The next three chapters deal with opportunities: how to originate them and how to prosecute them.
But, as you’ll notice from this chapter heading, we’re not navigating these big subjects in what would appear to be the logical order.
There are two (very) important reasons why we’ll be talking about prosecuting opportunities before we talk about originating them:
- Assuming that your business exists right now, the first set of opportunities you’ll encounter are those that already exist – meaning that the content of this chapter is immediately applicable
- Counter to popular opinion, there is typically (but not always) more upside in improving the management of your existing opportunity flow than there is in investing the same effort in the generation of new opportunities
In this chapter we’ll define what we mean by opportunity and then we’ll figure out how to convert opportunities into sales.
Suspects, prospects and opportunities
The definition of sales opportunity would appear to be self-evident: it’s an opportunity to sell something. This definition, however, is a little imprecise.
After all, anyone who has been around sales for a while knows that there’s a number of other commonly-used terms that reference the probabilistic nature of the sales engagement (e.g. suspects, prospects, leads and potentials).
Let’s start our little quest for precision by recognizing the requirement for different terms. It’s meaningful to differentiate potential sales from one another on two dimensions:
- Probability (what are the odds of this potential sale becoming an actual sale?)
- Incremental effort expended (do we process these potential sales individually or in batches?)
We can use this first dimension to distinguish between suspects, prospects, non-prospects and accounts (sales):
- A suspect is a name in a telephone book. It’s the term used to refer to an individual (or organization) in the universe of individuals (and organizations) that exist out there somewhere. A suspect has no probability – which, by the way, is not the same as saying that a suspect has zero probability. The thing is, we use the term suspect specifically to refer to the greater population of unclassified (or unrated) individuals and organizations.
- A prospect is an individual (or organization) with non-zero sales probability. To be more specific, it’s an individual (or organization) with some likelihood of purchasing during a sensible time horizon.
- Like a suspect, an account has no probability because this opportunity has already been won!
So, where the probability dimension is concerned, I’m suggesting that the distinction is binary: prospects have some probability; everyone else doesn’t.
The second dimension yields a binary result too. As mentioned, potential sales can either be processed individually or in batches. Salespeople interact with potential clients one at a time – and your marketing department processes them in batches.
This distinction is critical because personal interaction consumes finite resources. Unless there’s something terribly wrong with your technology, your marketing department can process one more click on a landing page or add one more person to an event with negligible incremental effort. Where your salespeople are concerned, however, there’s a hard limit on how many potential clients they can engage with simultaneously.
We use the term sales opportunity (or just opportunity) to refer to those prospects with whom you engage one-on-one.
The other terms we encountered are synonyms for those we’ve already defined. Potential and opportunity mean the same thing, as do lead and prospect.
We now have clarity. A suspect is an unclassified (or unrated) individual (or organization). A prospect is an individual (or organization) with non-zero sales potential. And an opportunity is a prospect in which you are investing incremental sales resources.
Implications for technology (CRM)
It’s useful to consider how these terms relate (or should relate) to modules in your CRM.
Generally speaking, suspects don’t belong in your CRM. Prospects do, and you’ll manage these using your Lead Management and Campaign modules. Opportunities will be managed using (predictably) the Opportunity Management module.
For most organizations, this represents a radical shift in how opportunity-management is done. If, according to our definition, an opportunity is any prospect with whom you are interacting one-on-one, this means that an opportunity should be created in CRM the instant that the sales coordinator engages with the prospect and not when a salesperson deems them to be qualified (or when a proposal is requested)!
If you’re on the ball, you’ll have spotted a hole in my definitions! What do we call individuals (or organizations) that have been assessed: but that have been assessed as having zero probability? This is more than an exercise in semantics as the following scenario will illustrate.
Let’s imagine we are a managed fund that promotes itself to large financial-planning firms.
And, let’s assume that we promote ourselves exclusively by purchasing lists and running direct mail campaigns (heaven forbid this is the case in this day and age!)
It would make sense for us to delineate suspects and prospects based on data that is readily available. So if we consider the universe of lists (suspects), we can readily identify the nature and size of most organizations (this information is in the public domain).
So, in our case, we’ll deem all financial-planning firms with greater than (say) 50 employees to be prospects. And, we’ll aim, over time, to ensure that all of these prospects end up in our CRM.
Now, as our salespeople prosecute opportunities that we have generated against these prospects, they may discover that some prospects are committed to certain investment platforms – and that these platforms prohibit them from recommending non-platform funds. With this additional information at our disposal, we’ll now likely conclude that these firms are actually non-prospects. It is impossible – during any sensible time-horizon for them to purchase from us.
