7 Essential Scoping Questions for that First Sales Call


So, we’ve managed to break through to that first sales call and now we have someone important on the phone – the CEO, CTO or COO of that Fortune 500 company we’ve been dreaming of selling our product to. It’s both funny and sad to think of the number of sales people who blow it exactly when they have everything lined up on a silver platter. Why, you might ask? “Simples!” as goes the catchphrase from the 2009 Compare the Meercat advertising campaign on British Commercial Television. On a more serious note, it is about lack of proper scoping during that vital first sales call.

Below is a number of questions that you absolutely must ask during that first touch point with your client, that is if you want to have a second call with them. There is also a right way of asking and gathering this essential info, so please read on. And trust me, it really does not matter, whether you are selling a CRM tool, CMS tool, Service Management tool or a service. You need to ask these questions as long as you are doing B2B enterprise sales. There is no way around them. And it’s less scary than it appears to be. Because, I have a secret to let you in on – people love talking about themselves, about their business and about what’s keeping them up at night. And chances are, when you are talking to a C-level executive, this gal or guy is taking her or his job very seriously and is largely invested in and engaged with all that needs fixing in her or his company.

As a warm-up, always start the conversation by asking if now is a good time and whether they have a few minutes for you to spare. Please, do not bore them to death by starting to pitch your company’s well-established portfolio of amazing and cutting-edge products, the remarkable maturity proven by your company’s long and stable history of existence or awards in the industry. No one cares. Really. At least not at this point. And why should they? You need to make them want to learn more, but it is too early to be doing this at this point. Please, don’t pitch and please do have patience.

Once you've broken the ice and you’ve established that they can spare a few minutes, you can gently go to the next question. For the sake of example let’s say we are selling a product/platform/system.

1. I was curious: what system/tool/platform are you currently using for your content management/service management/client relationship management?

Why is this important: you want to open up the floor for them to start thinking about the day-to-day problems they have and this is a great way to do this gently. Also, it gives you info on whether they are mature enough (if they have an enterprise-level system), if they are focused on a home-grown tool (that’s very easy to overcome as home-grown tools are a time-ticking bomb) and last but not least it allows them to indicate whether they are now actively looking. Yep, trust me on this one. Or give it a try and you will be amazed. Once they give you an answer on the tool they are using, your next logical question should be:

2. What are some of the challenges that you are currently trying to tackle? A more neutral question to ask is: “And how is it going (how are things going with using this current system)?” because here you don’t frame the question in terms of problems and you allow them to share both positive and negative aspects of the solution.

Why is that important: You’d need to know the positive aspects because these are the underlying objections that you would have to be overcoming down the road, so listen up and jot these down meticulously. For instance, if they tell you that this internal homegrown system is the brainchild of one of the founders, you’d have to be overcoming a very sensitive ‘hurt ego’ problem if you were to bring about talks about replacement of this product. Best way to handle this is to win the heart of this very founder and to get him to start pushing for a change.

Once you’ve identified the challenges that they are experiencing, it’s time to ask what alternative tools they are considering, so next question in line would be:

3. What are the alternative tools you are considering?

How to ask the question and why is that info important: Always ask the question assuming there are alternative tools - you can’t go wrong here – if there are none, they’ll say so. But if you ask a Yes or No question, e.g. “Are you considering alternative tools?” it makes it very easy for them to say ‘No’ and even if they say ‘Yes’, you’d have to ask “What are these tools?” and it is totally dumb to do in two strikes something you can do in one. Efficiency above all, especially with C-level execs. These guys hate it when someone is not being as efficient as possible. Once you get a list of the alternative tools, you would know what you are up against. And you’d know who you are up against – i.e. whether the person, organisation and its needs are mature enough for them to consider an enterprise-level tool. You’d know where you are standing in the game.

