Whether it’s software or shoes, every sales professional experiences a sales cycle. The length varies according to industry, but one thing never changes: To be successful in sales, you must understand the process.
Identify Sales Prospects
The cycle begins with identifying target prospects, says Alan Rigg, president of consulting firm 80/20 Sales Performance. You have about 30 seconds to grab the prospect’s attention so they’ll give you two or three minutes of their time.
“Prospects don’t sit by the phone hoping salespeople will call,” Rigg says. “You have to be compelling enough to make them stop what they’re thinking about and concentrate on you.” The best way to do that is to emphasize the quantifiable impact your company has had on clients -- including your prospect’s competitors.
Learn More About the Prospect
The next part of the cycle is to convince your prospect to schedule what Rigg refers to as the “discovery conversation.” Ranging from 20 minutes to an hour, this is an opportunity to ask probing questions. Does the prospect have a problem your company can solve? Questions about time spent on various tasks, needs for equipment or goods, and future plans can create a context for the pricing discussion that will occur later.
Remember, ascertaining if the prospect is worth a salesperson’s investment of time and resources is equally as important to discover in this meeting. “It’s a two-way street,” Rigg notes. “Ask insightful questions, so you don’t end up wasting his time – and yours.”
Share with Your Manager
If a prospect is legitimate, the next step is to share information gleaned with a sales manager. This is especially important for people new to sales or to a particular company.
“Most sales professionals don’t know everything about the products or services they’re selling,” Rigg says. “You need to find experts in your company who can help you determine your next step.”
Draft a Sales Proposal
Those discussions lead to the preparation of a prospect proposal. The key is to identify a problem, quantify it and show how your company can solve it. Pricing should be related to the problem. “Create a financial justification for purchasing your product,” Rigg advises. “That reenergizes the prospect’s emotions.” A sales cycle may stall if a prospect is no longer engaged, he notes.
Deal with Objections
After reviewing a proposal with a prospect, you can deal with objections. Supply more information, if necessary.
For example, if you sell athletic shoes made in Asia, you can describe different types of shipping, from slow and cost-effective (boat) to quick and more expensive (air) says Rich Hiltz, sales manager of Lotto Sport USA. Help your customer frame questions he may not even know to ask, such as the possibility of using different warehouses or distribution centers.
Time Management Throughout the Sales Cycle
Throughout the sales cycle, a good salesperson prioritizes activities. “Salespeople have one item in their inventory -- their time,” says Rigg. “If the prime selling time to your prospects is 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., save that time for selling. If other activities need your attention, do them outside your selling time.”
Hiltz agrees. “It’s important to hit your timetables,” he says. “Keep yourself and your customer focused on the calendar.” Though planning far in advance might be harder initially, it will be easier to avoid last-minute problems down the line.
In addition, Rigg says, “Review your opportunities daily. Reprioritize as often as you can.” When overwhelmed, he advises to start with the biggest opportunities that have the best chance of closing and then work down the list. “Keep asking yourself: ‘Am I using my time as wisely as possible?’”
Understand Your Selling Technique
One key to understanding the sales cycle is understanding yourself. A long cycle, such as with complex software applications, can extend beyond a year. However, if you sell cartridges for printers, you might take orders every two weeks.
“Try to gauge what type of selling works best for you,” says Rigg. “If you enjoy managing ongoing customers with repeat sales, consumables are probably best. If you like selling big-ticket items with the payoff at the end, you should sell something like heavy machinery.”
Determine whether you work better on a long cycle or a short one. Ask yourself which you enjoy more: solving simple problems or complex ones? “Each cycle is different, and you’ll stay motivated if your sales cycle fits your personal style,” says Rigg.
Learn more about sales careers.