If you were working in the health or social services, or in the nuclear, aerospace, oil, rail and military industries, you would be well aware of the need to perform risk assessments on a regular basis wherever there was a serious threat of a hazardous situation.
In fact, if you happened to be in a management or executive position in those environments, you might well have a legal responsibility to ensure that the necessary risk assessments were performed to the appropriate professional standard.
Some may regard these risk assessments as burdensome, and a few might hanker after a simpler, less bureaucratic climate. But there’s no doubt that risk assessments have saved many lives, and will continue to do so. Which might lead us to consider whether risk assessments could save sales deals, as well…
You can imagine the response from some of the more traditional sales people: having to do a risk assessment would be yet another unnecessarily bureaucratic, burdensome process, another management-driven “hoop to have to jump through”. But they would be wrong.
Unless your experience is very different from mine, you can probably look back on deals that sales people assured you were “in the bag” - and yet they escaped (or the bag disappeared). You can probably look back on deals that went quiet, and being assured that there was nothing to worry about. And yet there was.
Every opportunity has some element of risk
Every sales opportunity - no matter how cast-iron - has its share of risks, and most deals have many more risk factors than are usually acknowledged. Sales people tend to be predisposed to listen to good news, and to avoid seeking out bad news for fear of what they might discover.
This is why thoughtfully designed checklists have become such an important element of the modern sales process - they force sales people to assess factors that have been proven to impact their chances of sales success. They make it harder to miss the obvious. As Atul Gawande points out in The Checklist Manifesto, they serve to systematically eliminate errors of ignorance and ineptitude.
And that’s precisely why I’ve been working with a growing number of clients to create opportunity risk assessment checklists that ensure that they uncover and pay proper attention to a range of well-proven risk factors that they cannot afford to ignore or sweep under the carpet.
I’ve learned that these risk assessments are most effective when jointly conducted between the sales person and their manager - and if there has been significant pre-sales involvement it’s often invaluable to have their perspective as well.
Do you recognise any of these risks?
It’s possible that you’ll have a few risk factors that are specific to your environment, but if you’re in a complex B2B sales environment, the following risk factors tend to be universal:
- Projected close date has changed more than once: when opportunities get their close dates pushed on a regular basis, it’s often an indicator that all is not well with the deal.
- Projected close date is unrealistic: if the proposed close date is significantly shorter than the average actual close date from the current pipeline stage, it’s often a sign of wishful thinking.
- Opportunity value has changed significantly: substantial or regular changes in the deal value may indicate a change in the buyer’s circumstances or process that may not have been fully taken into account.
- Economic justification is weak: If there is no compelling case for change, or a clear return on investment, or if these exist but have not been explicitly agreed by the prospect, the deal is at risk.
- Progress has stalled: if the opportunity has remained “stuck in stage” for longer than average winning opportunities, this often a significant risk factor.
- Activity levels have declined: if the amount of recorded activity (and in particular the number of substantive interactions with the prospect), the opportunity is at risk.
- Any element of the decision process, team, criteria or timetable is unclear: if there is any uncertainty about how and why the prospect will make their buying decision, the deal is at risk.
- Lack of engagement with decision team: if there has been little or no substantive engagement with the decision-making team, the opportunity is at risk.
- Over-reliance on an unproven champion: if you are relying on a single individual to make the case internally, and in particular if they do not have a track record of being able to mobilise their colleagues, the deal is at risk.
- Recent change in circumstance: if there has been a recent change in the decision team, sponsor, criteria or any other significant factor, the opportunity is at risk.
- Failure to align with corporate priorities: if the opportunity cannot be clearly and obviously associated with a current high-priority organisational initiative, the deal is at risk.
- Opportunity has unusual characteristics: if the opportunity has any unusual characteristics - for example, being significantly larger than the average sale, or into a sector where you have few references, the deal is at risk.
- Missing steps in the process: if the sales person has failed to complete key steps in your defined sales process, the deal is at risk. If you don’t have a defined sales process, all opportunities are at risk.
- Any other issue you are aware of but have not confronted: if there are any other issues the sales person has become aware of, but have not confronted or resolved with the prospect, the opportunity is at risk.
And that is only a partial list of the most common factors. If any of the above risk factors are present, or if any of the risk factors are unknown, you must determine what action is required to mitigate the identified risk, and put that action plan into place.
Sweeping the issue under the carpet, or failing to ask the tough questions, is a recipe for disappointment and failure. You can do better than that. A little healthy paranoia is much more useful than a large dose of complacency.
I’d be very interested in your comments: have I missed any other common risk factors? And after considering this list, how many of the opportunities that are currently being forecasted might be at risk?
Bob Apollo is the managing director of UK-Based Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners and a Fellow of the Association of Professional Sales. He writes and speaks regularly on the critical importance of establishing scalable sales processes in driving B2B sales success.