Jan. 3 2007 10:49 AM

    A potential client is moved from the Suspecting phase to the Prospecting phase of the sales cycle once two questions have been answered. These questions, that we will assume have been answered for this discussion are: (A) Is there a need for services? (B) Is there money to pay for the services?


    The goals for the Prospecting portion of the sales cycle are: (1) to continue to build a relationship, (2) to continue to gather information as well as complete the Fulfillment Questionnaire, (3) to determine the criteria to gain the business, (4) attempt to close for fulfillment distributions, (5) further educate the client concerning your total fulfillment capabilities, (6) to determine the timing of a potential fulfillment program start date and (7) to stay in contact with the client.


    The Prospecting phase differs greatly from the Suspecting phase. In the Suspecting phase, the client is simply qualified for further development by the sales person and either moved ahead to the Prospecting phase, discarded as a non-viable suspect or put on hold because of funding. The thrust of the Prospecting phase is to start building a relationship and gather all the data required to submit a sound business proposal. Time management becomes extremely critical in this phase because the sales person must balance his time to assure you keep your company name in front of the decision makers and not invest too much of their valuable sales time. It may take up to two years to close a fulfillment program. This does not mean that sales activity may not yield any revenue during this period, as one of our goals is to obtain project-type work to better build the relationship. However, management should understand the possibility exists that no revenue be generated for several years of account development time.


    By examining each of the Prospecting goals one at a time, a better appreciation can be gained concerning the complexity of the Prospecting portion of the sales cycle as well as the skill level of the sales person required to adequately manage this portion of the sales cycle.


    Goal #1 Build a Relationship 

    The importance of this goal cannot be understated, because if the sales process is successful, your fulfillment center will become a department within the prospect company. It is imperative that a determination be made during this period if this is a viable company for your fulfillment center to support. Much of our fact finding has very little to do with the actual application, but rather, will this prospect make a good client. Your hope and expectation for developing this client is to have a continuing monthly revenue stream for five, six or seven years from the single application you are bidding. This is a long-term relationship and you must assure that philosophies of the two companies are sufficiently close enough to be able to coexist for an extended period of time. Information such as the role played by procurement in the selection process; the clients' knowledge and understanding of the industry; how well they pay their bills; how do they treat their vendors; do they try and squeeze every penny out their vendors; how they act in a crisis, and most importantly, will they treat your people with dignity and respect. Certainly, there are many tools to utilize during this phase including face-to-face meeting, developing an internal sponsor, entertainment, phone, e-mail, newsletter, seminars, etc. The key point is to "keep in touch." Do not let them slip away after putting a lot of development time into the account. If the Prospecting cycle does take several years, there is a good chance that your decision maker and your internal sponsor will turn over. You must be ready for this eventuality and be ready to start the training cycle over again with new players. One of the keys to success is developing the internal sponsor. This is your champion within the account the person that you can depend on to keep your company name in front of the right people when work is available. This person is also valuable to let you know what is going on within the company and uncover other opportunities. This person may be a former business acquaintance or someone you have developed a friendship with during the prospecting cycle. In any case, this inside sales person will be your best asset during this portion of the process.


    Case Study I am sure many of you have heard this story before, but I think it is worthy of repeating because it substantiates two points made above. Two years of solid prospecting was invested into a large chip manufacturer. A layoff within the company provided the reason for the first fulfillment application to be awarded. The client contact, the internal sales person, did not allow any further client development within the company because he thought that his level of support might diminish. A vendor quality award was earned by the fulfillment center for its service level, so the client was very satisfied. Finally, a new contact was named and she immediately saw the opportunity that existed for the fulfillment center within the company, and within one month, the fulfillment center had five new opportunities in other departments within the company, It should be noted that the original application is still active after 14 years. The morale of the story is "stick in there" if you think there is opportunity and set a goal to locate and develop a good internal sales person.


