How to Advance a Sales Opportunity Virtually
There are new challenges for salespeople selling virtually, whether it’s getting a response from prospects, setting a meeting, or dealing with Zoom fatigue. Selling has changed, and sales reps need to adjust. In our blogs each week, we try to offer helpful tips and suggestions to address the shift that sellers are facing.
We’ve spent a lot of time focusing on prospecting and how to engage with prospects in the virtual selling world, as well as the discovery phase and building value for your customers. Today we’re shifting gears to focus on a key step that occurs multiple times throughout the sell cycle and really carries the whole sales process. We’re talking about how to advance – how to advance the sale and gain commitment to each step of the sales process.
We’ll start with the foundation that carries the “how to” of advancing a sales opportunity virtually. It begins with the following question:
Who should be driving the sales process?
We all know the answer: the sales rep. The sales rep should always be in the driver’s seat. If we follow the analogy through, this means your passenger is your customer. Just because you’re driving, doesn’t mean you ignore your passenger’s requests. You probably collaborate on directions and decide on a destination together. If they ask to make a pit stop, you do. But, at the end of the day, your hands are the ones on the steering wheel.
Why should sales reps lead the process?
Because sales reps know the best process to help their customers make the best decision and determine the best solution for their business needs.
Think about it. As salespeople, we are immersed in the industry we serve. We speak to many customers on a daily basis. We know their challenges, their wants and needs, we have industry knowledge and experience. In short, we sell our solution every day. We know the best process to help customers reach a good, solid decision about how to solve their business challenges.
Customers, in all likelihood, only evaluate and buy our solution once over the course of their career. Or maybe a few times, depending on the product or service. But they don’t have the same access to the knowledge and insight that sales reps do. It’s a disservice to our customers not to lead. We need to guide them through the process. That is our role as sales reps.
If your motive is pure, and your true desire is to serve your customer, leading the process will be natural. Customers will not fight you on your process if they feel like they are the priority. Articulate to your customer that your goal is simply to guide them through the process in the best way you know, based on your plentiful experience.
The customer is not motivated by your goals. So you have to demonstrate that your goal aligns with theirs: to reach the best decision for their business.
That should be true even if they don’t end up buying your solution. You must truly have their best interest at heart if you hope to influence your prospect and help them embrace your recommendation.
If you are truly Other-CenteredⓇ, it will show. Your customers will be more receptive and engaged. Remember, your motive is transparent.
5 Steps for Advancing the Sale
I sat down with our CEO here at ASLAN, Tom Stanfill, to unpack the 5 steps he has generated to help sales reps advance an opportunity in a virtual environment.
Step 1 – Decide the resources you want to invest in pursuing the opportunity.
Step 1 is what you do before you advance, but it is a vital piece of the process.
Assess the opportunity. What is that probability that you can win the sale, and is it worth winning?
Step back and strategize how much of your valuable time and resources you should invest. Which “steps” in the process are you going to use to advance the sale? Some steps (i.e. doing comprehensive, customized research) may cost more than others (sending an article or marketing asset).
Think about those steps or events as an “arsenal of weapons” you can deploy during a sales cycle, and decide which ones you’re going to use, which ones make the most sense to use, given the specifics of that particular account.
Of course, you want to help your customer make the best decision, but your time is limited. You can only serve so many people. So take the time to figure out which customers you can actually serve. Are you best suited to solve that customer’s problem?
Be strategic when choosing where to spend your time. It’s your most important resource. How you invest your time will determine your overall success as a sales rep.
Step 2 – Determine what stage your customer is at.
As the leader of the sales process, it’s the sales rep’s job to determine the best way for the customer to evaluate the solution. Therefore, the key to advancing a sale is knowing where your customer is in the buying process (and then choosing the next step accordingly).
How do we determine where the customer is at?
There are essentially 4 different stages we can use to categorize and discuss where a customer may be:
- Unconscious needs –
For some reason, you’re meeting with a customer (maybe you have a past relationship or they are simply curious about your solution) and you, the sales rep, can see that they have a need. But your prospect doesn’t yet recognize that need.
The need is not acute for the customer, but the sales rep sees that it exists.
An example: At the beginning of the pandemic, we met with a former client about sales training. We could see that they had a need to train their sales force to sell virtually, that transitioning their field sellers to sell remotely was going to be a challenge. But they didn’t yet recognize that need.
- Feeling the pain –
The customer feels the need, they feel the pain of their problem, but they’re unsure of the solution. They don’t know how to proceed. Maybe their company is trying to solve the pain point internally, or even looking to outsource, but they are lost. They feel the pain of their problem and don’t know how to solve it.
- Recognize the pain and the need for a solution, but it’s not a priority.
The customer recognizes that there is a problem and that it needs to be solved, but they can’t solve it immediately, for some reason (budget, timing, conflicting initiatives/ priorities etc.)
- Looking for solution providers.
The customer knows there is a problem, they see the need for the solution, and they’re evaluating providers. This stage can be both a blessing and a curse. The sales cycle is short, the need is urgent, and the customer is likely already in discussions with your competition. The stakes are higher to work quickly and on the customer’s terms, potentially by their process.
Depending on where the customer is in those stages, it’s up to the sales rep to determine which event they should propose as the next best step.
Step 3 – Determine which event makes sense.
Again, the key to advancing a sale is knowing where your customer is in the buying process, and choosing the next step accordingly.
How do sales reps determine the next best step, the appropriate step, the next logical step to take?
