Chapter Four Precall Planning and Research

Four Precall Planning and Research


Here’s an exercise. Think of a selling opportunity on which you’re currently working. Next, take a piece of paper and draw a straight horizontal line; then write “beginning” at the left edge of the line and “end” at the right edge. Now mark an X where you believe you are in your opportunity. Then mark where you think your manager would say you are. Do the same for your technical expert or sales support person, if you have one. If a business partner is involved, mark that too. Finally, and most important, mark a big C where you think your customer thinks he or she is.

The point is that often we’re not all in sync with each other. Every person tends to have a different opinion and point of view. That makes tracking our progress through a sale or opportunity difficult. We need defined points or Milestones in the sell cycle, to enable us to track our progress or lack of progress.

Applying the Milestone principle to this book, we’ll track our progress by using the graphic of the Solution Selling Sales Process Flow Model at the beginning of Chapters Four through Thirteen. (The darkened box illustrates where we are in the sales process. This will help us navigate through the book.)

Visually, the Process Flow Model shows two starting points for potential opportunities. One entry point is for latent opportunities (left side) and the other is for active opportunities (right side).

Part Two of this book deals with buyers and opportunities in latent pain, those in the Not Looking segment. Chapters Four through Eight deal with specific activities and skills associated with creating new opportunities. Competing for active opportunities is addressed in Part Three, specifically in Chapters Nine and Ten.

For most salespeople and businesses, their greatest potential lies in latent, or Not Looking opportunities. Ironically, it’s where they spend the least amount of time and effort. I’m a firm believer that creating new opportunities is the lifeblood of most companies. After all, how many companies can survive long term on the amount of business their existing accounts are generating for them now? No matter how long you’ve been doing business together or how good your existing relationships are, things will change. The big questions are: What can you do about developing new opportunities? Where do you start? I recommend you start with precall planning.


Most salespeople have assigned territories, market segments, or industries containing specific accounts for which they are responsible. The job is to examine them and create new selling opportunities. Figure 4.1 illustrates this concept.

click to expand
Figure 4.1: Identify Opportunities Through Planning

Salespeople with large accounts tend to have access to multiple opportunities. However, if you have small- or medium-sized business accounts, perhaps only a few opportunities exist. Regardless of the account or opportunity, the first effort is to look for specific business issues, ones you can help existing clients solve. The intent of Figure 4.1 is to show that no matter how your sales environment is structured, opportunities exist, and planning can determine where the opportunities are and how to go after them.

Keys to Management Level Dialogue

The real key to getting good management-level meetings and having meaningful conversations is to have good situational knowledge, which is knowledge developed through personal experience, training, reading, research, and planning.

When it comes to precall planning, salespeople should try to uncover buyer data and critical issues that will be relevant to their conversations with executives. Do your homework thoroughly, and you will increase your comfort level when you call on executives. This in turn increases your success rate and productivity.

Key areas to research include:

  • Company: history, nature of the business, mission statement, annual reports
  • Offerings: description, types, uniqueness
  • Market analysis: size, location, trends, maturity
  • Competition: how positioned, strategies, comparisons
  • Financials: balance sheet, income statement, track record
  • Executive biographies: work history, education
  • Critical business issues

Getting to high levels in an organization can help shorten sell cycles at the opportunity level. It also allows an account-level perception of credibility.

In Figure 4.2 (Account Profile, Titan Games, Inc.—Example), you will see the first reference that we will make to a fictitious company called Titan Games, Inc. (TGI). TGI will serve as our case example as I introduce you to new concepts, job aids, and situations throughout this book. The detailed information found inside this sample Account Profile will provide you with some additional background on TGI.

click to expand
Figure 4.2: Account Profile, Titan Games, Inc.—Example

Guidelines for Existing Accounts

In your precall planning activities, it’s important not to take existing accounts for granted, because things constantly change. Always be looking for new opportunities in the account. After all, there’s no better prospect than an existing customer. On the other hand, if you’ve had a bad experience with one of your customers, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that that customer won’t do any more business with you. Remember, problems are opportunities, and that’s when your customers need you the most. Don’t let an account’s current perception of you or your company limit your willingness or ability to introduce new ideas.

