Pre-Qualifying Clients – What’s the big “deal”?

When I first started out as an account manager selling IT solutions to businesses, my new-lead pre-qualification mindset sucked, big time!

Not only did it affect my ability to find and work with new best-fit clients, it also drained my previous employers’ resources when bad-fit clients came on-board.

My obsession with wanting to nail every deal was terribly misguided. If I didn’t win business all the time, I felt deflated.

My poor mindset, translated into words, promoted the perception of a desperate and needy sales guy – and potential clients (subconsciously) knew this. Yep, master / slave “business” relationships are made of this stuff.

Here’s an example of my old mindset when a potential client called (cue my cringe):

Prospective client: “We need to sort out our <insert perceived IT need here> “

My thinking: “Cool, a new lead. I love getting started with new clients. All the endless possibilities! Now, what are those new deals that I’ve been told I must sell to clients? Let me at ‘em.. ”

Potential client: “Our <current IT situation here> is OK, but we need to make sure we’re doing all we can to protect our <insert IT term>, grow our <insert another IT term>, become more <insert benefit> and win more <business / market-share>”

My thinking: “Great, they’re hot. They need what we offer and they’ve got goals that we can help them achieve. They sound like a good fit..”

Potential client: “The challenge we’ve got is budget and timescales.  We’re looking for a very competitive price and we need to get started quickly, so we’ve asked a number of other companies to quote, including you and we need quotes back within the next 24 hours. We also need to open a line of credit with you, so we can pay on 90 days”

My thinking: “Right, I’m going to need to drop everything and get this quote sent out ASAP. They’re ready to buy and I’m sure we can do a deal and help these guys out. Right, I need to get someone from technical to help me out, ask for rock-bottom prices from my suppliers, beg accounts to agree credit and fight with logistics to get this booked in urgently.”

Why was my original mindset flawed (and rather stupid)?

Let’s dissect it and read between the lines:

1)       New leads were approached with a “supplier” mentality, not as a trusted business advisor;

2)       Their explicit needs were not explored as “the quote needed to go out..” and “a deal needed to be done”;

3)       A best-fit client is not 100% confirmed over an initial 10 minute telephone call;

4)       Assumptions were made about their perceived interest, without digging into their motives deeper;

5)       Without knowing their role in their company, how could their internal influence be known;

6)       The willingness to drop everything and send a quote showed a severe lack of time management;

7)       Warning signs of “very competitive prices” and “needing quotes back within 24 hours” were ignored. Could the potential client just be after a quote to compel their favoured “supplier” to knock price down further;

8)       The higher the project value, the more the need to dot the I’s and cross the T’s before quoting and especially before beginning project work. This can’t happen on a first phone call;

9)       Enlisting the help, expertise and experience of other internal departments, without pre-qualifying the new client, could severely drain employer resources;

10)   “Doing a deal” mentality can result in discount pricing and client concession requests. An “adding value” attitude is far better and fosters respect and credibility (in you and the potential client);

Is a potential client really worth your (or your agency’s) time or should they be relegated to your “not in a million years” list? Before we explore “how” to properly pre-qualify leads, let’s focus on “why”.

Whether you’re self-employed, own a staffed company or work for an agency, pre-qualifying leads is an extremely valuable skill and sales process to develop.

Pre-qualifying keeps you “sane” in the long-run

Listen, you and I both know that time wasted on not weeding out bad-fit clients can result in client relationship head-aches and jumping through impossible hoops, not to mention the horrible realisation that you wished you’d never worked with them in the first place. Need more reasons why pre-qualifying is key?

