When and How to Intervene in a Big Sale Opportunity

A branch sales manager for a major document services company told me recently that one of his salespeople had proposed a $3 million contract for a potential customer. The customer said they would finish their evaluation within four to five weeks and would “probably” sign contracts at that point.

The weeks rolled by with no word from the customer. When week four rolled around, a senior VP, who was not very confident in the sale, was tempted to set up a meeting with an executive at the prospective account. Should the SVP intervene?

The answer, of course, is “it depends.”

If the sales team has done a good job, then an intervention from the SVP is more likely to be harmful than helpful. If the sales team has not done a good job, a personal visit from the SVP to the prospect may not save the day, but it may be the only card the company can play.

How can you tell if a sales team has done a good job?

Talk to the lead salesperson for the account and review the sales proposal and/or presentation, if one has been done. You want to look for evidence that the salesperson deeply understands the customer needs and has shaped a solution that the customer will clearly see as their best choice.

  • What were the first needs raised by the prospect? What additional needs did the salesperson uncover, and how?
  • What decision makers did the salesperson meet with? Which of them want your company to win? Which don’t?
  • What are the customer’s buying criteria, in priority order? How does the salesperson know?
  • What was the strategy for winning the account? What specific competitors was the team up against, and how does your offering compare to them on each of the priority criteria?
  • Has the salesperson clearly linked the strengths of your solution to the customer’s priority buying criteria?

Does the proposal or presentation clearly show how your offering is a solution to a customer problem? Were there at least three reasons why the customer should buy from you?

Taking Action

Even though the SVP of the document company had concerns, the branch sales manager was confident his team had done a good job. They’d developed good relationships with the prospect, been thorough in their sales approach, and had addressed the prospect’s financial concerns.

So the sales manager (who had an unusually strong backbone!) politely asked the SVP to review the account plan, the outsourcing study, the proposal, and the internal customer ROI projections. If the SVP could bring new information to the deal that would not change the pricing proposal, then the branch manager would set up a meeting at the prospective client.

The SVP was skeptical, but read all the information anyway. He did not call back, and the branch team won the sale in mid-December, just as the customer had said might happen.

But what if the SVP had seen big mistakes in the sales team’s work? What if he discovered that the team had cut corners in the sales process? That they did not fully explore the customer’s needs, did not link those needs to the strengths of the company’s offered solution, or did not explore who the competition was and specifically what his company was competing against?

If he had seen any of these problems, it was probably too late to save that particular sale. The SVP would be better served by seeing if there were ways to prevent problems by upgrading the company’s sales training and coaching processes.

Here are two of the biggest problems and their fixes:

Problem: Sales people are more focused on selling than on helping the customer buy.

Most salespeople have a good understanding of the sales process, but know little if anything about the steps of buying. They sell too fast—moving to their “close” just when the customer starts comparison shopping.

Solution: Modify sales training. When educated about how customers buy, salespeople will appreciate the need to complete the kind of work that constitutes doing a good job of selling, such as putting a lot of effort into diagnosing customer needs, helping to shape the customer criteria for a solution, and being explicit in developing a strategy targeted at defeating the specific competitors involved in any specific opportunity.

Problem: Managers intervene too late.

Far too many sales managers and executives get involved extremely late in the sales process. By that point the customer has already defined their needs and formulated a good idea of their solution, so intervening holds little chance of success. Also, it diminishes the salesperson’s credibility, and sets a precedent that the customer will always get bigger discounts if they go over the salesperson’s head.

Solution: Monitor all larger or more important sales at key points throughout the process. Create mechanisms that let you more effectively monitor and evaluate the salesperson’s approach throughout the sale. For example, require them to send a Memo of Understanding (MOU) to the customer and bcc you on it. An MOU is a short email sent after the initial appointment that confirms key points: the customer’s current situation, critical issues, and complications.

Reviewing MOUs gives you an early indicator of how well your salespeople are defining customer needs, which has the biggest impact on their ultimate success. Plus you’ll recognize the larger sales opportunities sooner.

Better Never Than Late?

I’ve worked with thousands of salespeople over the last 30 years and a common complaint I hear is about a senior manager “riding in on his or her white horse” to save the day and close the deal. The end result of this white-horse ride is often three-fold: white knuckles for the salesperson, a bigger discount for the customer, and lower profit for the company! What kind of win is that?

If you find yourself fretting over big sales, examine everything that has happened during the sales process. If the team has done a good job, then you add little value by pestering your sales team (or the prospective customer) with unnecessary calls, emails, or visits.  If they haven’t done a good job, then most likely there are some flaws in your training and coaching processes.