The following are guidelines for precall planning in existing accounts:

  • Complete the research as if it were a new account.
  • Eliminate incorrect, inaccurate, or misleading assumptions.
  • When new issues are uncovered, seek support from your previous or current Power Sponsor for your next contact.
  • Ensure that your contact on the next level doesn’t represent any potential conflict (company politics often is a factor you need to keep in mind).
  • Don’t let a customer’s preconception of your organization limit your scope and penetration in that account.

Information Sources

Many sources of customer information, including the Internet, can help salespeople spot trends and opportunities. More information is available today for salespeople to use than ever before.

I’ve discovered that many salespeople believe that doing research is someone else’s job. That’s a big mistake. Assume it’s your job and do your own precall planning. If you get help, great, but don’t abdicate this responsibility.

A partial list of available information sources includes:

  • The account’s Web site. Reviewing a customer’s Web site can tell you a great deal about the current events in the organization. Web sites often include press releases. If nothing else, a mere mention of a press release lets the customer know you cared enough to do research on its site.
  • Hoover’s Online, Wall Street Journal, MSN Business Online, CNN Business Online, Barron’s, Standard & Poor’s, Compass, Dun & Bradstreet
  • Industry periodicals and industry associations
  • Annual reports (make sure you read the chairperson’s letter), press releases, and annual report cover letters can hint at initiatives for the coming year
  • Archives of news and wire stories
  • SEC filings—for critical, unbiased information
  • The account’s shareholder department (email with specific questions). Become a shareholder if it’s an important account so you can obtain shareholder-only information.

What to Look for in the Information

Remember the Solution Selling principle of no pain, no change while you’re gathering information. Look for pains and critical business issues that will give people reasons to change. Note the distinction between account-level and opportunity-level activities in Figure 4.3.

click to expand
Figure 4.3: What to Do with the Information

Once you discover what you think are relevant and critical business issues, it’s time to use the information and kick-start new opportunities. In account-level activities, you concern yourself with identifying the key players and the potential areas for critical business issues (pains) and matching up key players with critical business issues (pains). At the opportunity level, it’s important that you align your capabilities to each key player and his or her pains and that you have a good set of job aids and tools. I also suggest you create a straw man before you attempt to create new opportunities.


Straw man is a term with which you may or may not be familiar. Building a straw man means building a model or profile of your prospective buyer. It helps you work with that buyer, and it can help you recognize a good target when you come across one.

The straw man is based on past experience, research, and opportunity assessment. Though it requires work up front, it’s easier to create new opportunities when you have a model of what the target opportunity looks like. You’ll be more likely to recognize new opportunities and be better prepared to sell.

Building a straw man also helps you develop your situational knowledge, a key ingredient in successful selling today. Your straw man could include:

  • Profile of the target opportunity
  • Defined marketing criteria (for example, industry, size, revenues, employees)
  • Key players
  • Pains or critical business issues for the key players
  • Product and services capabilities aligned to each key player and pain
  • Initial Pain Chain for the potential opportunity
  • Sponsor and Power Sponsor targets
  • Reference Story and/or an initial Value Proposition


Precall planning creates more than its share of anxiety, which reminds me of Marshall McLuhan (1911–1980), the Canadian expert on media and communications. He said, “Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s jobs with yesterday’s tools.” Tools—the correct tools—are so crucial. The wrong tools can get you into trouble; the right tools can help you get the job done. If all you have is a hammer to work with, everything begins to look like a nail.

This applies to selling, particularly when you’re attempting to create new opportunities. In specific selling situations, you need the right job aids and sales tools, applied in the right way, at the right time. Solution Selling has invested a lot of time and money developing job aids and sales tools. They’re used by some of the world’s largest and smallest companies to their great advantage. We’re in constant touch with our global client base, working with them to determine which job aids and sales tools they need and which tools are most effective.

We introduce job aids in precall planning because we believe in starting with the end in mind. Knowing what job aids you’re going to use while you create new opportunities means gathering the necessary information during the precall planning stage. Solution Selling has four job aids that are designed to assist or help you stimulate interest and create new opportunities. They are (1) the Key Players List, (2) Pain Chains, (3) Reference Stories, and (4) Value Propositions. Each job aid fulfills a specific purpose and becomes a best-practice procedure that makes your job of stimulating interest and creating new opportunities easier, less stressful, and more successful.

