Target Opportunity Selling: Top Sales Performers Reveal What Really Works

Target Opportunity Selling: Top Sales Performers Reveal What Really Works

by Nicholas A.C. Read


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The game-changing sales model that helps win target opportunities at every stage of the sales cycle

Sales guru Nic Read broke new ground with his chart topping Selling to the C-Suite—an instant classic based on 10 years of interviews with executive buyers that revealed the best ways to get onto their radar, into their office, and across their business.

Now in this highly anticipated sequel, Read unveils the latest science and art of selling from the other side of the table by following elite sellers through every step of today's complex sales cycle. What they really do to win strategic, competitive deals might surprise you.

Target Opportunity Selling is based on 20,000 hours of fieldwork with top business-to-business sellers in small, medium, and large enterprises around the world to learn how they create, pursue, and win large target opportunities. A source of "lightning in a bottle," this step-by-step playbook reveals:
  • Qualification criteria you must measure early, middle, and late in every sale
  • How to use sales strategy and competitive countertactics to your advantage
  • Techniques to identify and build support from the most influential stakeholders
  • Approaches to exert control over the customer's evaluation process and mindset
  • Why last century's "sales funnel" has had its day—and may actually hurt "solution selling"

Thought-provoking and insightful, Target Opportunity Selling is another master class from one of today's most popular sales authors.


"Target Opportunity Selling is a world-class, comprehensive guide to winning today's big sales opportunities. This serious, research-based work details not only what you must do to win with the right strategy and approach, but precisely how you must do it, down to what to say during a face-to-face sales call. I'm delighted to add this to my list of highly recommended books on selling." — Dave Stein, CEO, ES Research Group, Inc.

"Compelling. A good fit to the approach Novozymes uses to match our selling capabilities to customers' needs, then deliver solutions that hit highvalue strategic priorities. We have used Nic's prior book and workshop Selling to the C-Suite to help our people engage with customers at a higher level. Target Opportunity Selling provides the next lesson in moving to the realm of strategic selling." — Andrew Fordyce, Executive Vice President, Business Operations, Novozymes A/S

"There's something to take away from every chapter in this book. It's a great forensic examination of the sales process, but it's not written like a clinical text. This book engages, inspires, and gives sound direction every salesperson can benefit from." — Craig Steel, Americas Theater Lead, Cloud Business Director, EMC

"Whether you are a start-up, lone wolf, or sales neophyte looking for best practices and tools, or a seasoned sales executive looking to sharpen the saw, Target Opportunity Selling provides invaluable insight and practical applications for the 'how' of today's top sellers." — David Hinson, Enterprise Collaboration Specialist, Cisco Systems

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780071773072
Publisher: McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing
Publication date: 12/27/2013
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Nicholas A.C. Read is the founder and managing partner of the revenue growth consulting firm SalesLabs. Honored with the prestigious International Business Award
("the business world's own Oscars"—New York Post), he is a sought-after speaker, consultant, and columnist whose insights on sales and management are used daily by business leaders in more than 40 countries.

Read an Excerpt




McGraw-Hill Education

Copyright © 2014 Nicholas A.C. Read
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-07-177307-2


Beyond the Sales Funnel

My preceding book, Selling to the C-Suite (McGraw-Hill, 2009), demystified why executive buyers single out some salespeople to be Trusted Advisors but give others the ejector seat. The book was based on a decade of research in bull and bear markets, and it reported what leaders across industries and cultures said about how, why, and when they get involved in their company's large purchasing projects.

And with so many people struggling through a financial crisis at the time of C-Suite's publication, it hit a chord. I was invited to keynote at sales conferences across North America, Latin America, Asia, Europe, and Africa. Morning and nightly television news shows wanted to hear these tips, as did newspapers, magazines, and drive-time radio. The appetite for certainty in a time of uncertainty was palpable. People put the book to the test. Its lessons helped them. I cherish every tale of success.

Then as the economies of the world continued to wobble, a recurring question was raised by the hundreds of CEOs and vice presidents of sales who drew me aside in boardrooms, airport lounges, and conference mixers.

Their question was this:

You've shown us how executives buy today. Can you show us how top salespeople sell today?

It was the "today" part that caught my attention. Have the rules of selling changed? Are they different from how we sold yesterday or during the last decade or the last century? It's an intriguing question.

