Sales cycles are becoming longer, more complex

One of the major challenges of a long, multiplex sales cycle is ensuring the forward momentum through the closing. Due to such factors as highly specific information, multiple decision makers, company mandated procedures, communication between involved departments, to name a few, the sale of your product or service may take months, or even years, to complete.

In this time of recent economic boom, this reality is becoming even more common. A sales cycle that previously was three or four calls may have expanded to a dozen, or more. This is because not only do your prospects currently have more options, they have something even more important: more knowledge.

With today's vast access to information through the Internet and other channels, your prospects are empowering themselves leading to their perception that they don't need you as much as they thought they did in the past. You may have to make three or four calls even to sell something as basic as rubber stamps because people think they can find it better somewhere else.

Most companies, however, can identify the length of a typical sales cycle even if it's becoming longer. Ours is often three stages. During the first stage we separate a prospect from a suspect by determining if there's a genuine need for our service and, if so, who the decision makers are. During the second stage we conduct a thorough qualification and needs analysis. This could take many actual meetings, especially if there are multiple decision makers.

I recently met with a client who has four key players who were impossible to get together at one time. I had to make appointments with each individually, meaning it took three physical calls to complete my second call objective. And in our third stage, we'd present our solution. So although I've simplified this to three stages, each with a specific objective, it took nearly a dozen physical calls to complete the cycle.


  • You must set an objective for each of your calls.
    This is vital whether your sales cycle is weeks, months or years. The reason this is so important is twofold.

    First, after you complete each objective, you've psychologically made a sale. In your mind you know you've accomplished something despite the sale yet being made. This aids in maintaining your focus and positive attitude, both of which are significant contributors to sales success.

    And second is the actual progression of the sales cycle. If you view each objective as a rung in the ladder of the sales cycle, then with each completion you're a step closer to the sale. This allows you to see the next objective even more clearly, making it, and ultimately the sale, easier to accomplish.

  • Never sell the group.
    Always sell the individuals. One of the common mistakes salespeople make in extended sales cycles is focusing on selling the group or panel rather than the individual members. This is a mistake because it ignores the psychological order in which people buy. Each individual makes their own buying decisions in precise psychological order based upon their own buying motives.

    It's common in our industry for there to be three specific types of buyers: the User Buyer, Economic Buyer and Technical Buyer. Each makes the decision to buy based upon their own buying motives despite being part of a committee. The User Buyer is typically concerned with how fast and easily our programs will help better serve customers and increase sales. The Economic Buyer is concerned mainly with the price of our services and what "return on investment" they'll receive. And the Technical Buyer will be concerned with how easily our program can train a geographically dispersed sales force and fit into their corporate culture.

    Regardless of the motive, however, each of these buyers buys emotionally and then justifies the purchase logically, though they'll never admit this. So it's important to always remember and appeal to their individual or buying motives which collectively form the group's motives.

  • Always assume that you're in a changing selling environment.
    This means that on each subsequent sales call, you don't assume everything's where you left off. It's critical you always verify the agreement on need statement you reached and or revisited during your last call and then ask if anything's changed. For example, while selling accounting software you might say, "Donna, several weeks ago we agreed that you were looking for a software package that could handle all payroll and tax functions, be compatible with all your individual computers and their operating systems, as well as be easily upgraded. Has anything changed?"

    Let me share an experience. Several years ago, a colleague referred me to the vice president of Southern California software firm. I spoke with this gentleman several times prior to our first meeting. Our initial meeting was a luncheon. The luncheon was scheduled for noon. I arrived at 11:45 a.m. The receptionist was astonished when I mentioned my appointment with the vice president. She said I must be mistaken but spoke with the vice president.

    Shortly thereafter the vice president came out and suggested we go to lunch as planned. After ordering I revisited the original objectives for the meeting and then asked if anything had changed. His answer was a shocking yes. The reason for the receptionist's astonished expression was that the company had been sold just that morning to the surprise of all. The vice president was now planning a trip to San Francisco that afternoon to brief the branch offices.

    This obviously changed the entire objective of the call and underscores the importance of always assuming a changing environment. I abandoned my original objectives and spoke nothing of our company. I simply listened to him empathetically and shared a similar experience I had with an unexpected takeover while an executive in the insurance industry. One year later this company became a client.



Roy Chitwood is an author, trainer and consultant in sales and sales management and is president of Max Sacks International, Seattle.