Much sales literature talks about sales in terms of processes. A key process element is lead screening, or lead qualification. And that process is often described in terms of efficiency.
As one CRM article put it:
…the process of lead qualification has been codified into the 8-4-2-1 Rule…for every eight leads that pass preliminary qualification, four will lead to sales presentations, which will produce two quotes and finally one sale.
In other words, the sales funnel narrows sharply even once you’ve done your preliminary qualification. Obviously, considering the increasing cost, the further you move into the process, the better it is to narrow the funnel early on. If you can reduce that 8-4-2-1 to a 4-2-2-1, you’ve saved half the cost of lead handling.
Think about that. The focus is on how to do sales cheaply, efficiently, at least cost. This may seem an obvious and good goal until you consider what it leaves out: the impact on the 7 out of 8 who are screened out.
By focusing on sales through the twin lenses of process and efficiency, we run the twin risks of damaging client relationships and of poisoning the marketplace well. And as online social media continue to explode, that risk only increases.
How Lead Qualification Can Hurt Relationships
Imagine somewhere it’s important to make good relationships. Maybe your child is entering a new elementary school. Maybe, if you’re single, you’re entering into the dating world in a new community. If you’ve switched companies, you’re getting acclimated to your new co-workers.
In those cases, we know the importance of treating everyone decently. We have our likes and dislikes, but we don’t let them affect our etiquette. It’s a small community, and we know the value of getting along. And so we behave in polite, decent, ways.
Not so in the world of sales. The screening process drives focus on one question: can I or can I not sell to this person?
If the answer is no, we want to stop wasting time on them. If the answer is yes, we want to move as quickly as possible so as to achieve our end result—the sale.
You may personally believe in relationships and in being nice, but if you walk around with a lead-qualification model in your head, you are subconsciously driven to treat your leads as primarily means to your ends, with some taking more of your precious time than others. This attitude inevitably bleeds through into your interactions.
Lead qualification as it’s usually practiced hurts relationships because it is inherently self-oriented, aimed at the seller not the buyer.
How Lead Qualification Can Poison the Well
When services firms look at the cost of sales, they often begin by focusing on the clients they’ve won and how much it cost to win them. They forget the much-higher cost of not getting all the clients they didn’t get, thus under-estimating cost of sales.
A similar blind spot affects firms looking at their lead qualification process. It’s simple to drop someone from your target list; having dropped them, they are out of sight and out of mind. Your sight, your mind, that is.
But they have memories of you. Did you simply drop them? Did you not return the last call? Did you cancel some meeting or event? Did you give the screened-out client any indication that they had been screened out?
Most firms don’t have any particular approach to screening out prospects; they simply stop doing what they were doing. Yet the same people would never drop a social relationship.
Should your child just begin ignoring a casual new acquaintance at school? If you’re dating, should you simply not call back after a first or second date? At work, do you simply turn your back on new acquaintances?
The reason we do in sales what we wouldn’t in social situations is that we assume closed social settings, but infinite lead streams. It’s just a lead, we rationalize. We’re a tiny firm, the market is huge. There are always more leads.
But there are not. Leads are finite. Worse yet, many prospects know each other. Word of mouth doesn’t just work among customers and ex-customers, but among leads and ex-leads too. Your reputation is greatly affected by the way you sell, and part of that is how you treat people you screen out.
The old customer service rule of thumb was that a person would tell four or five others about a good experience, but several dozen about a bad experience. In an age of YouTube and Twitter, negative stories don’t stop at a dozen—they explode to tens of thousands, and in just a matter of days.
The Only Two Screening Decisions You Have to Make
The lead screening process and underlying mindset can make us treat prospects as if we were examining them under a microscope for incipient dollar signs in our wallets. It drives self-focus and makes objects of our prospects. It dehumanizes both of us, and—it pollutes our prospect base at a frightening rate. Lead screening processes done poorly equal self-destructive marketing.
Fortunately there’s a simple answer. There are just two screening decisions you must make:
- Are we willing to treat this prospect as a potential client?
- When shall we review this decision again?
As long as the answer is yes, just one goal should drive our behavior. That is to determine whether and how we can help a prospect, by talking with them.
If we figure out how to help them, and they agree, a sale is the natural result.
If we figure out how to help them and they don’t agree, we have failed to communicate; that’s our fault.
If we decide we cannot help them, and they agree, we should thank them for the chance to explore together, and leave on good terms.
If we decide we cannot help them, and they don’t yet agree, we owe them the decency of an explanation that is satisfying to them.
Screening should not be a solo and self-oriented decision about timing based on what’s in it for us. It should be a consensus-based joint decision about whether to continue the dialogue, based on what’s in it for both of us.
Done that way, a screen-out is nearly as positive as a sale, because it implies a joint decision. Screened-out prospects become good marketing. After all, such joint decision-making is how we develop responsible and mature relationships with others.