Rethink the Sales Cycle: Embrace the “Buying Cycle” to Achieve Sustainable Winning Sales Organization…

                     “Stop selling. Start helping” ~Zig Ziglar

Align your selling methods with a customer’s buying habits for a win-win relationship! “The digital age has dramatically changed the selling profession. Today, buyers don’t want salespeople telling them what they want or need; they’ve already gone online and informed themselves—which makes the job of selling more difficult than ever.

So how do you reestablish the relevance that you previously took for granted? You must stop focusing squarely on the selling cycle—and pay close attention to the buying cycle. Learn how the customer buys, and align your selling techniques accordingly. Merge your selling process with the buyer’s buying process. (Definition: buying cycle relates to the time elapsed between receiving a lead and when the sale is closed, and not how frequently a customer buys the same product or service).

“When it comes to the buying cycle, today’s customers want control. You can give it to them when you have a selling strategy aligned with their behavior. It’s the best, and perhaps only way to succeed in today’s ultra-competitive world” ~John R. Holland

There is a growing amount of buzz about a concept called “social selling” (often used synonymously with Sales 2.0). Many will argue that sales particularly B2B sales, has always been a social activity. After all, selling has always revolved around relationships (i.e. “who you know’) and hence the focus on networking, establishing rapport, and leveraging existing relationships.

Traditionally this was done via face-to-face business meetings, industry conferences, athletic clubs, civic organizations, social clubs, etc. Social selling is about recognizing that the buying process is controlled by a better informed and more connected customer. While sales remain a relationship-driven business, the power of “who you know” is trumped by “what you know about who you know.”

The new social customer is demanding relevance from sales people, expecting them to know about them, their companies, and their needs before being engaged. This has heightened the need for comprehensive sales intelligence that brings together both traditional data and social media. It is imperative that sales professionals leverage the social web to actively listen, engage, and add value to the customer conversation. Your customer expects you to know at least as much about them as they do about you.

In the article by “Change Strategies” writes: Accept the immutable truth of the buying cycle…whether buying razor blades or jet airplanes, every customer and prospect goes through a buying cycle. It may take the customer a split second while standing in the aisle of the local pharmacy or more than a year in meetings involving dozens of people and a complex decision process. This is a move from a focus on transactions to a focus on customer relationships.

In today’s technology-enabled and information-driven world, customers are increasingly taking control of the buying cycle. This fact makes the need for a common and consistent focus on the buying cycle even more urgent.  Acceptance of the buying cycle as immutable is perhaps the most important first step any customer-facing organization can take to achieve greater effectiveness and impact.

The right customers and buying cycles are those that produce profits, in either the immediate term or ultimately as part of the customer long-term relationship… having a deep understanding of the customer is key to managing customer progress through the buying cycle. Managing the cycle begins with clearly identifying ‘who we want’ entering and continuing in the cycle, and the near-exclusive focus on these customers.

The bad news is that creating deep understanding and actively managing the buying cycle based on that understanding is hard work and time-consuming. The good news is that technology, analytic methods, and increasing people skills make it possible more than ever before. One thing is certain: a company that does not develop a deep understanding of customers and actively manage the buying cycle risks losing the account… Strong customer relationships drives sustained business results…

         “Markets don’t buy anything, people do!” ~ Tom Peters

In the article “Where Are You In Your Customer’s Buying Cycle?” by Gihan Perera writes: Thanks to the Internet, customers today are smarter, savvier and more sophisticated than ever before. When they come to you, ready to buy your products and services, you can bet they didn’t suddenly think of you five minutes earlier.

They might have asked around on Twitter or LinkedIn, watched some sample videos on YouTube, checked in with their Facebook friends, done some Google research, looked through their in-box for recent newsletters, and so on. This is the biggest change in the sales process. As Barry Trailer and Jim Dickie said in their Harvard Business Review article:

“Buyers have always had a buy cycle, starting at the point they perceive a need. Sellers have always had a sales cycle, starting at the point they spot a prospect. It used to be that these were in sync … [but] now, the buy cycle is often well under way before the seller is even aware there is a cycle.”

Get with the customer early in the process and influence them right from the beginning. This isn’t about hard sell; it’s about guiding them as an expert adviser, rather than being just another supplier. Always be engaged in a meaningful way…or you will just be another supplier in the customer’s buying process, or at worst, you’ll be ignored altogether!

In the article “The Best Way to Shorten the Sales Cycle” by Jeff Thull writes: Customers don’t create long sales cycles — salespeople do. The biggest contributor to dragging out the selling cycle is salespeople prematurely presenting solutions to customers who may not believe they have a problem, or even if they had a problem, didn’t understand its impact on their business…

Comparing what we do as salespeople with customers to what doctors do with their patients: Imagine how ridiculous it would be to go in for your annual physical and have the doctor give you a presentation on the benefits of angioplasty while expecting to sell you surgery.

