I recently spoke with a CEO who participated in a very big sales presentation, only to come in second to a competitor. As a courtesy, she was offered the opportunity to discuss the process and ask questions with a representative from the group to whom she and her team presented. Very often these calls can be frustrating because most buyers are reluctant to give any direct information. After all, they have made their decision and in their mind, this is just a formality. With that in mind, sometimes it pays to take a roundabout approach to getting more information as to why your company came in second. Here were some of the questions I recommended that she ask:

1) What caused other firms to be eliminated prior to the final round? Asking this question gives you insight on the disqualifying characteristics as well as some insight as to why you might have lost. Sometimes you are good enough in an area to be a finalist, but not good enough to win. Knowing what got someone else DQ'ed may give you that information.
 
2) What qualities put you in the finalist round? Sometimes knowing why you were preferred over other companies can also give you an insight into why another company was ultimately chosen over your's.
 
3) What qualities were "a draw" between you and the winning company?  In the finalist round, decisions come down to a combination of things, but these are rarely considered equally. Often, one of the decision-makers will say, "All things being equal, I want to go with ABC company because of...." and that person will list one or two items only as the differentiating characteristics. By determining what was considered equal, you can deduce what really made the difference.

4) Has the buyer done any other work in the past with the winning company? Now we are getting to it. Was there an internal advocate or existing relationship that helped the winning team?

5) Were there any parts of your proposal that were confusing? You may have to push on this question a bit to get details, but it's worth it. You need to know where the disconnect lies so that you do not make similar mistakes in the future.

You will note that I have not asked the two most obvious questions, "Why did they win?" and "Why did we lose?" You should certainly feel free to ask those questions, but I recommend waiting until after you ask the questions above. Simply put, the five questions above were designed so that you do not put the buyer on the spot. Buyers know that all you really want to know is why you lost. By delaying them and creating tension, you can actually create a greater desire on their part to answer that question directly.

To read more about changing the direction of a losing deal, check out this previous blog post, Lost a Big Sale? Don't Use These 2 Excuses.