Nine strategies to speed up the sales process

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By Andrew Sobel and Olivier Jacob

How long is your sales cycle? How many months does it take to go from the first meeting to a paid engagement? Your answer will probably be, "It depends!" But regardless of your answer, you probably want your sales process to go faster.

Over the past decade, many of my clients report that, especially when dealing with large companies, sales cycles have become longer. A medium-sized project or engagement may now require a six to nine month sales cycle. A very large project or transaction, such as a major outsourcing contract, can take a year or more to close. This is especially true if you have been involved from the beginning and have worked collaboratively with your client to develop or shape the initiative.

On the other hand, reactive projects, where you react to a customer request (perhaps procurement) and are brought in at the very END of the customer's planning process, can sometimes be sold very quickly. If it's a relational customer who trusts you and just calls you and says, "Let's go," that's very positive. But if you're constantly reacting to small, last-minute requests where you're not able to define the scope of the solution, that's not so good. This type of "short" sales cycle can actually sabotage your business.

You can speed up the sales process. But it's easier to do if you start with the right kinds of sales opportunities. If you've already submitted a proposal and are waiting to hear from the customer, there's not much I can do to help you except sympathize and light a candle.

Here are nine strategies that will help you shorten your sales cycle.

1. Find the urgent problem. There's nothing like a "stressful situation" to speed up a sale. What is an urgent problem? It is a problem that meets most of the following criteria:

  • There is a high cost to not acting.
  • There is a high return on investment for taking action
  • This hinders the achievement of key strategic objectives
  • It is a priority for the CEO and senior management of the organization
  • This is the top priority for the buyer you are dealing with. He or she is the decision-maker with an adequate budget
  • This is a difficult challenge that has not been solved by previous actions

You must intentionally seek out critical customer problems and opportunities. This means ignoring lesser challenges. Sometimes you can take a less urgent challenge and reframe it into an urgent problem that warrants an immediate investment from the customer. 

But remember, a lion can't live on mice alone. He or she simply can't catch enough of them.

Sometimes ask your client, "Is the problem we are discussing one of your top two or three priorities?" If not, 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 trusting relationship with the decision maker, of course, the sales cycle will get longer. Conversely, the sales cycle can last only 20 minutes if the person in front of you knows you, trusts you and invests in you.

The best business developers proactively build a broad network among existing customers and regularly meet with high-potential prospects.

How do you build trust before the sale begins? By developing relationships, understanding the customer's program, and then adding value to that program by regularly sharing ideas, insights, best practices and potential solutions.

3. Work with real buyers. How many times have you heard this: "Thank you very much. Now I have to discuss this with my boss. It's his decision." 

Many people who call you are "feasibility buyers". They can say no but they can't say yes.

If you don't work directly with the person who will make the decision to hire you, you will often find that the sales cycle is long and uncertain. You should be obsessed with contacting and working with the executive decision maker, the real buyer. If this is not possible, you may want to consider stepping aside.

If you are stuck, try to build trust with the mid-level client you are working with, and then develop a compelling argument as to why you need to meet with the decision maker. Suggest that it be a collaborative meeting and that you go together. In a competitive supply-driven bid, this can be difficult to do. That's why the second strategy is so important. If you don't have relationships, you'll spend your life filling out bid forms with a one in five chance of winning.

4. Go higher in the organization. When I work with a CEO or senior executive, it's remarkable how short the sales cycle can be. If a senior executive makes the decision to work with you on a significant challenge (Strategy 1), things can happen very, very quickly.

But, if the initiative is driven entirely by middle management levels, it can get bogged down forever. Now, of course, it depends on the budgetary authority of the middle manager. If you have a trusting relationship with the middle manager, there's a pressing issue that he or she is facing and he or she can make the purchasing decision, which is fine! In some large companies, a director may have a very large budget. But often, middle managers have limited budgets (which are frequently re-evaluated by their bosses!) and they tend to be risk averse. This means consulting "everyone" before making a decision. And consulting everyone, as you know, takes a lot of time.

5. Know their decision-making process. If you don't know how the customer is going to make a decision, you're like an airplane pilot flying without a radar or map. What is the time frame? What do they need to know before making a decision? Who will be involved and what are their roles? What are the selection criteria? What would they like to know about you before they decide?

