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Defining the Decision Criteria

Once we have helped our customers create a portrait of what "fixed" is going to look like, we need to turn our attention to how they will decide on the best solution alternative available to them. To do this, we create decision criteria that offer set guidelines by which customers judge all solutions and the proof points needed to measure, analyze, and compare solution alternatives. This is where we teach the questions the customer needs to ask of any salesperson to help them sort through the smoke and mirrors of transformative solutions and half-answered questions.

The truth is that alternatives always exist in the marketplace, and each carries differing degrees of risk. As we explained at the start of the chapter, there are no free moves for the customer. Superior salespeople use decision criteria and help customers recognize the consequences of their choices. This is very similar to the process doctors go through when prescribing medications. The FDA requires that every prescription drug carry with it a full description of contraindications, warnings, adverse reactions, possible side effects, and detailed instructions for proper dosage. Patients often ignore this "small print," but doctors use it to make informed decisions about prescribing a drug and communicating that choice to their patients.

This awareness reinforces reasonable expectations, supports a high-quality choice of solution, and serves as the basis for monitoring the progress and adjusting solutions during implementation.

Taking an active hand in the formulation of decision criteria is a task that is largely nonexistent in conventional selling. Thus, traditional salespeople are depending on their customers to provide these criteria, and, as we already know, customers typically do not have the expertise to undertake this task. Further, conventional salespeople are often reluctant to admit the existence of alternative solutions that might compete with their own offerings. They are like ostriches—sticking their heads in the sand and hoping that the customer will not see anything more than they can see themselves.

Conversely, trained professionals face the reality that the marketplace is a competitive arena and that their customers often have instant access to information about competing solutions. They know that their customers are going to explore these alternative solutions with or without them, and they understand that the only true choice salespeople have in the matter is whether to participate in that process. As always successful salespeople recognize that the preferred alternative is to help guide and shape the customer's decision process.

Decision criteria specify the features, situations, and capabilities required to achieve the expectations of the customer. They are the material specifications of the customer's vision. They enable customers to explore treatment options in an organized fashion, ensure that alternatives are weighed equally, allow customers to match solutions to expectations, and then test and confirm their choices.

Decision criteria are not a laundry list of features and benefits. In other words, salespeople can't simply cut and paste the capabilities of their offerings under the heading of "Decision Criteria." The criteria must grow from the expectations of the customer, and they must be directly connected to the findings of the Diagnose phase. When we specify a solution's capability within the decision criteria, it must relate to a symptom or indicator of the problem. Otherwise, there is no defensible reason for requiring the capability in the solution.

This is a critical connection. How often have you had a customer become enamored with a competitor's product or service feature that sounds, looks, and smells good, but which the customer doesn't need? The customer is seduced by the decision principle: "If in doubt, it's better to have a feature than not have it." In this state, customers suddenly announce that they "need" a specific capability and they want to know if you have it.

For example, the feature in question is a whicker attachment (an imaginary part), which your product does not include. It is usually obvious what has happened: Another salesperson has presented the whicker as the latest and greatest product feature, and now the customer wants a whicker. How do you counter that claim and the customer's desire? The decision criteria. They tell us whether a whicker actually addresses an indicator present in the customer's problem or if it is a superfluous feature. (By the way, if the customer does actually need a whicker and we can't provide it, it may be time to be leaving.)

In transformative sales, the list of decision criteria can quickly get unwieldy. We usually suggest that salespeople focus on a short list of three criteria that will have the most impact on the customer's decision. Within each of these three criteria, we need to teach our customers to ask the solution questions that make sense in our industry. We are, in essence, showing our customers how to sort through the smoke and mirrors that typify so many sales presentations and grasp the information that they need to decide among competing solutions.

For example, a customer is planning to buy capital equipment that requires authorized service and install it in plants in 21 countries around the world. Service support is obviously a critical issue in such a purchase. Typically, a customer in this situation asks: "Do you have a service program in place that includes my 21 international plants?" The salesperson replies, "Of course, we offer a global service program." The customer checks this solution criteria and moves on.

Next, the customer buys from this salesperson, and the capital equipment installed in Singapore breaks down. The customer calls for service and finds out that it will be 48 hours before the service technician in Maryland can get there. There are two days of downtime before the tech even arrives on-site, and the customer is wondering how many days of downtime will be recorded when he starts multiplying the number by 21 countries.

The global service program that the salesperson promised actually means that his company will send a tech from its headquarters to wherever the equipment is located. But the customer never discovered that because he never asked the next logical questions: "Where are your service techs located?" "How long will it take to get one of them to my sites?"

Exemplary sales professionals pay particular attention to those points where their product and service strengths intersect with the customer's decision criteria. Key opportunities to differentiate ourselves from our competitors exist at these points.

An example drawn from the training industry illustrates the idea. The effectiveness of training is heavily dependent on the abilities of the person conducting the training and how well he or she understands and relates to the audience. Accordingly, the attributes of the trainer should be one of the decision criteria considered by customers.

If you were a salesperson for a training firm and your company paid particular attention to matching the experience and abilities of trainers to their clients (sending trainers to meet clients before sessions and asking the trainer to customize those sessions, for instance), you have a competitive advantage over competitors whose trainers do not meet clients before the actual training and who assign trainers by geographical location or at random based on previously scheduled work. It only makes sense that you would implant these criteria in the customer's decision process. Customers would receive a high-quality solution, and you would have a greater chance to earn their business.

As always, the ultimate goal of decision criteria is to empower our customers with the information they need to make a high-quality decision. When we have established the decision criteria that the customer will use to find the best solution to the problem, there is only one task left for the salesperson: confirmation.


The topics covered herein concern solution sales, consultative sales, and consultative selling.

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