First, it’s important to lay out all possible steps, or events, of the sales process. Define the resources you can offer your prospect. Nail down the stages of your process and the corresponding action steps.
If not, you’ll end up finishing your meeting or call with vague promises of a “follow-up” at some undetermined point in the future.
We’ve come up with an overview of what this looks like for our own sales teams. This will vary for different salespeople based on factors like industry or size, etc., but the basics are universal.
Stages 1 & 2
These two stages (unconscious needs and pain) are similar. The customer either doesn’t see the problem/ need or doesn’t know what to do about it. But you, the sales rep, know you can help them.
In this case, the first event should be to establish credibility with your prospect. Do something to demonstrate your capabilities so that they see you as an asset. If you don’t establish credibility, your customer won’t take any of those next steps you propose.
Conduct some kind of capabilities overview that gets your prospect excited about you and what you can offer. Make them a fan. In their eyes, you need to shift from a stranger to an ally.
Once you’ve established credibility, you have many options for next steps. Think about it this way:
What resource or option can you offer them that will demonstrate the value of your solution. Or better yet, what can you offer them to help them see the value of your relationship?
Some examples include:
- Free assessment and a report
- Free consulting
- Free “demo” or trial period with the solution
- Meeting with customers who have faced similar problems
I’ve even seen sales reps coordinate “best practice” meetings with other customers or industry experts.
Sales reps can also share educational materials such as:
- Case studies
- Other assets
With those educational resources, sales reps have a unique opportunity. There’s a concept called assignment selling that could come into play here. In Chapter 27 of Marcus Sheridan’s renowned book, They Ask You Answer he unpacks this idea. It’s the ability of a sales rep to test a prospect’s interest level by giving them an “assignment.”
This assignment can be any resource, research, or information that the sales rep shares to help the prospect learn more. Sharing case studies or whitepapers is a great, unselfish way for sales reps to give potential customers free information that will help them ultimately make a better decision.
It also helps you as the sales reps to gauge their level of interest in the solution. Do they care enough/ have enough interest to “do the assignment?”
When sharing information, remember: it’s not about your solution, it’s about what they need to know to solve their problem.
There is a big opportunity in Stage 3, where the customer recognizes the pain point and the need for a solution, but it’s not a priority for them now. There is something in the way, some hurdle they need to overcome first.
The best event here, is to solve whatever problem they do have now. Don’t focus on what you want to solve, focus on what they want to solve.
If it’s something you can help them with, even if it means bringing in an outside consultant, a strategic partner, or other resources, focus on solving that priority first.
Right now, your customer is focused on something else. If you can help them figure out that problem, it will set the stage for you to partner with them later on with your solution.
In this phase, your customer is actively searching for solution providers. They’re already talking with your competitors and are probably pretty far along into their decision making process.
The most important thing here is to back up the process.
When you enter the scene, the customer is dictating what needs to happen, they’re running the show. In this instance, your role as a sales rep is to communicate why it’s in their best interest to follow your lead.
Articulate why following your process and your steps will ultimately benefit them and help them make the right decision for their business.
This is the most challenging event to pull off and you may not always succeed. But, if you can’t lead the process, you won’t be able to uncover all their needs and truly serve them well.
This goes back to Step 1, evaluating the opportunity. If your chances of winning are low, which they will be if you can’t drive the process, you may need to take a strong stance with your customer. Communicate, in an Other-Centered way, that if you can’t follow your process, you won’t be able to participate. (Tom has done this before with success). It’s not helpful for anyone to go down a path without knowing where it leads. You need more information first, you need to understand their business and their needs before making a presentation.
You have to determine this for yourself, based on the specific account, but sometimes you need to stand your ground.
If you think your chances of winning are low, if you think your customer will make a bad decision, you need to back up the process. Otherwise, it will just be a waste of your time and theirs.
Step 4 – Position the event.
It’s important to position the next event, the next step, in the context of the customer. Why is it in their best interest to take that step?
Sales reps, figure this out ahead of time. Put yourself in the customer’s shoes and understand why it should matter to them. If you don’t have an Other-Centered reason figured out ahead of time, you will struggle to communicate it to your prospect and they will be unlikely to follow your lead.
For example, “The reason I want to speak to the decision maker is because everyone has unique desires and needs. If I don’t speak with them, I won’t know what’s important to them and what problem we’re trying to solve.”
Reiterate that your goal is to help them make the best decision. You know what they need to be able to make that decision. As someone with experience, your process is your process for a reason. It works.
You want to be able to make a recommendation, not a presentation.
Step 5 – Send an invite.
This last step is simple, but crucial. You need to be able to send a calendar invite for the next step.
Regardless of the next event (a call, an assessment, a demo, etc.), if you can’t send an invite, you don’t have a commitment.
Before you end any interaction, gain a commitment to the next step. The best time to get commitment to the next event is when you’re still with the customer, in person or virtually. When they leave that meeting with you, other priorities will take precedence.
Whenever possible, get a specific date and time for the next step before you end your current interaction.
Advance, Advance, Advance
Sales reps, you will lose opportunities if you don’t lead. Customers are looking for someone who has the expertise to solve their problem. That’s why they’re talking to you.
“Figure out and focus on what’s required for the customer to evaluate your solution and then get really passionate about that.” – Tom Stanfill
The best way to get to know us is to know what we value. If we teach it we live it, because what we do speaks far more eloquently than what we say. We’ll always choose people over profits, and we’re most fulfilled and effective when we serve. It drives our culture, frames our training programs and transforms the lives of the clients we partner with.