Richard Harris
Founder of The Harris Consulting Group
Table of contents:

What is a buying signal, anyway?

“Buying signal” has become something of a buzzword, and anyone who knows me knows that I hate buzzwords.

But that’s not why I hate the term “buying signal.” I hate it because of how misunderstood it is. A “buying signal” doesn’t mean somebody WILL buy. It doesn’t even mean they’re LIKELY to buy. It’s just a data point; one among hundreds or even thousands over the course of a single deal.

We need to expand our understanding of what a buying signal can be. Buying signals can indicate deal progress, they can show a deal at risk, or they can mean nothing at all! With so many signals all saying different things, there’s inevitably a lot of noise. That’s why I like to focus on the simple ones.

My favorite buying signal is “no.” It’s about as obvious as you can get. And I love it because you know exactly what to do next: move on, and work a deal that has a chance to actually close!

We don’t always think this way about signals, though. As a salesperson, I’m liable to judge a deal by how I’M doing: how I’M pitching and how I’M demoing, and I’m likely to only look for the positive signals. What I should really be paying attention to, though, is what happens when I stop talking.

Buying Signals and The Lost Art of LISTENING TO YOUR F-ING PROSPECT!

If you want to know how a deal is going, shut up and listen to your prospect.

Hear what they’re saying and look at what they’re doing, because reps aren’t realistic when it comes to forecasting their own deals. The real indicator of deal progress comes from the prospect. But remember, buying signals can mean progress either way, toward a closed won OR a closed lost deal. We have to always look for both.

You might be more inclined to look for signals like these:

  • Request for a pricing proposal
  • Decision-maker attended a meeting
  • NDAs exchanged

But I’d argue that the “negative buying signals” are more valuable, albeit harder to spot. That’s why I love a good ol’ fashioned “thanks but no thanks,” but more subtle signals can tell us a lot too:

  • Senior contacts are accepting but not attending your meetings
  • You only have one contact on the Product team after 60 days
  • Your prospect speaks for only 10% of the time on your calls

Now with this more expansive view of “buying signals,” I start to like the term more. Looking at obvious positive signals and nuanced negative ones, we can get a real understanding of how a deal is doing. But even more important is understanding the trends and aggregate effect of these signals. At that point, however, it becomes virtually impossible to do manually.

When to Let the Machine Take Over

You’d be forgiven for asking, “If it’s so complicated, why should I even care? Shouldn’t I stick to the simple buying signals?”

If you’re talking about a specific deal, then yes: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

But if you want to optimize your broader sales process, you need a more robust analysis of your buying signals. Fortunately, new technologies exist to make that analysis possible.

SetSail, for instance, uses machine learning to identify which buying signals are most closely correlated with historical deal success (or failure!). That’s an extremely valuable insight. It can validate your existing sales process with hard data, or more likely, it can suggest an alternative process better optimized for your sales motion.

From Signal to Action

SetSail distinguishes itself from other machine learning technologies by turning those insights into action. After performing that machine learning analysis, it develops a unique incentives program that rewards reps based on achieving certain signals, and it alerts them to signals that might mean a deal is at risk.

It’s a genuine breakthrough in the way we understand deal progress, and the incentives layer has yielded impressive results thus far. For instance, Dropbox used SetSail to reinforce a new sales process targeting net new opportunities. Machine learning validated this approach and the incentives program resulted in a 12% increase in rep productivity in a controlled A/B test.

These are the kinds of results you can expect when you prioritize listening to your prospect and focusing on ALL your buying signals.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still not a big fan of how we typically talk about “buying signals.” But it’s about time we realize that the idea of “buying signals” is far more expansive than we like to think, and we should embrace that complexity rather than shy away from it.

If you want to continue the conversation, you can connect with me on LinkedIn or check out The Harris Consulting Group's website for blogs, podcasts, webinars, and more.