Executive Sales Training | Business Feasibility Study

Executive Sales Training – Feasibility Study Process

How Real Salespeople Do (or Don’t Do) Demos

I’ve been working with a client for about a year now and we have been focused on getting the basic sales structure and CRM (salesforce.com) back in shape. Up to this point, our primary goal has been to establish visibility, accountability, and control across the organization for leads, accounts, activity, opportunities, and pipeline.

Now we are getting into process optimization, which is what I consider to be the ‘fun stuff.’ We are moving from asking ‘what is going on?’ to ‘how can everyone sell more effectively?”

This particular company makes analytical instruments, specifically, they manufacture a device that measures a spectrum of light. Their technology represents a faster, less expensive, and highly portable way for their customers to perform analysis of soils, minerals, or whatever they like.

As you might expect, part of their sales process includes a ‘Solution Validation’ phase wherein the prospect needs to validate that the equipment performs as expected prior to purchasing a very expensive unit. This is no different from companies selling software, hardware, or anything other than a pure commodity. At some point, the prospect wants you to prove you can do what you say you can do. In their case, this validation phase is referred to as a Feasibility Study.

Just Do a Demo?

We have been looking at the Feasibility Study process for a bit now and asking, how does it work? When does it come up in the sales process? What role does it actually play in closing deals? To what extent do studies result in a purchase? Should the prospect pay for this service?

Not surprisingly, there has been little data captured regarding how the process correlates to revenue. Like most organizations, the Feasibility Study has always been an assumed step in the process that everybody knows needs to happen but has not been placed in the context of the overall opportunity.

By way of an example, think about walking past a Sharper Image store at your local mall.  Invariably there is some associate out front demonstrating the latest iPhone controlled flying gizmo. (We could also use those amazing $3,000 massage chairs as an example.)

Understandably, if you are thinking about buying one of these things you’re going to want to play with it to see how it works. That said, there are always 17 other people standing around trying to also get a turn who have no real intent (or money) to buy the thing. Or perhaps they are legitimately interested but won’t be buying it until next Christmas (or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Festivus).

Of course I understand The Sharper Image is a consumer retail environment and that flying gizmos are often an impulse purchase. The point is this, just because someone is talking to a salesperson or asking to try something out and see how it works doesn’t make you a qualified prospect. Some people are just curious. They want to see how something works or play with something cool and they’re going to engage you with no need, urgency, or process.

The issue of course is that these interested parties (non-buyers) consume the limited selling time of the salesperson. This doesn’t matter at Sharper Image since the kid working the door doesn’t have a quota and isn’t paid commission. However, I’m guessing this is not the case with your sales organization.

My client’s situation is not uncommon; they perform an awful lot of Feasibility Studies without any correlation between the studies that result in a deal and those that don’t. They also lack correlation between the timing of a Feasibility Study and when they plan to purchase.

Every Selling Activity Represents an Investment

Every single sales activity consumes energy and has a financial cost. Although most companies prefer not to acknowledge it, performing a demo, customizing software, and Feasibility Studies represent a direct cost. Obviously a lot of companies consider these expenses a cost of doing business even if they don’t account for them directly.

Think about the alignment of expenses in the sale cycle with the timing of a purchase. What good does it do to perform a Feasibility Study this year if it doesn’t result in a sale until next year? But you may be thinking, ‘our sales cycle is a year’.  That’s fine, your sales cycle is what it is and that may be what it takes; however, I think most would agree that aligning the timing of expenses more closely with the revenue-generating event makes sense. If one could delay the validation exercise to align more closely with the timing of the purchase – without prolonging the sales process – that would be a good thing.

I’m simply advocating for a small amount of forethought and rigor around this process. More often than not, the validation phase is simply approached as a pro forma part of the sales process. It’s performed when requested, and we hope for the best. That is not professional selling, it’s lazy selling. It’s hoping that an activity results in a positive outcome.

What Can We Do Differently?

In the case of my client, we sat down with the team and stepped back to look at what we were doing. What exactly is a Feasibility Study? Let’s agree on the language, let’s agree on what we call it, and let’s agree on what we believe the purpose is.

Again, in the case of my client, the Feasibility Study has a simple purpose. We are trying to prove that our analysis technique can replicate what the client is already doing some other way. Because we are not reinventing the wheel, the validation phase has a binary output – either it does or it doesn’t. If the answer is yes, then the only question that remains is whether or not using our device is less expensive and faster than what they are using today.

Understanding ROI and the Buying Process Is Your Responsibility

This may sound obvious, but if my value proposition is based on performing something you are already doing cheaper and faster, it’s incumbent on me to clearly understand what process you’re using today, how much that’s costing you, and how long it takes. However, I will say that in the majority of Feasibility Studies performed in the past year, that information was not known. We had a general idea of what they were doing but lacked specific time and money metrics.

I’ll reiterate the fact that we’re talking about a very simplistic validation phase. We are not talking about a new application, a new process, or even getting the prospect to do something that they’ve never done before. Can we do it cheaper? Can we do it faster? Can we do it at all?

Solving the Problem

So we sat down and defined this process as the team and asked, “why aren’t we getting the information we need?” The simple answer was that we react to the customers’ request instead of following a process we have defined.

The customer wants proof, we know they need it, so we say let’s do it. It is natural for a salesperson to be uncomfortable. When momentum seems to be going well, when everyone seems to be playing along and happy, and everybody is excited to see this work, it’s difficult to take a step back and say, “okay, we really want to perform this validation exercise. However, we need to understand what you are trying to do better, what better looks like, and, if we are better, what that means? How will we move from proving this to you buying it?” See Related Post: Commitment Phobia

We were failing to go back and ascertain two very simple, common, and important parts of the sales process. What is the need? And what is the buying process assuming the technology is validated?

So, how do you deal with that? I’ll let you know these folks are very tenured and technical salespeople who care deeply about their customers. We decided we needed to take a look at the physical workflow from the point in the sales process where a client is logically going to say, “I want to perform a sample study” and map that all the way through to the end of the process where they decide if they’re going to buy or not. We identified all of the steps of the process, every interaction, and put these in the format of a visual workflow we could use and share with our customers. We set the expectation that the Feasibility Study would take place in the context of a formal project plan and drafted a template for this project plan.

All of the documents are intended to be customer facing. This is not designed to be some secret process we’re running in the background hoping to trick the customer. The process and documents are tools we use to collaborate with the customer based on the shared goal of progressing towards a purchase. That meets a specific business need and delivers real value and that results in revenue for the company.

Overall, this was a really exciting process, and it was great to see the salespeople participate and move their thinking from, “I don’t want to be pushy” and “isn’t this just telling the customer what to do?” to really seeing this as a way that we can help our customers by serving them better, faster.

Don’t Be Shy about Selling Professionally

I’ll end with a simple story of how the point hit home. At one point I was talking to the team and I asked, “how many of these analytical devices would you say our customers purchase in a given year?

Everybody laughed because that was a ridiculous question. They might purchase one in their entire career.

Okay,” I said. “So it’s safe to say that in terms of competency with purchasing technical instrumentation, they’re not all that competent simply because they don’t do it very often.”

Everybody agreed that made sense.

How many of these things do we sell a year?” I asked next and again everybody laughed and said, “that’s what we do.

So shouldn’t we be proud to represent ourselves as professional sellers?” I asked. “For my mind being a sales professional doesn’t imply we trick people into doing things, but rather requires we have the experience and confidence to lead our customers through the process we believe enables them to make the best decision possible.”

By Townsend Wardlaw

photo credit: Official GDC via photopin cc