Jun 26, 2023 • Podcast

How do I manage a long sales cycle?

Paul offers four ideas to help you through that inevitable long sales cycle.

Show Notes

Adopt a small-wins approach. Small wins help you focus through a long cycle.

Timing is important. Show up early in the decision making process to get a seat at the table and show up often so you can spot those buying trigger events.

Throughout the sales cycle, identify pressure points that may establish urgency in the buyer’s process.

Groupthink is a thing. In a long, complex sales cycle, gain individual buy-in to leverage that Groupthink mentality.

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How do I manage a long sales cycle?

(Transcribed from podcast)

On today’s episode, we’re going to answer a question that I know that many salespeople ask themselves, their managers, anyone who can help answer, and that question is, “How do I manage a long sales cycle?” This is a challenge on so many levels, from a motivation standpoint, from getting the customer to move forward. How do you forecast for this? There are a number of challenges that go along with managing a longer sales cycle. So we’re going to dive into that today.

Before we get into that question, just a reminder, make sure you visit TheQandASalesPodcast.com. You can ask me a question while you’re there. You can also search and see if many of the questions you have have already been answered on previous episodes. So check it out.

Also, pick up your copy of Selling Through Tough Times. One thing we talk about in Selling Through Tough Times is really how you can mentally stay tough, hang tough when times are tough. And that’s something that’s so important when you manage a long sales cycle. It’s about your mental fortitude, your strength. To continue to push forward even as you face adversity. So check it out. You can get your copy of Selling Through Tough Times wherever you get your books.

So let’s get into it. I’m going to share with you four ideas today to help you manage a long sales cycle.

The first tip for today: adopt a small-wins approach. Small wins are powerful. Karl Weick wrote about this in a whitepaper back in 1984 and he titled it “Small Wins.” And he basically described a small win as a concrete outcome of moderate importance. By itself, one small win doesn’t mean all that much, but when you combine all of these small wins, it attracts allies, deters threats. It also makes the next small win much easier. Now, with small wins, what we’re doing is we’re shrinking our objectives. For example, I’m working with a group this week and actually this is what prompted today’s episode. One of the challenges their VP of sales mentioned is, “You know, our people are dealing with a two-to-three year process in switching a customer.” And two to three years is a long time. Now, the big win is obviously winning the new business, but what we need to ask ourselves is, “Okay, what are the small wins that will eventually lead to that success?” And once you identify those small wins, that helps keep you focused. It also helps keep you motivated and engaged. So we need to find small wins.

And how you do that is pretty simple. You look at your previous big wins. So if I’m a salesperson and I’ve got a three-year sales process—three-year process to convert a customer. I’m going to look at my big wins that I already have. I’m going to look at my, I don’t know, three to five wins and say, “Okay, what do these three to five wins have in common? If I could go back and just go through each step along my path to success, what does that look like?” And your goal is to come up with, maybe even a dozen or 20 or 30 small wins that will keep you focused.

And so you think about it almost like a checklist. You can say, “Okay, these 30 wins need to happen in order for me to win the big opportunity.” And so, what you do is you just start tackling that list. You shrink your objectives. You don’t worry about the three-year process you’re going to have to go through—you don’t worry about the big win at the end—all you focus on is achieving that next best step, that next small win.

Small wins also keep you motivated. There’s a great book called The Progress Principle, and I think I’ve mentioned it on this podcast before. But in this book, the researchers, they analyzed employees from couple dozen different companies, and they had them journal every day for, I think it was like a two year period. And they analyzed these journal entries, a couple hundred employees and a couple dozen different companies. There were over 11,000 journal entries. And they analyzed all these journal entries and they found that people are the most motivated and the most engaged on the days that they make progress in meaningful work. Anything, even a small win, can make all the difference in the world. And so, if you are going to embark on a two-to-three-year sales process, you’re going to face some challenges; you’re going to hit some brick walls; you’re going to face those moments where you feel like giving up. And at those moments, you don’t need to freak out about trying to win the deal. All you need to focus on is achieving that next small win.

Now, before I move off from small wins, I have to highlight this. In Value-Added Selling, we have an entire chapter dedicated to small-wins selling. This is a must-read chapter for anyone who already has the book, but you can get Value-Added Selling wherever you buy books: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, you name it. That chapter is solid gold. It gives you a play-by-play approach on how to implement small wins. So check that out.

The next tip. Again, how do I manage a long sales cycle? Well, you have to improve your timing. Timing—. You know, it’s been said, timing is everything in sales, and to some degree, I do agree with that. So, with timing, we want to show up when there’s a need and we want to show up before our competition. That’s how we improve the timing. We get there when there is a need and before our competition. So we have to show up early and show up often. We need to get there early in the decision-making process for several reasons. Number one, it gives you a chance to really help shape the criteria from which the decision is made. Also, it helps you build relationships early on in the process. So we want to get there early for those two reasons.

Now, unfortunately, it’s not like our prospects wake up one day and say, “You know what? I’m going to begin my purchasing process in two weeks. I better call that salesperson who I met that one time, and let them know that so they can start selling to me.” That doesn’t happen, right? It doesn’t happen like that. And so, the best way to improve your timing is to be there often. When you have a prospect, and that prospect fits the profile for good business, make it a priority to visit this opportunity often. And the more often you show up, the more information you can gather. And every time you visit with that prospect, always ask, “Hey, what’s coming up in the next few months?” You’re asking questions to uncover ideal timing.

