If you’re in sales or business development, you have with no doubt come across the occasional “Phantom Shopper”. And by that, we don’t mean that (paid) person who is pretending to be buying your product or service so they can provide you with constructive feedback about their experience.
By “Phantom Shopper”, we mean either that nasty competitor who’s after your technical proposal and prices, or that reluctant lead who is not really planning on doing any buying but exercising some shopping around for curiosity and other reasons.
Although the latter is more or less harmless, you really don’t want to be dealing with either. For one, both end up wasting your time, and the former (your competitor) can gain some valuable insights into how you are marketing your services and benefit from this intelligence.
Unfortunately though, there is no bulletproof way of avoiding Phantom Shoppers, and sooner or later, we are all bound to come across one or more. So what can you do to protect yourself from this considerable waste of time and energy?
The following are some basic steps you can practice to filter out Phantom Shoppers as early as possible in the sales cycle, and call it quits before too much of your time and energy have been consumed by following a dead lead.
One of the most obvious signs is someone sending you an email, asking for a price quotation to prepare a (for example) business plan. We receive quite a few of these and make it a practice to never comply. What we do instead is reply politely by thanking them for their interest, and asking for a meeting so that we can learn more about the opportunity. In most cases, these Phantom Shoppers will find one excuse or another to avoid meeting with you face to face.
Also, in some cases these inquires may be coming from someone who’s already made a buying-decision, but is desperately looking for that second or third proposal to comply with procurement procedures which demand three competitive offers. Bottom line, if they are not willing to grant you half an hour of their time to meet with you in person, drop it right there and then.
This is the easy part. The tricky part starts when they agree to meet with you and play along quite nicely by meeting with you to answer your queries. You now need to start drilling in and ask some questions that may be straight-out uncomfortable.
For example, you need to determine how and why they came to contact you. If they were referred by someone, you can check with that person on the legitimacy of the RFP. If you don’t know that person, you need to find out what could have possibly motivated him/ her to recommend you. If it’s a competitor, you have your answer right there.
If they tell you that they came across your website and liked what it said, it becomes even trickier. In this case, you may want to find out who their previous service provider was, and why they are thinking of making a change. Chances are you may know that company and can check with them. You’d be revealing that their client is shopping around, but sooner or later they will find out anyway.
Often enough, they may tell you whom they’ve been working with so far, and that they’re looking around for a potential alternative. This might indicate that they are just shopping around for prices to make sure what they’re paying is within market range.
Don’t shy away from asking questions. You need to ask about the procurement process and find out how many others have been invited to the bid. If there was no previous relationship and they tell you that you’re the only one they’re talking to, you know something is off here. If they refuse to give you specific names of competitors, you may want to find out why. If it’s a competitive bid, there’s no reason why names of bidders are kept in the dark. In fact, many organizations will provide you with this information before you even ask for it. The point here is, keep digging in to find out how transparent your potential lead is.
Also very important to consider; are there clear criteria for evaluating proposals? How much weight is allocated for the technical and the financial parts of proposals? Is it a 50-50 split which indicates the lead is looking for the cheapest prices?
In contrast, beware of too many questions asked about too many details. Some potential leads will ask an unreasonable amount of questions about your approach, methodology, references, etc. If you start getting the feeling that you are revealing a lot of your intellectual properties just to convince the lead that you’re the company for the job, they are either collecting valuable information about your business or they don’t trust you enough.
There is no set of rules you can apply to avoid Phantom Shoppers. That’s why your experience (or that of your business development manager) is critical. If you’ve been doing this long enough, you will have a solid instinct that will let you know whether it is save to proceed or whether you should back out. Also, if you have a CRM solution that’s updated and well maintained, you will eventually have access to historic data that may reveal a repeating trend, such as a specific company contacting your each other year for a proposal, but never having actually acquired one of your services.
Last but not least, always protect your proposals with a confidentiality statement. It’s not a rock-solid contract, but people are a lot more reluctant to email documents back and forth to unauthorized third parties if each page is clearly marked as “confidential”, and your second page of your proposal explains exactly what “confidential” means, and what they are allowed to do (or not) with the information you are entrusting them with.
About the Author
Pinnacle Business & Marketing Consulting is a results-driven boutique consulting firm that specializes in providing clients with practical and pragmatic solutions to their business and marketing challenges.
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