Why Your Pipeline Problem is Actually a Conversation Problem

By Eric Nitschke, Director of Product Marketing and Sales Enablement

May 6, 2016

Conversation-Connection

Baseball season is upon us—it’s an exciting time in my household, but it also comes with discouragement since this doesn’t seem to be “the year” for my team. The coach’s explanation for the team’s lackluster play? The players are young, the team is still coming together—and in the end, we get the answer no sports fan ever wants to hear: It’s a process.

Unfortunately, I often hear the same answer from sales organizations looking to improve the conversion of leads and opportunities to billable revenue. A client recently noted that their deals either close right away, or take forever to close—if at all.

Naturally they want to know how and why that happens, so they embarked on an exhaustive pipeline progression analysis to find out why. They looked at marketing and sales qualification of leads, broke down the timelines, determined how long leads were in the pipeline, and calculated the quote-to close-ratio.

Their result? Reps weren’t following “the process”—they weren’t developing their engagement plans, filling out their opportunity sheets, or checking off all the boxes in their CRM system.

That’s all important, but it misses the point. Studies show that 89 percent of first sales meetings fail to get a second meeting because the seller hasn’t shown business value. And business executives value that level of expertise and four times more than just having a great relationship with a seller. In fact, 74 percent of executive buyers will choose to work with the company that creates a buying vision.

Fixing sales process issues only helps fix the few deals that manage to get to the second call. And often those opportunities are doomed for reduced prices and squeezed margins because they didn’t start from a position of differentiation.

Even sellers who are “leading with insight” could be hurting their pipeline progression. One recent study by Corporate Visions and Dr. Zakary Tormala revealed that asking diagnostic questions and providing insights requires a very specific cadence and timing if you want to get prospects to admit their pain. Similarly, another study by the same team found that creating risk with a great insight is only the start of a status quo-busting conversation. To actually open prospects up to change, you need to also show how you can resolve the risks you’ve identified with the alternative, safe scenario you’re proposing.

Solving the challenges in pipeline progression isn’t a process problem—it’s a conversation problem. If you want sellers to close long-term business, you have to help them succeed in the first sales call. Here are a few tips to help:

  • Defeat the status quo with neuroscience: Sellers that jump right to the conversation about why your company and products can help solve buyer challenges miss the fact that many buyers still haven’t committed to doing anything different. That’s called the “status quo bias,” and as sellers, it’s a bigger enemy than the competitors in your market. The good news: You can overcome buyer inaction with a “why change” story that reveals inconsistencies or uncertainties in the way your prospect is doing business today. By making prospects aware of the costs of doing nothing, you’ll bring about a shift in the way they perceive change, and make them more open to the possibility of doing something different with you.
  • Create a buying vision with social psychology: Researcher Daniel Kahneman noted that people are two to three times more motivated to make a change to avoid a loss than they are to achieve a gain. Sellers can inject uniqueness and urgency into customer conversations by messaging to prospects’ unconsidered needs—challenges or issues they’ve overlooked or underestimated. By basing your selling message around unconsidered needs, you can show prospects how the pain of doing nothing is actually far greater than the pain of change. That will create the buying vision you need to get to a second meeting.
  • Use behavioral economics to tell visual stories: The Picture Superiority Effect points to the profound impact that simple visuals can have on a customer conversation, and speaks to the idea that prospects process change emotionally, not rationally. Visual storytelling through a simple “why change” story provides the insights and contrast you need to convince your prospect that he or she is unsafe in their current situation, and that you are uniquely qualified to guide them to a new and better change scenario.

In baseball, teams and managers who ask fans to “trust the process” may be glossing over a weak farm system and clear skills gaps in their current players. And much like those managers, companies that think the sales process is the key to fixing pipeline progress may be missing the point. Pipeline progression can only be successful if reps are equipped to nail the first conversation—it’s the only way to get customers to “play ball.”