We all think we know what closing a deal looks like. You might picture shaking the customer’s hand, sharing a smile or watching as they sign the paperwork.

That’s not really what closing looks like, though. Those are actually snapshots of what happens once the essential details have been dealt with. The process of closing begins much earlier, and involves steps that can’t be ignored if you don’t want to the deal to disappear entirely. “Nearly there” isn’t good enough when you’re closing.

Closing the sale isn’t just good for business growth. It’s also key to retaining talent. A recent survey by the Canadian Professional Sales Association and Mercer Canada showed that turnover in sales teams was on the rise in nearly every major sector. The top reason for moving on was failing to meet quota — in other words, an inability to close sales effectively.

Fortunately, you can count the steps of how to close sales on one hand.

1. Identify Your Account Team And Key Influencers

Leads can come to sales teams through all types of channels, but what’s really important is how to nurture a lead into a genuine prospect. That means knowing who the ultimate decision-maker is — and whether there is an ecosystem of influencers who will be part of that final decision.

Let’s say someone fills out a contact form on your web site looking for more information on a product or service. That person might be the decision maker or end customer, or they might be simply doing some research for someone higher up. A manager might be trying to get background information, for instance, but the decision-maker is the director. However, a VP — the director’s boss — might give guidance or financial approval before the deal can close.

As you set up those initial calls or meetings, you’ll need to get a sense of who the team members are within the prospect account. Then, bear in mind the additional hoops the decision maker will have to jump through and what kind of information might proactively answer the questions or objections they’ll face internally.

2. Nail Down The Qualifying Question That Ensures A Deal Will Close

Companies reach out to sales teams for many reasons — not just because they want to buy things. Some want to make sure they’re on top of changes within their particular market and understand the tools their competitors might be using. Others want to get details for brainstorming exercises they conduct as part of their long-term strategic planning process.

This is why smart sales pros use qualifying questions to make sure their prospects are worth pursuing. Some common questions are:

  • What’s the business problem the prospect is trying to solve?

  • What’s the timeline to make the purchase?

  • Is there budget available and is there a particular range?

There’s one qualifying question, however, that will really determine whether you’re ever going to close a sale, and it’s a difficult one to ask directly: Is this company prepared to act?

In other words, based on what you’re hearing about their business problem, their timeline and budget, is the company committed to doing something about it? Will the consequences of putting off a purchase or not making a purchase hurt the company’s bottom line, affect its reputation or cause other adverse effects?

If the answer to this question is no, even the most “nearly there” deals will not close. That’s why having lots of data on the customer or prospect is so critical, because how they’ve behaved in the past can be a good indicator of their commitment in the future.

3. Recognize Where You Might Get Shopped Around

You don’t have to be involved in a competitive RFP to know that a prospect is considering other vendors. The bigger question is whether those competitors also represent brand-new relationships or vendors with whom the prospect has had some kind of history. If it’s the latter, the prospect may simply be looking for some information to use as leverage in their next buying cycle, in which case you’re much less likely to close.

Prospects won’t always share the details of who else is under consideration, so be armed with whatever marketing materials can help solidify your position. This could be as simple as a comparative pricing guide, case studies from customers in the same market or spec sheets that make the final decision easier.

4. Prepare Some “Other Than Price’’ Advantages

Closing a “nearly there” deal can be derailed at the last moment if the prospect says they simply can’t afford your products or services. Even when budget discussions are held up front, things can change over the life cycle of a sales conversation. No one wants to compete on price, but if companies are shopping around they won’t hesitate to use it as a negotiating tactic.

If you’ve done your research beforehand, you’ll already have a sense of where your pricing sits vs. the competition. Make sure you also have some ideas of other factors that are important to them in choosing a supplier. These could include:

  • Speed: If you can deploy products and services more quickly, or even get answers to questions earlier than the competition, it may be worth a higher price.

  • Roadmaps: Can you provide exclusive information on how your products and services are developing and allow customers to be first in line to try new features?

  • Support: Can you offer some guarantees or additional communication options (like social media) to resolve any issues?

5. Ask Them To Take The Ultimate A/B Test

You may be this close to wrapping up a deal and the prospect sends an e-mail informing you they’re going to hold off. In many cases they might not provide solid reasons. That’s when, without being too pushy, you can do a sort of A/B test to see if you can get at the real explanation.

For example, you could ask something like, “Was our price too high, or did you need a quicker turnaround on deployment?” Even if they don’t choose option “A” or “B,” they might share details about holding off that could help you figure out what you could do to nudge the purchase forward.

If you do all this correctly, you’ll never be working on a deal that’s “nearly there,” you’ll move with certainty towards closing the sale every time.

Learn more sales closing techniques in our eBook, “100 Sales Tips for 2017.”