  • Identifies how pro-active or re-active a new client might be
  • Uncovers false or impossible expectations
  • Provides valuable insight into how teachable a client could be
  • Reveals the financial health (or sickness) of a potential client
  • Determines the approximate timescale and difficulty of a project or campaign
  • Helps understand why previous marketing partners were ditched
  • Confirms the clients commitment to achieving online or offline goals
  • Finds out if a budget has been allocated or if marketing funds are available
  • Maps out a potential clients internal chain of command (staff, managers, directors, CEO’s)
  • Helps avoid answering RFQ’s when your gut says your answers will be used as cannon fodder
  • Best-fit clients will appreciate the creativity, passion, excellence and hard work you do

Get smart at pre-qualifying and increase your earning potential

The faster you qualify in (and out) potential clients, the more time you’ll have to work with those that are serious about succeeding and that fit your ideal client profile. Better still, you’ll find your earning potential increases too:

  • Write down what a “best-fit” client looks like to your business
  • Develop a checklist of key questions to ask a potential client
  • Think on your feet, learn to make quick decisions and value your own time
  • Learn to make “No” you’re new best friend – not all business is “good” business
  • Find out what their selection process involves – is it worth the effort? Yes, really!
  • Confirm what the clients business goals and objectives are (short and long term)
  • Unless your referral partners know your “best-fit” criteria, avoid running a programme that pays per referral
  • If a meeting isn’t possible, use Google Hang-Outs or Skype for face to face communications
  • Follow your instinct – if they look, sound and act like a donkey, they probably are
  • Research their business online, look at company information and find out their “why”
  • Listen and observe their initial dialogue for clues of intent
  • If they’re after a “quick quote” without any interaction or feedback, run a mile

Resources that have helped me enormously include: Questions That Sell (Book), Selling The Invisible (CD) & Solution Selling (Book).

When should you pre-qualify?

Pre-qualifying takes place the moment a potential client opens communications with you or your company. This can be via submit form enquiries, initial phone calls, intro emails or requests for meetings.

Granted, sometimes a “good” lead can turn into turkey and raspberries can become great best-fit clients – there’s no perfect science. But stacking the odds in your favour by learning to filter leads makes you much more productive and gives you a sense of purpose over who you’d like (and not like) to do business with.

Become more business savvy, treat your precious time seriously, learn to say “no” (you won’t die, honest), get good at sniffing out time-wasters and find the right type of clients faster for your business  – they’re out there.

Surviving the “client education” zombie dance

Potential clients sometimes need re-educating on specific topics, before they can begin their quest for domination. That’s OK. The more they understand the better for them and us. Things like:

  • What’s possible and realistic?
  • How marketing can really help
  • Why it’s about their target audience
  • Why they need to become an “authority” in their field
  • Search engines have changed – keyword tags don’t help

So far, so good. But what if an un-educated client take’s up a large slice of your time while you advise them on the new lay of the land? I’ve been there myself – countless hours of helping, advising, informing and teaching. Then we get THAT call. They’ve found a “marketer” who can do what they need for a 1/3 of your price. ‘Nuff said (cue expletives).

To help you avoid this common scenario, try some of these approaches:

1)       Ask them to fill out a (pre-written) marketing questionnaire – make sure yours includes business related questions about their goals and objectives. Why? Answering questions makes them think hard about what they want. If they’re serious, they’ll fill it out and ask for the next steps. If not, you’ve saved yourself a ton of time;

2)       Quote them for training, once you’ve qualified their lack of understanding or knowledge. If they go-ahead, they’re serious and you can help form a strategy for them in the process. If not, you may have dodged a bullet;

3)       Refer them to online marketing resources, such as Moz, this Noob Guide to Online Marketing, Search Engine Land, Distilled, State of Digital and The Meld and task them to explore topics and get back to you. I call this Karma – if they get back to you, they’re ready (and serious). If not, you’ve pointed them in the right direction without draining your resources;

4)       Invite them to attend a digital marketing conference, such as BrightonSEO, SearchLove or any of the conferences listed in two superb resources created by Krystian Szastock and Sam Noble;

5)       Invite them to attend a Google Hang-Out, specifically one that centres on their area of interest. Steve Morgan’s ever-increasing list is the best I’ve found.

Remember: not all business is “good” business. The harder you work at defining your ideal client profile, pre-qualifying clients and refining your sales lead process, the more time you’ll have to invest in working with great ones, be more productive and increase your (and your company’s) revenue and profit.

Happy pre-qualifying!

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