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Discovery or Qualification?

There is a stage early in the sales process concerned with carefully uncovering the customer’s particulars, situation, ambitions and expectations.  Its purpose is to help the seller to understand as much about the buyer as possible and usually means he or she will ask lots of questions all the while listening carefully to the answers.  Every sales process I’ve ever encountered includes this step, for very good reason and it generally goes by the name of Discovery.  Or sometimes, Qualification.


Who cares which?  It’s a matter of semantics isn’t it?  I spent the first half of my career thinking of it as Qualification.  The sales training materials I was exposed to all referred to the time spent asking questions of the customer as qualification, my sales manager called it qualification and so did the other salespeople.  Qualification it was then.


Little did I know the term was already at least three decades old, courtesy of some pretty ancient American sales language and delving into its roots uncovered it had a dual aspect, and along with it, an impurity.


Asking questions, paying close attention, listening carefully, all the while applying the appropriate set of non-verbal cues is no small feat.  Highly talented, highly social people with a healthy opinion of others tend to do this well.  The best are very good, the very best are typically the most successful salespeople and the few people who might be even better can sometimes be found in professional settings where interviewing and mind-reading skills are most valuable.  World-class TV interviewers and some folks at the clever end of therapy would be among them.  In pure terms, what they are doing is better termed Discovery.


Qualification differs by having a specific agenda driving the early stages of the process; is the customer qualified to purchase?  Although this notion has its place (and we will come to where that is later), this contradicts most good sales training.


In nearly every sales setting, salespeople learn not to be put off by customers who don’t fit the ideal profile.  They are ideal if they have a strong interest, perhaps having already done their information-gathering on-line leading them to the salesperson in question.  They are ideal if they have available funds and if there’s some urgency revealed in their decision-making-complex.


When good salespeople hear that the customer has only passing interest they think about using what they know to increase that interest to a higher pitch.  That’s the behaviour of good salespeople, lazy ones lose interest in the customer and look for a better one, a practice known as cherry-picking.  Notice that under these circumstances, the level of interest shown in the customer by the salesperson pretty much equates to the level of interest shown in the product by the customer.  You might say the customer is getting the level of attention he deserves (although you’d be wrong if you did – the customer deserves way more) but what’s really significant is that it’s the customer dictating the salesperson’s behaviour.


When the good salespeople learn the customer has limited funds they plan to assist the customer to obtain alternative, suitable funding options.  When the customer reveals that their plans to purchase are focused on some vague and distant point in the future at which time they intend to make a decision, the salesperson keeps it in mind while remembering all the people who brought that decision forward to a much earlier time after getting more exposure to the notion of owning the product in question.  All the less than ideal answers the customer provides get replaced by ones the salesperson prefers to hear when a little selling takes effect.  The salesperson wants to make a sale sooner rather than later but that’s fine because motivated customers don’t want to wait either.  The difference is that the good salesperson expects that a little intervention may well produce more mutually satisfying results.  The real difference then is that the good salesperson believes he/she can make a difference to the situation.  Not cherry picking, making cherries.


Which is why the concept of Qualification doesn’t sit well with me in most circumstances.  It’s also why very few salespeople who use the term think of it in its original sense of is the customer qualified to purchase?  Whether their behaviour matches their intention or not, they generally understand (pre) judging customers is dumb.


And yet there are a few situations where it has relevance.  Some products are aimed at expert users and may not perform well in the hands of less experienced owners, causing dissatisfaction.  Some products are expensive by conventional standards, causing customers unfamiliar with the top-end of the product line to gasp in shock when they hear it.  “How much!”


The law is clear when it comes to the role of the franchised retailer; they have a responsibility to properly advise the customer about various options and their implications to use and ownership.  Good salespeople feel sufficient empathy for the customer and concern for what happens when the customer gets it home to want them to buy the right thing, that is – the thing that’s right for them.