4. What timeframe are we looking at?

Now, that you have opened up the floor for the challenges and how they affect the goals and plans of the business, you can talk about a plausible timeframe during which these challenges need to be tackled and overcome.

Why is this important: Knowing the timeframe is crucially essential in making a solid projection of when this deal would be able to close. And as a Sales Manager, VP of Sales, Sales Director, Account Manager or a Sales Rep, or anyone who is quota-bearing for that matter, being able to accurately project the timing and number of deals you or your team would close is directly linked to how successful you would be in your organisation. More than that, it also gives you the big picture so that you can distribute your resources more wisely– it’s one thing to speak to someone who needs to make a decision within 3 months and it is a totally different thing to be talking to a C-level exec who plans to possibly pick a new system within 3-5 years. And knowing that timeframe is almost as important as knowing their budget, which is your next question to ask.

5. Is there a budget that we are limited by and that I should be aware of right now?

Why is that important: Another make it or break it question, this one is important because you want to know whether these guys are worth your time and whether they are serious about investing in resolving their current problems. I felt the pain of this firsthand back in the early days of the dot-com hysteria: I’d be talking to a client who wants an ecommerce website with all the extras for about 50,000 products and 20 or so variables for each product; I’d be up in the clouds dreaming of closing the biggest deal of the month when it would turn out that my client’s budget is 500 USD. Pretty sad.

Make sure you are on the same page in terms of expectations. The pain of not doing so early on is excruciating. Please, ask about that budget limitation and if they are leery about answering, explain that you want to make sure their expectations are adequate. I’ve literally told clients the following: “I need to know what budget are we limited by as what we have been discussing is a complex project and 500 USD is just not going to cut it.” This is when people would open up and say: “Of course, I am aware 500 USD won’t cover this, I was thinking more in terms of XYZ USD.” And if they are inadequate, the sooner you know this, the better. And please, notice the deliberate use of ‘we’ instead of ‘I’: this brings about shared responsibility, shared goals and a shared vision between you and your client. It puts you both on the same side of the soccer field. And this gives you ground to ask the next question, which will help you identify the decision makers and influencers.

6. Is there anyone else, apart from you, who would be helping you in evaluating this product and in ultimately making a decision?

Why is this important: You need to know whether you are talking to the right person in the first place. Sometimes things need to go through a Board of Directors, or the C-level person you are talking to is not responsible for the Cost Centre from which money for this project would come. I know it is super sweet, easy and tempting, but please don’t assume that you are talking to the decision maker, even if you are talking to the founder of the company. Things are never as simple as they appear to be especially when it comes to spending large amounts of money. So, find out who are all of the decision makers and who are all of the influencers of this decision and start talking to all of them as soon as possible.

7. Could you help me understand better your regular purchasing process?

Is this a more or less fast process or do you have to go through a formal 6-month purchasing process?

Why is this important: Now, a lot of people might claim that it is too soon to ask about this that early in the conversations. I disagree and here is why: it all depends on how you ask that question. What I’d normally do is explain that I am working with a wide range of customers: some are large banks and government institutions, who tend to move slower as they have a lot of internal processes to follow; and some of them are software and technology companies which are very agile and very flexible, and move a lot faster. Then, I ask which one fits better their profile. And the info you’d get is absolutely priceless: people would open up and give you examples of how little time a deal of similar size took them some time ago or would start to complain about how much red tape they are forced to deal with. This all amounts to great insight into whom you are dealing with and the more you know, the easier it would be for you to qualify and ultimately sell to that person.

There are lots of other questions that you would start to recognise as important as you delve into more and more sales conversations, so the list can go on and on, but these are the essential ones. They will help you be better prepared for your next sales call and will shorten significantly the sales cycle of your sale deals and ultimately this is what we are all aiming at, aren’t we :)?

Good luck and keep on rock-solid selling!

#salesprocess #salestips #Clevelsales #perpettoconsulting #salesconsulting #businessdevelopment #accountmanagement #salesleadership

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