There is a lot of talk in the sales profession about the percentage of sales reps who miss quota and the number of opportunities that end in a No Decision status. Both metrics have been trending in the wrong direction for years, so these are serious issues that plague sales leaders and those in the various sales support roles (sales operations, sales effectiveness, sales enablement, and sales training).
There are multiple possible root causes for these issues, so there is no magic bullet or one right solution for all cases. However, I have seen one concept make a seemingly miraculous impact when well–executed, and that is the idea of buying process exit criteria.
What is Buying Process Exit Criteria?
Exit criteria is a term from the worlds of business process management, Six Sigma, project management, and software development. It’s not a new concept; it’s just not often applied to sales or buying process management. You may have heard the terms “stage–gate” or “phase-gate” in project management or heard someone refer to “verifiable outcomes” (or customer verifiable outcomes) in process management. Phase-gating and verifiable outcomes are similar to exit criteria, but I find exit criteria even more powerful when applied to sales/buying process management.
NOTE: It’s worth noting that while we are using the term “buying process exit criteria” as we teach the concept, please don’t use this term with your buyers. It’s not a commonly known phrase, and many buyers won’t even be aware of a formal buying process at their company, let alone what their “exit criteria” are.
Here’s how I define it: Buying process exit criteria are whatever each buyer needs to see, hear, feel, understand, or believe in their current stage, to feel comfortable moving forward to the next stage with you. The considerable power in exit criteria management comes from applying it to each decision-maker, influencer, and stakeholder in the opportunity, rather than a pre-determined set of factors that apply to everyone.
Here’s what it looks like in action: Below is one example of a buying process, which is a subset of the larger customer lifecycle.
Each process stage has objectives, tasks to complete (to meet the objectives), and exit criteria to meet before leaving the stage. There are only two buyers in this example, but we know there are often more, making it even more complicated to manage (hence the phrase, “the complex sale”). The colored dots represent the exit criteria for each. In some stages, the buyers’ exit criteria are the same. In others, their criteria are different. To further complicate matters, certain buyers may be in different stages at the same time.
The differences in buyers’ exit criteria may be due to different roles and goals (such as a CFO/cost reduction and a Director of Operations/scrap reduction), how they are measured (metrics and KPIs), how they perceive value (their value drivers), or even their buyer roles in the opportunity (Financial, Feasibility, Functional).
How to Manage Exit Criteria
Managing exit criteria isn’t rocket science. While it’s admittedly not always easy to do, it is relatively simple.
The model we recommend is:
- UNCOVER each buyer’s exit criteria at each stage
- CLARIFY the exit criteria
- DELIVER what the buyer needs to satisfy the exit criteria
- CONFIRM that you’ve satisfied the criteria
UNCOVER Each Buyer’s Exit Criteria at Each Stage
Learning what matters to your buyers is critical. Sometimes your buyers will openly tell you what matters most to them. You can also listen, infer, and observe. But you only know for sure by asking, and most buyers will only be fully authentic when they trust you.
On that note, we may not have earned enough trust for buyers to be fully authentic with us yet. B2B buying research indicates that buyers often don’t trust salespeople. In the early stages, while you may still be earning trust, ask to uncover exit criteria anyway. Clear and open communication can be a path to building trust on its own. It only gets easier as you build relationships and earn trust, particularly with coaches and champions. They can help you navigate organizational politics, difficult people, discombobulated buying committees, and conflicting priorities. Cultivate these relationships and benefit from their advice and support.
CLARIFY Their Exit Criteria
Whether the buyer shares exit criteria on their own or as a result of your questions, ask clarifying questions until you fully understand the exit criteria. Once you understand it, summarize your understanding back to the buyer to confirm.
DELIVER What the Buyer Needs to Satisfy Their Exit Criteria
Once you have a clear understanding of the buyer’s exit criteria, support the buyer by providing the content, information, experience, and insights they need.
CONFIRM That You’ve Satisfied Their Criteria
You’ve come this far, so don’t make assumptions now (many do – avoid the trap). Once you understand and deliver what the buyer needs in any given stage, confirm that what you provided meets their expectations and satisfies their exit criteria.
Successfully confirming that you have satisfied exit criteria at each stage gives you confidence that you have provided the buyers precisely what they need to move forward. Doing this gives you an ongoing indication of whether your buyers will purchase from you when it’s time to gain their final purchase commitment. If there are any shortcomings or concerns, you can identify those issues along the journey by confirming that you have met exit criteria at each stage.
Master the Buying Process
Hopefully, this post helps on your journey toward mastering buying process exit criteria management. I started this post by saying that you can address several nagging sales force performance issues through better exit criteria management, and I have seen it done. I wish you the best of success on your journey. If you need assistance or are struggling – don’t suffer in silence. We’re here to help.
This article’s sales methods come from the Modern Sales Foundations™ course, which offers a full-cycle sales methodology, covering prospecting, opportunity management, and strategic account management. It’s based on what elite sales producers do differently to get radically better results than others.