When the Sale Is Stalled

Sometimes it just seems impossible to convert an interested prospect into a paying client. You talk and talk but never progress to the next step.

Have you experienced any of these scenarios?

  • “We’ve met with them a number of times over the last six months, but nothing seems to happen”
  • “They keep saying they are interested but there’s no forward progress.”
  • “They keep asking for more detail about how we would approach the issue, but they won’t buy.”
  • “I feel like they are just milking us for information so that they can do it themselves.”
  • “They are only talking to us to put price pressure on their existing provider.”

These situations are not as mysterious as they appear to be. There are 6 essential conditions that must exist before a client will become a buyer. If any of these 6 is missing, you will be stuck in the equivalent of Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, where you repeat the same meeting or conversation over and over again. I call these 6 the “preconditions to create a buyer”:

ONE: The client perceives a problem or opportunity that is significant in size and importance. It must be a “red issue.” Fixing it must have a high payoff, and the executive must “own” it–he or she must be the economic buyer (otherwise they cannot become the buyer!). “We really have to fix this or we won’t be able to achieve our goals”

Test: Ask them to describe the payoff they envision. Ask if they have already tried to fix it (if not, how important could it be?). Make sure the person you’re talking to owns the problem/opportunity and is empowered to take action on it.

TWO: The client has a healthy dissatisfaction with the rate of change. The client is unhappy with progress against solving the problem or realizing the opportunity. They may not be moving fast enough, or perhaps the quality or performance level is not up to expectations. “We just haven’t made the progress I had hoped for”

Test: Listen for words like “frustrated”, “concerned”, “unhappy”, “dissatisfied”, “unsure,” etc. Listen for talk about missed deadlines, missed opportunities, and/or the need to rapidly capture opportunities.

THREE: The client believes there is a lack of internal resources and/or expertise. The client feels that they don’t have the right skills or enough people to tackle the issue on a timely basis.  “We don’t have the capabilities to do this on our own right now”

Test: Ask why they want to use or are considering an external resource. Probe to understand what the shortfall is: Expertise? Warm bodies? Skills? Process understanding? Knowledge about the competition and best practices?

FOUR: The client trusts that you/your firm can do it. They have to believe that you not only have the capability to solve the problem or realize the opportunity, but also that you are the best alternative compared to other competitors and to tackling it internally. “We believe you are the best people to help us with this”

Test: Do they keep asking you for more documentation and detail about your methodology and approach, or do they talk as if they’re going to be working with you? Are you seeing buying signals, such as a request for a proposal, questions about fees, and so on?

FIVE: The executive sponsor feels that the right stakeholders have all been aligned around retaining you and utilizing your suggested approach. This is especially true in large corporations where many different constituencies and layers of management may have a vested interest in the issue at hand.  “We’ve got support from our leadership and alignment from all the right constituencies”

Test: Ask “Who needs to be aligned with this, and where do they stand today?”, or “Who needs to approve this within your leadership team?”

SIX: They can see tangible next steps to move forward. The client has to feel that your proposed solution and approach are clear and make sense for the organization. If they don’t see these tangible next steps, they will hesitate.  “Your solution is clear and we’re comfortable that it’s the right approach for us”

Test: Does the client demonstrate a clear understanding of the approach you’ve suggested, or do they keep asking questions like “I’m not quite sure how this part of it is going to work…” Ask: “Is there any aspect of our approach that that you still don’t fully understand or that you have questions about?”

Notice that I haven’t listed “available budget” as a precondition. This is because budget is always available for a client’s highest priorities. If it’s truly important, and if these preconditions are met, there will be funding.

If any of these preconditions are absent, the sales process will come to a grinding halt. Whenever you feel that your conversations with the client aren’t going anywhere, carefully review each of these. Most of the time, you will find that one or more of these six preconditions is not fully present. You may then need to schedule another meeting with your client to retrace your steps and see if the precondition can be satisfied or achieved. You can even put it on the table—for example: “Bill, we’ve had a number of conversations about sales force productivity over the last three months. When I look back at my best client relationships–where I really made a difference–they usually started with a focus on an issue that the client felt was truly significant—it was a problem or an opportunity that they had a high degree of urgency around. Do you think this is the case here?”



Andrew Sobel is the leading authority on client relationships and the skills and strategies required to earn enduring client loyalty. The most widely published author in the world on business relationships, he is a consultant, educator, and coach to major services firms worldwide. Andrew is the author of the recently released All for One: 10 Strategies for Building Trusted Client Partnerships—which was voted one of the top 10 professional services sales and marketing books of the decade—as well as the business bestsellers Clients for Life and Making Rain . He has contributed chapters to four books on leadership, marketing, and human resources management; and his articles and work have appeared in publications such as the New York Times, US Today, Strategy+Business, and the Harvard Business Review. He was a Senior Vice President and Country Managing Director for Gemini Consulting, where he served on the European Executive Committee, and for the last 15 years he has led his own consulting firm, Andrew Sobel Advisors, Inc. He can be reached at andrewsobel.com (Tel: 505.982.0211).


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