You might be familiar with the scientific paradox called “Schrodinger’s Cat.” If you’re not, here’s an extremely simplified version. In 1935, Erwin Schrodinger suggested that, if you were to place a cat into some sort of a box with a potentially (but not necessarily – it could activate at a random time) lethal device in it, that the cat could be thought of as both dead and alive at the same time, as long as you didn’t open the box. Unless and until you opened the box, you would never know which it was. Obviously, there’s a lot more to it than this, but that’s the basic idea and that will work for our purposes.
What does this have to do with sales? There are a lot of deals out there that I like to think of as “Schrodinger’s Proposals.” Those are customers with whom deals have been proposed, but no answer has been received. And to the salesperson, those deals may be very much alive – but to the customer, they are dead. The salesperson doesn’t know because he hasn’t “opened the box” by getting a firm decision from the customer.
Look at your CRM system (you DO have one of those and it’s working and maintained, right?). How many proposals do you have in it that have past-due closing dates? If you’re like most salespeople, probably quite a few. Those are Schrodinger’s Proposals. When you look at them, those deals are alive and in the back of your head, you are counting on those as part of your upcoming sales performance. The question is – are they alive in the mind of your customers? There’s only one way to find out.
Open the box.
The older the proposal, of course, the more likely that it’s dead. And the older the proposal, the harder it is to follow up. So how do you follow up? First, let’s look at a couple of ways to NOT follow up on a proposal:
“Hi. I’m just calling to see if you have any questions about the proposal.” This is plain dumb on many levels. First of all, you’re saying that if they have questions, they aren’t smart enough to get ahold of you and ask them. Hence, you insult their intelligence. Worse is the word “just.” When you use the word “just,” you diminish the importance of any other words that accompany it. Never say “just calling,” or words like that – you make yourself unimportant. You have importance.
“Buy now for a special deal!” This is the worst thing you can do. “Buy now for a cheap price” approaches are low-end sales tactics and are usually a lie. The customer usually responds, “So, if I buy later, I can’t get that deal?” And you stammer and stutter. Don’t invest yourself in false and cheap sales techniques.
Now, with that out of the way, let’s talk about the correct approaches, all of which I teach in my training. Keep in mind that your proposal is designed to solve a problem for your customer (and if it doesn’t, no wonder it’s sitting there). We’re also assuming that you’re talking to the right person – if not, that’s a completely different problem, which we will address in an upcoming column. If your situation meets these criteria, here’s how to open the box:
The assumptive approach: My favorite close is the assumptive close. That’s a close that assumes that they have already decided to buy, and you are just confirming the details. It works like this. “Hi, Mr. Customer. I’m calling to find out when you would like to start service on that proposal I gave you last month.” Yes, it’s aggressive and assertive, and that’s perfectly okay. You’re calling to do business and you are being respectful of your customer’s time and your own by doing this. And it works – I’ve personally used this approach to rescue a stalled proposal.
The process approach: Sometimes, by depersonalizing the conversation, you can uncover information to get the proposal moving again. “Hi, Mr. Customer. I’m calling to follow up on the proposal. What’s the next step in the process for getting started? I’m looking forward to working with you.” You’re assuming that there is a process and that the problem is that the next step needs some input from you to make it happen.
Put the burden back on yourself. Sometimes, acting like you have missed something is a great approach. “Hello, Mr. Customer. I’ve been reviewing the proposal I gave you and I have to think that I’ve missed communicating something to you. This unquestionably solves these problems that you were facing, and I’m wondering where I’ve fallen down in my obligation to you. What can I provide you so that we can get going on this process?” Putting the burden back on yourself eases into the conversation and makes it better, psychologically, for the customer to have an open discussion.
Ask for the “no.” Sometimes a proposal is stalled and the customer has gone silent. You’ve called, emailed, texted, and heard nothing. Let’s be honest. There is a 90% chance that this one is dead when you open the box. Still, you need to close out the sales process and get a decision. This is the opposite of the assumptive close – you are assuming that the answer is “no,” and you are just confirming. The communication goes like this: “Hello, Mr. Customer. I appreciate the time we spent together in crafting the proposal for these services. Since I’ve not heard back from you, I assume that the answer is ‘no,’ and you are simply too nice a person to tell me. I assure you that my feelings will not be hurt by hearing ‘no,’ as hearing that word is part of any salesperson’s job. So, if it’s ‘no,’ please don’t hesitate to tell me. We can circle back up again in the future. If, on the other hand, you are still interested in pursuing this solution, I’d welcome a chance to reconnect.” In my experience, this has about a 10-20% chance of restarting a dead sales process. Either way, you are closing the process. Send this communication, wait a week, and if you have heard nothing, close the proposal out and get on with your life.
Schrodinger’s Proposals take up head space for salespeople and sales managers, and clog up a pipeline. Open the box – and focus on real proposals.