If your pipeline’s proposal bucket is starting to look like Mt. Everest compared to other pipeline stages, you’re probably fielding some tense calls from your sales manager. Why are your prospects stuck in proposal stage?

  1. They weren’t sold when you delivered the proposal
  2. Something changed their mind after you delivered the proposal
  3. They are sold and merely awaiting funds

If it’s really just a case of waiting for money, I have a spinoff sales hack that will help you prove it. You’ll need your manager’s sign off on this one, but it’s outlined here in “Sales Drano.”

Much more commonly it is one of the first two or a combination of all three. It happens to everyone, and more often than we’d like. You missed something along the sales process, either confusing good manners with an interest in buying, or failing to overcome all the objections of all the stakeholders. You need to get back in there for more sales work or admit defeat. Today’s post will show you how.

When you’re clearly moving from ‘I look forward to getting you started with our solution’ mode back into ‘full on sales’ mode, act like the unexpected delay is normal so the prospect isn’t embarrassed to talk to you. Your overture to get in there and work the sale will either be appreciated (yay), or refused. If refused, they will be forced to say why and that will allow you to accurately label this opportunity in your pipeline. You can read more about that in “Getting to No your customers.”

Let’s get started!

Work your champion

This contact might not be the person holding the proposal, in fact, it is more ideal to speak to someone who is not that person first. You’re not out to stir up a bee’s nest of backchannels here, just gather intel.

“Hi Jenny, thanks for helping attract attention to [your product] at your district. I’m hoping we are a go soon, but since I haven’t heard, do you know if there’s still enthusiasm out there? I was thinking since I know you are working through [her problem that you can solve] you might be in the loop on the timeframe.”

Depending on how important getting your product is to her personally, she will either be alarmed and get some answers (and hopefully share them honestly) or will already know you are dead in the water. If they already bought a competitive solution, thank her kindly for her assistance. Any information you get from your champion will give you ammo when you move on to the proposal holder in the next tip.

Create consensus

This is something that should have happened prior to delivering a proposal, and in fact you may have thought you nailed it. But when things aren’t moving along, it’s a signal to reopen the consensus window. Aggressively.

  • Downstream consensus. Use this if you gave the proposal to someone high up the ladder that would react to positive pressure from the teachers and/or principals.
    • Offer a lunch and learn or bagel breakfast to introduce more influencers to your solution.
    • Host a webinar for all teachers with a few poll questions or follow up survey that, if good, you’ll be handing over to the buyer.
    • An idea for site level admins is to organize an off-site tour of a school using your solution.
  • Upstream consensus. Use this if your problem is that your contact is failing to convince his supervisors. Most of these same event-driven tactics will work, but you want an air of exclusivity about them.
    • Offer up a customer superintendent as a reference but only for the prospect superintendent to contact. Link other job titles accordingly.
    • If your solution has reporting capabilities, drop off a few nicely bound packets of sample administrative reports that your contact can show the brass. Label one Superintendent for his view, another Curriculum Director, another Department Head, etc. They like these booklets. Possession is 9/10th of sales, or something like that.
    • Make your founder, CEO, or other in-house guru available to the C-level decision makers. Time constraints don’t allow your big cheese to hop on a plane for every single opportunity, but a quick phone call or web meeting can suffice. Alternatively, just have that person send an email to the higher up in question thanking them for considering your solution and underscoring the company’s commitment to the partnership.

Hold the buyer accountable

If you think the delay is strictly a matter of purchasing paralysis, you can pull out the heavy-handed sales guy tactic of holding the prospect accountable. Man I hate doing this, but sometimes you are dealing with someone who is afraid to act because of waiting for policy changes to come down from the ED, their state, or even closer to home. Reminding them of the problem they had hoped to resolve with your services may help them find their way back to their own conviction.

If you asked good questions during the sales process you should have some leverage. I know this is a big “if” but even when the pain wasn’t expressly discussed, you can reference matters of public record such as the goal statements the district has published around failing schools, weak areas, subgroup deficiencies and so on.

Warning: Do NOT do this if they are buying something else.   This is only to be used in the case of a non-decision or you can see how it would backfire. “I’m confused Bill, the last time we talked you said you wanted to move forward to resolve [the issue]. Isn’t that still the case?” Tone is important; don’t be hostile about it.

Keep communicating

Sales isn’t charm school. This is no time to worry about whether you are a bother. They took up enough of your time to get to the proposal stage and good manners on THEIR part dictates that you get a clear and timely answer.

I wrote about follow up strategies that don’t involve the words “checking in” a few weeks ago. You want to be patient and professional in your follow up even if you are feeling pretty testy and annoyed on your end. Bear in mind that what is important to you might not be the most pressing issue for your prospect, so think in terms of how to be as helpful as humanly possible. Unless that involves giving the buyer their space, which no matter what your mother taught you, you’re not going to do until they give you a “no.”

A follow up strategy for the purchasing paralysis guy or the waiting for funds to drop guy is to provide regular executive summaries of any pending legislation that might be distracting your buyer or his superiors. You and your marketing team can demonstrate that your company is a trusted resource that is on top of all the policies your clients need to comply with. You’ll also help the prospect feel he has a complete picture of what’s happening and will be more immune to rumors or fear mongering. Confident, calm leaders are comfortable making decisions. Help him feel that way.

I hope these ideas will get you out of hot water with your sales manager, and more importantly, will help you move some of that big proposal bucket into the win column!

4 thoughts on “When sales aren’t moving from proposal to commitment

  1. These are good! I have a tie in to this one and your “just checking in” post. Many times I have my reps call the purchasing agent at the district and tell them we haven’t yet received their PO and were worried we lost it as the customer said it was coming. This won’t take you from proposal to commitment, but it will usually tell you where you are in the process.

  2. Julie, you nailed it as per usual.

    I am a fan of cc:ing a couple of people to ensure visibility and accountability. I also think it’s appropriate and usually appreciated to say something like “if I don’t hear back I’ll assume that you’re no longer interested, though that would surprise me because we had such a good meeting last month. Let me know how I can help and hope we can work together.” I’d guess that 50% of the time it’s just that the customer got busy and we’re just not that high a priority for them because we’re asking them for money, so they appreciate the stalking. And a few times in my career I was asked to back off (politely, thankfully!).

  3. Another great post, Julie. I love the content included here, plus the links to additional articles you’ve written which are also insightful. I sent sellingb2e to my whole team so they can receive these automatically in their inbox as the posts are always timely and spot on.

  4. Julie,
    This is wonderful! I just subscribed to your blog. I am so happy that I can gain your insight, which I have truly missed. These tips are a great reminder what you have taught me, and motivation to “unclog” my pipeline. 🙂


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