Skip Miller and Janelle Johnson Discuss the New Normal of Lead Qualification

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Act-On Sales & Marketing ConversationsEditor’s Note: William “Skip” Miller is President of M3 Learning, a company whose sales training tools are changing the way sales professionals get work done. Skip has spent more than 25 years in various sales, marketing, and operational management roles, including with McDonnell Douglas and Dataquest. He’s the author of five best-selling books, including “ProActive Sales Management,” which ranked number one on Amazon for five consecutive years. Janelle Johnson is Act-On’s Director of Demand Generation.

This blog post is an edited transcript of the Act-On Conversation Skip and Janelle had about the new sales landscape and how lead-qualification processes must change to align with today’s reality. You can listen to the podcast of the Conversation on the podcast player below, or download it on iTunes.



JANELLE:          At Act-On, we focus a lot on generating leads and nurturing them,  getting them to the point where they’re ready to be passed to a sales rep for qualifying. Once the lead is created, what should a sales rep be focusing on?

SkipMillerSKIP:                Janelle, people used to have to dial for dollars and cold call to try and get leads. But now with marketing automation tools, you’re getting hundreds – even thousands – of inbound leads that are already somewhat qualified. So you’ve got to start thinking differently about what you’re going do with these leads, because we’ve got to qualify them up front a little bit differently … we’ve got to test them for energy. Act-On’s a perfect example of that. You guys have grown like crazy by using your own tools to generate more leads. And your sales teams have had to do things differently.

JANELLE:          Yes, that’s absolutely true.


Salespeople have to do things differently now

SKIP:                What many companies need to do is retrain their sales force. Sales has to change their game, learn some new things. And this applies to companies with three or four sales people, all the way up to companies that have 1,000 or 1,500 sales people. If the sales organization can focus on a few things, early and upfront, with these leads, they’re not going get overwhelmed. What often happens with new inbound leads is that we’re so anxious to talk to somebody who wants to talk to us, we end up doing a whole bunch of stuff to please them, like give them a presentation, give them a demonstration, give them all this stuff. Then we wonder why they’re not turning, why they’ve gone dark, they’ve gone ghost, they’ve gone quiet. What did we do wrong? Well … you did nothing wrong at stage four. It’s back in stage one that we’ve got to do some different things.

We’ve broken it down to three things, three barrels: Causes, Problems, and Homework. If we focus on these three things, I think sales teams get a little smarter, they up their game, and they do a better job of qualification early in the funnel.


What is causing the prospect to consider change?

Janelle JohnsonJANELLE:          Sounds great. So let’s start with Causes. What does that refer to?

SKIP:                The concept is, what’s causing these people to take your call? What’s causing them to actually say, “Yes, I might be interested in talking to somebody?”

Sales people – especially if they take an inbound call – all of a sudden start focusing on the company, not on the prospect’s needs. They have a mental dialogue: “Why are they calling my company? Why do they want my product or my service?” Well if you take a step back, sometimes the reality is that the prospect doesn’t want your product or service. They may like how they’re doing things. If it’s not broke, why fix it, right?

Often, these prospects are being told by management to investigate something new, because all of a sudden the company’s got to do something different … something’s caused them to say, ”What we’re doing now is not good enough.” For example, “We’re moving our office space this week. What caused us to move is that we’re a growing company. We’re running out of space. We’re adding people.” There’s a cause. And typically it’s the cause that creates change.

Sales teams should start asking questions like, “What’s causing you to look at a tool like ours?” “What’s caused you guys to say, ‘What we’re doing now is not good enough.’?” “What’s happening in your organization that’s caused you to put energy into looking at my service or my product?”

If sales can do that, they’ll find a ton of energy behind the answers. And they’ll be able to disqualify the people who are just kicking tires. So: if sales teams can master the word cause, they’ll find out if somebody is worth putting into the funnel (or not).

JANELLE:          That’s a great point. As you were talking I was thinking about the fact that if there’s no cause, it’s likely they’re not going to move forward because it’s hard to change. The status quo is a lot easier for individuals and for companies. And so without that cause, they may be gathering information to find out what’s out there, but there’s no real reason driving them to change. And that, I assume, would impact and hamper the sales process.

SKIP:                Here’s an example: I bought a big TV a couple months ago. I got home and I said to myself, “What’s causing me to buy this thing? The one I’ve got is fine.” I actually called the company the next day and canceled the order. There was no cause for me to get a new TV. There was nothing wrong with the one I had. It’s amazing how without that cause for change, there’s not enough energy to move forward. We think of sales processes, especially early, like a roller coaster: If you don’t have enough energy early in the process, you won’t make it to the top, and the deal is going to stall … or even go backwards.

So ask the great “cause” questions: “Hi, Mr. Smith. Thanks for calling today. I understand you hit our website. I understand you downloaded XYZ white paper. What’s causing you guys to look at something new? What’s causing you to say that what you’re doing today is not good enough? What’s going on?”

