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The VESPR lead qualification framework: is this project for us?

Our delivery resources are limited. We owe it to our customers to keep doing great work. Bad projects don’t just drain our finances; they drain our energy and enthusiasm and they impact the other great projects we’re working on.

Traditional lead qualification frameworks like BANT, GPCT and CHAMP are largely designed for those selling high scale commodities – think computer hardware or SaaS products – rather than for consulting and service businesses like digital agencies, branding teams, software development houses, or even accountants. In this post I’ll outline the framework that we use at Isotoma to add an extra layer of qualification to our sales process. This framework helps assess potential projects and avoid the tar pits that drag a company down.

Anyone selling creative and consulting services should consider adding it to their arsenal when assessing a new project.

Asking the wrong questions

All of the traditional frameworks are focussed on one thing: sifting through sets of leads to identify which ones are most likely to close and are worth your sales team’s energy. They’re a way of sorting the wheat from the chaff, the tyre kickers from the serious buyers.

These processes work well when you’re selling commodities that scale easily – like computer hardware (IBM invented BANT, after all) or a SaaS product – but they don’t get close to asking, let alone answering, a fundamental question that all creative and consulting businesses should be asking themselves…

Do we want this work?

Easy to close does not mean easy to deliver, after all. I’ll repeat the point above – our delivery resources are limited and the wrong projects hold us back.

Listening to your gut

Currently you’ll have some kind of qualification process when a prospective client gets in touch. Even if you’ve not codified it your approach will probably fit into something close to the BANT framework – have they got the Budget, does the person we’re talking to have the Authority, do they actually Need our services, and if they do, what’s their Timeline?

These questions focus on how likely this deal is to close, and how much effort you should put into closing it. All well and good, but there are other questions you should be asking, about whether or not you want the work at all.

We (that’s Isotoma, our software development house) have been going nearly 15 years. In that time we’ve been asked to build all sorts of things that we’ve turned down, some of them scoring very highly on BANT or whatever scale we were using at the time.

We all do it. Sometimes it’s a sector you just don’t want to be associated with (tobacco, mining, politics, whatever), while other times the first conversation with the customer left you feeling they were too changeable, too demanding, or too unrealistic; despite it being a project that you’d like to do, consciously or unconsciously you ended up turning it away.

The VESPR framework: giving gut decisions structure

Rather than relying on gut instinct (or worse, ignoring gut instinct because of cash flow or quarterly targets or whatever else is affecting you at the time) ask yourself these questions when considering a new brief. Give an honest yes/no answer to all five. If you can’t answer yes to all of them think about why that is, and think seriously about whether or not you should pursue the work:

  1. Will the customer value us?
  2. Will the project excite the customer?
  3. Will it further our story?
  4. Will it be profitable for both parties?
  5. Will we relish it?

Question 1: Will the customer value us?

The price someone is willing to pay and the value they place on the result are often two very different things.

Think in terms of commoditisation, replaceability and understanding: does the customer think we’re a commodity? Do they think we’re replaceable? Do they understand what it is that we actually do?

For example, if we’re a design agency, do they want help with tone of voice and brand identity or do they just want us to “knock up a logo and some business cards”? Customers often misunderstand or underestimate what it is that we do; “oh, it’s just some code”, “it’s just a logo”, or “it’s just some tax advice”. If the customer thinks we’re a commodity or easy to swap out – and it doesn’t matter if we aren’t – then they aren’t going to be invested in the relationship. And if they don’t understand what we’re actually selling they will always be looking to reduce our scope, our budget and our involvement. Mismatches in understanding and value pretty much guarantee that a relationship will end in acrimony.

If we honestly can’t say that the customer values us and what we do we should seriously consider turning away the work.

Question 2: Will the project excite the customer?

Each new project is a source of new business, and we should treat it that way.

Most creative and consulting businesses win new work through recommendations rather than direct sales. And that means we want our customers to be excited by the work we’re doing. We want them shouting from the rooftops about how amazing we are to work with, how great the work we’re doing is, and how excited they are by the end product. This is the way we’ll win new work. If one project has the potential to introduce us to new customers while another doesn’t, we’d be daft to choose the one that doesn’t, right?

But make sure to remember that excitement comes in lots of different forms; just because a project isn’t going to appear on the News At Ten or the cover of Design Week doesn’t mean it’s not exciting. And don’t confuse our team’s excitement for the customer’s, they are very different things.

If we honestly believe that the customer won’t shout about the project and our involvement in it we should seriously consider turning away the work.

Question 3: Will it further our story?

Our work is our story, we need to nurture that story and always be looking to write new chapters. 

When considering a new project we need to think about how we’ll talk about it; or even if we’ll talk about it. Creative and consulting businesses win a high percentage of work through recommendations, and the quality of the story we tell is integratl to the quality of those recommendations.

When we’re considering a new project we should ask: does it add to our story? Will we want to tell our other customers about it, and will it make sense to them if we do? Is it reinforcing our work in a particular sector, or allowing us to talk about a sector we want to get into? Is it using technologies or techniques that we want to be known for? When we finish the project will we be desperate to get the case study written and out there, front and centre on our website?

If we don’t want to talk about a project or if we’ll struggle to find a way that makes sense we should seriously consider turning away the work.

Question 4: Will it be profitable for both parties?

A good project is not a zero sum game. Our customers profit from its success and so do we.

When this new project succeeds will we be able to demonstrate that it’s adding to our customer’s profitability? If the customer sees the project as a “necessary cost” instead of an exciting opportunity they’re more likely to scrimp and cut corners. Worse still, they may see it as their duty to squeeze as much as they can from the budget, squeezing our margin in the process.

Too often in creative or consultancy businesses we struggle to show our impact. We need to ask ourselves if it’s clear that the customer understands how they’ll profit from our work. And if we think they don’t, we should be making plans to create that understanding and building tools to demonstrate our impact. 

On the other side of the coin, how confident are we in the price that we’ve put to the customer? If the work that we’re doing is new or innovative then there’s always the risk that our estimates are wrong. Have we explained this to the customer, have they bought in to those risks, and do they understand that they may end up paying more? Customers quite rightly want to control risk through fixed price projects; we quite rightly want to limit our own risk by billing time and materials. Is the balance of risk right? And are we going to make enough money?

If we don’t genuinely believe that the customer’s business will benefit from the project we should seriously consider turning away the work. Similarly, if we aren’t confident of making a profit on the project, we should consider turning it down.

Question 5: Will we relish it?

A conveyor belt of boring projects will kill our creativity and ultimately kill our productivity too.

We should think about every potential project in terms of what makes our teams happy. It’s different for every team; some love to work for big brands, others live only for charities. Some teams relish attempting the impossible with the latest technologies, while for others it’s all about increasing the average basket value.

Will this new project have everyone rushing to work in the morning, talking excitedly about what a great place to work this is? A conveyor belt of boring projects will kill our creativity and ultimately kill our productivity too. It’s important to do at least a little of what we love – all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, after all. Whether consciously or not, every team does better work when they find the work interesting, and better work leads to happier customers, happier teams, and more recommendations.

If, in our heart of hearts, we know we’re going to struggle to raise enthusiasm for the project we should consider turning down the work.

Asking the right questions after all

We don’t always answer yes to every question when we use the VESPR framework. Sometimes we answer ‘maybe’ to one or two, sometimes we answer ‘no’ to one or two and go ahead anyway.

But by running through this process everyone involved has their eyes open when they decide to take on the work. Telling everyone that this is the method we use to assess potential projects gives the entire team confidence that our processes are under control.

Value. Excitement. Story. Profit. Relish.

VESPR: Is this project for us?