Small Business

Selling to Sluggish Prospects


People buy from people they like and trust. Beyond that, don't push too hard and don't neglect your sure-thing customers

With over 10 years of solid IT software development background, I started an IT consulting business, doing database design and Web application development. How do I 'lock' some sluggish prospects quickly? —D.L., Roanoke, Va.

Although you're still doing software development, you've made a big leap from a task-oriented job to a relationship-oriented job, where selling is key to success and where time and expertise are paramount. "Selling is much more complicated than most people will allow for," says John Delmatoff, principal at PathFinder Executive Coaching. "Selling consulting services requires a relationship based on trust."

Trying to rush a trust-based relationship could easily backfire, so you may need to shore up your capital or find some outside income until you get to the point where you have enough clients to break even. Delmatoff says the most common reason for buyer reluctance is that the buyer's need to make the purchase is inconsistent with the seller's need to close the sale: "[You] may need to recalibrate your sense of urgency in the matter, or risk losing what might have been a productive and long-lived business relationship because you pushed it too hard," Delmatoff says. "Try early on in the selling process asking the buyer to describe for you the company's purchasing process and timing. This information will go a long way toward keeping everyone on the same page regarding the purchase."

Provide Additional Information

Sometimes a buyer is reluctant because he or she just doesn't know how to say no and put a merciful end to your sales efforts. This often happens when the potential buyer is a friend or former colleague. If you suspect some of your prospects fall into this category, give them permission to back out gracefully. Assure them you'll still be friends even if they don't become clients.

You may also find that potential buyers don't have enough information to make a decision, Delmatoff says. "Asking them what additional information they need in order to take the next step can be an effective way to 'unfreeze' them. They may need to take several smaller intermediate steps before reaching the trigger point of actually making the big buy decision," he notes.

John Rooney, managing partner at Capital Partners Investment Banking Group, suggests that you position yourself as an important resource for your strategic prospects. "One way to not only close but to build long-term involvement is to get the prospects' key team together and do an IT project strategy meeting," he says. "Get agreement on priorities and develop a series of IT key projects…and task them out and help execute them. You will charge your rate for your part on selected projects and tasks, and this way you will be in tune with all of their projects and build a deep, profitable relationship with the decision makers." Offer to do IT strategy planning sessions with them periodically, free of charge if they hire you initially, Rooney says.

One Niche at a Time

Rather than focusing exclusively on your "slugs," you should also continuously work on filling your prospect pipeline, says Pauline Field, a business and management consultant with International FieldWorks. "Some of the sluggish prospects may eventually become clients, but putting all your eggs in that basket will most likely leave you frustrated and without the business you are looking for," she notes. "By filling your pipeline with many potential clients and projects, it becomes clear that you are busy and that it is not some manipulative sales technique you are using when you suggest that [reluctant clients] better grab you now, otherwise you might have to put their project on hold until you can free up resources. 'Success breeds success' becomes true, because everything about you speaks it. Likewise, when you are desperate for work, it shows."

Clearly define your marketing strategies so you're targeting companies from specific industries, geographic regions, and of particular sizes, she suggests. "Pick one niche at a time to focus on and your marketing efforts will be more productive and make it easier to sell each prospect. Many entrepreneurs are nervous about excluding lots of potential clients, but by not doing that they appeal to no one. A potential customer wants to feel that you are speaking to him directly, that you know his business and his industry. He can get his thoughts around what you are saying because you are speaking his language," Field says.

The bottom line is that people buy from people they like and trust. "Show an interest in the prospect's hobbies and family. Share your hobby and family stories where compatible. [Giving prospects] one good reason to buy your product or service is better than [giving] many mediocre reasons," says small business consultant Ted Dunn. As you are new to running your own company, you'd do well to do some research on sales (BusinessWeek, 9/21/07) and perhaps take a course or two on entrepreneurship. There's a whole universe of skills that you'll need to master in order to be successful in your new career.

Karen E. Klein is a business journalist who covers small-business issues for several national publications. She writes her Smart Answers column twice a week.

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