But, this does not mean that we’ll reclassify these prospects as suspects and delete them from the CRM! If we were to do this, we’d almost certainly end-up adding them again, in future, when they appear on another list we purchase. What’s more, we’ll probably recognize that their zero-probability status is a transitory thing. It’s possible that these firms will change platforms at some point. It’s also possible that their current platforms will reassess their position on exclusivity – or even that our fund will get picked-up by those platforms!
The solution is to:
- Make the prospect classification based only upon readily-available information (i.e. avoid stipulating a requirement for omniscience)
- As more information becomes available, assign a status of inactive to those prospects that have zero probability
Converting prospects to opportunities
You may be surprised that the definitions I’m suggesting are not based on probability thresholds. I’m not suggesting, for example, that a prospect be reclassified as an opportunity when its probability is assessed as being greater than (say) 80%.
While it’s true that you should consider percentages when you are analyzing historical data, it makes no sense to use them as a guide to management (resource-allocation) decisions. When considering where to invest your resources, the question should not be which prospect has the greatest probability of purchasing? Rather, you should be asking, which prospect is likely to generate the greatest yield on the organizational constraint?
Obviously, the likelihood of that prospect purchasing has some bearing on that answer, but there are other factors that should probably receive equal (if not greater) attention:
- What product or service is this prospect likely to purchase?
- What margin are we likely to be able to charge that prospect for that product?
- What is the likely term of our relationship with that prospect?
- How many units of our organizational constraint are likely to be consumed servicing this prospect?
Of course, there is a high degree of uncertainty associated with all of these factors. The practical solution to this uncertainty problem is to design a sales environment that allows a healthy opportunity flow (volume, not crystal-ball-gazing is the antidote to uncertainty!).
You convert a prospect to an opportunity simply by determining that you will allocate finite sales resources to it. The conversion may be triggered by a prospect’s action (e.g. they may attend a webinar and request a consultation) or it might be triggered internally (e.g. your promotions coordinator sends a pre-approach package to 20 prospects and tags them all for follow-up by a salesperson’s sales coordinator).
If we assume that sales is your organization’s constraint, your primary focus will be keeping your salespeople fully utilized (four appointments a day, five days a week).
Which prospects to convert to sales opportunities is a secondary consideration. You may choose to engineer your sales environment so that the conversion of all opportunities is triggered by prospect actions or (more likely) you will have a mix of externally and internally triggered conversions.
Where the latter is concerned, you can use the factors above to implement a (quick-and-dirty) prospect scoring algorithm (with prospects sorted in descending order). However, you must recognize – as discussed earlier – that such approaches are helplessly inexact (hence, my quick-and-dirty reference).
The (grisly) end of qualification
Now, it’s important to note that I’m not advocating any half-way step in between prospect and opportunity. A prospect is either in play or it isn’t – and if it is, it’s an opportunity.
Of course, if you listen to salespeople talk, you’d be convinced there is an intermediate step where prospects must be either qualified or disqualified. In fact, it’s widely believed, in sales environments, that qualification is a necessary and value-adding activity.
Nothing could be further from the truth!
Let’s consider qualification, as it’s typically practiced:
Lenny, the CEO of a mobile-application-development firm returns from a business-leaders’ mixer with a handful of business cards.
Each business card has been given to him by a senior executive from a mid-sized organization.
Excited, he hands the 20 business cards to David, one of his salespeople – who agrees to follow them up.
Two weeks passes and Lenny has received no feedback so he button-holes David at the local cafeteria. “What’s happened with those 20 opportunities I gave you,” he asks.
“Well,” David explains, “only 2 of them are real opportunities … and I’m still working on them.”
Lenny is incredulous: “what do you mean; only two of them are real opportunities?” “All of those people are senior executives of decent sized businesses – and all decent-sized businesses have cause to at least consider web applications.”
David shrugs and returns to his lunch.
We can only make sense of David’s position if we consider the environment in which he operates (the traditional model). Because of the multitude of competing demands for David’s time, David has no choice but to prioritize. And, because many of these demands are urgent (e.g. helping production to interpret client requests, solving customer-service problems and so on), David has very little capacity remaining to invest in speculative business-development activities.
When Lenny hands him 20 business cards, he recognizes that he simply doesn’t have time to prosecute 20 opportunities concurrently. His solution is to make a quick (qualification) call to each contact to determine how interested they are in a mobile application.
