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How to identify a prospect's needs and expectations


Ever lost a sale and wondered what went wrong? Everything seemed to be going well, then suddenly the prospect said they were going to get estimates from some other companies, wanted a free proposal, or just backed out altogether.

Chances are your prospect had unmet expectations. Maybe they didn't even realize it ahead of time. But whose fault was that, your's or their's?

Yours! As a sales professional, it's your job to uncover those expectations as early as possible.

Everybody has expectations inside of them. They may or may not be able to articulate them. In fact, they may or may not even know what they are! But 100% of people can tell you if you fell short of their expectations.

In sales, a big part of your job is to uncover those expectations. If you don't, someone will be disappointed, which will cost you time, money, and possibly even the sale.

Let's take a look at what happens when expectations aren't met and a couple of techniques to help you uncover them.

Eating at a restaurant

Ever considered eating at a new restaurant? Chances are good that you took a look at their reviews online. While many of the reviews probably talked about the food, many probably mentioned other things as well. They likely talked about things like the host or hostess, the server, maybe even the restrooms.

While we usually choose our restaurants because of the type of food they have, we often decide not to eat somewhere based on other things like the service.

Have you ever written a negative review online for a restaurant? Why did you write a negative review? Was it the food? Or was it something about the overall experience?

If you tried to list out all your expectations ahead of time, you would have had a difficult time. Even listing out the top five would have been a challenge. But if the restaurant fell short on any of them, you knew immediately.

That exact same thing happens in the business world all the time, especially in sales. And that often gives way to something called mutual mystification.

Avoiding mutual mystification

What is mutual mystification? Mutual mystification is what happens when two parties have different expectations and don't take the time to clarify them up front.

Think about the restaurant example. Did the server know what your expectations were? Probably not. If your experience was negative, they likely didn't do a good job of uncovering your expectations.

In the business world, assumptions can lead to mutual mystification if you're not careful. One we see all the time is the use of industry jargon. If your prospect isn't familiar with the terms you're using, you need to uncover that.

It can work the other direction as well. Often prospects may assume they'll get some sort of free sample of your expertise because they've been trained to think that, or they just don't know any better. And that results in something we in Sandler call unpaid consulting.

Unpaid consulting

Maybe this has happened to you. You had a great sales meeting with a prospect, then at the end they asked you for unpaid consulting.

Unpaid consulting can take many forms:

  • Having a meeting
  • Doing a quote
  • Putting together a bid
  • Preparing and giving a proposal, presentation, or demonstration
  • Responding to an RFP

In all of those cases, it's something that takes time, energy, and sometimes even money on your part. And you're doing all that work without knowing what the outcome is going to be!

That's unpaid consulting. Your prospect ends up getting a free sample of your work without paying you for it. When someone takes something without paying, that's called stealing! And if you're not uncovering your prospect's expectations, you're inviting them to steal from you.

Sandler dummy curve

One of the most powerful techniques to help battle unpaid consulting is the dummy curve. The dummy curve is acting like a dummy on purpose in order to uncover expectations. The key to the dummy curve lies in asking questions.

Your prospect may ask you, "This all sounds great, but can you send me over a proposal?"

You can respond with something like, "Yes, I'd be happy to!" But if you're using the dummy curve, you're more likely to respond with, "Believe it or not, we don't typically do proposals. Help me understand, what would you expect to see in a proposal that would help in your decision process?"

Or maybe they want to know more about the actual service you provide. Your prospect could ask, "Does your solution do X?"

While you may or may not be able to answer that question, using the dummy curve would sound something like this: "That's a great question, and I'm not sure if I know the answer offhand. Help me understand, why would you need it to do X?"

When you act like a dummy on purpose, your prospect will often come to your rescue. They want you to understand them, so they'll help you along by providing you more information. And that helps you better understand their needs and expectations.

Chinese menu options

Another powerful technique when a prospect is having trouble articulating their expectations is Chinese menu options.

If you've ever eaten at a Chinese restaurant, you may have picked one where the menu had different combinations to choose from. You can pick something from section A, something from section B, and something from section C. They do that because it makes ordering easy, even if you didn't know what you wanted when you walked in the door.

In sales, you might tell a prospect something like this: "Normally when I meet with people in your industry, they're looking for help with option A or option B. Which one of those do you think fits your situation?"

If you share two options and neither one of those fit, the vast majority of the time they will tell you what the third option is that fits their world.

I've seen it happen hundreds of times! Even when a prospect couldn't share with me ahead of time exactly what they needed, once I shared a couple options with them it became crystal clear.

Remember, it's your job as a sales professional to uncover expectations up front. It will help you make more sales, avoid wasted time, and keep the sales you do make from coming undone.

Dealing with Difficult People & Situations

Dealing with Difficult People & Situations

In this online self-study course, learn what makes some people difficult to deal with, how to avoid getting into those situations, and how to use proven Sandler techniques to resolve conflict without escalating it.

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Mike Crandall

Mike Crandall

Crandall is the Principal of Sandler in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He works with business owners and motivated individuals to create and implement Professional Development Strategies to foster the growth of individuals, teams, and organizations.