After witnessing thousands of sales calls, and advising clients on thousands more, I can confidently say that the number one reason that customers/prospects fail to make timely decisions is because the salesperson skips steps in the process. While it may sound counter-intuitive, the key to shortening the sales cycle is for the salesperson to slow the process down.
The problem begins because buyer and seller are out-of-sync. Most sales approaches rely on the buyer to be actively in the process of seeking out solutions. Difficulty presents itself as a buyer engages in conversation by either asking about a “solution,” its terms or conditions; yet, the problem has never been clearly defined.
While most people realize this is true when perceived from the seller’s perspective, they assume that the buyer does have an understanding of their problem. Yet, my experience and the vast majority of recent research, this is a fatal assumption, and leads to both major decision reluctance and commoditization.
In our approach, what we call Demand Creation Selling; we teach that there are four distinct segments of the sales process. There are distinct and important decisions that must be made within each segment. When you’re in Segment A & B, your focus needs to be on establishing:
- The problem
- The cause of the problem
- The cost of the problem
- The need to change
Segment C is about defining what’s required to solve the problem, or defining the solution, and Segment D focuses on establishing that your company is the best one to solve the problem.
The out-of-synch issue presents itself in two troublesome ways:
1. Because salespeople tend to be so solutions focused, they strive to get to Segment D (where the focus is on their solution) as quickly as possible, and fail to create value or build the necessary weight to their business case.
2. The nature of most sales and marketing systems positions the message to be relevant to the end of a buying process. This means that by the time buyers reach out they’re oriented to Segment D, but the salesperson hasn’t participated in defining, diagnosing or assessing the problem. This means the buyer is focused on what the solution costs, while the seller wants to focus on what the solution is worth.
In both of these cases chaos, confusion and commoditization accelerates. The sales process gets bogged down, predictability is eliminated and sales costs grow, often to non-sustainable levels.
Solving the problem requires that you slow the sales process down. Whether you’re reaching out to the prospect or they’re reaching out to you, you must address each segment of the sale sequentially.
If a prospect calls you asking for a solution, ask them what’s led them to believe they need that solution? What problem are they trying to solve? What’s led them to believe that this is their problem?
For example, it’s not unusual that a prospect will reach out to me and ask about sales training. It may go something like this (with my narrative thoughts in parenthesis):
Prospect: Hi Doug. An associate of mine was telling me about the sales training you did for his company and I was quite impressed. We’re getting the final details of our next sales meeting together and I thought it would be a good idea to consider using a trainer like you for the event. Can you tell me about your program and how much it costs? (Clearly calling believing he knows what he needs and wanted to enter a “what’s it cost” conversation.)
Me: Thanks for reaching out. I’m glad that your associate had positive things to say. I’m more than happy to tell you all about our sales training approach; before I do, can you tell me what is it your looking to do sales training for? (I know no one wants to buy training, they want a result. Training is about cost, results are about worth. I also know that he probably doesn’t have a good answer for this question.)
Prospect: Well, we’re looking to increase our sales. (While this sounds like a result, it’s not. It’s vague and meaningless and will get us nowhere.)
Me: Not surprising. I’m curious, what do you think is presenting your from getting more sales with your current approach?
Prospect: That’s a good question. I’m not real sure, but I know that my salespeople need to improve their closing skills. We keep losing opportunities at the ends of the process.
Now we’re on to something. It could be closing costs, lead generation, sales cycles times or any other issues, but now we’re defining the problem. In virtually every case (and this typical example highlights the fact) they’re focused on a symptom – not the problem! And this is where I can pivot the conversation. I can begin asking questions about the symptom they’ve shared and highlight what’s really causing the problem.
By slowing the process down, I gain significant control and predictability. I’m able to make my business case and clearly demonstrate if and why we are the best alternative. While it lengthens the time to get to a proposal, it also both increases the value of the proposal and the likelihood of success.