    Goal # 2 Gather Information

    The information gathered during this phase of the sales cycle will form the basis for producing a strong business proposal for the client. It is my opinion that each question on the attached questionnaire be complete before a proposal is submitted for a fulfillment program. The questionnaire attached specifically deals with Sales Collateral Fulfillment and Product Fulfillment. A slightly modified version is available for the Lead Inquiry Fulfillment application. The questionnaire is designed to develop a specification for the application. In most selling situations, there will not be a fulfillment specification. The completion of the questionnaire forms the basis for establishing the working system for the client within your fulfillment center, identifies if capital expenditures need to be made and provides data to establish pricing. The questionnaire covers most facets of the fulfillment application to be completed, including: materials to be stored, order size and frequency, order process, service requirements, reporting responsibilities, system interface requirements and many more. There are 26 areas on this questionnaire, which is an adequate amount to scope the project. Later in the sales cycle, there is generally a discovery period, during which new parts of the application will be uncovered. The completion of the questionnaire will reduce the size of the discovery applications but will not totally eliminate them. The questionnaire is important enough in the sales cycle that a future · article will be devoted entirely to discussing this valuable sales and business tool.


    Case Study I know of one fulfillment center that utilizes a 157-question document and will not submit a proposal until all questions are answered. It has been in business for many years and has learned that more data is better than less and wants to eliminate or greatly reduce the potential discovery of more applications.


    Goal # 3 Determine Selection Criteria 

    It is important to have the client articulate under what circumstances he would be willing to transfer his fulfillment program activity to your fulfillment center. It does not matter whether the application is being transferred from an internal department or another fulfillment vendor. It is important to establish what specific performance parameters are not being met that would force a company to make a change. The primary reason for change would be inventory accuracy, but order-turn time, order accuracy, reporting, technology issues, receiving time, etc. are all reasons for the move. Make sure your fulfillment solution includes solutions to the problem areas identified by the company and focuses on how you can make life easier.


    Goal # 4 Close Project Activity 

    The best way to gain credibility with a prospective client is to complete project work. Almost all marketing departments will have a wide array of projects to be completed during the course of a year outside their normal sales collateral fulfillment programs and are in need of solutions from competent companies. The award of a project from a client also allows the fulfillment center to better understand how to do business with the company. Understanding where a purchase order is generated, who needs to sign it and where to submit invoices are all valuable pieces of data needed to finally procure the fulfillment program.


    Goals # 5 Educate the Client

    It is very difficult to articulate a message that includes all the fulfillment functions and applications a fulfillment center can complete during the early stages of the sales cycle; however, one of the benefits of the long sales cycle is that there is time to educate prospects about existing and new applications being completed by the fulfillment center. We are never sure what the "hot button" within an account might be, so it is important to provide the client with a steady stream of educational material about the applications which can be completed by the organization. Who knows if a coupon redemption or sweepstakes application might be the key piece of information to starting the sales process? Certainly, we would not lead with one of these minor applications, but it is my experience that this type of education develops a sense of competence deep in the mind of the client concerning your fulfillment center and provides the platform for further decisions.


    Goal # 6 Determine the Timing of Purchase Decision

    If it is possible, this should be one of the very first goals accomplished in this stage of the sales cycle because it will provide you with the opportunity to develop a game plan for the remainder of the time. If time permits, we would like to make contact at several different levels in the organization during the Prospecting phase. Company owners may want to meet with the VP or Director of Marketing, while sales personnel may want to concentrate on Product Marketing, Brand Managers and Marketing Operations personnel. Of course, someone needs to cover Procurement. It is also a good time to plan when a representative from your Customer Service operation would be introduced to the prospective client and client contact. The opportunity exists to attack the prospective client on many different levels and introduce your key personnel at all levels to the client. This is a powerful selling tool and will help the sales process proceed. If the decision timing is long, like a year or two, plan appropriately.


    Goal # 7 Don't Lose Contact 

    It is easy to lose contact with a client when you have a long sales cycle. I liken keeping contact with prospects to playing defense in a basketball game. It is not necessary to stare your man in the eye to guard him, but you must know where he is in relation to the ball and other players at all times to play good defense. The same is true with this part of the sales process. Keep great contact records and find excuses to communicate with the client. I have been chastised in my selling career for buying lunches, but I have found it to be the perfect excuse to get face-time with the client and impart one more nugget about my company in his mind. We depend on the resourcefulness as well as entrepreneurial spirit of our sales personnel to accomplish this goal.


    Tom Quinn is Director of Fulfillment services for the  Mailing & Fulfillment Service Association (MFSA). For more info, visit www.mfsanet.org.