From the May 2007 issue of Startups

Every sales expert, author and trainer worth his or her salt will tell you the tried-and-true formula for sales success is to target the prospects who have the need, authority and budget to buy your product or service. Sure, this is good advice. But it is also much easier said than done.

Let's face the facts: These "need-authority-budget" people are darn hard to reach. In fact, according to my completely nonscientific study of this matter, approximately 90 percent of entrepreneurs deal with people who may not know they have a need (clueless), may not be the decision-maker (powerless) and may not have the spending authority (broke). What's a smart entrepreneur to do?

Well, I asked some smart entrepreneurs this very question, and I'll share the lessons they learned from the official curriculum of the school of hard knocks on how to gracefully and effectively move from the wrong prospects to the right prospects.

For example, selling to the powerless might consist of building a relationship with that person and giving him or her enough of a taste of what you do to earn an introduction to the real decision-maker.

Or you could bank on the future potential of that lead. "Smart entrepreneurs don't just look at the quick sale," says marketing and PR expert Dan Janal, president of PRLeads.com in Excelsior, Minnesota. "Instead, they look at the lifetime value of the customer. Just because a person can't buy today does not mean she can't buy in the future."

No Wrong Prospects
In fact, the first lesson in selling to the clueless, powerless or broke is that these folks might not be clueless, powerless or broke for long, and you never really know where your next sale might come from. "I got a large sale from a person who was on my mailing list," says Janal. "When she started out, she was an assistant. It took her four years to rise to a position in the company to bring me in! It didn't cost me anything to keep her on the mailing list. In the meantime, I was building great trust, goodwill and brand recognition."

Janal's experience underscores the fact that there really are no "wrong" prospects. The more accurate description for what business owners and sales professionals often run into is selling at the wrong time, with the wrong product or service, or with the wrong buying triggers.

Simple selling strategies cleverly disguised as conversational questions can help you save time, effort and energy when trying to determine the most appropriate timing, the most suitable product or service, and the best way to trigger a sale with the specific person you're working with.

For example, if you're selling IT consulting services, you can ask these questions to determine if you are headed toward a win-win sales conversation or if you're wasting your time and should move on.

  • Have you ever brought in outside IT consultants to help you with a project?
  • How did that project turn out? What worked and what didn't?
  • Is your team working on something right now where some outside expertise or a couple of extra pairs of hands might be useful?
  • When it comes time to make the decision on hiring outside help, who makes that decision with you? When will you start that decision-making process for this project?
  • What is your budget?
  • What would you need to see from us in order to consider us?

Notice that these questions are all meant to quickly work through to the answers you want regarding the need, the money and the decision.

Working It Out
"When it comes to selling to the clueless, you have to realize that many of your buyers use this emotional defense so they won't have to take personal responsibility if their purchase doesn't work out," says Allyson Lewis, a financial advisor in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and author of The Seven Minute Difference.

Sometimes the clueless ones are the toughest to sell to simply because their lack of information gets in the way of their buying process. Yet at the same time, they are afraid to reveal that they lack the information, expertise or experience to make a wise buying decision. Lewis offers three cures for selling to the clueless.

1. Spend time listening to their questions and concerns to build trust and understanding.
2. Speak in plain, jargon-free language they can understand.
3. Educate them so they won't be clueless and can make an informed, win-win decision.

Adds Lewis, "Sometimes the clueless are simply intimidated. They may not want to look out of place. The clueless--once converted--can become some of your best clients."

If your clients are clueless, guess what? It's your fault--not theirs. You need to ask the right questions, address the right issues and discuss matters that are important to them--not matters that are important to you and your "selling process," which may very well exist in a no man's land of jargon, endless PowerPoint decks, canned questions and manipulative closers. People are rarely clueless on issues important to them and their business success.

Skip Shuda, founder of startup consultancy TeamandaDream.com in Wayne, Pennsylvania, and author of the upcoming book The Cheap Revolution, puts it another way: "Many times, cluelessness simply means they don't know what they don't know. It's your job to help them ask the right questions about your product or service and show them how it can make a meaningful bottom-line difference."

Says Shuda, "Powerlessness can be overcome by giving [prospective customers] power! Bring resources to the table that they cannot muster on their own. Fill out your offering with complementary services or turnkey solutions that make it easy to do business with you."

Let's face it: Simple sells. The simpler your offerings, the more power prospects will have to buy or "sell the solution up the ladder" if they need to. People who are powerless to decide between 20 options can suddenly become quite enthusiastic and empowered when offered a choice of A, B or C. Don't make your sale any more complex than necessary.

Finally, to sell to the broke, the smart solution is to offer a pricing strategy that doesn't squeeze anyone out. Even as you develop high-end products and services, keep in mind the customers or clients who just want a taste--who would feel more comfortable testing the water before diving in. Remember, even Tiffany's offers a $100 key ring. (It also has the art deco ladies' cocktail watch on a diamond bracelet for $39,500, in case you're not broke!)

If you're doing your job right in the sales process, and if you look to these strategies for guidance, you'll find you can convert prospects who seem clueless, powerless and broke into customers who keep coming back.

David Newman is the founder of marketing firm Unconsulting and runs www.small-business-marketing-center.com.