Sales

Sales cycles are becoming long and unpredictable: Here’s how businesses can adjust and thrive

Sue Barrett /

In a B2B environment, the sales cycle is usually defined as the days, weeks or months that pass from the first time a salesperson makes contact with a lead to the moment the client signs the contract. However, most definitions of a ‘sales cycle’ have flaws because it’s nearly impossible to have one definition applicable to every business. Sales cycles vary enormously from industry to industry and organisation to organisation.

Regardless of what your definition of a sales cycle is, or more importantly where it starts, there are key factors at play. These include the sales process, the size of the sales, the complexity of the solution and how many people are involved in the decision-making process.

Sales cycles are becoming unprecedentedly long and unpredictable. Where some years ago businesses could know for sure their sales cycle was 10 weeks or six months, now it is unknown territory. In the current state of flux, there is no predictability businesses can rely upon.

The rise of micromanagement

The flow-on effect to sales forecasting and the sales pipeline is a rise in micromanagement by sales leaders who, in turn, are being micromanaged by the senior executive team. These executives want predictability so they can manage the numbers and report stable results to the board. Ironically, the more senior management micromanages the sales pipeline the more their sales team is distracted from effectively working the sales cycle to bring in good results.

Salespeople can manage, to a certain degree, some of the factors that affect the sales cycle, like making prospecting and new business development a regular part of their sales week, sticking to the sales process that works for their business and customers and helping the buyer understand and navigate the complexity of the solution. However, there are factors outside the salesperson’s control that have an immense impact on the sales cycle, making it longer and more unpredictable.

Risk aversion and too many stakeholders

The ever-growing culture of risk aversion is impacting the sales cycle because buyers are making decisions across departments so responsibility for the decision is spread. Each buyer comes to the decision committee with their own priorities and understanding of the challenges, so it becomes very difficult for the group to agree on a purchase decision and this, in turn, cultivates a climate of indecision which adds further delays.

Research highlights that in B2B sales the buying committee consists on average of 6.8 people involved in every purchase.

The RFP

Organisations have changed how they buy and engage with suppliers. In particular, there’s a newfound appeal in all companies of various sizes submitting forms — a request for quote (RFQ), expression of interest (EOI), tender, request for proposal (RFP), and the list goes on — that were once the domain of big corporations. These, of course, take time to prepare and then take time to review.

The increasing amount of options for every solution adds to the complexity of decision making and increases the difficulty to engage — hence the time it takes to make a decision. It also contributes to ‘buyer paralysis’: the indecisiveness we referred to earlier.

Buyers ahead of the game

Added to this, buyers are dictating the sales journey. Buyers now have all the information they feel they need about a product or service when they decide to engage with a seller. So, at the moment where the salesperson wants to start a conversation and learn about a prospect and their situation, the buyer wants to know the price because, in their mind, they think they have all their bases covered.

Whether the buyer does or doesn’t know the full impact of their decision, it puts the salesperson on the back foot from the start. At this moment, buyer and seller are having different conversations.

Buyers are becoming increasingly frustrated with buying

In this sea of contributing factors making the sales cycle longer and unpredictable, we need to stop and consider another key factor: buyers are struggling with the length of the sales cycle as well.

Buyers are finding it takes them twice as much time than it did a few years ago to even get in contact with a supplier. Their own buying cycle has become difficult and long. They too are frustrated that after spending so much time in getting things going there’s a big chance no purchase will be made and hence leave them with another unresolved problem.

The buying-selling paradox

Here’s the rub: buyers have never been easier to identify but harder to engage and sell to. Nobody is lonely or bored, yet the value of genuine relationships are critical to effective buyer-seller relationships. The average transaction is getting smaller but it is taking longer to sell in.

Conclusion: the cost of sales is going up. It takes more effort to get less. Weird indeed.

Where are the opportunities?

And here lies the opportunity for extraordinary sales professionals. Salespeople who understand the buyer’s challenges and can help them from the get-go will have a clear advantage in the purchasing process.

For example, a typical scenario in B2B is the sale gets to a point, close to the end, where everything is going well and, suddenly, two or three new stakeholders — technicians, users, managers — come in to play. This means that — best case scenario — the sale is going to be delayed.

Good salespeople can avoid, or minimise, this by asking from the beginning who needs to be involved, who will be using the solution or be affected by it or who will, for any reason, be involved in the purchase process at one point or another.

Working with everyone from the get-go will prevent some of the issues that come later in the process. This also helps the buyer, who now knows they are in good hands with someone who understands their process.

This, however, doesn’t solve the problem of the long sales cycle. Smart organisations know there are things they can do to manage this, such as having up-to-date, clear, consistent and well-communicated sales process that supports an effective buying process. These organisations also know they have to work with what they cannot control and make the best out of the situation. They make sure their teams keep everyone up to date and adjust end-of-cycle dates to allow for better pipeline management. Smart businesses use the ‘extra’ time to learn more about their clients and how to better help them, adjust the solution as necessary and guide them to navigate their way internally if need be.

The state of affairs means sales cycles are longer and unpredictable. This doesn’t necessarily mean worse sales results — but does mean we need to be flexible and open to respond to the markets and our customers’ needs.

We need to work smarter for sure.

Remember everybody lives by selling something.

NOW READ: Tell me about it: 91% of consumers value ‘honest communication’ so salespeople must prioritise storytelling

NOW READ: Seven things you need to know to master the craft of selling

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Sue Barrett

Sue is a selling better strategist and advisor, sales philosopher and speaker, sales trainer and coach, writer and activist. Sue is chief executive of forward thinking sales advisory Barrett and online sales education and resource platform www.salesessentials.com. Barrett develops sales strategies, standards and education that help people and businesses sell better.

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