So when such circumstances truly exist, a little of that old-fashioned qualification creeps in.  Is the customer properly qualified to own this sophisticated high-end camera or will its endless modes, manual overrides and options lose them in sub-menus and acronyms?  Will this chap end up in the hedge if he buys this uber-powerful motorcycle with his limited riding experience?  Will this young girl find any advantage in the professional-grade cello or would she be better off with something more modest?  Her best friend’s thoroughbred horse requires the subtle inputs of an expert rider.  She isn’t an expert, her rider inputs are clumsy and inconsistent and so the two of them fight.  In the minds of some of the horsey-community, this girl is over-horsed.  There are more than a few motorcyclists who are over-biked, so many in fact that it’s probably the norm and when it comes to it, most people end up owning stuff which can do way more than they know how to do.  All the gear and no idea, as the saying goes.


As a general rule it’s a good idea, people ought to be able to grow in to their purchase, not find the thing limiting their enjoyment soon after the purchase by being underspecified.  It’s the opposite which causes concern, when enjoyment is limited because the customer can’t get it to function at a basic level and would be far better off (and far happier) with something more basic and simple.


Where this is a real issue in terms of potential customer satisfaction, or more crucially, safety, there is a small part of Discovery, which could be considered Qualification, a bit of effort applied to making sure the customer’s past experiences and level of ability will not make their prospective purchase a big mistake.  Safety and satisfaction take precedence over affordability, not because affordability doesn’t matter, but because in sales we soon learn that people end up affording a great many of the things they want and the more they want it, the more they’ll bend their own budgets to acquire them.


So should the horse seller refuse to sell the thoroughbred to the inexperienced girl?  Should the motorcycle salesperson refuse to sell the extreme sports motorcycle to the less experienced rider?  Should the camera shop take the professional camera out of the amateur’s hands and put something more basic there instead?


For legal purposes the sales operation must ensure it fulfils its obligation to assist the customer to buy the right thing, in particular with regard to safety, but beyond that… it’s up to the customer.


There are plenty, plenty, plenty of customers who own things they have no intention, let alone ability, to exploit.  There are people who hang exquisite musical instruments on the wall like ornaments with no intention of playing them ever.  There are others who have motorcycles which have never been started and never will be, displayed in their high-rise offices of in the lounge at home.  There are amateur photographers who but the very best equipment knowing full-well their ability doesn’t warrant it, but do so because they love the lenses, bodies and accessories with a level of passion, only a true geek can understand.


Some people collect.  They collect guitars or watches or cars or anything else for that matter, not because they need them, but because they love them.  Any salesperson dealing with such a customer may realise there is no level at which they are logically qualified to make the purchase.


Add all this up and you’ll conclude that qualifying customers is largely a waste of time.  Beyond the requisite level of legal caution and appropriate advice, it’s largely pointless and counter-productive.


The exception (isn’t there always an exception?), is where corporate structure, itself set in law, determines it must.  I am speaking of some sales operations I have encountered in the United States.  The sales operation sells products to people supplied by the marketing company.  The marketing company, a completely separate business, supplies leads and of course, charges for them.  What’s to stop the marketing company sending just anyone to the sales operation?  How about sending a few little children, the permanently unemployed, the sadly institutionalised?  One way or another, the cost of sale would exceed the available margin and the system would collapse.


The solution is to specify limits, to identify parameters within which the potential customer must fit before the sales operation agrees to pay for the lead.  Not only does this practice exist, it is sensible that it does so.  Up to a point.


For reasons which are beyond me (but which I am sure are eminently sensible), this arrangement between sales and marketing departments is enshrined in law.  So while I was at a very nice ski resort in Canada which offered folks all kinds of summer delights when the weather permitted, and excellent snow activities in the darker months, a chap and chapess wandered in wishing to buy an apartment but were turned away, the reason?  His lack of wrinkles.  The lower age limit was 25 and this fellow was 24.  The fact that he was successful enough to have the funds and wanted to buy was irrelevant, he wasn’t allowed.  I’m a simple soul, so my eyebrows were raised and my bonce got a light scratching.


Yes, a simple soul and also a salesperson at heart.  My recommendation is that you will do better if you do lots and lots of Discovery.  If your sales operation calls it qualification, do lots of Discovery and call it whatever you like.