Not surprisingly, he discovers that only 2 of the 20 have any concrete interest (none of the others has even made a budgetary allocation!)
Sadly, this scenario plays out every day, in almost every organization, in every country of the developed world.
Qualification is NOT selling: it’s actually the opposite (the avoidance) of selling. Of course, the core problem here is the design of the traditional sales environment. However, when we reengineer that environment we cannot simply assume that all the practices that made sense in the old environment will simply disappear in the new one. Some won’t – meaning that they need to be actively eliminated.
Qualification is a particularly insidious – and remarkably persistent – practice. You will need to hunt it down and drive a stake through its ugly heart whenever it makes an appearance.
If a salesperson has an unutilized unit of capacity and there’s a prospect available, that salesperson should be selling them, not qualifying them.
As discussed, it does make sense to distinguish between suspects and prospects but, I’d suggest you avoid using the term qualification for this purpose. Qualification is so destructive that you’re better off exorcising both the practice and the word from your organization!
Now it is true that not all prospects are equal but, as we’ve already discussed we can allow for this by:
- Sorting (or indexing) prospects using our quick-and-dirty scoring algorithm
- Maintaining a surplus, so as to ensure that salespeople are occupied with (probabilistically, at least) the higher caliber prospects
It’s also true that salespeople will, from time to time, encounter what we’ve resolved to call inactive prospects: individuals (or companies) who – for reasons that aren’t readily apparent – are not in a position to purchase. Doesn’t it make sense for salespeople to filter these out before they start selling?
The answer is no!
The thing is; if this information is not readily available, salespeople will have to dig for it. And, digging for this data is antagonistic to selling. A better approach is to accept that some prospects won’t purchase (that’s why we call them prospects in the first place!); but to treat them all as if they will (until they advise us otherwise).
It’s important that management helps salespeople to remember that theirs is a low-probability environment: that’s simply the nature of (true) selling.
The opportunity-management process
Now that we have opportunities, we need a process to prosecute them. This process must consist of:
- A standard workflow that dictates:
- The sequence of steps (activities) each opportunity follows
- The resource responsible for each step
- Critical stages (milestones)
- Centralized scheduling
- Management information and procedures
A standard workflow
Each of the words in the heading above is significant.
A implies one. You should only have one workflow for each product and service. In fact, similar products should share the same workflow. If you receive opportunities from multiple promotional campaigns, those campaigns should all be designed to feed into the same workflow.
Standard means that the path each opportunity follows through your organization is essentially the same as the path followed by the opportunity before it. Certainly, there is no reason for variation between salespeople. But even where clients are concerned, it is usually possible to adopt a standard workflow, for two reasons:
- In a mature market, competitive pressures will cause your clients to structure their businesses similarly and adopt similar procurement procedures
- In an immature market, clients will not have developed fixed procurement procedures – meaning that your salespeople have the opportunity to sell whatever you have determined is the ideal workflow (or engagement model)
And workflow, of course is significant because that’s what we’re here to discuss.
We’ve already discussed, at length, the resourcing component of the standard model. We know that, where opportunity-management is concerned, you have the following resource pool (assuming a complex-sales environment):
- Sales coordinator
- Project leader
Let’s now consider the activities (steps) that will be required to convert opportunities into sales. We can start by grouping them by general activity type:
- Face-to-face appointments of various types (including workshops, demonstrations and so on)
- Conference calls (voice and video)
- Solution design, estimating and quoting
- Scheduling activities (via phone, email, etc)
- Various de-briefing conversations between different parties (particularly the salesperson and the sales coordinator)
To enable the collection of meaningful management information we need to identify milestones (stages) too. The ideal milestones are those locations in the workflow where your client has just agreed to proceed to the next meaningful activity:
- Scheduled an initial appointment
- Scheduled a proposal-review meeting (obviously agreeing to a proposal-review meeting is more meaningful that simply agreeing to receive a proposal)
- Scheduled a management workshop
- Scheduled a contract-review meeting
Now we have all the pieces, it’s time to assemble the puzzle – to draw our first draft of your standard workflow. I say first draft because this initial diagram will, almost certainly, be redrawn multiple times before its deemed fit for purpose!
For this you’ll need either a sheet of graph paper and a pencil or, better still, a copy of a charting program (my preference is Microsoft Visio.)
Step 1: let’s go swimming
Start by drawing a set of swimlanes (so named, because, collectively, they resemble a swimming pool). It’s standard-practice to delineate resources on the horizontal and stages on the vertical.
