“Yeah, I’m interested, but not right now.”
It’s a sentiment you’ll hear a lot in sales, both from people who legitimately are interested but really aren’t ready to buy now and from people who politely are trying to get you to go away.
To play the long-term game, you need a solid game plan and a way to measure your success. You need metrics to know whether you’re winning, where to concentrate your efforts and when it’s time to cut your losses.
When the goal is building that relationship so you’re poised to strike when the prospect is ready, the pipeline doesn’t always look straightforward. But, like with everything in sales, the long-term, relationship-based pipeline can be boiled down to actionable steps. To do that, you need to build a solid understanding of your prospect criteria and buyer’s journey, which you can use to set measurable goals and evaluate your progress.
First, the bad news: There’s no playbook of metrics you can pick up at the corner store. Your business is unique, and your relationship-building game plan will be just as special. No one else can come up with it for you.
Now, the good news: It doesn’t take rocket science to come up with the metrics. It’s more a question of getting together your key people and talking things over, said Mike Schultz, co-president ofthe RAIN Group, a sales training company. “It’s not like there’s a right or wrong way; it’s more like a lean startup,” Schultz said. “But instead of the minimally viable product, we need minimally viable criteria.”
First step: Who do you want in your pipeline?
Let’s get real. Nobody has time to spend nurturing relationships with prospects who are never going to buy.
If someone said they won’t buy now but might later, how do you know if it’s genuine interest or polite dismissal? Just ask. People will appreciate your honesty and frankness, Schultz said, adding: “You need to make sure your pipeline is filled with long-term prospects who should be there, versus making your pipeline a pipe dream.”
Getting that clean pipeline means having solid prospect-qualifying criteria in place. Schultz’s RAIN Group has a five-point rubric for evaluating relationship quality based on things like how the buyer would react to you ending the relationship, how they view the value you deliver and whether or not they see you as a partner.
You have to balance these scores (or other relationship quality scores) against things like the effort you’re putting into getting the deal, and attractiveness of the deal overall, Schultz said. The score in the relationship chart may be low, but if you’re passionate about the deal and think it’s worth pursuing, go for it. Or, the relationship score may be high, but the cultural fit could be off. “This is one of those areas where it’s really art and science,” Schultz said.
Second step: What’s your customer’s journey?
Even if your prospect is a perfect fit, you can’t build a long-term relationship with them through uninspired “just checking in” calls. Leave those for the Sunday chats with mom. However, if you thoroughly understand what your prospects need, what their buying process is and how you can add value, you’ll be able to create a road map of potentially game-changing future interactions.
Tony Hughes, sales leadership coach and managing director of RSVPselling, said thinking that the relationship is the value is one of the biggest mistakes he sees salespeople make. “The people that we’re selling to are not lonely, or bored, or looking for a relationship with a professional who wants to have a cup of coffee so they can try to sell things to them,” he said. “Everyone is so time-poor.“
He recommends getting granular about your prospect’s needs so that you can provide them with value at every interaction. Again, Hughes said salespeople need to just ask what problem a prospect is trying to solve and why it’s important to them. “If they’re looking for information, you can say, ‘Let me provide you that information. Why don’t you have a read of these things and I’ll follow up next week?’ Now you have a reason to follow up.”
Other needs along the customer’s journey could include building a business case for your solution, presenting your solution to a partner or CEO, or managing the risks of implementing your solution. Hughes recommends creating supporting content and planning out conversations for each particular stage of the deal with the buyer. As you help them meet specific needs along the path, Hughes said, “all of the sudden you’re shifting the conversation away from features and products and your competition, and shifting it toward delivering the outcomes that they need.”
Third step: Create a long-term game plan.
Just as a traditional sales funnel marks steps from acquisition to close, your long-term relationship game plan needs to advance ideal prospects along the steps you’ve identified as being part of your unique customer’s journey.
Ideally, you’ll be able to get a timeline out of your prospects, such as “in the spring” or “after the merger” or “when our current contract is up.” This lets you plan your interactions, and know when it’s time to start nudging them.
But Schultz cautions against following a timeline just because it’s there. “There’s a mistake that I commonly see made where people say, ‘Well, we already invested nine months in this; we should just see it through. It doesn’t really matter what you did yesterday.”
If in evaluating the relationship it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, it’s smarter to drop it than to soldier on. “Or, maybe if you had two more meetings you’d win a million-dollar sale,” Schultz said. “It’s all from today forward.”