Rather than, “Hi Mr. Smith, thanks for downloading XYZ white paper. How can I help? What can I do for you? What can I send you?” All of a sudden now you’re in “giving” mode, you’re not in control of the process. [LAUGHTER] And that deal won’t have any thermometer – no energy. So asking cause is important.

JANELLE:          I would assume that buyers oftentimes may not be aware of the cause … it isn’t something they’re actively thinking about.  In that case, how can a sales rep dive down and try to understand the cause and help the buyer put it into words and into a framework?


No problem? No deal.

SKIP:                The motivation goes to our second point, which is Problems. If there’s no problem, there’s no deal. So what problem is the company facing right now that’s causing them to change what they’re doing? By the way, problem is not a good word. So I wouldn’t recommend you go after a customer and say, “What’s your problem?” [LAUGHTER] So position it more like, “What are your challenges? Your initiatives and goals? What’s holding you back?”

Most companies have two, three, four goals for the year. They could be revenue goals, product goals, market share goals. The ones that are doing well probably aren’t on anybody’s desk right now. What’s on people’s desks are the goals, the initiatives that aren’t doing well. There’s a problem with them. There’s a challenge. There’s a pothole. There’s something going on that is causing them to say, “I’ve got to spend more time and attention.”

So if cause creates energy, finding out the problem is like energy squared.

“Hi, Mr. Smith. What’s causing you to look at us? What things are going left instead of right? What things aren’t going the way you planned?”

People pay attention to problems. They want to get them fixed so they can deal with other problems that happen. Causes and problems go hand-in-hand. It’s a combo we call “trains.” The company executives are the train station masters, and they’ve got three or four trains they’re working on.

So ask which trains are in the train station. Ask about goals and initiatives, the executive and/or the people who are working on them, why they’re working on them, and what the challenge is. Causes and problems. Those two things combined are going to produce a lot of energy and deliver a lot of qualification milestones up front so that sales teams don’t fill their funnel with a bunch of smoke.

Because if a train was all set, it wouldn’t be in the train station, right?

JANELLE:          That’s great. And I would imagine that as you have multiple people, maybe different levels or different departments in a buying cycle, they may have a different viewpoint or a different problem that they’re trying to solve.

SKIP:                Oh yeah. And time and time again we get companies who have been generating inbound leads or using marketing automation, and now they’re generating 5, 10, 20x what the company is normally used to. These leads are so important that they jam them through the sales funnel, giving them all these proposals. They don’t want to get rid of any of them. So nobody’s done a good job of qualifying or disqualifying them.

Well you’ve got to filter some of those out. Some are tire kickers. Some should be looked at heavily three months from now as opposed to right now. By asking cause and asking problems, you’ll be able to determine how hot or how cold each lead is.

JANELLE:          To your point, oftentimes you need to have a conversation to understand that. We definitely look at somebody’s digital body language, but sometimes digital is digital. And nothing can replace a quick conversation to find out what’s causing them to look and what their problems are. That helps us understand if this is something for right now or for three or six months from now. Once we know that, we can then put them in the right nurture track.

SKIP:                Yeah. A nurture track is very important. Because if I’m a sales person –  call me Bob – and I’m used to manual prospecting and writing emails and maybe getting two, three, four good leads in a month, I’m going to treat them like diamonds. When I start using marketing automation, all the sudden I’m getting 30, 50, 100 leads a month. I still want to treat them all like diamonds but I can’t, because, one, there aren’t enough hours in a day, and two, they’re not all the same … they’re not all qualified.

That sales rep has to change up their game. They’ve got to do some things differently. As you mentioned, putting together nurture tracks is important. But to do that you’ve got to qualify them, gauge the temperature – the energy level of the deal. And if sales organizations ask about cause and find out the problems – the trains they’re working on and what’s keeping the train in the station – they’ll find some energy. It all ties into changing up the sales game and doing things differently.

JANELLE:          Great. So what are some questions or talk tracks around really trying to find the root problem?


Time: the third factor

SKIP:                If you think about it, problems exist because a company is doing something wrong or execs see something coming down the track that’s going to affect them, either near term or farther out. We call that time-traveling. Asking time-related questions is a great way to uncover problems.

“Hi, Mary. What’s happened over the last couple of months that’s caused you to say, ‘We’ve got to do something different?’”  Or, “Mary, what’s happened in the last two quarters to make you say, ‘Enough is enough. We’ve got to change what we’re doing.’?”

Or going into future time: “Mary, as you look at the next six months or as you turn the corner for 2015, what are some of the things you will be doing that will require you to do something different?” Or, “Mary, as you look between now and the end of the year, what’s causing you to say, ‘If we want to accomplish our goals we’ve got to turn left instead of right.’?”

