Proactive Ongoing Disqualification
After 50+ interviews with sales leaders at companies like Dell, Workday, Oracle, and Cornerstone, it’s clear that the best sales teams practice proactive disqualification, which is the idea that being “qualified” is not some everlasting attainment of sainthood, but rather a purgatory that should be constantly questioned and defended, and ultimately exited from (one direction or the other) as soon as possible.
These leaders shared their recommendations for knowing when to kick an opportunity to the curb and how to build proactive disqualification into a sales process, but in addition to their insights, this blog will also cover how to evaluate individual reps for their disqualification skills, using a new metric called Kick To Curb or K2C.
Every sales leader with whom we spoke agreed that that “losing fast” was a key plank of their pipeline management strategy, but their teams had trouble with happy ears keeping bad deals in play. In other words, prospects say ” Hmm, interesting” and reps hear “Sold!” The problem is that in chasing these deals without ongoing qualification, reps end up spending months on a deal only to discover at the last minute that actually there is no deal.
The fallout from that is the team no longer has time to make up for the loss by prospecting new business, and so misses their forecast without any advance warning to the rest of the company, which is the very worst thing that a sales team can do.
That’s bad, but it gets worse: one key insight was this is not just about the reps. Several leaders highlighted that in later stages of deals, other departments are brought in, for example to work on a detailed needs analysis or help onboard a pilot. Those actions have hard costs even beyond the costs of missing revenue targets. And that’s the stuff that gets sales leaders fired.
So how do the best sales people know which deals to kick to the curb and which to keep in the pipeline?
Flagging Bad Deals
Flag 1: Time & Touches As Disqualifiers
By far the most common class of red flags is based on prospects going dark. This has an advantage in that it can be easily operationalized by setting up a report in the CRM to count the days or touches since last contact. The risk is that you’re not looking at why the prospect went dark: for example, you don’t have the right people or you haven’t established a priority business case. So yes, “gone dark” is a proxy, but it’s a real rough proxy. BE SMART Relying on this “symptom not the cause” kind of disqualification means your team won’t learn why they’re losing deals. If you’re gonna do it, at least recognize that the countdown clock should reset at each stage and set thoughtful thresholds that differ based on which stage you’re in.
A better flag: Buyer-Centric Signals
Rather than relying on the reactive (ie: the prospect didn’t get back to me), a better way to flag a deal going bad is to track what data points successful deals have had by each stage and compare where the current deal is in relation to that ideal. For each opportunity stage, see what level of detail a rep has for the fundamentals, then in deal review, you can say “If we don’t know detail X by stage Y, then historically this deal isn’t going anywhere”
Our favorite indicators for ongoing qualification are the key elements of a buyer-centric sales approach
- Who is the buying team
- What is the business case (aka Value model or Needs Analysis)
- What is the buying process
Remember, this is ongoing, so at the start a little knowledge is OK, growing in detail as both sides invest in the discussion.
Given the costs of failure to properly disqualify bad deals, organizations need be proactive in building disqualification into their process. The obvious response is to automate exit requirements in Salesforce, so reps can’t advance until they’ve captured certain data points, but in reality, our research showed that the best teams instead focus on training both the reps and the managers to be consistent, dispassionate disqualifiers using a team-wide DQ rubric.
Approach 1: Automating Opportunity Stage Exit Criteria
Several companies add specific fields in each SFDC opportunity that must be filled-in in order to advance the deal stage. This motion is best when you have a predictable buying process. For example, in early discovery early stages, you might require a rep to establish that there is a need and budget availability; but in order to advance to a negotiation stage, the rep must have documented business case AND that the prospect AND the economic decision maker have both signed off that the business case is accurate and of high priority. And if the rep can’t get that validation, then it’s time to walk away.
There are two risks with automating stage progression based on data field completion.
Data acquisition may not be as linear as you expect, and in a perfectly good deal, the rep might get some data in the “wrong” order. This shouldn’t hold back the rep from moving onto the next phase of your multi-stage playbook.
Reps will just stick in bogus data to advance the stage, which is worse than no data at all. And unless the manager is looking at every field of every stage of every deal, reps will get away with it and end up chasing a deal that they should have DQ’d.
BE SMART It’s good to have increasingly detailed deal data points as you progress through stages. However, failure to fill in all the fields should only result in a flag, not a lock preventing stage advancement. Use those flags during one-on-ones to force a discussion on why this deal shouldn’t be DQ’d.
