How to Avoid the Black Hole - When they Stop Taking Your Calls

Sales Closing Techniques - How to use sales process to maintain access and influence after a sales proposal is submitted.

Post Proposal Sales Closing Techniques

Everyone knows that nothing escapes a black hole, no feedback, no phone calls, no orders, no information, and no visibility, just when managers start questioning your sales closing techniques. This is the black hole that yawns soon after the customer receives your sales proposal. All you can do is wait!

A recent experience illustrates how failure to follow a consistent process can undo otherwise excellent work. The customer seemed clear about the purpose and was open to as much exploration as we were willing to conduct. It was a relatively small opportunity however; I invested a little time to get a fair understanding of the situation and needs.

There was a clear budget and time table for reaching a decision. The response close date was driven by the holiday schedule of the people involved in the decision. One person returned from their vacation as the other departed for his. As it happened, the following week, I also took a holiday break.

A week after my return, we received a polite note explaining that they had selected someone else. With the benefit of 20:20 hindsight, I immediately realised that I had ignored a number of checks and precautions that we routinely teach others to use.

The consequences, in this case the loss of a small opportunity, could easily be shrugged off and consigned to the file marked ‘experience’ but that would be missing an opportunity to learn. Putting something in the file marked ‘experience’ is usually just another way of saying c'est la vie, that’s life, let’s forget it and move on.

The phrase we use to shrug of a setback, ‘put it down to experience’ should mean that we actually invest some time and effort in learning from it. Avoiding the uncertainty of the post tender black hole depends on a series of things that must be done earlier in a sale.

Once a sales proposal has been sent, it is too late. Sales closing techniques in B2B situations must be implemented early in the buyers journey. Here are some of the rules I normally observe before agreeing to formally proposing a solution.

  1. Get definite confirmation that you understand the issues that the customer wants to address. Submit your written description of the situation, goals and objectives to the decision maker and key influencers in advance of submitting a sales proposal. Then ask for a definite confirmation that you have a correct understanding of the needs and that you have not missed anything out. Note: If you are responding to a formal tender or if submissions will be treated according to public sector procurement practices, you must complete this step before the formal request is issued.
  2. Develop a complete understanding of the customers evaluation and commit process. An effective sales method needs to compliment the customer's buying process. If a customer hasn't thought it through there is an opportunity to help them recognise and prepare for the internal hurdles they will need to leap if the project or purchase is to go ahead. Make a point of agreeing the schedule they are working to so that you can fulfil your part in a timely fashion. Look for opportunities to help the customer address anticipated internal difficulties. Turn the sales process into a buying process collaboration.
  3. Get a definite confirmation from the decision maker and key influencers that your solution truly meets their needs. To do this you must understand all of the criteria your solution will be measured against. If a definite yes or no is impossible, ask for a rating out of ten. If you get a ‘seven’ or less for any aspect of your solution you must change your proposal to improve it, or gain agreement from the customer that it isn't important. A ‘seven’ is just ‘OK’ and ‘OK’ is not good enough.
  4. Identify and agree with the customer what performance measurements will indicate if the solution is delivering the expected results.
  5. Get a definite confirmation from the decision maker that the investment is within their means and expectations.
  6. Make an appointment to present your solution to the decision maker and key influencers. For tender responses that are to be treated according to public sector procurement practices, do this before the RFP is issued. The presentation is an opportunity to gauge response and make adjustments. If it is not important enough for the customer to commit the necessary time to make sure that the proposed solution will meet their needs, either the project is low priority or you are not the front runner. In either case, you should consider the wisdom of continuing or devise a way to change the situation. Note: Avoid confusing an early presentation with those requested after tender submission. Post tender presentation invitations are managed according to the buyers procurement agenda rather than the sellers.
  7. Gain agreement that in the event of the customer selecting another supplier, you will be granted a debrief meeting or conversation. This is to ensure that you get an opportunity to learn what you could have done differently to have improved your chances of success.
  8. Gain agreement that if you succeed in winning the business and all goes well, the customer will make introductions to appropriate business partners, suppliers, or customers who might benefit in the same way. This last rule is more important than it seems. It is easier to ask and much easier for prospective customers to pledge support for referral, testimonials, and publicity - before you submit a tender response.

So how did I do against my own rules for the example I cited to begin with?

  • I did try to understand their issues although this took place through only three conversations, two by telephone and one face to face.
  • I didn't seek confirmation of our understanding (Rule 1).
  • I failed to establish a sales process agreement. This is our label for meshing selling activities with buying steps (Rule 2).
  • I failed to test the acceptability of our solution, accept in conversation (Rule 3).
  • I did discuss measurement but didn't define of agree it (Rule 4).
  • I did confirm that the funds were available (Rule 5).
  • There was no time to ask to present the proposal (Rule 6).
  • I didn't attempt to secure a debrief meeting or a promise of referrals (Rules 7 and 8).

Since I didn't properly follow best practice we didn't deserve to win.

Perhaps such lessons are the necessary cost of learning and once learned a few times, sales closing set up becomes instinctive. For more reliable results, follow a carefully thought through and bilaterally agreed sales method.

Article by Clive Miller


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