Sales vs qualification, and the value of knowing the difference

Gabriel Rubinstein

“It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Abraham Maslow probably didn’t have lead qualification in mind when he wrote this, but it is sadly relevant.

Most of the people who qualify leads in any organization are salespeople. Their training is in sales, they have a salesperson’s mindset, and they have an arsenal full of well-honed, tried and tested sales techniques.

However, qualification is not sales.

It is an utterly different beast, and the salesperson’s approach to this pivotal process is often so wrongheaded that it can drive the most relevant prospect away before you can say: “I’m not trying to sell you anything.” In this post, I will outline a number of solutions to this growing issue, including:

1. NSA: why this acronym is the most critical principle of lead qualification, and how using it can boost your qualification rate

2. Porcupine questions: how you can use them to qualify more leads

3. Problems vs solutions: what questions you should be asking, and when

4. Relevant questions: what types of questions will maximize the value of your call

So, why is approaching qualification as if it were the sister of sales such a disastrous mistake?

It’s fairly simple: selling is about communicating the benefits of your product to the prospect, and qualification is about learning the prospect’s problems and requirements.

It should be evident that the two practices are diametrically opposed.

“But why can’t I do both at once?”

The answer is that as soon as you even begin to hint at the benefits of your product before gaining a complete understanding of the prospect’s situation, the jig is up. Now the buyer knows that you don’t care about their needs, and you are determined to sell them your solution regardless of whether it is the best fit for them.

Detailed discovery is the essence of qualification, and it serves three purposes:

1. It helps to determine whether your solution is a fit for the prospect.

2. It allows you to build a detailed picture of the prospect’s problems, which whoever conducts the sale can use to tailor their approach or configure the offering.

3. It builds trust with the prospect. The more information they have given you, the more confidence they have in your ability to tell what will be the best solution for them.

So, how can you and your staff become the first-rate qualifiers your organization needs?

The good news is that, while excellent qualification technique cannot be learned overnight, we use one simple principle that can help you to get on the right track.

We even have an easy-to-remember acronym for it.

Are you ready?

Here it is:


These three letters can tell you 80% of what you need to know about qualifying sales leads.

And no, I’m not encouraging you to spy on your prospects or tap their phone lines.

In our office, NSA stands for “Never Say Anything,” and it is our number one rule of qualification.

What is meant by NSA is that you should not be making any statements while conducting qualification.

When you think about the purpose of qualifying, this makes perfect sense; if you aim to get information out of the prospect, why would you need to tell them anything?

I would go as far as to say that NSA is even more critical to qualification than asking questions.

Think about the best qualification call you’ve ever had.

You’ll most likely be thinking of a call where you asked very little, but the prospect talked on and on about their problems, giving you all the information you needed.

We’re so convinced that this results in the highest quality leads to pass to a salesperson that we have a visual aid to help us strive towards these types of calls.

Okay, the percentages are arbitrary, but the principle is clear:

Talk less, listen more.

This is hard for a lot of sales professionals. Let’s face it, a big reason why people go into this line of work is that they like to talk.

It’s going to be a tough habit to break.

You should hire dedicated lead qualifiers; focus on finding people with brilliant listening skills, rather than great powers of persuasion.

In many situations, this won’t be possible, and salespeople will have to be retrained.

Never fear, I have a couple more tips to help you implement NSA in your organization’s qualification calls.

First up:

The porcupine technique

You may have come across this as an age-old sales technique, which uses a prospect’s questions to propel a conversation towards a close.

However, an adapted version can be even more useful when qualifying leads. It will help you to maintain the talking ratios illustrated above.

In sales, when a prospect asks “does it come in red?” a salesman will throw the question back (as if he’d been thrown a porcupine), “would you like it in red?”

In qualifying, a prospect may ask a question about your product or service, or about the market in general. Here, your aim should not be to move towards a close but to keep the prospect talking.

It might seem strange, but you don’t want to answer the question if you can help it.

Why not?

Firstly, answering the question means saying something. Remember, NSA. As soon as you start talking, you shift the balance of the conversation, and you may find it difficult to get the prospect talking again.

Secondly, you may be unprepared to ask the question, and by trying to handle it off-the-cuff, you jeopardize your air of authority on the subject.

Thirdly, a lot of questions lead onto conversations that you don’t want to be having at the qualification stage.

Let’s take an example.

Imagine your prospect asks something like: “how much should I expect to pay for a service like this?”

Depending on the stage of the conversation you may be unable to answer this question and, even if you can, you’re likely to move into a negotiation by doing so. You don’t want this at the qualifying stage.

So, deflect the question with one of your own:

“It’s hard to say from what you’ve told me. How large is your organization?”


“That depends, would you require [feature]?”

The prospect is unlikely to ask this question again, particularly if you keep asking pertinent questions.

Now, let’s talk about what kind of questions you should be asking.

Problem vs solution

The questions you ask at qualification stage can be broadly divided into two categories:

1. Solutions-focused questions ask specifically about features they need from a product.

2. Problem-focused questions ask about the issues that are giving rise to a need.

Though you’ll usually want to ask a mixture of the two types, the balance will shift one way or another depending on the prospect’s focus.

To determine this, start the call with a big, open question, and listen carefully to how it is answered.

You want to take note of whether the prospect talks about the problems they’re having or the product/service that they’re looking for.

Then, try to mirror their focus in the questions you ask through the call. You’ll find that the prospect will be a lot more responsive when you ask questions that resonate with their mindset.

My last tip for this post is about determining the right questions to ask.

Relevant questions

Though it might be difficult, you want to avoid having a list of stock questions that you ask every prospect.

The reason for this is that the flow of the call is likely to suffer and the prospect may get the feeling that they’re being stuffed into a pigeonhole.

Instead, listen carefully to what the prospect says and ask for more detail wherever you think there might be more to give.

This will be a clear indication that you are listening actively and are genuinely interested in their problems and needs.

If the prospect says “I’d like to cut down on the time we spend manually doing [X],” you might ask: “what does your process for that look like at the moment?”

Listen to the answer.

Look again for an area where you can ask for more information. If you can’t think of anything, move back to their previous answer and look for inspiration there.

For example, you might ask: “where do you see opportunities to save time in that process?”

If you find yourself without a good question to ask, make a mental note of the last thing the prospect said. Spend some time after the call coming up with a few questions you could have asked.

By doing this religiously, you can cultivate the skill of asking pertinent questions.

While you’re doing this, try to pare down the questions you come up with to the fewest words possible.

Asking questions in rambling form will interrupt your prospects flow and make it harder for you to get them talking again.

Instead of saying:

“You mentioned that you are a fairly large organization. Just so I can get an idea of the scale of the company, can you give me a rough idea of how many people you currently employ?”

Simply ask:

“How many employees do you have?”

Prospects will appreciate you being concise, and if you are asking questions that are relevant and flow naturally, there should be no need to introduce them.

This just scratches the surface of a subject that is just as broad as sales technique. However, it should help you to qualify leads that convert better for your salespeople.

Happy qualifying!

Gabriel Rubinstein

Gabriel is the Sales Manager at Prospect Path. Outside working hours, he's usually listening to, or attempting to create, genre-defying music. Or sometimes knitting.

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