If you make wrong assumptions about why a prospect is not buying from you, you will waste time and money trying to solve the wrong problem. But identifying the problem is not always easy.
My recent experience was this:
One year ago I met a senior leader in one of the big corporates based in the Middle East. He asked me for a training proposal for his staff. In total, I invested around two days writing the proposal, attending the meeting, communicating, plus the cost of travel, of course.
Three months later, on another trip to the Middle East, I met him again. He said the goal posts had changed and now he wanted a different proposal. I went away and spent another day creating a proposal to address his new challenges.
A year on from that initial meeting, I have written five proposals, attended five meetings and have been asked yet again to draft another proposal as the goal posts have moved again. The costs in both time and money have been enormous. He continues to express a desire to buy from my business. He says he loves what we do and the training products my business offers are exactly what they need.
But on my flight home, I reflected on his parting words as he walked me to the door of his office. In a nutshell he said: “Helen, we live in a world where everyone seeks to cover their backs and take no risks, which is why corporates like to buy from other corporates, even when the services those corporate suppliers provide are inferior and more costly. It’s an unfortunate truth.”
That threw up a series of questions for me. Has he just been amusing himself by asking me over a 12 month period to keep meeting with him and rewriting his proposal? He’s a genuine guy, so I don’t think he would waste my time deliberately.
If the problem is that I am a small business trying to sell to a corporate that is reluctant to buy from small businesses – how do we overcome this huge obstacle? But is that really the problem? Just because my prospect says corporates like to buy from corporates, doesn’t mean it is true.
I still don’t fully understand the exact nature of the problem I need to solve. I can only work out a solution when I know that.
- Procedures – Perhaps the procurement teams and senior leaders have created a procurement process that is so complex or demanding that it effectively excludes smaller suppliers. They can’t tick the necessary boxes – but are seldom informed what boxes they will need to tick.
- A culture of superiority and desire for what is perceived as ‘safe’ – Corporate leaders may have created a culture that makes it clear that only other corporates should supply them for reasons of both prestige and a sense of security. Their managers feel powerless to go against the prevailing culture.
- Fear and lack of independent thinking – A general fear of the possible consequences of buying from the wrong supplier may be overwhelming in the corporates.
- Individual bias and judgements – Corporate culture may not be the real issue at all. Instead, it may be down to the impact of individual bias on decision making. Conscious or unconscious bias can be influenced by such things as: our business branding; our gender, personality, education, age, or the appearance of our sales person; our pricing (too cheap?). Therefore some small suppliers can sell to some of the corporates, whilst others are judged lacking or inappropriate by their prospects.
It has always been one of my mantras in life that every problem has a solution. But first and foremost I, along with every other small business owner, need to understand exactly what problem I am dealing with. Otherwise I will simply flush even more time and money right down the pan.
Should I put more time and energy into a prospect who asks for proposals while indicating his hands are tied, or do I change tack and try elsewhere? Is it more courageous to walk away after so much time and money has been put into building a relationship with a prospective client, or should I keep going and never give up?
I’m in a quandary. All ideas and thoughts gratefully received!