How long is your sales cycle? How many months does it take to go from first meeting to a paid engagement? Your answer probably will be, “It depends!” But whatever your answer, you no doubt wish that your sales process would move more quickly.
Right now, as many companies are rocked by a simultaneous health crisis and an economic contraction, sales cycles are getting especially lengthened, disrupted, and even completely shut down.
Don’t be fooled by the rapid speed of what I call reactive sales. A reactive sale, where you are reacting to a client request (perhaps from procurement) and are being pulled in at the very END of the client planning process, can sometimes happen very quickly. If it’s a relationship client who trusts you and just calls you up and says, “Let’s get going,” that’s very positive. But if you’re constantly reacting to small, last-minute requests where you have no ability to shape the scope of the solution, that’s not good. That kind of “short” sales cycle can actually sabotage your business.
Here’s why: A lion, for example, can easily catch mice and eat them. But it risks dying of starvation if it relies on them for sustenance because it can never get enough of them to thrive. A better strategy is catching big game, but that takes lots of patience and planning—perhaps days of stalking.
You can accelerate the sales process. But it’s easier to do if you start with the right kinds of sales opportunities to begin with. If you’ve already submitted a proposal and are waiting to hear from the client, there’s not a lot I can do to help you except sympathize and light a candle.
Here are nine strategies that will help shorten your sales cycle.
1. Find the Red Issue. There’s nothing like a “burning platform” to hasten a sale. What’s a Red Issue? It’s an issue that meets most of the following criteria:
- There’s a high cost to not acting
- There a high ROI for acting
- It’s getting in the way of achieving key strategic goals
- It’s a priority for the CEO and top leadership of the organization
- It’s the top priority for the buyer you are dealing with, and he/she is the decision maker and has adequate budget
- It’s a tough challenge that has resisted previous improvement efforts
You should intentionally seek out mission-critical client problems and opportunities. This means ignoring lesser challenges.
Sometimes I will ask a client, “Is this issue we are discussing one of your absolute top two or three priorities? If it isn’t, I then ask: “What are your top two or three?”
Your business won’t grow if you don’t say “No.”
2. Build a Relationship First. If you don’t have a trusted relationship with the decision maker, of course the sales cycle is going to get stretched out. Conversely, the sales cycle can last only 20 minutes if the person across the table knows you, trusts you, and isn’t putting the work out to bid through procurement.
The best business developers are proactively building a broad network within existing clients, and meeting regularly with high potential prospects.
How do you build a trusted relationship before the sale even begins? By developing rapport, understanding the client’s agenda, and then adding value to that agenda by sharing ideas, points of view, best practices, and potential solutions on a regular basis.
3. Work with Real Buyers. How many times have you heard this: “Thanks very much. Now I need to discuss this with my boss. It’s her decision.” Many people who call you are “feasibility buyers.” They can say no but they cannot say yes.
If you’re not working directly with the person who will make the decision to hire you, you will often find the sales cycle is long and uncertain. You should be obsessive about getting to and working with the executive decision maker—the real buyer. If that’s not possible, you might consider opting out.
If you’re stuck, try to build trust with the mid-level client you’re working with, and then craft a persuasive argument as to why you need to meet with the decision maker.
4. Go Higher in the Organization. When I am working with a CEO or C-suite executive, it’s remarkable how short the sales cycle can be. If a senior executive makes the decision to work with you on an important challenge (Strategy One), things can happen very, very quickly.
But, if the initiative is entirely driven at middle management levels, it can get bogged down forever. Now, it depends of course on the budgetary authority of the middle manager. If you have a trusted relationship with the middle manager, there is a Red Issue they are grappling with, and they can make the buying decision, great! In some large corporations, a director could have a very large budget. But often, middle managers have limited budgets (that are frequently reallocated by their bosses!) and they tend to be risk averse. Which means getting “everybody” on board before making a decision. And getting everyone on board, as you know, takes a long time.
5. Know Their Decision Process. If you don’t know how the client is going to make a decision, you are like an airplane pilot flying with no radar and no maps. What is their timeframe? What do they need to learn before they make a decision? Who will be involved and what are their roles? What are the selection criteria? What would they like to learn about you before they can decide?
You can and should ask clients these questions. Often, you’ll get answers. And then you can develop a strategy and act.
6. Improve Your Benefits Case and Align it with Strategy. Years ago, there was a large consulting firm that produced what they called the “cost case” for each proposal they submitted. How times have changed. Today, you need strong value metrics to support your fees. Your goal is to portray hiring you as an investment opportunity, not a cost.
It’s part art and part science to create a benefits or investment case. You need to explore direct cost savings or revenue increases, productivity improvements, operational efficiencies, and so on. You also need to quantify indirect benefits such as improved customer satisfaction or reduced time-to-market. Intangible benefits should be a part of your value case as well: Improvements in decision making, reduced risk, improved employee collaboration, etc.
Finally, you must convincingly show how your work will support higher-level strategic goals. This ties your benefits case to a much large set of impacts. It’s the difference between telling a parent that your school will provide a solid education for their child versus talking about how the education you offer will form the basis for a lifetime pattern of success at work and at home.
7. Align the stakeholders. Most major contracts or engagements today involve multiple stakeholders. The sales process gets slowed down or even paralyzed because these stakeholders may not fully agree on the design and scope of the proposed effort.
You need to approach this challenge head on and coach your client on how to align stakeholders. Who are they? Where do they stand on the project? What are their individual “wins” that they seek? You can even offer to be a catalyst for gaining consensus, perhaps running a short workshop with the key stakeholders to help reconcile their different views.
8. Make the Emotional Case. Modern neuroscience tells us that emotions figure very, very heavily in making decisions—even when they are based on a so-called “rational” framework (e.g., a competitive bid scorecard).
The emotional/personal aspect of your sales conversations, and your ultimate proposal, should address the emotional case for action—and for choosing you. Emotions, not facts, are what enthusiastically stir people to action.
How do you make the “emotional” case? Use metaphors and stories. A client once wanted to hire my old firm, along with three or four others, to all work on different aspects of the same project. I looked at him and said, “That’s what I call the United Nations approach to solving important problems. And we all know how successful that has been. Most of my clients have had greater success working with a single provider who becomes a trusted collaborator working on shared goals.” We got the deal—100% of it.
The emotional case must appeal to the positive—the dreams, aspirations, and goals of the individuals clients you’re working with—and to the negative—the risks, concerns, and anxieties they perceive.
9. Gain Agreement Before Submitting a Proposal. This is a very simple technique that requires slightly more time upfront but which can then shave weeks or months off the sales cycle.
Never submit a written proposal without first getting what author Alan Weiss calls “conceptual agreement” from the client. The proposal should document what the client has already enthusiastically agreed to. Simply call the client and say, “Before writing this up, I want to walk you through the outline of our proposal and get your input. That way the final document will closely reflect the approach that makes the most sense for you.”
These strategies do work, and they’ll help you conclude your sale in the least possible time.