You can then name the workflow and each of the resources.
Step 2: a simple, linear flow
You can now start to add entities and connectors.
My recommendation is that you force yourself to map your entire workflow using only two entities: states and activities. (States are inputs to – and outputs from – activities). This restraint will prevent you from mapping the workflow at too granular a level.
In case you’re wondering, the ideal level of granularity is the one where (for most opportunities):
- All activities are essential
- All pairs of activities are non-commutative (their sequence can’t be reversed)
If we examine the first few steps in this workflow, we can make some interesting observations:
- In this instance, we’re assuming the opportunity is triggered by an inbound enquiry, rather than an outbound campaign
- The meetings have names – as opposed to being described by their location in the sequence (first meeting, second meeting, etc). This is because:
- It’s the content of the meeting that’s of primary importance. For example, a second meeting might be a repeat of the first meeting or it may be a materially different event.
- The meeting name communicates the purpose of the meeting (and sometimes its intended outcome) to all parties
- We map a single path with no loop-backs and no trivial activities (e.g. update CRM). We do map the points where the salesperson debriefs their sales coordinator, because these activities are critical and should be tracked.
- Stage names reference the outcome of that subset of the process and conclude with the word pending. This focuses team members on the concrete outcome, rather than on the activities being performed.
- The Sales Coordinator is the process owner. For this reason, most states will appear in their swimlane.
Step 3: complexity, be gone
As we get deeper into this workflow (and get more comfortable with the mapping method) we can turn our attention to the structure of the opportunity-management process.
Specifically we need to consider the difference between a workflow for a simple sale and one for a complex sale. Interestingly, there isn’t much of a difference! (Or, at least, there shouldn’t be.)
Consider the continuation of our (complex-sale) workflow, above.
To date, we’ve performed a couple of appointments: the first with our initial contact and the second with the team of decision makers. As a consequence, we’ve secured a request for proposal. If this were a simple sale, we’d be proposing our ultimate offering at this point; however, because it’s a complex sale, we’re proposing an intermediate offering: a solution-design workshop.
You’ll soon see that the solution-design workshop consists of a couple of appointments and terminates in the presentation of another proposal: in this case, for the final offering.
However, if this sales opportunity were more complex still, the solution-design workshop might terminate in a proposal for a pilot, which – you guessed it – would be an engagement that leads to yet another proposal!
It should now be clear that a complex sale does not necessitate a complex opportunity-management process. Just as a centipede with 191 trunk segments is no more complex than a fly (with only 12), the complexity of an opportunity-management process does not increase as we accumulate multiple iterations of an inherently simple sub-process.
In summary, then, we prosecute a simple opportunity with a simple process (consisting of just a handful of activities). We prosecute a complex opportunity, with the same simple process – repeated multiple times.
We’ve just stumbled across the secret of what’s typically referred to as major-account selling. If you read books on this subject you’ll learn that the key to prosecuting complex deals is to get inside of – and attempt to manage – this complexity.
Again, nothing could be further from the truth. By definition, complexity is that which cannot be managed.
The key to prosecuting complex deals is actually to engineer the complexity out of the engagement process. Of course, both you and your clients will benefit from the simplification of an otherwise unproductive workflow.
Step 4: Solution design
We can now go ahead and complete the mapping of our representative opportunity-management process. (And, with this done, I think you’ve earned yourself a cup of tea!)
The solution-design workshop
A solution-design workshop is an invaluable addition to your opportunity-management workflow whenever you are selling a custom-engineered product (or service).
Such a workshop (they are often called feasibility studies, envisioning workshops and similar) provides the following benefits:
- It enables you to take control of your client’s decision-making processes (which, absent your involvement, is often entirely unstructured and ineffective)
- It turns solution-design into a collaborative process – which results in potential-clients assuming ownership of the solution long before they are asked to purchase and slashes the duration of the solution-design process
- It enables you to socialize the new direction with a larger number of stakeholders (client-side) than would otherwise be possible
The solution-design workshop should be facilitated either by a project leader or by a dedicated facilitator. In either case your salesperson and nominated project leader must be present (and actively involved). You should design your workshop so that the greater proportion of the content that will ultimately populate your outcomes document (and accompanying proposal) is actually generated during the workshop (excluding content that is standard to all documents, of course).
Ideally, the workshop should consist of a series of tightly-choreographed exercises. You can conduct these exercises on a whiteboard, but my preference is to use a word processor and a charting application (in conjunction with a data projector) as a virtual whiteboard.