Key Players List

A Key Players List is a starting point for developing situational knowledge. This list identifies, connects, and leverages the pains of key players throughout a targeted industry. It also identifies the pains of people who have the influence and authority to make buying decisions. The Key Players List is useful for deciding who to call on and what to talk about.

Three steps are involved in building a Key Players List:

  1. Identify the specific industry.
  2. Identify the key players (by title) in the given industry.
  3. Identify potential areas of pain or the likely critical business issues facing each identified key player.

Figure 4.4 is an example of a Key Players List for the manufacturing industry. You need to develop a Key Players List for the different industries and accounts or opportunities in which you’re engaged.

click to expand
Figure 4.4: Manufacturing Industry Key Players List

We recommend that marketing people help build these for the vertical markets that your organization focuses on most often. In the perfect world, companies would have a database that contained Key Players Lists for all the industries they work with, and each list would be updated periodically with information on industry trends, market feedback, and salesperson input. The Key Players List should include the relevant job titles of the likely people salespeople will deal with in the course of the normal sales situation. Think about the power this kind of information and knowledge brings to salespeople. Once you’ve completed your research and you know the key players and their likely pains, you’ll have increased confidence knowing who to call on and how a critical business issue connects C-level executives (CEOs, CFOs, COOs, CSEs, and CIOs) and managers across the company or enterprise.

After you’ve built a Key Players List, you’re ready to link the pains of each of the key players together. As I mentioned earlier, there is inter dependence in an organization. This interdependence can be illustrated in the Pain Chain, one aimed right at your target opportunity.

The Pain Chain

W. Edwards Deming, Ph.D., was considered a “quality guru” and one of the early pioneers of total quality management (TQM) throughout the world. He developed several theories about business. One of his theories was organizational interdependence. He described how certain relationships have higher degrees of interdependence (mutual dependence) than others do. For example, a bowling team has low interdependence. Each bowler bowls independently of the others, and the team simply adds up the collective scores at the end of the game. On the other hand, an orchestra is an example of high interdependence. If one brass player is off-key, or the percussion section is off-tempo, it will affect the overall quality and sound of the orchestra.

Deming believed—and I do as well—that businesses are even more interdependent than an orchestra. For example, what happens in a business when production delays occur and shipping dates to customers are missed? Customer service gets lots of calls from unhappy customers. Market share starts to slip, revenue targets may be missed, and overall morale and profits may fall. In other words, many people and many functions in the business are adversely impacted. This is because the organization is so interdependent. Knowing this, we developed a job aid called a Pain Chain. It captures the essence of this type of interdependence and helps salespeople identify and solve problems across the company or enterprise (see Figure 4.5).

click to expand
Figure 4.5: Pain Chain Example

One of my favorite expressions is “A picture is worth a thousand words.” In very simple terms, Pain Chains are pictures depicting the key players and their pains, the contributing reasons for their problems, and the impacts of those pains on others in an organization.

When used, Pain Chains differentiate salespeople from their competition by giving buyers the impression that the salespeople who use Pain Chains understand their business. Can you imagine a salesperson walking into a room full of businesspeople and showing them a graphic similar to Figure 4.5 and then asking if this correctly depicts their current situation? Remember, this picture indicates each key player’s pain, the reasons for the pain, and the impacts or linkages to other key people in his or her organization. I can imagine it because I see it happen on a regular basis, and the reactions and results are phenomenal. You can truly differentiate yourself and the way you sell by your approach and the job aids you use. Your ability to build and confirm a Pain Chain with a customer demonstrates an understanding of his or her business environment. The customer will respect that.

How to Use Pain Chains. Pain Chains are not organizational charts. They may look similar to organizational charts, but their purpose is very different. Pain Chains trace the flow of pain throughout an organization. Generally, the pains at one level become reasons for another pain at a higher level. Usually this correlation is exact, but it doesn’t have to be. Pain Chains are living documents that should be refined over time as pertinent or more relevant information becomes available.