If we hypothesize that selling is only about skills, then with the hundreds of published works produced in the past two centuries by Carnegie, Ziglar, Hopkins, Tracy, Rackham, Bosworth, Page, Gitomer, and other contributors, surely we already have the academic foundation—in books and training courses—to sell effectively. If we only reread and practice their lessons, wouldn't we all perform better? Of course we would. On an individual level we can always sharpen the saw. Covey taught us that.

And that might be enough ... if improving our win rate in complex and strategic sales opportunities was a matter of skills execution alone. But few sales directors think it's that simple anymore.

Buyers are more risk averse; they seldom make decisions without involving other stakeholders, advisors, or opinion leaders. It's no longer good enough to find and pitch to one economic buyer, fox, or grand poobah in the inner circle. The customers expect you to network with all the players, to make it easy for them to buy by your getting everyone on the same page. To do this, the customers take it as a given that you will do your homework and be curious enough to learn the issues that may affect multiple personas in different ways; to build supporters in these ranks; and to make a case for change and navigate the minefield of competing biases that may cause people in the same company to hold polarized views on whether there's a need to buy, buy now, or buy from you.

The role of business-to-business salespeople today is to provoke people with new ideas so they become dissatisfied with the status quo through gaining a vision of tomorrow. Customers expect us to add value in every meeting, to propose solutions that give the most bang for the buck, and to remain accountable to deliver our promises long after the close.

Your company expects you to convert name lists, networking lunches, and marketing leads into sales opportunities; to keep your pipeline stacked with enough revenue to offset the deals that don't pan out; to qualify out of low-probability deals as fast as possible; to orchestrate the profitable deployment of presales subject matter specialists; to maintain sales records and reporting systems; to coordinate with third-party solution vendors who partner today and compete tomorrow; and to work miracles at the end of each quarter and especially at the end of each fiscal year.

A salesperson's job description is seldom written in these terms, but there's no doubt about it, that when you accept a role in the business-to-business sales profession today, it's certainly not for the fainthearted nor the enthusiastic amateur. It's one of the toughest (yet most rewarding) gigs in the world. It's a complex, high-stakes, demanding profession.

Does this sound like your world?

Good, that means this book is written just for you.

The best practices you'll read here answer the questions executives and sales professionals are asking everywhere. They are drawn from nearly 20,000 hours of interviews, coaching sessions, and field accompaniments with business-to-business salespeople who exceed their targets year after year. To keep the headhunters at bay, you won't read anyone's personal names. Their lessons are grouped collectively and listed in this book as being from "top sellers" or "stars." These legends are out there right now, seeding ideas, nurturing contacts, inking fresh deals, and hitting their quotas early in challenging markets. With this book, you will join them.

Let's begin.

Have you noticed that no matter how great your offering, there are times when some prospects just don't value what you're selling? They won't engage in consultative discussions, and they only want you to send an e-mail or provide factual information to fill a supplier comparison table while they hide behind blind tenders and tight lips. Let's call these prospects Product Buyers. By the time they invite suppliers to talk, they can be two-thirds of the way through their buying process, and now they are looking to narrow their options by comparing suppliers against the criteria they have already collated.

At other times you find yourself talking to prospects who know they don't have all the answers yet, and so they are looking to you for advice and insight. After all, you're someone who talks to their peers at other companies. You see what issues their peers are facing and what they're doing to solve their challenges. This makes you a valuable source of knowledge about what others are doing to achieve reductions in cost, time, and risk or to gain increases in productivity, efficiency, and profit. These prospects welcome you to the table if you bring these insights. They're prepared to invest time in you to diagnose their real needs and explore options they didn't know existed. Let's call these Ideas Buyers.

Both types of prospects buy differently, from the depth of conversation they're prepared to have and the number of people you end up meeting with, to the time it takes to get a signature on the order form.

The skills needed to sell to each type of buyer are identical, but selling to Ideas Buyers requires a broader range of capabilities and the dance steps (i.e. the milestones in your sales cycle) are more complicated.

So let's look at these two sales cycles a little closer.

One is relatively short. It is based on clearly defined or easily influenced decision criteria, where competitors have no great advantage over you, and the decision to buy is held by a small number of Product Buyers (such as those purchasing officers or consultants who tell you to deal only with them and warn you not to go over their head). This type of sale might be declared "simple," and the traditional sales funnel is a relatively good model for navigating it. The goal is to move "from Hi to Buy" as quickly as possible.

