Avoid Drawn Out Sales Cycles and Win Quality Business

On a list of the “Top 10 Things Salespeople Don’t Want to Hear From Customers,” few rank as high as “we’ll need some time to think about it.”  For the salesperson, this empty phrase signals a host of potential problems:  additional meetings, more people getting involved, requests for detail and information that raises the potential for more questions – all barriers to finally winning the deal.  These frustrating and costly delays lengthen the sales cycle, put the opportunity at risk, permit competitors to get a foothold, increase direct sales expense, and allow other valuable opportunities to be left unattended and slip away.

Why does this continue to happen?  From the perspective of the salesperson, it is hard to understand why customers so often seem to deliberately drag out their decisions.  It would seem more logical for a buyer with a problem to be solved to take advantage of the value of a new solution as soon as they are aware of its potential to help their business.

The truth, however, is that customers are rarely to blame for long-drawn out delays. Instead, it is salespeople themselves who are the biggest contributors to the delays they find so frustrating.  Paradoxically, it is the eagerness to move the sale along that leads them into the trap of prematurely presenting solutions for problems their customers don’t clearly recognize they have.  Even when customers do know a problem exists, they may still be unaware of the impact on their business and what the problem may be costing them if they don’t change.

Customers give a lot of reasons not to buy or why they delay their decisions – price, feasibility issues, lack of internal alignment, and so on.  In reality, there are only two reasons customers don’t buy:  Either they don’t believe they have a problem compelling enough to take action, or they do understand the problem exists, but don’t believe the proposed solution will solve it.  Of the two, the first is far more prevalent, but presenting a solution to a customer who doesn’t believe there is a problem is simply a waste of valuable time.

Indecision and delays are good indicators of uncertainty and lack of clarity.  To shorten the sales cycle, sales professionals need to guide their customers to clearly understand their problem or realize it actually exists. They must also help them grasp the financial impact on their business if they don’t invest in solving it.  If the customer understands their situation and believes the cost of their problem is not severe enough, then top performing professionals will quickly move on to find a quality candidate, one with a costly business problem that their solution can resolve.

To find quality business and shorten sales cycles, the salesperson must address the three key challenges that derail decision making, change and value building.

The first is the “decision challenge.”  When a problem is complex and requires a more complicated technological solution, or professional service, customers often lack a decision process to guide a quality decision.  When a salesperson presents their solution to this decision gap, they are attempting to apply what may be good information to a bad decision process.  The result can create more confusion and any resulting decision will be random and unpredictable.  This is not unlike having a doctor present the details and benefits of angioplasty to a patient who is not even aware of any symptoms or health issues that would require such a procedure.

In contrast, the salesperson can lead a customer through a logical process of identifying “symptoms” – indicators of a problem in their business – and reaching a mutually agreed upon conclusion based on solid diagnosis of that problem.  At this point there will be far more clarity about why a particular solution will make sense, will work, and will be worth the investment to fix.  Again, this is analogous to a doctor leading the patient through a high-quality diagnostic process that reveals symptoms the patient is experiencing and measures those symptoms to see if they’re serious enough to warrant the surgical solution.

The second challenge is that of “change.”  Salespeople often overlook the fact that a decision to buy is a decision to change, and change can be painful.  Customers who are thinking about potential disruption, risk, and direct switching costs will frequently decide to delay their decision or to not buy at all…no change.  Salespeople need to be highly conscious of this barrier and address the change process in a straightforward way.

If the solution will require significant changes in a business, these should be discussed and addressed.  Some changes will be positive and be supportive of a decision to buy, but some changes will have negative implications and become a reason to hesitate. This may be well worth the challenge to overcome. Bringing clarity to the change process will help both the salesperson and the buyer understand the full context and the issues that will need to be managed.

The third challenge involves “value.” Value can be a fuzzy concept that is often left undefined or vaguely understood.  Customers want to be sure they are receiving value, but may not have good methods for defining it, or quantifying it when it is delivered.  By making sure customers are able to measure the impact of a solution, salespeople can bring another form of clarity to the customer and increase the credibility of their solutions.

Until customers are able to measure value, they will find it difficult to anticipate the value they will receive for their proposed investment during the pre-sale phase of the sales process.  Post-sale, if left on their own, they will be unable to recognize the value impact once it is delivered.

While acknowledging the advantages of value measurement, many salespeople respond to this challenge by pointing out the difficulties of putting a dollar amount on the impact of a solution.  The fact is that if something is happening in a business, it can be measured.  If the salesperson – who should be the solution expert – finds it difficult to measure the impact on their customer’s businesses, their customers will find it even more difficult to do it on their own.  Payback will be significant for those who guide their customers through quantifying the value impact of the solution.

By guiding customers through a high quality decision process and addressing the challenges of change and building value, sales professionals can dramatically cut sales cycle time and win more profitable business. They will seldom hear “I’ll have to think about it,” instead…“How soon can we get started?”

© 2008 – 2014, Jeff Thull. All rights reserved.

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