The Pain Chain usually manifests itself at three key points in the sell cycle.

  1. Before starting an opportunity: Pain Chains are developed via precall planning analysis or from earlier account situations provided by marketing.
  2. While engaged in an opportunity: Pain Chains that have been previously developed from earlier account situations and are being used as a starting point can become a map that a salesperson can use to navigate through an organization. The salesperson can validate or change information in the Pain Chain as he or she learns more about the customer’s specific situation. The Pain Chain flow can provide information that is the cornerstone of the impact conversation to take place during vision processing.
  3. To close an opportunity: By the end of a sell cycle, the salesperson has met with several key players. This question often arises: Who should the salesperson focus his or her efforts on? The Pain Chain helps to answer this question. The salesperson also can begin to describe the benefits and the value to each person in the chain. This approach gives confidence to salespeople who are only comfortable talking about their products. It provides a map that links their product offerings to high-level business issues.

The Reference Story

A Reference Story is a third-party success story. It details how you were able to help another person with the same job title with a problem that the prospect may also have.

Figure 4.6 is an example of a Reference Story that could be used with Titan Games, Inc.’s VP Sales. It’s about another VP Sales who works in a major manufacturing company.

click to expand
Figure 4.6: Reference Story—Example

Reference Stories, if designed and shared effectively, can quickly establish credibility in the mind of the prospect, stimulate interest in the prospect for working with that salesperson further, and begin the discussion of critical business issues that the prospect is faced with in his or her organization.

Reference Stories enable salespeople to give examples of how the prospect’s peers solved their business problems by implementing capabilities provided by the salesperson’s organization. The prospect usually has the same problem or pain or at least can relate to it.

Reference Stories are not lengthy reminiscences of how the salesperson’s organization has helped a different customer. Reference Stories should be short, concise examples that focus on how other customers have successfully solved a business problem with the capabilities you provided.

If your prospect becomes interested, several things can happen. The prospect will either admit pain or direct the salesperson to another part of the organization, or the salesperson will discover that the prospect already has a vision of a solution. The conversation then continues by engaging in vision processing (Vision Creation or Vision Re-engineering).

Keep Your Reference Stories in Accessible Databases. In a perfect world, companies would have a database that contained customer references for all titles and industries they work with. Those Reference Stories would have detailed account histories behind them so that the salesperson could contact the account owner for more information if necessary.

Many of our clients, most notably IBM, Lotus Development Corporation, and Microsoft have built electronic libraries of prospecting job aids. These aids include Account Profiles, Key Players Lists, Pain Chains, and Reference Stories. Such databases are widely available to the selling organization, because one salesperson’s success can be another salesperson’s Reference Story.

The Value Proposition

The term value proposition may be one of the most overused industry phrases. It seems like everyone is using the term or claims some sort of value proposition. The problem with overused terms is that buyers become resistant to them and the intended purpose gets lost. This problem is also compounded by companies and salespeople who use valueless value propositions.

By “valueless” I mean that there are no quantifiable numbers or money associated with the so-called value statements. For example, companies make valueless value propositions when they say, “Our company can make you more efficient and help save you lots of money by using our state-of-the-art software,” or “Because our company is the leading provider of electronic components in the automotive industry, that makes us the safe and reliable choice to do business with.”

In Solution Selling, Value Propositions are simple, clear statements directed at a specific and targeted customer, the quantifiable benefits they can achieve by solving business problems, and the investment needed to make this possible.

For example: “We believe Titan Games, Inc., should be able to increase sales revenue by 10 percent each year (valued at $10M of potential revenue and $3.2M in profits annually) by enabling customers to place their own orders, allowing salespeople more business development time provided by our e-commerce offering for a three-year investment of $1.15M.”

The Value Proposition Template This template is straightforward and presents the proposition like this:

We believe [client name] should be able to [improve what?] by [how much?] through the ability to [do what?] as a result of [what enabler, technology, service, etc.?] for an investment of [what relative cost?].

