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When "Yes" Means Something Else in Sales

One of the most common problems I hear about from sales teams is the problem of traction. They can get into the big companies, but they can't get that "yes" to turn into dollars.

"We're getting commitments, but we're not getting orders..."

"Some of the biggest companies out there are our customers, we just aren't getting the volume..."

"The decision-maker is saying we're going to get the business, but then her people order from their old suppliers..."

Sales people are pathologically optimistic, and that's a good thing. If they weren't, how could they get out and face the rejection and frustration that accompanies the sales process? But that optimism carries with it some inherent dangers for their companies.

False positives, missed signals and 'hope'
Sales people receive a variety of "yes" answers during the sales process that create the sense that a deal has occurred. In reality, there is at least one unseen step in the decision spectrum where the "maybe" masquerades as "yes." You can probably spot it:

1. Curiosity. Buyers are seeking market intelligence, wondering if there is an alternative to what they are doing now and if they can negotiate concessions out of their current provider using your offering as leverage.

2. Interest. Buyers are considering your solution in a head-to-head comparison with what they are doing now or with other options.

3. Commitment. Buyers have agreed you are a qualified vendor that they will use for future purchases. The unstated part of this idea is the "if" factor. That means that their agreement hinges on a series of elements:

  • If there is enough time to do a vendor change out on the project;
  • If you can beat the reduced price that their old vendor has offered them to keep their business;
  • If the specification on the work lines up with your unique capabilities, rather than just your same abilities as their current solution;
  • If the key internal supporters of the current vendor don't make too much noise.
4. Decision. Purchase order or signed Statement of Work with contract and terms.

Always a step behind
The real false positive is hidden between the steps of Interest and Decision: the Commitment. Most of us think that getting Commitment means that we are getting a decision. We are not.

When I have companies evaluate their sales pipelines and sales processes by these four criteria, what we often find is that on a behavioral basis, prospects and customers are almost always a step behind our impressions of where they are on the decision spectrum. To find out where customers really are, I prefer to use behavioral analysis rather than pathologically optimistic impressions.

Here's how it makes a difference in each of the four steps:

1. Curiosity
- Impressions: Customer asks lots of questions, shows enthusiasm, disparages current solution provider.

- Behaviors: Customer brings other people to the meeting, keeps time and information commitments.

2. Interest
- Impressions: Customer asks "what if we worked together" questions, talks pricing and scenarios.

- Behaviors: Customer accepts Executive Sponsorship Agreement.

3. Commitment
- Impressions: Customer declares "We are going to work with you."

- Behaviors: Customer outlines specific Purchase Schedule or Project Scopes.

4. Decision
- Impressions: Customer discusses upcoming projects and work in detail.

- Behaviors: Customer purchases Order or Scope of Work.

If you look at the Impressions under each item, you can understand why you get fooled. These are all great signs that we are going to get business, right? Well, sort of. But these indicators are not concrete behaviors that demonstrate real money coming your way.

Sales people often fear pushing too hard, so we are satisfied with impressions and don't move prospects to behavior. Just remember that the money comes with the behaviors, not the words.

What to do
I encourage the following changes in your sales process:

1. Use the guidelines outlined above and define the four levels of "yes" by behavior, not impressions.

2. Work through your current pipeline with this model to determine the real status of your accounts.

3. Push your sales organizations and teams to move the accounts out of impression measurement to behavior measurement.

4. Secure behaviors for your "yes" answers from your prospects.

If you are getting the answers you want, but are not getting the traction, maybe the answers are hollow. It is possible that they are really "maybes" all dressed up. Turn them into real "yes" answers by locking in the behaviors that prove it.

For more on false positives, check out my previous posts on why deals get stuck and why stuck deals might be our fault.

Flickr photo courtesy of jepoirrier, CC 2.0

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