Jeff and Chad Koser wrote one of the best sales books of the past decade. What made Selling to Zebras interesting is the methodology and process for identifying a company's best prospects. They developed an analytical model that can be used by any company, particularly in today's tough economic times.

I interviewed Jeff Koser, who has more than 30 years of experience in consulting, executive sales management, business strategy and business development in various industries. His current consulting customers range from Global 2000 companies to firms aspiring to make an initial public stock offering.

Previously, Jeff served as chief operating officer at Baan Supply Chain Solutions. Under his leadership at Baan, revenue grew more than 10-fold in less than five years. Prior to Baan, he held various management and sales positions at companies such as NCR Corp., MAI Basic Four and Xerox Computer Services.

Q. Why did you write this book, and what is a Zebra?

Koser: We wrote Selling to Zebras because we thought the world would be a better place if every sales person had a Zebra. A Zebra is a perfect sales prospect: A.) A Zebra's business needs to match the promised benefits of the seller'solution. B.) A Zebra fits with the seller's company philosophically, demographically, politically and culturally. C.) A Zebra likely buys the way the supplier sells. D.) A Zebra allows sellers access to the person in a position of power, which we call Power, the real decision-maker who has the authority to buy. E.) A Zebra is ready to buy if the return on investment is right.

What image do you get when you hear the word "salesperson"? You probably see someone who tries to sell you something even if you don't need it.

With this process, each sales person first figures out where they fit, so they know they are talking with a business that needs them -- in other words, they do their homework to earn the right to speak with the potential buyer.

Q. We are in one of the worst financial crises in history. Can you offer tips to help a company survive, and maybe even grow?

Koser: The key is focus. I would recommend:

1. Focus where you create verifiable value: Executives don't want to know what you can do; they want to know what you have done -- over and over again. Executives buy based on value and comfort. Expertise helps create comfort. Stay where your expertise is so strong that you have answers to questions that they don't even know to ask! That is our definition of expertise.

2. Quantify your value: Utilizing industry statistics-based value claims about your solution is weak. Specific knowledge of the business issues your solution solves, and the subsequent value generated when you solve them, are paramount in this environment. Buyers want to know that your advertized results are repeatable for them.

3. Partner to verify your value: The number one reason executives do not purchase cost-justified solutions is because they don't believe their own people "can do it." Partner with the process- and solution-owners your executive decision-maker trusts to gain an understanding of the organization's readiness and ability to implement your solution. Leverage this understanding and build a proposal that has everything you know will be needed to be successful.

4. Present the EVA of your solution: In these tough economic times, your greatest competition will be apathy (non-decision). Your project will compete with every other use of available capital dollars. To overcome apathy and fear, present the classic ROI and payback period, but also learn to present the economic value add (EVA) of your solution. EVA is the most prolific form of value claim because, when it's done right, it demonstrates the value your solution provides over and above the best project return your prospect is considering.

5. Build a "force success" proposal: What amount of education will your prospect need to be successful? Include it. Are independent partners providing part of the solution? Then you will need partner management. Include it! Include a change-management component in your solution. To ensure your customer is successful and that you help "force that success," your proposal needs to include all product, education, consulting, executive management, change management, partner management, and overall customer service and support needed to all but guarantee your prospect will achieve the expected value.

Q. What are all the elements of a good sales plan?

Koser:That is a question that could require someone to read our entire book, but I'll be brief.

1. Start with perfect prospects. These should include Zebras where you have provided unique, quantifiable value in the past. As part of the Zebra-creation process, be sure you speak with Power in your existing customers to find out the business issues that your product or service solves for them and the resulting value created.

2. Research each prospect to find evidence they have the same business issues.

3. Contact Power and confirm they have the issues you solve as well as a desire to solve them.

4. Schedule your first appointment with Power. Position the value you would create by solving these same issues. Value claims must be backed by actual customer success that is repeatable.

5. Ask Power to partner with you. Partnering involves identification of process owners they would trust to verify your value claim.

6. Verify your value claim with Power's people and co-author a presentation back to Power.

7. Present a proposal back to Power that includes everything needed to virtually guarantee they will achieve the desired results.

8. Close the business and immediately schedule a "force success" meeting.

9. Conduct a "force success" meeting every 90 days to ensure the project is on target to fulfill the promises Power made that got the project approved.

10. Repeat the process.

Q. What are the common mistakes sales people make in targeting potential buyers?

Koser: Most good salespeople have an instinct for Zebras. They know in their gut when they've found a prospect that offers them a good chance. It's the perfect prey, and the time and money spent pursuing this prospect is going to pay off. But they still pursue lots of prospects that aren't Zebras because they believe that if they work hard enough, they can close those deals, too. This is a fallacy that most salespeople believe.

Here's the problem. These companies or individuals may or may not buy from someone, but they aren't going to or shouldn't buy from you. The reason? Their needs don't line up well enough with what your company delivers. You can chase them all you want, but you'll never be able to deliver the solution that truly meets their needs. If you're focused on pursuing anything other than Zebras, you're just chasing whatever happens to step into view. And putting your energy toward the wrong focus is just as detrimental to sales success as being unfocused.

Q: How do you ensure you are picking the right attributes in developing your profile of potential clients?

Koser: You test it. There are seven questions that you answer about each prospect. The questions are scored from 0-4. A perfect Zebra score is 28 (7×4). For most of our customers a Zebra score of 23 means that prospect will buy 90% of the time. When you finish your Zebra, you test it by scoring the last five deals you won. They should score at or near 23. Then test it against deals that were lost to competition. Then test it with a deal that in your heart you don't ever think will close. Lost deals, and deals you don't believe will ever close, will always score less than 19.

As you go through this "testing" process, additional relevant aspects of your Zebra will surface. Adding them to the Zebra will make it more robust and accurate.

By the way, when you get good at it, coming up with a Zebra score for each prospect takes less than five minutes, including the time to strategize how to accentuate your strengths, and how to fill or minimize your gaps.

Q: Jeff, I can't let you go without talking about the kind of results that your clients have achieved using this method.

Koser: Let me read you a quote from a senior vice president of corporate account sales: "We have three metrics that we use to manage our Zebra success and they are as follows: 91% is our pipeline close rate, 74% is the increase in average selling price, and 21% is the reduction in the length of our sales cycle since we implemented Jeff's Zebra methodology."
Marc Kramer, a serial entrepreneur, is the author of five books and is an instructor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton's Global Consulting Practicum, where he serves as Country Manager for Chile.