The exercises are likely to include the following:
- (Very) brief introduction from the workshop sponsor (client side) and the project leader – including a summary of the scope of the workshop
- Discovery of the sets of symptoms (undesirable effects) that have given cause to the workshop (I say sets of symptoms because you want to record the perspectives of multiple participants)
- Reasoning from the undesirable effects to the root cause (or causes) of these effects
- Determination of the direction of the solution
- High-level design of the solution (ideally using diagrams)
- Resolution of key lower-level design issues
- Risk analysis (including a review of possible unintended consequences of the proposed solution)
- High-level economic feasibility review (how will the organization justify the likely expenditure of money and other resources)
After the workshop, the project leader should convert the outcomes into a formal presentation of findings document and review this document with the salesperson prior to the scheduled presentation of findings meeting. My preference is to create this document in a PowerPoint (or similar) format.
Proposals, estimates and quotations
Where proposals and other similar documentation are concerned, it’s worth reviewing who should do what.
We know, already, that we do not want the salesperson involved in the creation of any documentation. And we should also have a good idea about who will be responsible for proposals for simple transactions (the customer-service team) and complex transactions (the project leader).
There are, however, some proposals that resist being squeezed into these two categories!
The solution-design workshop proposal
Take, for example, the solution-design workshop proposal: who should prepare that?
This proposal should be a stock-standard document – simply because all your solution-design workshops should use the same basic structure. Obviously the duration of the event will vary from client to client – as will the name of the client! – but all such variability can, and should, be accommodated with a simple automated Word document like the following.
With a basic knowledge of scripting an advanced user of any
word-processing application can create a master document
that prompts the user for variable data upon opening
Proposals for complicated (but not complex) products
We’ve resolved, already, that a complex sale is one where a perfect hand-off between sales and production is impossible. This definition leaves room for situations where the quote is still pretty complicated because of either the technical or the commercial requirements.
In these situations you need to ensure that the salesperson captures all of the information required to generate the proposal in the sales meeting. In other words, the salesperson should be able to submit all the data required to generate the proposal to their sales coordinator at the conclusion of the meeting (this might involve emailing a PowerPoint or Excel file or simply pressing submit within a custom tablet application).
Salespeople are likely to object that they need to need to customize the sales preamble at the start of the proposal and that this cannot be done in front of the client.
This is simply not true.
The reality is that clients, if they have invested the time required to meet with a salesperson, would rather receive a proposal that accurately captures both the commercial and technical realities of their situation.
Furthermore, in many cases, clients will be intending to take the proposal and use it to influence others in the organization who aren’t present in the meeting – meaning that they will particularly value the salesmanship contained in the document.
Demonstrations are the cause of much value-destruction in complex sales environments (particularly among technology companies).
As is evidenced by the pitch-doctors who sell nifty potato peelers in shopping centers, nothing sells like a good demonstration.
Sometimes, however, the demonstration is a distraction from that which you are trying to sell. Here’s a scenario.
Imagine you’re the financial controller of a business that does $100m a year in sales. And, you’re considering purchasing a new ERP system.
Ask yourself, what are you really buying? Are you buying a piece of software? Or are you buying a better approach to governance, to management decision-making and to operational performance that will (hopefully) be facilitated by a software application?
It’s the latter, isn’t it?
Now, ask yourself this, if you stare long and hard at the software, is there any likelihood that the business outcomes you’re looking for will suddenly appear?
Of course not: the software is a distraction from what you’re buying. A smart ERP vender will not show it to you. Rather than demoing software, this vendor will talk to you about the assumptions, theories and methodologies that are baked-in to their software. They’ll understand that if they can sell the theoretical underpinnings of their software, then you will lose interest in examining the application itself.
They’ll assume that, if you’re one of the very few software vendors who’re capable of having a high-level discussion about the realities of business management, then you’ve probably also figured out how to build software that works.
One of our silent revolutionaries (a particularly successful enterprise software producer) has discovered that it makes sense to postpone demonstrations as long as possible and then to finally show the software in the form of a training session for users – with decision-makers looking on.
We’re about to turn our attention to the generation of sales opportunities – a big and exciting subject!
However, before we do, I must reiterate my exhortation that you first pay attention to the prosecution of your existing opportunity flow.
I hope this chapter has made it clear what a big subject opportunity-management is – and provided you numerous ideas for improvement. Please be sure to exploit all of these ideas before you shift your attention to promotion.