Ask different questions – Predictive B2B Modeling (Part 3)

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Budget dollars and time drivers need better questions

So, one of our big deals lost its budget money. It just flew away! Now our forecast is wrong, or at best misleading. What are the origins of misleading data in our forecast?

There is a Dilbert joke “Your sales guy said this product is self-healing. Is that true?” Dilbert’s answer is “yes, it’s true, he said that.” The double meaning is ironic and funny. Even more ironic is that sales people are often mislead by customers. This is not deliberate, yet it happens (ironic, and NOT funny). Here are a couple of areas where misleading information is common.  These are cases where the information originates with a customer, then slips into the pipeline of data for our B2B Sales Forecast. To head off these problems, sales managers must ask different questions.

Yes, we have Budget (… gosh…no we don’t)

At some point in a sales conversation a customer hears a question about budget (…perhaps they have experienced many BANT-based qualifications!…). Being polite and helpful, they want to say “Yes, we have budget”, and that answer may be taken at face value. In fact it is misleading. In reality it may mean “Yes, we have a general budget for business improvements”. However spending any money depends on a competition among many options. In the late stages of a sales process it is common for the customer to say they did not get budget approval, or “Sorry, the budget was cancelled”.

Inside a Sales Team, ask what the customer’s business case is to spend the money. I would rather look through a lens of “There is NO approved budget” and see if I can figure out how to build a return-on-investment or other suitable financial justification. So the best internal question becomes “Show me the business case” or, more lightheartedly, “Show me the money.” Specifically there needs to be a value proposition written down to identify specific pain points, how they will be fixed, and what the rewards will be to justify customer spending approval. For best effect, this value proposition needs to have close customer involvement and “buy-in”.

Yes, we have a Timeline (…. woops, no we don’t!)

Timing and timeline questions are also tainted by customers trying to help the sales person – questions about “when would you like to fix this problem” are often answered in the most optimistic fashion. Indeed, there are several blind alleys we can fall into. In some cases the customer wishes to get a proposal as a “quote” of prices. In other cases the customer may be thinking of a possible installation/activation date, and be guilty of wishful thinking. There may be no compelling reason for urgency.  How would we detect that wishful thinking? In either case the timing info is misleading, with a tendency to be too optimistic. If this information ends up in our Pipeline data or Forecast, it will end up being an item re-forecasted, also known as a “stalled deal”.

So in talking with a Sales person I like to ask if there are other known events in the customer’s annual cycle which have a fixed timeline, resources assigned and spending underway. If yes, the next question is “How does our offer support that existing resource commitment?” With a strong connection there, we have a true “time driver” which is much better than a “timeline” estimate. To forecast more accurately only deals with BOTH a time driver and strong budget drivers should appear on a scheduled B2B sales forecast.

Sales managers need to ask different questions

In conclusion, for each opportunity we need to know, “will time and money be on our side?” Easy to say, hard to get reliable answers. Fixing the forecast requires changes in the questions a Sales Manager will routinely ask of their team members. Budget assumptions need an answer to “What is the business case?” and “Have we co-authored it with our customer?” The best questions assume we are customer insiders, with a deeper perspective on how an approval happens, as well as how it does not happen. Many B2B forecasting problems have their roots deep in the way mutual expectations are built in a sales dialog. The good news? There are specific techniques we can use to avoid most of these problems. More answers will be in the chapters to follow.

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