So time-traveling is a lot better than, “Hi, Mr. Smith. What’s your problem?” To which he’ll reply, “My only problem is getting you off the phone!” [LAUGHTER]

Time-traveling is really important for uncovering root cause and problems, and making sure the energy is there to move the lead forward.


Test the prospect’s commitment: Homework

JANELLE:          I feel some homework coming on.

SKIP:                Yes! So we’ve talked about causes and finding causes and making sure we ask about challenges, exceptions to the rule, initiatives that aren’t going well, things they’re trying to fix. In order to really gauge a prospect’s temperature – their energy temperature – give them homework.

Give them a homework assignment to do … it could be simple as, “John, here’s what we reviewed today. Could you circle the two or three things on this list and send me the email back, so I can make sure our next step is very focused on what you want to accomplish?”

It could be going through a slide presentation and asking them to add a slide or two. It could be having them refer you to someone else in the company, to give you a different viewpoint.

Sales people have this belief that they’ve got to please. They think, “Hey, if I do what the customer tells me to do and I do it well, I’ll get the order.” With marketing automation tools, you’re going to get a lot of prospects knocking on your door, so you want them to put a little sweat equity into it. You want them to earn it. And only the ones who are really serious will do this little 15-, 30-second, 1-minute homework assignment.

So at the end of the first call you may something like, “Bob, this has been a great call. I think a good next step is an in-depth presentation to find out what your company is really looking for, and also present what we do. At that point we can figure out if there’s a fit. Is tomorrow, 10 a.m. good? I’m going to send you an agenda with five or six points we typically cover. If you could circle the top two or three items, or add what you really want to accomplish, that’ll help make the meeting more worthwhile to us both. I’m going to send that to you. If you can get that back to me in the next hour or two, or even get additional input from other people who will be in the meeting tomorrow, that’d be really helpful. All right, thanks.”

Something like that. So tomorrow at 10 a.m. when they haven’t sent it back to you, what are they telling you? [LAUGHTER] They’re not interested. Or 15 minutes before the meeting, “Hi Bob. I haven’t gotten that thing back from you and I really want to tailor this presentation. Can you send it to me?” Those little homework things let you judge whether this is a qualified or disqualified opportunity. So homework is a big deal and should be used, because you want to gauge how hot these leads are as soon as possible in the sales cycle.

JANELLE:          That’s also interesting because it makes the buyer more involved in the process … now they’re helping to drive, rather than being passive, they’re actively engaged in deciding what needs to be covered, and are active participants in the sales demonstration, or the discussion.

SKIP:                It’s funny, buyers do want to be involved, but many sales people don’t want to give up that control. Their attitude is, “I’ll do everything for the buyer, just watch.” And that’s not a good thing. Think about it: if the buyer’s actually doing the sweat equity with you, they’re probably not doing it with your competition. So you’re getting more of a transfer-of-ownership type of a thing up front.

JANELLE:          Yeah, they’re then working with you as a team, as partners, versus somebody shoving something at them.

SKIP:                Exactly. You know, we hear buyers all the time say, “Both product A and product B, company A and company B, are really similar. But company A really understands what I’m trying to do.” Well by having buyers put in some sweat equity, having them do homework assignments, they feel involved, they feel engaged. Therefore they feel like they’ve been heard. And that’s a good thing.

JANELLE:          I have to tell you, when we first talked about the homework I cringed  a little, probably from memories of when I was in school, and now as a parent. There’s a certain amount of stress and negativity attached to the word homework, but homework plays an important role. It shows that you understand and are engaged with the process.

SKIP:                Quite frankly most companies that we talk to, their product or service can do a lot of things, but most buyers only are interested that it does A, B and C. I bought a car a year or so ago, and the guy actually popped the hood to show me an engine. Now I’m sure there are buyers who really care about the engine. [LAUGHTER] It was pretty. What am I supposed to say? It’s an engine.

The point is, people look at different things. It’s great to show buyers some other things your products and services can do, but it’s essential to focus on the three or four things the buyer is really interested in. And that can only be uncovered with a homework assignment. By having them put some sweat equity into the presentation before it’s launched, everybody views what’s going on here. It’s a good thing from both the customer and the sales person’s standpoint. I don’t know why more salespeople don’t do it.

JANELLE:          I can see how Homework ties the Causes and Problems and Time Travel together. It helps ensure that you’re going to know and cover the cause and problem they’re trying to solve.

SKIP:                Yes. Sales organizations want to treat each lead like a diamond. They’re used to leads being scarce, so they try to treat them really well, impress them with demonstrations and presentations. And that just can’t happen when you’re getting 30, 40, 100 leads a month. You’ve got to do something pre-stage one to really make sure that the actual diamonds are the ones that get filtered through.

If sales organizations focus on causes, energy, find trains and problems, and have the customer do some homework up front, they’re going do a better job of qualification and disqualification early, which will make them less overwhelmed and much more successful.

JANELLE:          Thank you, Skip, for coming today and sharing this critical information.


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