You build a Value Proposition by taking the data of a previously successful customer, overlaying those results onto another customer’s situation, and projecting or extrapolating what the results would be for that customer. Figure 4.7 is an example of positioning a Value Proposition.

click to expand
Figure 4.7: Positioning the Value Proposition

Some Value Propositions may even provide ranges of value and investment instead of defined numbers; for example, “increase revenue by 10 to 15 percent for an investment around $500K to $800K.”

How to Use Value Propositions Value Propositions are statements (not guarantees) that attempt to project the potential quantified benefit (value) to a prospect and his or her organization through the implementation of your specific capability or offering. Value Propositions are intended to create curiosity and serve as a catalyst to start a sales cycle. To create a Value Proposition, a salesperson must know about a value already achieved by a customer who has used the salesperson’s products or services. Like reference stories, Value Propositions can be delivered over the phone, face-to-face, by email, or as part of a targeted direct marketing campaign.

Preliminary research usually uncovers a prospect’s data such as annual sales, the number of employees, cost parameters, profitability, earnings, and so on. Then you apply the measurements based on actual results from previous customers. Please note that your initial Value Proposition starts with “We believe.” In other words, it’s according to your research and opinion. It’s early in the sale, so you have to present it as your opinion. Only later, after diagnosis and proof, will your buyer own the Value Proposition.

If your arithmetic is correct and the proposed results are promising, the prospect has to listen to you. It’s good if the prospect challenges you. He or she might ask, “How did you figure that? What have you based it on? What makes you think we could get that result?” If this is the case, you have achieved the goal of stimulating the interest of the client, and you can now engage in a more specific conversation about what is possible.

Value is a rich ingredient in selling, even at the early stage of prospecting. Value helps to stimulate curiosity and interest. Value can move prospects from little or no interest to active curiosity in what you’re selling. Value is a significant commercial aphrodisiac.

Value is a key component of Solution Selling. Value is used throughout the process of selling a solution. Historically, many people have often used the word value in selling, but rarely has it been defined, much less quantified. People use the term often but have a hard time explaining it. In Solution Selling we give value the following definition: Value = Total

Benefits Total Investment. This definition means that value is quantifiable. Salespeople should always quantify value rather than simply use the word and leave it to the prospect to figure it out.

The Value Cycle

Solution Selling’s philosophy on value is that value is not just a word; it’s an integral part of every step in the sales process. I want salespeople to lead with value in the beginning of the process because it helps to gain and stimulate interest. Verify the value during the diagnosis and evaluation steps of the process. Close with value during the reaching-final-agreement step, because it gives the buyer a compelling reason to act. Measure the value in the success criteria step so that you can ensure success and leverage it for future engagements. The Solution Selling Value Cycle includes the following: leading with value, verifying and confirming value, closing with value, and measuring.

Leading with Value Conduct precall planning and research so that you can deliver a confident and targeted initial Value Proposition that will stimulate the buyer’s interest in your offering.

Verifying and Confirming Value Diagnose the critical issue(s) behind the initial Value Proposition and quantify how your capabilities can provide a solution. This is the process of taking the initial Value Proposition (what you think might be possible) to a Confirmed Value Proposition (what the buyer believes is possible). This can evolve into a more inclusive Value Proposition (including other customer beneficiaries) or a broader value analysis (even a formal ROI analysis).

Closing with Value Using the Confirmed Value Proposition provides a compelling reason for the buyer to act. When the buyer understands the value your solution delivers, the buyer is less likely to bargain for a discount. A thorough value analysis can help the buyer and salesperson recognize the measurable impact of not taking action—thus creating a compelling reason to act.

Measuring Make sure the customer achieves the results he or she anticipates. Measuring success allows you to leverage positive results for additional business. We defined a solution earlier as a mutually shared answer to a customer’s recognized problem that must provide some measurable improvement. There’s a before (a baseline) and an after (the baseline plus a delta). Quantifiable value helps you establish both the baseline and the delta to ensure that a solution was delivered.

The New Solution Selling. The Revolutionary Sales Process That is Changing the Way People Sell
The New Solution Selling: The Revolutionary Sales Process That Is Changing the Way People Sell [NEW SOLUTION SELLING 2/E]
Year: 2003
Pages: 106 © 2008-2020.
If you may any questions please contact us: