football field with red zone highlightedWho’s ready for some sales football?

The job of marketing is to get the ball to the 50 yard line; the job of sales is to score touchdowns.

If that, using a traditional sport metaphor, is true, then one measure of the success of your sales efforts is how well you do when you’re in the red zone. In football, the red zone is the 20 yards closest to the goal line. The performance of offenses is measured by how often they score with either a touchdown (7 points, for those not familiar with the sport) or field goal (3 points) when they get inside the red zone.

In sales, I think of the red zone as the times when you have a very good chance to close a deal. You’re one of a very small set of finalists – no more than three. How often do you close?

Now, some people say you should never even be one of three finalists – you shouldn’t respond to RFPs at all because, in the long run, they’re just a waste of time: it’s likely that you’re column fodder without even knowing it. If you’re not alone as a bidder, or in a preferred position because you created the vision for the prospect, and possibly even the wording for the RFP, don’t bother.

If you can get enough business that way, go for it. (Probably only service companies with staffing and delivery concerns talk about “getting enough business”; for most product companies they’d welcome ramping up production to meet all new sales.) In my experience not all RFPs are wired.

But whether the opportunity comes to you through an RFP, cold calling, inbound marketing, your website’s great search rankings, word of mouth or whatever, focusing on three areas can significantly improve your sales red zone performance (aka close rate): qualifying prospects, creating differentiation, and handling objections.

One of the best ways to increase your sales red zone performance is by qualifying prospects better in the first place. Time is your most valuable sales resource; don’t waste it on “opportunities” where you don’t have a good likelihood of winning. Some firms use BANT for qualifying: does the prospect have the budget, authority, need and timeframe (they want to buy now).

I think, however, that you need to go a very important step beyond BANT: an opportunity isn’t truly qualified unless there’s some way that you can differentiate your firm from other bidders. Communicating differentiation will often start with your firm’s marketing (remember, they get the ball to the 50 yard line). Marketing may communicate your differentiation through blogs, white papers, webinars, events and other communications. Prospects who approach your firm in the first place with brand preference for you because they have a good understanding of your special sauce are far more likely to ultimately do business with you than prospects who think that you’re just one of several more or less similar, if not identical, vendors.

You should communicate differentiation during the sales process, too. In The Challenger Sale the authors describe “commercial teaching” – how to make sales presentations that:

  • Lead to your unique strengths
  • Challenge customers’ assumptions
  • Catalyze action
  • Scale across customers

This moves past the typical “why we’re great” sales pitch to one that compels a prospect to act based on a vendor’s unique value proposition.

Assuming that you’re properly qualifying your opportunities, and communicating what differentiates your firm, if there are still late stage issues then closing may come down to how well you listen and handle objections. The listening part is critical, because if you aren’t patiently finding out what is on the prospect’s mind – if you’re just repeating to them what you think is important, rather than responding to what they are truly concerned about – you can’t possibly address their issues.

So those are the three areas that I suggest you focus on to improve your sales red zone performance: only spend your time with truly qualified prospects, communicate what differentiates your firm and why that’s of value to the prospect, and listen and handle objections.


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