Five Sales Challenges You’ll Face

By Michael W. McLaughlin

Once you identify a sales lead, qualify it, and agree to pull together a proposal, you still face many challenges as you navigate the sales process. If you can successfully overcome at least five of those challenges, your win rate will improve.

While you may be excited when a client inquiry turns into a real sales opportunity, you must also realize that you are just getting started on the hard work of selling the project. Even if your offer is head and shoulders above the rest, you’ll struggle to seal the deal if you can’t overcome the typical challenges that emerge during the sales process.

Challenge #1: Manage Perceived Risk

No matter how persuasive you are, someone with authority in the client’s organization is bound to express concerns about the perils of selecting the wrong consultant–or doing the project at all.

Aversion to risk is a natural human response to making complex decisions. Ignore this reality, and don’t be surprised if you lose the sale.

Aversion to risk is a natural human response to making complex decisions.

Addressing risk aversion requires you to be highly targeted in your communications about your plan to mitigate risk. That means you have to understand the buyer’s perception of risk, whether you think those views are valid or not.

Too many sellers emphasize all the reasons why their offer is the safest choice, instead of focusing on the client’s chief concerns. Resist the urge to cover every base. Use your interviews and sales meetings to pinpoint your buyer’s perception of risk. Be candid about your views on the potential risks your buyer faces and, chances are, your buyer will reciprocate.

Then, create a communication approach that provides compelling evidence for how you will address each specific area of concern. Offer relevant examples of the ways others have successfully managed similar risks. To overcome buyers’ reluctance, you need to prove that you know how to handle what they think are the deal-breaker risks of a project.

Challenge #2: Respond to New Decision Makers

It’s not unusual for new client stakeholders to jump into the sales process at the 11th hour. New decision makers (or even influencers) can throw you off your game, often derailing a perfectly good sale. You can make it easier to meet this challenge if you predict and prepare for new decision makers.

New decision makers (or even influencers) can throw you off your game, often derailing a perfectly good sale.

As you proceed through the sales process, look beyond your key client contacts to their peers and superiors in the organization. Ask yourself, will your offer affect them (or their staffs), and in what way? Will they participate in or benefit from what you’re proposing? If yes, you should expect one or more of them to take part in the decision-making process at some point. Also, periodically ask your buyer how the decision process is coming along, and confirm who is involved in the decision.

Once you identify potential new decision makers, learn as much as you can about what is important to them. What are their business priorities, operating constraints, and key challenges? If possible, try to meet with them before they get directly involved with the sale.

Always be ready, at a moment’s notice, to offer any new decision maker a briefing on your proposal, focusing on the value of your offer to the organization. Don’t assume that others have represented your proposal accurately or completely. Whenever possible, set up a meeting with the new decision maker to bring that stakeholder up to speed quickly.

Remember, while you and your key client contacts may be wrapped up in the details, a new decision maker needs time to catch up. In your initial meeting with a new decision maker, don’t rush into the minutiae; emphasize the big picture, discuss the imperative for undertaking the work, and be patient with basic questions and rehashing old issues.

You can benefit from orienting a new decision maker because that forces you to rethink and articulate all of the reasons why the project is essential. Think of it as an opportunity to take a step back and make an even more compelling case for the client to do the project and to choose you for the job.

Challenge #3: Craft a Compelling Win Theme

In approaching a potential sale, sellers often think in terms of “What will it take for us to win this sale?” Instead, ask yourself what it will take for the client to win, and make that the theme of your sales effort and your proposal.

Your win theme should be about the end state your buyer wants to achieve, not the means for reaching it. Once you’ve identified that end state, show how you’ll help your client achieve that objective in every section of your proposal.

Your win theme should be about the end state your buyer wants to achieve, not the means for reaching it.

For example, if your proposed solution helps the buyer achieve better customer service, with reduced costs, make that your proposal theme. Think of the proposal win theme as an expression of value. Then, return to that theme again and again in your proposal and other communications.

Challenge #4: Understand How Clients Use a Sales Proposal

Buyers and sellers often have different views on the role and purpose of a sales proposal.

For buyers, besides revealing potential costs, a sales proposal serves two important purposes. First, it demonstrates how well the seller listened to and understood what the buyer needs. It doesn’t take long for buyers to figure out how well you’ve translated their needs into a workable solution.

Second, it shows buyers whether (and how well) you’ve thought through delivery of the value you’ve promised. Once a buyer is convinced that you can deliver value, they want to see how you’re planning to do that.

Most sellers know that buyers look at proposals in this way. Still, the most common proposal you see in the market is full of seller-centric language, jargon, and pointless generalizations.

A sales proposal is for the client’s use, not yours.

Today’s buyers want a proposal to be a blueprint for how to achieve value, while sellers are still cranking out warmed-over brochures and calling them sales proposals. A sales proposal is for the client’s use, not yours. The challenge is not to lose sight of that fact.

Challenge #5: Don’t Shoot Yourself in the Foot

Sometimes, dumb, avoidable mistakes cause the biggest problems. When you get ready to write a proposal, for example, it’s easy to get tripped up by any of these three mistakes.

First, some consultants believe that every proposal must follow the same template, no matter what. Sure, every proposal has common elements, like objective, scope, value, timing, staffing, and fees. But the most successful proposal efforts begin with the assumption that every client situation is different, even if you’ve done hundreds of similar projects. Make sure your proposal reflects that difference.

Second, proposal writers have a tendency to “bury the lead,” as journalists say. Too many proposals take too long to get to the point–which should be how you’ll address the buyer’s issue. Your buyer wants to know immediately how you can help, not how great you are. Of course, you want a qualifications section in your proposal, but focus first on what the buyer wants to accomplish.

Finally, some proposals are just sloppy about grammar, spelling, or formatting consistency. Even worse, some proposals have the wrong client’s name on them. It sounds like a small point, but clients have rejected more than one proposal for such errors.

Anticipate and Win

For most of us, these five challenges are just a starting point. Depending on the client, your list could expand to ten, fifteen, or more. Still, these five tend to pop up in most sales situations.

By anticipating challenges, instead of allowing them to take you hostage, you can act more quickly, convincingly, and with more confidence. Surprises can upend a well-executed sales effort, but only if you let that happen.

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