27. Sales Process #2: Qualifying

Sorting out the relatively small number of people on your prospect list who are ready to buy NOW from the much larger number who aren’t is called “qualifying,” and the people who are ready to buy now are called “qualified.” The term sounds judgmental, as if qualified customers were somehow better people than unqualified ones. But salespeople don’t use it judgmentally: they just use it to indicate whether someone is likely to buy or not.

Many salespeople consider qualifying the most important step in the sales process because it helps them determine how—or, more precisely, on whom—they should spend their time. A salesperson should be spending most of her time selling to people who are ready, willing and able to buy now. (Some time can also go toward maintaining contact with people who are likely to buy in the future, and to scouting out new prospects.) Otherwise, she’ll waste too much time, and possibly her whole sales career, on the far greater pool of people who don’t intend to buy now no matter how great her product is, or how good a job she does at selling.

A qualified customer is often one who has an urgent need for your product—or, more precisely, who experiences his need as being urgent. Someone who feels slightly inconvenienced by the status quo is likely to be less qualified than someone who feels seriously oppressed by it. Qualifying is, in essence, “re-segmenting your marketing segment.” It’s the process of choosing “the likeliest of the likeliest to buy.” So if you segment and qualify properly, you should see a lot of sales successes.

How to Qualify

Salespeople qualify in different ways:

• The perfume and makeup saleswomen in the department stores qualify passersby in a few seconds by observing their hair, makeup, clothes, shoes and jewelry. They even check out the names on the shopping bags the shoppers are carrying! All of this information tells the saleswomen which customers are most likely to buy some expensive perfume or makeup—in other words, who to approach with a perfume squirt or a free sample.

• Car salespeople pay close attention to sex, age, marital status and the presence/absence of kids, and various socioeconomic cues (clothing, jewelry) of people entering their dealerships. Parents with kids will probably get directed to the minivans; affluent-looking types might get shown the sports cars or luxury sedans; and young adults might get shown the cheaper sedans. The salesperson will also ask questions about the customer’s budget, lifestyle and familiarity with the make and model of the automobile he is selling, to ascertain whether the customer is a serious prospect (i.e., qualified) or just a “tire-kicker.” If the salesperson thinks the customer is serious, he will lavish attention on him. But if he decides the customer isn’t ready to buy now, he will spend much less time with him.

• A computer consultant may ask a detailed series of questions to determine whether a particular small business would be a good client for her. In particular, she asks what its needs are and how urgent those needs are, to see if they are a match for her skills and availability. But—knowing that having an urgent need does not by itself make a good customer (see below)—she also asks about the business’s budget for computer programming services, its financial stability (to make sure it can pay her), how organized its office operations are, and why it’s no longer working with its previous computer consultant. (Back when I was a computer consultant, a business owner told me of his former consultant, “He was ripping us off and I threw him out of here bodily.” He might or might not have been telling the truth, but I got out of there as soon as possible. . . .)

Good salespeople qualify throughout the sale. They ask questions and make observations that help them determine if the customer is likely to buy now, and which messages are most likely to work to persuade him or her. If, at any point, they decide the customer is not qualified—i.e., not ready to buy now—then they end the sales process as quickly as possible so that they can move on to another, presumably more qualified, customer.

The cardinal rule of qualifying is:

It is far better to qualify too zealously—thereby risking that you accidentally weed out a few good prospects—than to not qualify zealously enough, and consequently spend a lot of your time trying to sell to people who aren’t likely to buy. In fact, experienced salespeople expect to “over-qualify” and lose a good prospect once in a while. If they don’t, they know they aren’t qualifying zealously enough.

Qualifying for Progressivism

Qualifying works exactly the same way in activism as it does in business. It’s a process of looking for characteristics or clues that your customer is, indeed, ready to buy. For example, someone might be qualified if you learn that:

• His or her parents were union members. (If you’re running a union drive.)

• He or she has beloved companion animals. (If you’re doing vegetarian or animal activism.)

• He or she was born in a particular foreign country, or his or her ancestors came from that country. (If you are doing human rights work related to that country.)

• He or she has donated money to Greenpeace or some other environmental organization. (If you are doing environmental work.)

How exactly you qualify someone depends on your specific circumstances, of course. It’s also something people tend to get better at as they gain experience. Mentors can also provide useful guidance, here.

Qualifying does not mean you wind up preaching to the choir—i.e., spending your time talking to people who already agree with you. It means going after the people who don’t agree with you now, but are the most likely to be easily convinced: the “low-hanging fruit.”

As in business, you qualify throughout the sale, and are always prepared to abandon ship if the person you’re talking with reveals themselves to be unqualified. Your foreign-born customer may reveal herself to be an arch-conservative and isolationist who couldn’t care less about human rights. If so, thank her for her time and move on.

Sometimes you invest weeks or months in a contact before you realize that they are not qualified. That’s something you want to avoid, but it happens even to the pros. Just face the truth and move on.

An Urgent Need Isn’t Enough

All qualified customers need to have an urgent need, but not everyone with an urgent need is a qualified customer. The customer also needs not to be truly willing and able to take the action you desire. In business, a customer could be unwilling or unable if she is takes forever to make up her mind; is unable to pay, or pay promptly; or is constantly second-guessing the businessperson on his work. In activism, a customer could be unwilling or unable if she:

• Harbors unreasonable doubts and/or suspicions about you or your cause.

• Teases or game-plays instead of works in good faith with you to achieve a win-win outcome.

• Has a Hamlet-like inability to make up her mind.

• Has unreasonable expectations of the benefit she will receive by embracing your viewpoint.

• Seems inappropriately or excessively angry, resentful or bitter, or generally emotionally unstable.

Customers such as these can sap your time and energy and drive you crazy in a hundred ways. They can also do great damage to you and your cause by badmouthing you to others. Some will string you along and tease you by acting very interested in your viewpoint, but then they never seem to move ahead toward taking the action you need them to take. They always have a million questions and concerns that they need addressed—and which you already addressed. Or, they miss phone calls or meetings. Or, they don’t do the things they agreed to do, or do them late and/or poorly. In short, they’re not working with you as a partner toward the desired outcome; you’re laboriously dragging them along.

It is important to end the sales process immediately if you sense that a customer may be stringing you along. Don’t wait for her to behave egregiously—she probably has already behaved badly in small ways, which is why your suspicions have been raised in the first place. Trust your gut and end the interaction, as nicely as possible, of course. Yes, this suggestion is rather draconian, and if you follow it you will probably eventually prejudge someone who is innocent. But believe me: it’s better to miss out on ten potentially good customers than to fall prey to one who behaves destructively.

There’s one group of people who seem like they should be qualified, but aren’t. Many activists work very hard to try to convince this group, often with heartbreaking results. I discuss this “non-qualified” group in the next chapter.