The phone rings at your desk — it’s a big potential customer and they want you to come in and make a presentation. They have budget approval and consensus, up to the highest levels of the organization, to move forward on a major purchase. Their specs line up perfectly with what your company can deliver. And, you’re on the customer’s shortlist — they’ve narrowed it down to you and two of your biggest competitors.
Sounds great, right? The customer’s put the ball on the tee and all you need to do is make a good swing.
But ask a star-performing salesperson what she thinks of this and you’ll find that she doesn’t see it as a good opportunity at all. As we discuss in our recent HBR article, “The End of Solution Sales,” star salespeople know that situations like this are typically just benchmarking exercises in which the customer has probably already picked some other supplier to go with.
Our data suggest that this type of late engagement by sales in the customer’s purchase decision is frighteningly common: the average customer’s decision is nearly 60% complete by the time they engage a salesperson. And yet, we find that average performers’ pipelines are full of these types of late-stage, reactive — and often fruitless — pursuits. High-performers’ pipelines, on the other hand, tilt much more toward very early-stage, proactive opportunities. These superior reps avoid customers who have a clear understanding of what they want and instead look for customers who are going through change and will be open to new ideas. They look where demand is emerging but not yet established, where they can shape customers’ needs, rather than react to them.
This finding has major implications for which prospects reps pursue, and how managers steer their sales people. Most companies use some version of the “BANT Scorecard” which evaluates sales opportunities according to budget, authority, need and timing criteria. The greater the number of these factors in place, the more established the demand and the higher the placement on a rep’s priority list. Unfortunately, these scorecards end up steering reps to pursue the very opportunities that stars tend to avoid, assuring that average reps remain average.
Tools like the BANT Scorecard — as well as the training and coaching that support them — need to be changed to help reps avoid established demand and identify emerging demand. One result of this change is that managers will need to get comfortable with the knock-on effects of longer sales cycles and “misshapen” sales funnels. In our research, we found that because emerging demand opportunities require more time to develop, the sales cycle times of high performers is, in fact, longer than that of average performers. We also found that a high performer’s pipeline shape is quite different from an average reps’: a star rep’s pipeline resembles a nail (wide at the very top, but quickly getting thinner until the very end) whereas an average rep’s pipeline looks more like a funnel (gradually tapering to the end). All of this flies in the face of traditional sales productivity measures which push reps to focus on deal volume and pipeline velocity above all else.
We are not suggesting that reps can — or should — stop pursuing established demand altogether. Unfortunately, a certain volume of opportunities will always be required to hit quota. But reps can go after established demand differently, approaching prospects who think they know what they need as an opportunity to remake demand rather than simply respond to it. By seeking to undo the decisions that a customer has already made, star reps reveal needs the customer may have been unaware of — and, of course, solutions the rep can provide.