Are Sales Cycles A Thing of the Past?

20 Dec

I admit I have used a business to business sales cycle in every job and every consulting engagement for decades.  But now I realize that I have been wrong!  You see sales cycles are merely abbreviations for a series of sequential sales activities that a sales person uses to define where they are in their sales process.  That’s good, but doesn’t that ignore the prospect?

What’s more important is the definition of where the prospect is in their BUYING PROCESS.  Think about it…both consumers and companies go through a series of related steps from needs discovery through contracting.  Consumers usually hold this process at a subconscious level while companies dedicate substantial resources to ensure due diligence to their buying process.

A standard B2B sales cycle is usually some variation of the following;

  1. Suspect
  2. Prospect
  3. First Presentation
  4. Needs Analysis
  5. Formal Presentation/Proposal
  6. Negotiation
  7. Contract

In contrast a simplified company buying process would usually include the following steps;

  1. Needs Discovery
  2. Situation Analysis
  3. Desired Impact
  4. Potential Solutions Survey
  5. Identify Potential Providers
  6. Request for Prosposal
  7. Negotiation with Favored Provider
  8. Contract

So it’s easy to see that sales people can easily misread where the prospect is in their buying process and can just as easily apply to wrong sales activity.  For instance; sales person A can be awaiting word on the proposal he/she submitted while the prospect is still trying to agree upon their desired state.  Clearly the sales person is accurately defining their sales cycle step by inputting step 5 (proposal submitted) into the CRM system as the last step completed, but it’s going to be a long wait for an answer that may never come.  And to make the situation worse, the sales manager will apply increasing pressure on the sales person to get a decision which will utimately erode the credibility of the sales person.

These “misreads” of sales pipelines are going to have negative impacts on sales forecasts, revenue projections, budgets and every other metric that sales leaders depend upon.

I am not suggesting that companies try to migrate their CRM sytems or training from sales cycles to buying processes but I am suggesting that field managers use their knowledge of a buying process to validate where the sales person tags their prospects.

If this makes sense to you as a sales leader I would recommend the following steps;

  1. In the next gathering of your top performers lead a session to define the buying process of your typical new customers.  Try to keep the step descriptions simple and try to keep the number of steps under 10.
  2. When you meet with customers you know well ask them to help you validate the buying process.
  3. Begin to train your 1st level of field managers on the buying process and make them accountable to use it as a basis to validate whether prospects are accurately portrayed in your CRM system.

The benefits to understanding customer buying processes are many, but there are two main advantages.  First, your sales people will do a better job probing where prospects are in their process.  This will lead to better accuracy in the CRM system and more reliability in your sales forecasting.  Secondly your sales people will have improved credibility with buyers because they will be viewed as hard helpers instead of hard closers!  And do you want to know something?  Assuming equal skills, hard helpers will always outsell hard closers!

2 Responses to “Are Sales Cycles A Thing of the Past?”

  1. Christian March 31, 2009 at 4:11 am #

    Welcome to the converted. I have switched to the buying cycle view already some time ago. It is though not always easy to hold the course. Especially sales managers and executives, tend to hold on on their old habits.

  2. Steven Woods March 31, 2009 at 5:11 am #

    That is absolutely the right message. It is a buying process not a selling process, and that means that the buyer is in control. As marketers, or as sales people, we can facilitate, but never force, the buying process.

    I also suspect that our analysis tools will begin to show us a view of where buyers are in their buying process, as I wrote about on this post:

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