How to qualify leads when selling to small businesses

Qualification is one of the most important part of the sales process. Sales professionals who fail to qualify a lead can spend weeks or months chasing something that isn’t going to happen.

Not only does this mean spending time sending emails, making calls, maybe even jumping on live demo calls, or going to meetings, when there isn’t a chance of making a sale at the end of this effort.  It’s also the opportunity cost of not chasing viable leads.

As a general principle, when selling to small businesses you are working with companies that can make decisions quicker than big corporate clients. Sure, they’ve usually got smaller budgets. But if this is your market, then that isn’t a problem. You’ve got a product or service suitable for small and medium companies. Brilliant! Now the challenge is scaling the sales pipeline sufficiently to generate a healthy stream of revenue, which means an effective qualification process is a necessity for success.

Here is how you go about this the right way:

#1: Be sure who makes the decisions

In a small business, the decision maker is usually the business owner.

Usually. But not always.

Always double check, and ask the right questions as part of the discovery process.

A few questions worth researching, or asking, if you can’t find them while learning more about a potential client:

  • Does the owner (usually a CEO in North America, or a Managing Director in many European countries) report to anyone, e.g. a board of shareholders/investors?
  • Is the company owned by another company, and therefore, are budgets decided annually?
  • Does the owner have discretionary spend if you are selling something they’d not planned for when budgets were made?

Even if you can’t find the answers to these online, while you are asking questions about pain points and timescales - see below - the answers to these should become apparent. And if not, be sure to ask. It could save yourself a lot of time if you know you need to wait until the next budget review to get a project approved, so for now, find out what you can, send more info, and stay in contact.

On the other hand, if you’re speaking to someone who influences decisions, such as a manager in one of the companies departments, then the next conversation they could have is with the owner. Make sure they know enough to sell the benefits of securing a budget or spending one already allocated on your solution.

#2: Ask if a budget exists

Money isn’t everything . . . except when it comes to securing a sale.

A potential client could spend all day saying how much they need your solution; but you need to make sure they can pay. Did they take this as a speculative, “want to see what happens” meeting, to get an idea on price, or do they need what you are selling and are actively looking for solutions?

Finding out whether a budget exists isn’t simply about asking whether they’ve got the money. It is about assessing what they need and where they are in the decision making process. All valuable information for understanding how likely this sale is and whether your solution is providing them with something they need in the immediate to near future.

#3: What are the pain points, what problems are we solving?

Another key element in the discovery process is understanding where your solution fits with their goals and objectives. Is it going to solve a minor problem that only impacts the IT guy once a month? Or will it generate millions in savings or new revenues for them?

Once you’ve got a clear idea on this - which is why live demo calls can be so useful - you can quickly move to making it a solutions-driven conversation. Often, one pain point uncovers a range of challenges a business is struggling with. An effective salesperson should be able to join the dots, and even if you can’t solve all of these challenges, chances are, you know other people who can.

Recommend other people you know. Not only could this generate inbound leads in return, you are proving you aren’t just there to sell them something. You want to build a long-term relationship that provides ongoing value, which is a great way to maintain trust and revenue from new clients.

#4: How urgent is this: what timescales are we looking at?

When speaking to a prospect, if the problem is urgent then it needs a solution. Good news for anyone trying to make a sale and hit target this quarter!

If, however, there is no sense of urgency, then the chances are this won’t happen anytime soon.

Ask open and closed questions to ascertain what sort of timescales they’re thinking about. Provide realistic timescales for deploying a solution too. This way, you both have an idea what needs doing and if they’re serious about moving forward, how soon you can move forward, and what that looks like.

#5: Have you made the right arguments at the right time to the right people?

And finally, after talking for an hour or so, you should have a pretty good idea the arguments you need to make to convince the person your speaking to. But have you made the right arguments for the owner or any other stakeholders in the process?

Assuming they aren’t deciding straight away, put these arguments (benefits, ROI, etc.) into a proposal, then send it over to them as soon after the meeting as possible. This way, it shows a small business that you’re serious about providing a quick and efficient service, and that they will be looked after if they come on-board as a customer.

One final thing: Don’t forget to follow-up. Do this fairly regularly, either to continue the qualification process, sell additional benefits, or ensure a new client signs-up and you can start working together.