A Formula For Overcoming “No Budget”

Laura had strawberry hair and a freckled complexion. She was the only administrator for a small start-up company I joined. It was my first day on the job and she took a seat on the other side of my desk. She let a smirk grow on her face and then announced, “boy are you stupid”. Taken aback, I just squinted my eyes and asked, “what do you mean?”

“All of the previous salespeople quit. No one has been able to sell this product for two years. You have the distinction of being the only sales person now. Do you think you know something they didn’t?” She prattled.

I just smiled and said, “we’ll see”. But I have to admit, she had me rattled. During the interview process there was no indication there was a lack of sales or that all of the sales people had resigned. (Of course, I didn’t think to ask specifically on either topic.)

My first sales call was on Lockheed Missiles and Space (as they were called then). They had five copies of our software and had been evaluating it for close to nine months, so I went to check in on the situation.

I sat down with Paul, a lead engineer for Lockheed and identified by my predecessor as the sponsor for the purchase. When I asked how the evaluation was going, he pulled out a list of items three pages long.  I looked through his list and noticed that most of the items were product enhancement requests, with very few bug fix requests. He said my company had made progress on the list, but there was still a long way to go. He tried to give me hope by pointing out they had reserved budget for the purchase early in the next fiscal year; five months away.

Having spent a few years in software sales, I had seen this behavior before. There was only one way to test it, but it’s a low downside gamble, so I said, “OK, it looks like you’d prefer to wait for the perfect product. In that case, I’ll have to pull the evaluation copies out today and get back to you when we’ve made more significant progress with your product enhancement requests.” His eyes opened wide and the shock rolled across his face. He stammered, “but wait, you can’t, we’re in the middle of a project”. That was the answer I was hoping to hear.

As I came to find out, Paul’s team was troubleshooting the power supply hardware for the Hubble Space telescope. This one critical piece of hardware was not performing to specification and holding up the whole show for the Lockheed contract. Paul was confident our software would help them identify and correct the problem.

If he had any hope of keeping the software past the end of the day, I suggested he take me to his boss. Twenty minutes later, I was sitting across the desk from his boss. Tony was a very senior project leader for Lockheed, and although it seems like a lowly title, his total budget allocation for his part of the project was probably north of a hundred million dollars. 

I laid out my case for reallocating budget to my software. They were behind on the delivery of a very high profile project, which could result in millions of dollars in contract penalties. They had spent months evaluating our software and had concluded that it was capable of helping them identify and fix the problem. The only thing left to do was cut a purchase order.

Four days later I had the first purchase order in my company’s history in my hands. The first person I showed it to was Laura. I would have thought a two hundred and fifty thousand dollar purchase order would have at least merited a comment, but no, Laura flipped her hair back, smiled and walked away. It took me a few more months before I started to understand Laura’s sarcastic sense of humor. 

A few days after I received the Lockheed order, my sales manager, Brian, pulled me aside and said that one of the board members wanted to take me to lunch to celebrate the order. Brian was concerned that my success might cast a bad light on the leadership team since they hadn’t generated any business previously, so he asked me to be very careful with what I said during my lunch.

MJ was with a silicon valley venture capital firm and a significant investor in our company. She was in the early stages of a long battle with MS, but still very ambulatory. (The next time I would see MJ, she would be in a wheelchair.) She kept her raven colored hair short, and dressed in traditional silicon valley business casual manner; black slacks, flats and a light colored blouse.

We shared a little chit chat about our respective backgrounds and then MJ asked about the Lockheed order. She wanted to know how I did it. When I told her the story I just shared with you, she said I needed to “codify it” and share it with the rest of the sales people in the company (when they were hired). When I asked what she meant by codify it, she said, “break it down and put it into a formula”. To this day, I don’t know if she meant it literally or figuratively, but I went ahead and developed a formula to describe the sale.

If you’ve ever been frustrated to hear the words, “we don’t have the budget to purchase your solution”, take note. I seemed to have based my entire sales career on selling leading edge products that never had the luxury of established customer budgets so this formula became invaluable to me..

Overcoming No Budget (ONB) = Vision x Impact x Power x Proof

There are three components to Vision: The Current Business Issue (CBI), the underlying People/Process/Technology (P/P/T) Challenges, and your Capabilities. If you can help your prospect see how your Capabilities can address their P/P/T Challenges which helps to resolve a Current Business Issue they care about, you have created a Vision. In the Lockheed example, the power supply wasn’t meeting design specs (Challenge), which was causing a delay in meeting contractual obligations (CBI). Our software was capable of identifying which electronic components were causing the power supply to fail under a range of conditions.

Impact is simply the value of addressing the business issue. In this case, there were contract penalties worth millions of dollars looming over Lockheed’s head.

Power is about getting the buy-in and priority of the person who can allocate or re-allocate funds to the purchase. In this case, Tony, the project manager, had the authority to reallocate budget to purchase my software.

Proof is the process of validating the solution’s capabilities, usually through an evaluation, but in some cases with less time intensive activities like demonstrations. After nine months of playing with our software, Paul was well versed on what it was capable of doing.

The final observation I’ll share with you about the formula is regarding mathematics. You’ll see that each component of the formula is accompanied by a multiplication factor. There are two corollaries at play here. The first is the more effectively each component is established the higher the outcome. In other words, the size of the transaction increases with better execution in each discipline. While this is a great lesson in itself, the second corollary is the most valuable to me. It’s the impact a Zero has on multiplication. This means that if only one component is a zero, the whole equation goes to zero. Or more specifically, you lose the sale to a no decision.

In reality, I’ve never lost a sale to “No Budget”. However, I have lost a sale because I couldn’t differentiate my capabilities in light of their challenges or business issues. On occasion I’ve lost because I couldn’t uncover the impact of not taking action. I’ve also lost because I couldn’t establish the Vision with the person who could re-allocate budget. And, I’ve lost because my products were not able to perform as advertised under close scrutiny: But never because of lack of budget. 

The next time you hear, “we don’t have any budget for a purchase like this”, pull out this formula and see what’s missing to determine if you can do anything to overcome the zero(s) in the equation.

Missed Kevin’s other posts on Sales Agility? Take a look at his most recent posts here.

Kevin Temple guides sales teams to be more agile and improve revenue outcomes. He can be contacted at The Enterprise Selling Group is a leader in delivering sales training, coaching and project oversight to improve the agility of sales teams around the world.

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