You can and should ask these questions of clients. Often you will get answers. And then you can develop a strategy and take action.

6. Improve your benefits pitch and align it with the strategy. Years ago, a major consulting firm produced what they called a cost analysis for every proposal they submitted. How times have changed!

Today, you need solid value metrics to support your costs. Your goal is to present your hiring as an investment opportunity, not a cost.

It's part art and part science to create a benefit or investment case. You need to explore direct cost savings or revenue increases, productivity improvements, operational efficiencies, etc. You should also quantify indirect benefits such as improved customer satisfaction or reduced time to market. Intangible benefits should also be part of your value proposition: improved decision making, reduced risk, improved employee collaboration, etc.

Finally, you must convincingly show how your work will support higher-level strategic objectives. This ties your benefits case to a much broader set of impacts. It's the difference between telling a parent that their private school tuition will help provide a solid education for their child and talking about how your school will form the basis for a lifelong model of success at work and at home.

7. Align stakeholders. Most major contracts or engagements today involve multiple stakeholders. The sales process is slowed or even paralyzed because these stakeholders may not fully agree on the design and scope of the proposed effort.

Think of the U.S. Congress trying to enact a new tax reform bill - the diversity of positions held by different Senators and Congressmen will prolong the process and make it an almost impossible task (the last major tax reform was in 1986!).

You need to address this challenge head on and advise your client on how to align stakeholders. Who are they? Where are they at on the project? What are their individual "wins" that they are looking for? You can even offer to be a catalyst for reaching consensus, perhaps by holding a short workshop with key stakeholders to help reconcile their different points of view.

8. Develop the emotional aspect. Modern neuroscience tells us that emotions play a very, very important role in decision making, even when based on a so-called "rational" framework (e.g., a dashboard of competitive offerings).

The emotional/personal aspect of your sales conversations, and your ultimate proposition, must address the emotional arguments for action and your choice. It is emotions, not facts, that drive people enthusiastically to action.

How do you make an "emotional" case? Use metaphors and stories. A client once wanted to hire my old company, along with three or four others, to work on different aspects of the same project. I looked at him and said, "This is what I call the UN approach to solving big problems. And we all know how successful that has been. Most of my clients have had more success working with a single vendor who becomes a trusted collaborator working on common goals." We got the deal - 100% of it.

The emotional case must appeal to the positive - the dreams, aspirations, and goals of the individual clients you work with - and the negative - their perceived risks, concerns, and anxieties.

9. Get agreement before submitting a proposal. This is a very simple technique that requires a little more time initially, but can then shave weeks or months off the sales cycle.

Never submit a written proposal without first obtaining "conceptual agreement" from the client. The proposal should document what the client has already enthusiastically agreed to. Simply call the client and say, "Before I write this, I want to outline our proposal and get your feedback. That way, the final document will closely reflect the approach that works best for you."

You may think you're moving fast if you submit a proposal immediately. But more likely, you will turn in something that is not quite what the client wants, and/or their thinking will have evolved and what you send them will not reflect their latest ideas.

If you're in the middle of a procurement-driven sales process that puts a lot of constraints on who you can talk to and what you say in your proposal, you may feel like these strategies won't help you much. But they will, if you follow strategies 1 through 4 in priority and thus avoid the suffocating straitjacket of bidding by low-level procurement managers.

These strategies work and will help you close your sale in a minimum of time.

About the authors

Andrew Sobel is the leading authority on the strategies and skills needed to develop clients for life. He is the world's most published author on the subject, having written eight best-selling books on customer relationships, including the international bestsellers Customers for Life and Power Matters. More than 100 leading firms, such as PwC, Citibank, UBS, Booz Allen Hamilton, Cognizant, Deloitte and many others have used his book Clients for Life to develop trusted advisor skills and increase their clients' revenues.

Olivier Jacob has decades of expertise as a coach, trainer, and conference facilitator on the topics of management and sales. Author of the book "Make your business grow" and passionate about personal effectiveness, strategy, sales, commitment and new technologies, he created Inéa Conseil in 2008 to help companies sell more and better, and managers better mobilize their employees.

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Author: Olivier Jacob
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