When sales stars come across these types of opportunities, they do a "preflight check" to test whether the premeeting research and first-meeting conversation (whether by phone or face-to-face) are designed to tease out where deeper issues exist and whether the needs and opinions of additional stakeholders can be canvassed to build wider interest and support. They look at how big the iceberg is below the waterline. Their goal is to find topics that allow them to lift the conversation to a poignant issue they can use as a game changer. Theirs is an attempt at reengineering the decision criteria.

Where attempts at reengineering fail, top sellers waste no time declaring the opportunity to be a simple sale. They don't manage the deal using the depth of project plan that's applied to complex solution sales, and they don't report simple sales on the same pipeline as complex sales. They maintain separate pipelines that measure sales effectiveness by different steps, different velocities, and different conversion rates. Some companies even mandate that if their solution sellers are flooded with more opportunities than they can easily handle, they should qualify which ones are simple and flick those to a different sales team, channel, or partner.

Where you identify you're competing in a high-stakes conceptual sale to Ideas Buyers, you need to manage the opportunity with different steps more appropriate to an environment where the decision process will be longer, where multiple players will be involved in shaping the buying criteria and timeline by formal and informal means, and where competition is rife and ruthless. The goal is to move these larger opportunities from first contact to closed contract with as much certainty as possible. By necessity this approach involves a lot of plan-do-plan-do in successive waves throughout the sales cycle.

Sales organizations know complex sales don't close as quickly as simple sales, nor do these sales travel through identical steps in the sales cycle. So these companies create two funnels in their customer relationship marketing (CRM) software—each one tuned with different milestones and different lengths of time and conversion ratios between each of these steps.

However, even with the logic of this being recognized, most sales reps are still faced with a daily diet of looking at the visual iconography of a traditional sales funnel. That's a problem for several reasons, some subliminal, some overt. Think for a moment about the messages the funnel sends to any seller today.

The funnel implies that customer engagement is a linear process that has a start and an end (Figure 1.1). The underlying message is that you should get to the close, then jump to the next deal. In promoting the sales funnel as an image at the heart of their forecast and performance reviews, sales directors are unwittingly reinforcing the linear, transactional, coin-operated mindset that the funnel represents. It's understandable. They've grown up with the funnel as a staple part of the sales vernacular their whole career. Let's take a look at the funnel.

The funnel starts wide with many good intentions and ends narrow with only a few opportunities becoming signed contracts. It's a concept from the days when product was king and selling was a numbers game of making enough telephone calls to get enough appointments to pitch enough proposals to win enough deals. The funnel is a purely transactional artifact.

What self-respecting solution seller can accept the awful ratios of attrition displayed in the funnel? When you sell the vision, help customers develop their business case for funding, and write the project spec, conversion rates are nearly 80 percent—not a fraction of a fraction, receding at each step. The funnel promotes a mediocre mindset that expects and then accepts failure.

The funnel also leads sales managers to form erroneous conclusions about their pipeline, which get reported to the finance director as forecasts. Have you ever seen a funnel with a numbered gauge on the side? Sure you have. It usually starts with "10 percent" at the top and "100 percent" at the bottom.

The original intent for this segmentation was to show how far through the sales cycle each opportunity was. By knowing how long it took for a healthy sale to advance between stages, and by knowing what percentage made it through each stage, managers could do a rough calculation of how many wins would be coming down the production pipeline. They would then immediately see if any shortfall of leads high up in the funnel was statistically likely to create a shortfall of revenue months into the future. With this foresight they could act to head off any emerging problem while there was still time to impact the outcome.

But they couldn't estimate the actual revenue that would be won.

In an attempt to improve on that, at some point in our collective past an unknown manager started to think those percentages down the side of the funnel would be a pretty neat way of factoring the revenue at each stage. Without a better model to use, this logic started to catch on, and nobody questioned if it actually made any sense in a world of complex sales.

But those percentages down the side of the funnel do not equal the customers' probability of buying, nor do they predict how much revenue from each sale will be on the table after the final negotiation.

So when you see a salesperson who believes a $1 million deal sitting at the "50 percent" mark should be forecast as $500,000, you're looking at a rep who probably flunked math. In the real world, the deal is worth the whole million at every step. It's not the stage in the funnel that determines how much revenue comes into your coffers. It's the win probability of each individual opportunity. You'll read about a more reliable way to qualify if you're winning or losing later in the book.