And to build on that, to improve your timing even more, look for those trigger events. A trigger event is anything that would cause the buyer to be more open to your solution. Perhaps they won a new project. Perhaps they were in the news for a safety issue. Maybe there was a recall that triggers a need for your solution. Look for these trigger events and you can even use simple hacks to help with this. I mean, you can set up a Google Alerts for your biggest opportunities. And anytime that company is mentioned in the news, you can get an automated message from Google. So you can set that up on Google News. Just Google how to set up an alert. You’ll get a link, I guarantee you.

So we want to improve the timing. So we want to show up early, show up often. We also want to look for those trigger events. If you can reach out at the moments when you know there is a need, your likelihood of success continues to grow exponentially.

Now, the third tip—identify pressure points. So once you’re managing this opportunity, again, we’re talking, this could be a two-to-three-year opportunity, a two-to-three-month, whatever—whatever a long sales cycle looks like for your industry. Throughout the process you want to identify pressure points. Now, pressure points, they take the focus off of price, but they also help establish urgency in the buyer’s process. And what we mean by this, you know, a customer or opportunity, a prospect, whatever, starts to feel pressure. They feel the pressure to make a change. They feel the pressure to move forward, to switch partners, whatever it may be, they’re feeling pressure. And this can come from a myriad of factors. For example, let’s say they had a bad experience with their current provider. Let’s say they have a problem that is unique, and they can’t solve it. These are all pressure points working in your favor. Also, if there is an escalated timeline, all of a sudden. Now a project that was going to happen in a year is now happening in six months. Escalated timelines are an example of pressure that they’re experiencing. If you have multiple decision makers buying into your solution, that’s a pressure point working in your favor. If you offer a unique solution that your competition does not offer, that’s a pressure point in your favor.

So I would come up with a list of 10 to 15 pressure points. Go back to your— the small wins tip where you’re analyzing your previous wins. Go to those previous wins and ask yourself, “Okay, what kind of pressure was this customer experiencing at the time? And you can come up with a list of 15 to 20 pressure points, and now you know what to look for in the opportunity that you’re currently focused on.

The more pressure the buyer experiences, the more pressure that that prospect experiences, the quicker they’re going to move forward, and, also, price becomes less of an issue. So keep that in mind.

And the final tip—if you have a two-to-three-year process and it’s a long, complex sales cycle, that means you have multiple people involved in the buying decision. And group decision making, and managing multiple decision makers, that is a whole new dynamic to the sales process. So, I’m going to give you just a couple thoughts here on how we can manage group decision making.

Now, we want to leverage groupthink. Irving Janis wrote about groupthink and really, I guess what prompted his research (and this is really what he dedicated his professional life to, is studying groups and how they make decisions), and he was amazed at how, individually, people can make good decisions, but you put them into a group and they sometimes make really lousy decisions. And then you could read more about it just by researching groupthink. But, one of the insights he shares in his research is that there is a natural tendency for groups to want to conform. They want consensus in a group naturally. So when you get a group of decision makers together, they have that inherent need and desire to come together and make a decision and conform to the group.

So think about how that would work if you’re in a group setting. Let’s say you are selling to, let’s say there’s six decision makers involved. You’ve got an operations manager, a couple of engineers, a procurement person, you know, a high-level decision maker involved as well. You’ve got all these different people involved. The quickest way to gain conformity is to gain individual buy-in and then share that individual buy-in with the rest of the group.

Guys, I’ve seen this in action. I’ve seen this at my college fraternity. I was an ATO down at Mizzou, and I remember one of my buddies, he was the master of group influence. Here’s what he would do. It’d be like a Tuesday or Wednesday night. It’s not a big night to go out and have fun. And so, one of my buddies there, Sean, he came into my room, he said, “Hey, do you want to go up to Willie’s?” And that Willie’s was one of our favorite bars in Columbia. And I said, “Ah, you know, it’s Tuesday night, man. No one’s, no one’s going to be up there.” I said, “Who else is going?” He said, “Well, I’ll be right back,” and he’d go to the next room and ask another guy, “Hey, Bill, you want to go up to Willie’s tonight? We can grab some of those wings. I know you love their wings there.” And Bill said, “Eh, maybe. It’s Tuesday. You know, I don’t know who else is going.

He’d go to the next room and say, “Hey Cory, you want to go up to Willie’s tonight? We can play Pop-a-Shot. I know you love that game, man. We could, we could have a blast. And, and he’d say, “All right, yeah, I’ll go.”

After he gained the buy-in from one person, he would then go back to the other rooms. He’d come back to my room, “Hey, Paul, Corey’s in. I’m in. Do you want to go?” “Yeah, sure. I’ll go.” He’d go to the next room, “Hey, it’s going to be me, Paul, Corey, and are you in?” And, “Yeah.” And, all of a sudden, he has, a dozen guys going up there, hanging out, whereas nobody was committed before. But what he did is he tailored the benefit. He looked at what we individually wanted: the wings, the pop-a-shot game. And once we committed, he made everyone else aware of the shared buy-in, because now that we knew the group was going, we were more likely to say yes. There’s that bandwagon effect, that groupthink effect where people like to conform to a decision.

So when you’re selling to multiple decision makers, you’ve got to sell to that engineer—gain their buy-in for your solution. When you’re talking to the ops manager, get their buy-in as well. But once you get the individual buy-in, you need to make all the other decision makers aware of the other buy-in—aware of how the engineer thinks, aware of how that operations manager thinks. Because once everyone knows that everyone else is in, they’re more likely to say yes as a group. So we’ve got to leverage that groupthink.

So guys, I know, man, two to three years, that is a long sales process. But over those two to three years, you focus on small wins. Try to improve your timing by showing up early and often. Identify those pressure points, and then, hey, let’s get some group buy-in. Make those individual stakeholders aware of their shared buy-in, and they’re more likely to move forward.

Make it a big day.

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