Working Backwards to Move an Opportunity Forward

Working Backwards

Believe it or not, sometimes working backwards creates a more streamlined business process. Consider the following scenario. You meet with a customer to qualify your opportunity to sell your solution. Your objectives include, amongst other things, learning more about the buyer’s business, who in the organization is involved in making the decision, and determining their criteria for purchase. You execute flawlessly until the very end of the call when you take a breath, your mouth opens and you ask a question no salesperson ever should.

“So, when would you like a proposal?”

In 34 years of selling, I have heard this question asked countless times. And I’ve seen it negatively impact many a sale. What’s the problem?

There is a possibility that nearly everyone reading this blog has asked that question while qualifying for an opportunity. It seems to be a logical question to move a deal forward and help define the next steps. It may even give you a feel for the buyer’s sense of urgency or lack thereof. Could it be we’ve all been wrong? Absolutely.

To identify the problem, start by working backwards. Consider the times you’ve asked this question.

What are the typical responses? “As soon as possible,” “How soon could one get one back to me”, or some variation of the two. So you hurry back to the office in rush mode, calling in all available resources to get a proposal back to your prospect as quickly as possible. You deliver it in the requested time frame. Then, just like other sales reps that have rushed to deliver, you sit and wait.

Here is your challenge. Your prospect will make a decision on what to buy based on which solution best meets their criteria at the time of their decision.

working backwards

Working Backwards 101: Would you rather present your proposal closer to or further away from the buyer’s decision?

Obviously, your chances of winning a sale would be much greater if your proposal meets the criteria as close to decision time as possible.

As all of us in sales know, a buyer’s criteria can and often will change through the course of their decision cycle. We have seen many salespeople who find themselves continually revising and resubmitting proposals because they proposed way too early, or worse, lose sales because the customer didn’t ask for or consider revisions to the rep’s initial submission.

So what’s the answer? You obviously need to get a clear picture of the prospect’s expectations. What questions should you ask to avoid premature proposals?

There are multiple events that may occur during the buyer’s decision cycle.

  • Qualifying vendors, exploring and expressing needs and criteria
  • Surveys and interviews to explore unknown needs and refine criteria
  • Needs validation with vendors relative to survey findings
  • Proposal development by competing vendors
  • Proposal presentations and demonstrations
  • Buyer’s decision
  • Solution implementation

Depending on the prospect and the complexity of the sale, there may be more events than listed above or fewer. No matter, each of these events will have an associated time frame, from days to weeks to months.

When qualifying, it is incumbent on the seller to determine what the events are in the buyer’s decision and the time frames associated with each.

There are certain situations, such as in a bid specification, where the events and time frames are already clearly defined. In those cases, there are established dates and times for pre-bid conferences, walk-throughs, the sending of bid specs to competing vendors, bid submission due time and date, bid opening, and bid award. In those cases, the question is as simple as “What are the events in your evaluation process and when will they take place?”

But what happens if the buyer hasn’t defined or doesn’t know what events should take place? This is where working backwards comes in.

Let’s look at the events in order of last to first:

  • Solution implementation
  • Buyer’s decision
  • Proposal presentations and demonstration
  • Proposal development by competing vendors
  • Needs validation with vendors relative to survey findings
  • Surveys and interviews to explore unknown needs and refine criteria
  • Qualifying vendors, exploring and expressing needs and criteria

If you want to avoid the pitfalls of proposing too early, start with defining a drop-dead date for implementation of the buyer’s chosen solution, then work backward from there. Once you know the implementation date (as an example March 1st), ask the buyer when they plan to make their decision.

If they aren’t certain, the seller has an obligation to share typical time frames between decision and implementation required by most providers. Let’s say most providers need 4 weeks between decision and implementation for things like ordering of equipment, programming, and training. That means the decision needs to be made no later than February 1st.

How much time do buyers need to make a decision?

Once the decision date is established, you should move to the next event in the reverse order of the decision, proposal presentations, and demonstrations. Here, it’s important to ask the buyer how much time they typically like to have between the last presentation/proposal they see and the time they make a decision.

This would be for things like decision committee discussions, Q&A, revisions, and proposal comparisons. Let’s say your prospect says two weeks. If they need to make their decision by February 1st, that would mean they need to see their last presentation no later than January 15th, which means needs validation, surveys, and qualifying would all have to happen before that.

So now the question “When would you like a proposal?” no longer needs to be asked. You know the cutoff date is defined by the customer’s own decision and implementation requirements. Want to avoid proposing too early and make more certain you are addressing the buyer’s decision criteria at the time of decision? In the above case, you would simply ask for a presentation date as close to the 15th as possible!

The bottom line is this. Let everyone else rush to get their proposals in early.

Continue to qualify the prospect and determine/develop/define criteria until it’s time for you to present closer to the decision. When you do, you will have the highest likelihood of moving the opportunity forward because you’ve chosen to work in reverse!

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