Over the years, highly popular software salesforce.com has created a fairly prescriptive process for developing a sales pipeline.
This isn’t to say that Salesforce invented the idea of sales pipeline but the widespread use of this sales and marketing product has ingrained in sales organizations the idea of linear progress; predictions of the probability of success; lead scoring (assigning a value to leads based on their likelihood to convert); an emphasis on data and metrics such as conversion rate, sales velocity, and customer lifetime value (CLV); and revenue forecasts. The software, and the sales practices it has brought about, have influenced not only process but also sales organization structure, culture, and vocabulary.
Getting to a Yes or No (aka Closed Win, Closed Lost in Salesforce lingo) in a prescriptive and predictable way has become a key driver of many organizations’ approach to sales.
But there are more answers than just ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. And how an organization handles these other answers can make a difference in their success.
The Yes or No Binary Doesn’t Always Apply in B2B Software Sales
In software sales, there are nuances along the buyer journey, so whereas a basic ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is simple to deal with, ‘maybe’ and ‘not yet’ are about as common. During my decades in the software industry, I’ve observed various factors that lead prospects to answer this way. Here are a few.
- Purchase decisions do not typically come down to a single decision maker. Rather, a ‘team persona’ is often in play, and the dynamics of power, influence, and purchase may be obscured by a number of factors.
- You might be talking with the wrong ‘power center’. That is to say, for example, you might be talking with a person responsible for the team that would use the software, but they don’t have the ultimate power of the wallet.
- An organization’s or department’s buying and budgeting cycle will determine their response. For example, they are interested but do not have the budget right now.
- They are interested but are waiting for internal company politics, a merger / acquisition, or something related to macroeconomics to resolve or improve.
- The product doesn’t quite fit the company’s current needs, but they could grow into it.
- They just adopted and are still “digesting” a technology, so they don’t have the appetite currently for something new.
There is Value in Devising a Way to Handle ‘Maybe’ and ‘Not Now’ Responses
Organizations often ultimately treat ‘Maybe’ and ‘Not Now’ answers as a ‘No’ with understandably good reasons. Salespeople can only track, pursue, and remain engaged with a certain number of opportunities. So leadership eventually moves the ‘maybe’ and ‘not yet’ leads to ‘closed/lost’.
I believe it’s a mistake, however, to end the relationship for good.
Companies with more highly developed approaches to sales have devised ways to handle customers who are in any decision stage including ‘Maybe’ and ‘Not Now’.
They typically put the ‘Maybes’ and ‘Not Nows’ into a nurture track. This has become a function of marketing, and even though aspects of it can be automated, I believe sales should still stay involved. If the salesperson spent time building a relationship, the relationship nurturing should still include personal elements. Perhaps it looks like this: an automated nurture stream of emails that looks like it’s coming from the salesperson, with a phone call from the salesperson to touch base once a quarter.
How about sales outreach and invite to industry social events, dinners, meeting suites, etc. at industry trade shows? An end of year holiday card with a handwritten note is appreciated, and rare nowadays.
It’s About the Relationship
Although the structure and reinforcement of best practices that salesforce.com fosters have been a boon to companies worldwide, at its core, sales is equal parts ‘science’ and ‘art’: the art of relationships. The outcomes of the ‘science’ of sales are good and positive. But have we made the development and maintenance of relationships a lost art?
Software sales cycles can be long. Think 18 months to several years in the large enterprise space. Consider all the relationship building that can (and often does) take place during a long process like this. Wise salespeople and managers - the ones who genuinely care about people and their success - will look for opportunities to invest in people and add value along the way regardless of a prospect’s immediate response. They think longer term and bigger picture, knowing that a ‘No,’ ‘Maybe,’ or ‘Not Yet’ now could eventually turn into a ‘Yes’ down the road. That “Yes'' may come from a completely different brand, should the contact move to another organization. Certain industries, especially food and beverage, have high turnover, and that is a curse and a blessing.
Nurture Relationships Regardless of the Outcomes
In the end, a salesperson isn’t just nurturing a lead or a sale. Behind the purchase decision is a person. Nurturing relationships, in the long run, regardless of outcomes, by looking for opportunities to add value, can have professional and personal benefits. Maintaining and nurturing a network of contacts can be a good career move, as good relationships generate goodwill - and reveal character. A future employment or business opportunity could come from the relationships you are nurturing today.