Instead, the doctor brings you a high-quality diagnostic process, guides you through it, looks for symptoms you’re experiencing, measures those symptoms, and if they’re serious enough will recommend the surgical solution. Before any recommendation can be made, you mutually come to the conclusion that you have a condition that needs to be fixed.

The second challenge to address is “change.” A decision to buy leads to change and change is painful. Customers frequently do not buy because they are concerned about the change process… Bringing clarity to the change required will help both you and the customer… The final challenge involves “value.”

Customers must be able to measure the impact of a solution, and until they do they will not recognize value when it is delivered. Often the customer does not have enough knowledge or method to measure the value that a solution will provide (pre-sale), and worse, left on their own, may not be able to measure the value they have alredy received (post-sale).  

I’ve seen clients reduce sales cycle time by as much as 62%, and more than double their closing percentage by creating a high-quality decision process and guiding their customer through it. Providing a change management process allows their customer to see a clear path to their success, and helps them quantify the value that the solution will provide.

In the article “Sales Myth – The Sales Cycle” by R. Meriwether writes: There is no such thing as a sales cycle.  Does that surprise you?  If you have a traditional sales background then the sales cycle has become part of your daily lexicon.  But the reality is that it is just a myth, possibly a dangerous myth to be sure, but a myth nonetheless.

We constantly hear this same statement regarding sales cycles: “Our sales cycle is X weeks or months or light years”, as though there is some magic time frame which determines how long it takes to sell your product or service.  Most organizations simply take the good and the bad sales efforts and average them together, and then cement into every sales person’s head that this is –the sales cycle.

A sales cycle is something which has been constructed in our minds, not in the actual business of selling.  There is only one cycle you deal with when you are successful in selling: “The Buying Cycle”. The most successful sales people and sales organizations understand this and either directly or indirectly mirror their sales cycle to the buying cycle.  They understand that moving from decision to decision is always fixed by the buying side of the relationship.

You can heavily influence those decisions, but only by understanding how and why those decisions are made. You are probably thinking, “Duh”.  So if this is so simple and it goes without saying, how many times have you ever seen a buying cycle used to create a sales cycle?  Probably never.  If we all know this, why don’t we simply start with a buying cycle and then work out our sales cycle so it matches the buying cycle? The process is pretty simple since all you have done is map-out a typical customer’s buying process which will look something like:

  • Recognition of Need—-Consensus on Need for External Help—-Initial Budgetary Approval—Search and Evaluate Options—Select a Solution Provider—-Negotiate—Execute Project—Measure Value

And, a typical sales process looks like:

  • Discovery—Collaborative Solution Design—Develop Business Case—Propose—Finalize Agreement—Execute Project—Manage Customer Relationship

So imagine if you are in your sales process at “Propose”, but the prospective customer is still at the “Consensus on Need for External Help” in their buying process.  You know what happens, right?  We all know what happens… diddly squatSo do yourself and your revenue stream a favor and sit down with a current customer who is very friendly towards your company and simply ask them the steps they go through to purchase a solution.  Use it as a framework to develop your sales process so you can match each step of your sales process to their buying process… The result: Close more deals; Close them faster; Happier customer          

 “Be creative. Use unconventional thinking. And have the guts to carry it out” ~ Lee Iaccoca

Focus on the buying cycle, not the selling cycle…there are sales methods abound that focus on the selling process: “AIDA”: Awareness, Interest, Decision, Action. Or, the “ABC”: Always-Be-Closing (famously heard in the movie “Glengarry Glen Ross”). The selling cycle goes from awareness to leads to presentation to evaluation to close to (hopefully) a satisfied customer. Sales don’t need to “push the product” or “create the need” when they start with a product (value) that people want to buy…

“The organization must learn to think of itself not as producing goods or services, but as providing “buying customers” the things that will make people want to do business with it.” ~Theodore Levitt

The world of selling has irrevocably changed with the age of the new media. Social media, blogs, and other self-publishing tools have sparked an explosion of content at a scale and pace we have never seen before. For example; over the next 30 minutes, approximately 22,000 blog postings will go live, 2.3 million Tweets will fly, and Facebook users will post 2.77 million status updates and 41 million pieces of content.

Then, factor in the steady stream of online articles from traditional media outlets, and an untold number of niche sites and other networks. What’s clear is that successful salespeople still need to identify and engage the decision leaders, influencers, and other customer voices, however, the traditional sales cycle approach simply can’t keep up with today’s buying savvy customers…

 “Approach each customer with the idea of helping him or her solve a problem or achieve a goal, not of selling a product or service” ~Brian Tracy

“Describe your product in terms of what it ‘does’ not in terms of what it ‘is’ “~ Brian Tracy