage there are several red flags you want to watch out for.

Spot incongruencies

Sometimes the answers you get from prospects don't paint a coherent picture. Some of the things they say don't fit together with other things they say, and you can't make sense of it. Oftentimes they're giving you BS answers. Sometimes a prospect won't be completely forthright with you. You need to know if they're not being honest with you.

incongruent-prospect

Here's a common example:

A prospect will tell you that it's really important that your solution is scalable to many millions of customers. Later on you find out that their "team" is only two people (nothing wrong with that, been there, done that), they don't have venture funding, they don't have growth and they don't have customers.

A bit of a disconnect to put so much emphasis on scaling to millions of customers, and not having any right now. Maybe they are clueless and inexperienced, maybe there's something they are trying to hide.

Whatever it is, watch out for conflicting responses. Does the story they tell you make sense? 

If it doesn't, then bring it up in a polite and honest way: "I struggle with this little point, why is scaling so important if you are still small?" Or: "I'm struggling with this one piece of information, most of our customers who say XYZ don't have this constraint, why is this something that's important to you?"

Just asking them to clarify will often be enough to bring up the real information.

Pay attention to context, not just content

Don't just listen to what prospects say, but also to how they say it. If they tell you they're super excited about implementing your solution, but their voice is flat and muted ... maybe they're really not super excited.

When you notice this, give them opportunities to clarify things. Don't grill them: "Oh, you say you're super excited, but you sound totally bored. Obviously you're not being honest here!" Simply say something like: "Hey, a lot of times implementing a new solution is really hard. What are some possible issues you might encounter?"

The point is to stimulate a real conversation, to get real information, and not just to comfortably cruise along the surface level.

The reluctant prospect

Sometimes prospects will exhibit an unwillingness to provide you with substantial information. They'll repeatedly respond to your questions with "I don't know". Their answers will be so general and unspecific that they contain no valuable information.

If you're encountering a prospect like this, you're either talking to the wrong person and they're clueless, or they don't trust you. 

Call them out on it. Tell them: "We only deal with customers who become real long-term partners. To do that successfully we both need to be open. I really need to understand what you need in order to even judge if our solution is a good fit for you, or if I should point you into a different direction to make you successful." (For more on building trust in sales, read How to sell to "nonbelievers": Turn doubt into trust.)

4 signs of a good qualifying process

There are certain things you can look at in your business that will be an indicator of how well you're qualifying prospects:

  • Productive sales reps
  • Successful customers
  • Time to close
  • Good forecasting (knowing what kind of deals are going to close and what they are going to be worth).

What if many of your prospects don't qualify?

Sometimes the vast majority of people you talk to simply aren't a good match for your product/service. If that's the case, you're probably casting your net too wide, and should consider a more focused and targeted lead generation approach. There's no point in spending most of your time with prospects who will never buy.

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