Approach 2: Set Manager Expectations
Probably the most consistent insight we got from these leaders is how influential Management’s attitude is towards driving rep behavior.
If management is looking for a fat pipeline with loads of opportunities, reps will oblige and keep all their trash in a “gone dark but maybe you never know” status.
If management wants to see ultra-high conversion rates, then reps will oblige and kill all but the most certain deals.
As a sales manager, you’re probably dealing with top-down expectations, but your job is to shield your reps from those pressures. You need to evaluate the merits of an opportunity from the bottom up. Use your one-on-ones to help reps disqualify rationally, using a set of known, shared, understood, rational, team-wide metrics to flag and disqualify deals. This makes it less risky for reps and managers to make K2C decisions, but more importantly it operationalizes your process, so there’s consistency as you add new reps to scale.
Approach 3: Get Reps to Want It
Carrots & sticks have their place, but educating your Reps for why proactive DQ is a good idea means they want it to make it happen, which will always be more effective than a third party motivation.
Here are three ways to get reps onboard
The single biggest action you can take as a manager to prevent reps holding onto bad deals is give them enough good leads. If they don’t have new leads, reps will just work what they have, even if it’s pointless. Now, there is something to be said for rep-generated leads. One leader we spoke to expected his reps to make at least 80% of quota from leads they sourced themselves, and the leads he provided via SDR were strictly the icing.
Value of Time
Intellectually, Reps get that every minute spent on a bad deal is a minute not spent on a good deal, but putting a dollar value to those minutes will make the intellectual argument a lot more personal. Take their annual quote, and divide it by 2000 to get an hourly quota. For example, a $1M quota works out to $500/hour. Every hour of every day. More dramatic, do the same for the entire company’s goal. You end up with staggeringly huge numbers due every hour of every day. But instead of reps paralyzed by panic, K2C flips it. By disqualifying a deal one day earlier than you would have normally, you just gained 8 hours of free time to work on a new deal. Using the same value logic from above, that’s an additional 8*$500 or $4000 in sales. If you DQ an opp in day 15 instead of day 45, that’s 30 days @ $4000 day of deals, or $120K of new money. (Yes, this is dodgy maths, because it assumes the rep was dedicated 8 hours a day to a single opp, but if we were only allowed to use accurate math, the consulting / pontificating business would have shut down long ago.)
Value of Credibility
One leader specifically highlighted how saying no early can actually bring in more business. You should already be emphasizing to your reps the importance of being a trusted advisor and not just a price-based order taker. By saying no to a deal that’s not a good fit ,you instantly gain credibility in the eyes of the prospect, as both an honest person and someone who understands their business and your solution well enough to say it’s not the right choice. While recommending a competitor as the right provider might be a step too far, saying “no” does make it more likely that next time, you’ll be the first person your prospect calls to evaluate their needs. Hopefully that time you do have a solution that will help.
Bonus Track: Necromancer
One company we spoke with has an explicit process whereby for any opportunity opp that’s no longer moving forward with one rep is is reassigned to a different team member. The big caveat here is that you need the K2C indicators to be saying “this should be a good deal and it’s worth the extra investment to win it” before you throw good time after bad, but I like the necromancer tactic because it’s a rare chance to introduce healthy competition inside the team that’s not just comparing who’s fastest in their own swim lane. As the sales leader said, highly competitive team members will go to extreme lengths to bring a dead deal back to life because it demonstrates to their peers how awesome they are. Unsaid, but assumed, is that competitive team members will also go to those same lengths to avoid having a deal taken away from them as it’s embarrassing to have someone else bring your dead deal back to life.
Necromancing is a good way to drive competitive reps to successfully close hard-to-win business, but be confident that you understand the deal and it’s actually worth winning the business at greater cost. Then make sure the two reps make a clean hand-over — no egos allowed at this point — and put a strict time / resource limit on the rep assigned to the necromancing.
More understanding and less wasted time
Everyone we spoke to agrees that reps should be more proactive in disqualifying bad deals, but most just let the individual reps take responsibility on their own, or at the other extreme built in automated gates on stages that often backfire, tempting reps to enter garbage data into the CRM so they could progress.
The key is awareness of the buyer’s needs and transparency.
If (1) you know the buying team, you know the details of their needs and that you can help, and you know what they need to buy from you, and (2) you’re shared this info with them in a transparent way and they’ve validated that everything looks good and (3) they’ve committed in advance to giving you a straight yes or no answer, you’ve got a good looking deal.