So if the funnel is culturally and commercially wrong for selling complex solutions over a longer, more competitive sales cycle, what have top sellers replaced it with?

There's a clue on the cover of this book. Instead of a linear funnel, the shape of these solution sales looks more like a cyclical "figure eight." This model is called the Sales Expansion Loop (SEL) (Figure 1.2).

The Loop follows a stepwise progression, but unlike the funnel it does not promote an endpoint to the selling process. Instead, the close of each sale primes the pump for the next opportunity. It is a perpetual process of creating and improving relationships and revenue streams. Its icon is based on the symbol for "infinity" because this is what a relaionship looks like to the Ideas Buyers.

Navigating the Loop begins right in the center. You see that ring around Insight? This is where you start. You actually pass through the Insight junction three times when selling to the Ideas Buyers.

The first time is where you're seeking insight on their industry, company, and people, which takes you to the top left of the Loop into what's called the Research step.

Follow the arrows, and the second time is in the middle of the sale where you test if you are adding insight to the customers and they are giving you insight that can help you win.

Follow the arrows, and the third time is after you've won the sale and delivered your solution: you track the extent to which your value proposition is being enjoyed by the customers as promised by you, and you give insight to them on additional ways to leverage their investment or improve their business, as only an insider can do. This sets the ball in motion for additional opportunities, and so you cross back to the Research stage for the next deal in the same account.

In this book we'll explore how you can master this new model.

Turn the page, and we'll get started.



The word research comes from the French word rechercher, which means "to go about seeking knowledge." It is a "harnessing of curiosity" to establish facts and solve new or existing problems.

With a little bit of homework and preparation, you can understand the customers' world, see through their eyes, and walk in their shoes. But why would you want to bother? Because if you want to pitch an idea to a prospect that they're not already considering, you must be conversant with the issues that are going on in their industry, company, or personal roles, and you must extrapolate how your offering can improve the metrics they're assessed on—their reputation, personal power, or other contribution. Research is a fundamental exercise if you want to bait the hook correctly. In this chapter we're going to look at industry research, company research, and people research.

The need for research applies when you're selling a deal that you didn't engineer but were invited to bid for (as in responding to a tender). Some people somewhere came up with the idea that talking to you and your competitors was a good idea. How did that happen? Where did they get their information? What were the reasons that prompted them to wake up one morning and see the need to do this? You must dig behind the tender to the events and people that triggered it if you're going to have any hope of controlling that sale.

If you can backtrack and see the before-and-after picture in their head, including the reasons they have to change, the genesis of the opportunity, and seeing who owns it as a personal project or business imperative, you can start to arm yourself with information that you can use in your meetings with them.

Some salespeople ask: "But why shouldn't I just respond to the criteria they listed in the tender documents?" Well, certainly those are a given. But your competitors will be responding to exactly the same items. There's no differentiation in doing that. But by understanding the context of why the customer is taking action and by showing them you understand it, you are painted as someone who's talking the language of the very people who gave their instructions to the procurement manager in the first place. Maybe you can turn what would otherwise be a simple sale into one more worthy of your time.

There's a saying: "How you talk is where you'll walk." It means you end up selling to the people you speak like. If you want to deal with the purchasing department, talk only about your features, service levels, terms, and price. If you want to deal with the people whose business needs are at the core of the buying decision, learn their issues and talk about them. It can give you a tremendous advantage over competing sales reps.


Excerpted from TARGET OPPORTUNITY SELLING by NICHOLAS A.C. READ. Copyright © 2014 Nicholas A.C. Read. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill Education.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Nick Lisi Vice President Sas Americas vii

Acknowledgments x

Chapter 1 Beyond The Sales Funnel 1

Chapter 2 Research 10

Chapter 3 Contact 25

Chapter 4 Precision Questions 38

Chapter 5 Qualify Their Interest 66

Chapter 6 Qualify Your Seat at the Table 86

Chapter 7 Qualify Your Ability to Win 97

Chapter 8 Social Capital 117

Chapter 9 Find The Influencers 137

Chapter 10 Align To Key Stakeholders 161

Chapter 11 Sell Your Solution 185

Chapter 12 Form A Competitive Strategy 204

Chapter 13 Establish Your Proof 238

Chapter 14 Compete on Value 247

Chapter 15 Closing … and Opening 282

Endnotes 299

Index 305

Customer Reviews