Some of the major challenges of selling today are the many obstacles that can arise during a sales cycle.
Whether it's the length of time it takes to close the sale or the multiple decision makers who may be involved, the sale of your product or service may take months, even years, to complete.
Now more than ever, selling requires even more than a solid procedure and an excellent product - it also takes effective, problem-solving skills.
With today's almost limitless access to information, prospects are empowering themselves to learn everything they can about the product or service they're looking to buy.
Knowledge is power, after all, so while in the past certain firms may have been the clear choice for certain products or services, prospects today know they have many options and existing clients understand that they need not return to the same vendor if its competitors can offer greater advantages.
Overall, the length of a typical sales cycle is becoming longer. While previously it may have been three or four calls, it may now have expanded to a dozen, or more. This means that a good deal of time can pass between the initiation of the sales process and its conclusion.
Therefore, it is wise to always assume you're in a constantly changing selling environment. On each follow-up sales call, particularly in a lengthy sales cycle, don't assume everything is where you left off previously. You never know when department heads will have changed or revamped budgets that will greatly impact your sale.
Each time you speak with your prospect, always verify the agreement on need you reached during your last call and ask what has changed.
For each sales call you make, it is valuable to set an objective that you'd like to accomplish. While your sales cycle may be days, weeks, months or years, you must remain focused on your objective in each call in order to continuously move toward the close of the sale.
Psychologically, accomplishing these small, individual objectives helps you feel you're getting somewhere and making progress. Additionally, setting reasonable objectives for each individual call not only makes the next objective easier to tackle but ultimately, the goal of closing the sale won't be a huge mountain to climb, because you're already most of the way up it when it's finally time to ask for the order.
Of course, even the smartest and most reasonable of goals can be hijacked when faced with the scenario of having to sell to multiple decision makers.
Although it's inherently more difficult to sell to multiple rather than single decision makers, it's increasingly more common to do so. Unfortunately, this is a circumstance under which salespeople often sabotage their own sale, especially in extended sales cycles, because they try to sell the group or committee as a whole.
To effectively sell the group, you must sell the individuals by securing their buy-in on a personal level. Each person makes their own buying decisions in a precise psychological order based on their buying motives.
These motives include the desire for gain, fear of loss, the desire for comfort and convenience, the need for security and protection, a sense of pride of ownership, or the satisfaction of emotion.
Your sales process, then, must be applied to each individual in order for them to feel convinced they should give you their support when it comes time for the group to make a decision. Regardless of the motive, each buyer buys emotionally and then justifies the purchase logically, even in a group setting.
This is why it's so important to appeal to their individual needs and buying motives because, collectively, they form the group's motives.
Another way salespeople get off track in a group selling situation is by getting sidelined into a "town meeting" where the sales presentation feels more like an interrogation or interview, with individual members firing off multiple questions, impeding the progress of the presentation.
To bring the presentation back within your control, use polite, closed-ended questions that require succinct answers. If you can relate your question to a point made earlier by another member, not only will this bring the presentation back in line with your objectives, you will also build credibility and rapport with the group members by showing that you are truly listening to them and subsequently helping them listen to each other.
Group scheduling may also present a challenge to moving forward with the sale. Depending on the makeup of the group (executives, department/program heads, etc.), it can be difficult to assemble all the members at one time. Their individual responsibilities to their positions may limit their capacity and availability as a group decision maker. Consequently, this may limit their scheduling flexibility.
To make the most of your time with the group, one of the smartest things you can do is to arrive early, ahead of the meeting. When you arrive early, you'll be able meet the individual members as they arrive and engage in casual conversation, building personal rapport with some of the group members, the opportunity for which likely won't exist once the meeting begins.
Since the first buying decision all prospects make psychologically, regardless of the product or service you're offering, is about you, the salesperson, this will also give them the opportunity to "size you up" and make evaluations about your integrity and judgment in a less pressurized environment than during your sales presentation. More than any other reason (including price, quality, options, etc.), people buy from people they like.
If you can provide yourself the opportunity to build rapport with several members ahead of time, they can help you build rapport with other members later that will allow you to understand and respond effectively to their needs and buying motives.
While, ironically, the world may seem to be experiencing a chronic shortage of time, sales cycles, by contrast, require more time now than ever. They have also become more complex as multiple decision makers are brought into the process. While this can be daunting, it need not be discouraging.
By setting clear objectives, responding to the needs and motives of each individual decision maker and allowing time to get to know and understand each one personally, these obstacles won't be boulders but rather stepping stones on the path to greater sales success.
Roy Chitwood is an author, trainer and consultant in sales and sales management and is president of Max Sacks International, Seattle.