Is the Opportunity Real?


We’ve all been in that sales situation where you think you have it wrapped up and at the last minute it stalls. They stop returning your calls and emails, all correspondences are very short and to the point, the RFP is hanging out there, it seems like your prospect has simply fallen off the face of the earth.

So what happened? Were they not an ideal client or part of your target audience? Was there secretly a competitor with an inside track or existing relationship (hint: there usually is, but that’s a different ezine topic)? Were they simply shopping to see what’s available in the marketplace?

It could’ve been any of those, and more, so today I want to introduce a framework to help you evaluate each opportunity – before you commit to chasing it. I can’t claim this model as my own, though I’ve adopted it in my daily client interactions.

When I got serious about understanding consultative sales, multiple colleagues recommended I pick up Mahan Khalsa’s book, “Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play.” And I recommend you read it as well. The short version of the story is that Mahan is responsible for sales performance at FranklinCovey, the Seven Habits folks, and this book shed more light on how modern sales work than anything I’ve read. When I read a recent ezine from Mahan, I knew I needed to share some of his wisdom with a little bit of “Nick Rice practicality” thrown in for good measure.

When you are presented with an opportunity for a new project or new business, you need to uncover as much as possible to gauge how successful you will be with this project. If you try to fix every problem that presents itself, you will never be seen as a specialist, and as such, you will never command high fees. Generalists stay busy with small projects, but when the client wakes up and decides to fix the big problem, who are they going to call?

So, how do you uncover such details? At a high level, you have to ensure that three things are present before you can properly evaluate an opportunity. Here is the Opportunity Framework:

Opportunity Framework

Opportunity Triangle

First off, you have to know that there truly is a problem to solve or a result to achieve. You cannot help someone that doesn’t admit or realize that something needs to change. It doesn’t matter if you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there’s an issue; if you cannot get your prospect to see it and admit it, you’re wasting your time. On the flip side of this, it has to be a problem worth fixing or a result worth achieving. Organizations live in a constant state of brokenness – and that’s okay as long as they are still profitably functional. Some problems are worth fixing, some are not. Realize that as soon as possible and move on.

The second item to uncover is the prospect’s ability to make and act upon a decision. There’s nothing worse than someone who cannot make a decision and move on it. If you’re running into this, chances are you’re not talking to the real decision maker or you’re not helping them paint a picture of what life could be like after fixing the situation. If you work with large organizations, know that junior level managers and staff love to keep consultants and sales people busy. They like the power trip. And it makes them look productive to their bosses. You need assurance that the person you’re working with can say yes to your proposed solution before you invest a lot of time and energy.

The third leg of this stool is ensuring that appropriate resources are available to address the issue. Resources can take the shape of budget dollars, staff availability, executive oversight, equipment – anything required to make the solution a reality. If there’s not enough budget or internal staff resources, the project will never get off the ground. If you cannot get commitment from a certain executive for support, you’re on thin ice. How can you be successful without appropriate resources?

If any one of these three items is left unknown, you put the project and your success at risk. Chances are you’re going to waste a lot of time when this initiative stalls at some point in the future.

We’ve all seen good opportunities with no budget. We’ve all seen executives than cannot make a decision. We’ve all walked into a client’s office and almost tripped over the problems in the organization. If you are someone that wants to be recognized as an expert in their field; someone that wants to truly provide the best solution to the client’s problem; you owe it to yourself to slow down enough to uncover all three parts of an opportunity. And don’t be afraid to walk away if the opportunity isn’t ideal. You should only work in an environment where you are set up to succeed. If the project isn’t right, it isn’t right and now it’s time to move on.

You cannot expect the client to simply lay all of this out on the table for you. You have to dig. You have to ask the right questions to bring these issues to the forefront – and in doing so you will separate yourself from 98% of the other sales people out there. Too many people simply jump at what’s presented in an RFP or what’s said a meetings as gospel without digging any deeper. Clients want and expect you to ask tough questions. They want to know that you fully understand their issue inside and out before presenting a solution.

When you approach each opportunity as a chance to find the perfect solution for your client – whether it involves you or not – you’re doing the right thing. And Karma has a way of rewarding those that do the right thing. In order to understand the problem and propose the perfect solution, you need to know all three parts of an opportunity.

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  1. Good article Nick, being able to identify a dud project before starting out is a time and money saver, something I’m getting better at over time.

    How do you politely turn down work? The old fashioned way of bumping your quote up or a straight ‘this project isn’t for me’?

  2. A nice idea there. Sales people often focus too much on USP instead of on how the product or service solves a problem. At the end of the day, we want a hole not a drill.

  3. RichardD, I typically take the straight forward approach. I’ll usually try to salvage the project once by saying something like, “Let me stop for just a second because something doesn’t make sense to me. You say this is a big problem that’s currently costing you $XX,XXX; but you’re not willing to put any resources towards fixing the problem. Why is that?” And if the answer isn’t acceptable, you politely disengage (and possibly refer them to a less savvy colleague that’s willing to walk through the mine field). But at the end of the day, you cannot save the client so there’s no use trying. You’re simply putting your reputation and sanity on the line.

    Tom, you nailed it. Sales people focus on selling what’s in their briefcase–regardless of how well it truly helps the customer. If you’re a drill salesman, everything looks like it needs a hole; but show me a project that you can complete with only a drill in your tool box.

    Ever wonder why the default stereotype of sales people is the used car salesman? Here’s what 95% of sales people need to understand–you cannot solve every problem. You cannot help every customer. There are good projects for you and bad projects. And it’s totally okay to walk away if it’s not right for you. When you let your quota drive your recommendations, instead of truly helping the person on the other side of the table, you perpetuate the used car sales approach.

    If your intentions are to honestly help each and every customer in the best possible manner, you’ll earn respect and more business in the end–not to mention you’ll sleep much better at night.

    Great comments! Keep ’em coming.

  4. If any one of these three items is left unknown, you put the project and your success at risk. Chances are you’re going to waste a lot of time when this initiative stalls at some point in the future.