Why your sales cycle doesn’t work any more

Josh Stailey

Monday, February 14th, 2011

For several years, small business owners have been telling us that their traditional sales process yields fewer closed deals and new customers. At first, it was a trickle, and they were concerned. Then it continued and they became uneasy. Now, the trickle has become a flood and they’re in panic mode.

It seems that the roles of seller and buyer – which have been in place for at century or so – no longer work. The bad news is that buyers are changing, and – to the extent that sellers don’t adapt – the traditional roles will continue to erode, and do so at an increasing rate.

There are three major reasons for the breakdown:

  • The ubiquity of information. In traditional buyer/seller relationships, the seller controlled the product/service information that the buyer needed in order to make an appropriate purchase decision. Buyers had to reveal themselves in order to obtain that information, giving salespeople the opportunity to build relationships, learn needs and preferences, and package information that optimized their chances to land the customer. Now, buyers can learn enough online to make a buying decision -- or at least build a short list of potential vendors -- before anyone even knows they are in the market.
  • The power of search. Old-line corporate buyers that needed to make complex purchase decisions could spend years "learning the ropes." It took a long time to identify vendors and learn their product/service portfolios. And feedback was available only from a handful of trusted colleagues. Today's search engines can build a buyer knowledgebase in a day or two of browsing. And almost every industry now has online observers, pundits and product reviewers. Moreover, actual product users post their own experiences online in blogs and review sites. A decade of user experience can be had in an afternoon of Googling and Twittering.
  • The proliferation of choice. Once there was a geographic limit on where a company could sell, which limited a buyer’s options. Now, most businesses can use the Internet to open their storefront to the world, as well as digital technologies that connect with customers anywhere in the world in real-time. In many cases, buying globally is as easy as buying locally.

The result: you no longer control the selling cycle...Web-savvy buyers have taken that power away from you. We noticed the shift about five years ago, led by increasing buyer dissatisfaction with vendor Website’s (usually described as “brochureware”). And it’s been gathering steam ever since. Soon, very few buyers will opt for the traditional route…it will actually put them at a competitive disadvantage over time.

The good news: you can adapt your selling cycle to the buyer

Savvy sellers can cater to the new business buyer in multiple ways; here are the really important ones:

1. Take a hard look at your website -- from the perspective of a buyer -- and find out what's missing. For a vast majority of BtoB websites, what's missing is most of the stuff a buyer really wants to know before committing: detailed specifications, schematics, pricing, and user experience...the things most companies hold onto until their salespeople can get in front of a qualified prospect. Increasingly, that face-to-face meeting isn’t happening, so put the information on your site. To help you identify serious prospects, require an exchange of trust: a visitor must register with at least a name and valid e-mail address before being granted access to this heretofore "insider" information. Serious buyers will consider that a fair exchange, as long as the registration process is fast and easy.

2. Use technology to track visits to – and activities on – you website, preferably by individuals. Give visitors a reason to register – information that makes them better buyers – then track everything they do. Track even “anonymous” Website visitors…you can learn a lot just by checking their URL. If, for example, Widgetco, was a major prospect, if would be helpful to know that several visits were from people at www.widgetco.com. You can even collect likely names and titles of those Widgetco people from a list provider like Jigsaw (www.jigsaw.com) or Demandbase (www.demandbase.com).

3. Look for “digital body language” that signals when a prospect is ready to buy. Over time, you will collect a massive amount of information from Website visitors. Analyze that data, and use it to learn what the browsing behavior means. For example, information like “visitors that downloaded White Paper A were five times more likely to buy than anyone else” is valuable sales intelligence.

4. Be there when the buyer is ready, and respond at Internet speed. The marketing manager at one of our clients could not see the wisdom in responding immediately to Web forms (“click here to contact us”). He had an admin type download them every few days and send them to sales. Then an angry sales manager confronted him about prospects that had already made decisions by the time his salespeople called. Now the response time is two hours.

Look, the change is disconcerting. After all, there’s several generations of tradition that is fast disappearing, and change is hard. But, disconcerting is better than disaster…which faces any organization not ready and willing to give up the traditional selling cycle, and adapt to a new wave of digitally-driven buyers.

About Josh Stailey

Our friend and contributor Josh Stailey passed away unexpectedly on September 10, 2011. We have valued his expertise and willingness to share his insights with us. We discussed the appropriateness of sharing content he provided before his death with his business partners at The Pursuit Group and they agreed sharing his expertise was a fitting tribute to Josh.

Josh Stailey was a 40-year veteran of the marketing and sales wars, a journalism-trained professional who understood the role of information and technology in today’s business world. A consultant and writer, he was a founding partner of The Pursuit Group, which specializes in designing and implementing demand-generation systems for small- and medium-sized businesses. He has also consulted with Fortune 500 companies on customer experience management and content system design.