Why early engagement is critical to sales success

October 16, 2018 Bob Apollo

ban_bant_tornThe now increasingly discredited BANT (Budget, Authority, Need and Timeframe) approach to opportunity qualification discouraged sales people from pursuing opportunities unless there was a clearly defined project with an already established budget.

Now, if you’re selling low-value commodity-like solutions where there is little scope for differentiation on anything other than price and delivery, or if you are competing in tightly-regulated markets that seek to eliminate any chance of creativity, BANT may still offer a potential approach.

But in complex, high-value B2B sales – and particularly where the customer’s need is real but nascent or poorly-defined – the rigid application of BANT as an early-stage qualifier will cause you to eliminate or abandon opportunities just when you have the strongest chance to influence the prospect’s thinking.

This, surely, is madness...

I’ll accept that BANT may have its place – but only after the customer, hopefully with our help, has understood the business case for change, assembled their decision-making team and established their requirements and their decision criteria and process, typically signalled by the issue of a tender document or RFP.

But by then, it is inevitable that someone’s fingerprints will be all over their specification, and – if they are someone else's rather than yours and assuming that you are not by a significant margin both the lowest cost and most credible supplier – you will be forced to play by someone else’s rules.

It should come as no surprise that your chances of winning the sale under these circumstances – according to a wide range of credible studies by Accenture, IBM and others – are in the low single digit percentage range. In most cases (and absent the “highly regulated” exception), there is little rational justification for investing valuable sales resources in responding.

And unless the requirement is an inevitable purchase, many of these RFP projects end up in a decision, having kicked the tyres of the market, to “do nothing” and stick with the status quo, further compounding the utter waste of energy by all of the participants.

That’s why early engagement is so critical to sales success – well before an opportunity could be described as BANT-qualified.

I’ve written before about the fact that complex potentially high-value B2B buying journeys (despite appearances to the contrary) are often poorly defined, somewhat chaotic and non-linear.

Whilst recognising that these journeys can go backwards, go forwards, stall or be abandoned at any point, it is nevertheless possible to identify a number of the key phases they are likely to pass through and to aim to get involved as early as possible in their journey.

If we are to focus on pre-BANT opportunities, we of course need to ensure that we are focused on the most valuable “sweet-spot” potential customers. You can read more here, but in summary this means identifying and targeting:

  • The key trends that are affecting our customers
  • The resultant issues, opportunities and threats
  • The common characteristics of your ideal customer organisations
  • The common characteristics of the potential business project sponsors
  • The trigger events, catalysts and disruptors that signal the need for change

Key phases in the customer decision journey

Here are the typical phases in the (non-linear) evolution of a complex B2B customer decision journey:

Unconcerned

Our sweet-spot potential customers are likely to be monitoring trends that may affect them, but they appear to be currently satisfied with the status quo and are not yet actively concerned about any of the issues we have chosen to target.

Assuming the organisation and role have both been well-targeted, establishing thought leadership at this early point can offer tremendous opportunities in helping our customer to recognise the importance of exploring these issues.

But we won’t achieve this by pitching our solution prematurely. At this stage, we need to focus our conversation on key trends and the resulting potential problems, opportunities and threats – using insights and anecdotes to offer our prospective customer a fresh perspective that (hopefully) makes them want to learn more.

Exploring

Something has happened to arouse our prospective customer’s interest and they are trying to determine whether there is a clear case for change. If we have ourselves acted as the catalyst by engaging them while they were unconcerned, that is even better.

It is still too early to present our “solution”. Instead, we need to educate our customer on the trends, issues and implications, and help them to understand and appreciate why our company has chosen to focus on these aspects, and why we are a credible business partner.

In addition to continuing to shape our customer’s thinking, we gain tremendous advantage by helping them to establish a sound business reason why their organisation might need to change.

Defining

Having now concluded that there is a clear business case for change, our prospective customer is defining their vision of a future solution, their potential solution options, and their decision team, criteria and process.

Even if we have not been involved earlier, this is the last critical phase during which we have the chance to significantly shape our prospective customer’s thinking before they finalise their requirements.

The benefits of engaging by or before this stage are profound: Forrester found that three-quarters of all complex buying decisions are made in favour of the vendor that did the most to shape the prospective customer’s vision of a solution.

Selecting

By the time our prospective customer has entered this phase (often signalled by issuing an invitation to tender or RFP), they are already actively evaluating their shortlisted options in order to identify their most viable option(s).

Whilst it may be possible to reshape their thinking (typically by persuading them that they need to re-open the previous “defining” phase), we are usually obliged to play with cards that the customer has dealt us.

And, of course, if another vendor has engaged the customer earlier in the process, these cards have probably already been marked, and we are likely to be playing a game in which the odds are stacked against us.

Being aware of the customer’s current phase

It always surprises me to see how many sales people – and the sales organisations they work for – fail to recognise the critical importance of understanding where the customer is in their decision journey, of recording where the sales person first entered that process.

Armed with this awareness, we can make much more intelligent decisions about how to qualify the opportunity, whether it is worth pursuing, and what strategies and tactics we need to implement.

Rather than relying on BANT, we can instead apply much more meaningful opportunity qualification criteria, such as:

  • Does this organisation match our ideal customer profile?
  • Is our prime contact a credible business sponsor and change agent?
  • Have we been able to meaningfully influence our customer’s thinking?
  • Is the need clearly defined?
  • Is there a strong business case for change?
  • Is there a clear source of funds for the project?
  • Are their requirements and criteria favourable to us?
  • Are we creating, reshaping or responding to the opportunity?
  • Have we been able to differentiate both our approach and our solution?
  • What are the chances the project will get approved?

Recommendations

Allow me to make a handful of recommendations:

  • If you haven’t yet bought-in to the benefits of defining your pipeline stages in line with your customer’s decision journey, at least insist that your sales people determine and capture in CRM what phase the prospect was in at the first point of engagement, and where they are now
  • Offer your sales people guidelines that enable them to apply this awareness to qualifying the true potential of sales opportunities and to determine the strategies and tactics they should use
  • Abandon BANT (if you are still using it) as an early-stage qualification criteria and focus instead on engaging the right people in the right organisations as early as possible in their decision journey

As always, I’d appreciate you sharing your experiences and observations...


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

bob_apollo-online-1Bob Apollo is a Fellow of the Association of Professional Sales, an award-winning blogger, a confident and entertaining event speaker and workshop leader, a regular contributor to the International Journal of Sales Transformation and the founder of UK-based Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, the B2B value-selling experts.

Following a varied and successful career spanning start-ups, scale-ups and corporates Bob now works as an adviser to some of today’s most ambitious B2B-focused sales organisations, equipping and enabling them to accelerate revenue growth and transform sales effectiveness by implementing the proven principles of value-based selling.

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