How to Deal with the Long Buying Cycle in Business-to-Business Selling

Business-to-business salespeople frequently complain that they face long buying cycles.  This is especially true when it takes time to build relationships and establish trust.  Long sales cycles not only delay your return on investment, but also increase uncertainty about whether the sale will go through at all.

 

WHY PROSPECTS DON’T BUY NOW

We all face four major challenges when we sell products or services to today’s busy executives:

  1. It’s just more work.  Prospects often view the purchase of a major service or product as another task in which they must invest their mental energy and due diligence.
  2. They’re not sure what they’re getting.  If you are selling services, you are essentially selling time, concepts, words – intangibles.  To the prospective customer, that can feel like “air.”  Where are the measurable results? The guarantees?
  3. You’re just one of a crowd.  Many direct competitors have well-trained, talented salespeople, so your capacity to present benefits instead of features is no longer the distinguishing factor it once was.
  4. Prospects face too many other priorities.  The greatest challenge is that your real competition does not come in the form of direct competitors.  It is the myriad of other priorities that face your overworked prospective customers.  Unless you can link what you offer to an “A” priority they already recognize, prospects won’t take the time to think about you.

 

MANAGING THE BUYING CYCLE

What can you do when the buying cycle stretches longer and longer as your prospects decide to do other projects before even considering what you have to offer?

The Buying Cycle Starts With Your Marketing

It is important not to jump right into selling but instead start with your marketing.

Market research can help identify companies that are more likely to have reached points in their development where they need what you offer.  This knowledge can save you money on your marketing programs.

Effective marketing can overcome the most important challenge–getting the attention of preoccupied decision makers.  With a good marketing program, your marketing messages run alongside the lives of harried business people and remind them to think of your company when they are ready to consider that purchase.

An integrated marketing program uses the right methods to reach your prospects repeatedly.  When your prospects participate in associations, your marketing messages are there as you participate right along with your busy prospective customers.  When they attend conferences, your marketing messages are there in the form of speeches or seminars.  When they attend their industry trade shows, your marketing messages are there with them in the form of exhibits, samples or advertising specialties.  When they are reading their industry publications, your marketing messages are with them in the form of articles or display advertisements.  When they sort their mail, your marketing messages are there in the form of newsletters, postcards, or invitations to special events.  When they go on the Internet, your marketing messages are there in the form of web pages, links, and directory listings.

Your marketing messages put you there with your prospective customers.  You will catch their attention if your marketing messages are related to the topics that are on their minds at the time.

Include response mechanisms (addresses, phone, fax and e-mail numbers) with your marketing messages so that prospects can reach you when they are ready.  Anything you can do to convey an impression that it is easy to do business with you will help the prospect get ready to consider your products or services sooner.

Demonstrate the Value of Your Products and Services to their Current Priorities

Prospects may erroneously conclude that it’s more cost efficient to complete their current projects before spending time thinking about your product or service.  With technology and markets moving so fast, that may be a risky assumption on their part.  For example, it is often more efficient to consider the merits of several possible employee benefits than to review them one by one.  If you sell employee benefits, you could help your prospective customers reduce their administrative costs by speaking up and not passively accepting their “not yet” responses.

Perhaps your prospects are even approaching their major purchases in the wrong sequence.  Companies that start the process of purchasing computer hardware without first selecting their software come to mind.  When you offer to work very fast and prevent problems for them, your helpfulness positions you more as a partner and less as an outsider.  For example, a life insurance provider who explains who to fund a buy/sell agreement upon the death of a partner can prevent a world of problems for business partners.

 

STAGES OF READINESS

Not Everyone Will Be Ready at the Same Time

In working to accelerate the sales cycle, remember that your prospects’ quests to improve their companies did not start when you showed up.  Many will not reach a point where your product or service is relevant to them for quite some time.

Products and services that have long buying cycles are frequently considered at key points in the development of the organization.  Let’s say you sell telephone systems.  A start-up business may be receptive to a limited investment.  They will need to review their communications systems again when they have a steady base of customers.  When they grow to multiple locations, they will once again need to evaluate and consider new systems.

Timing plays a large role in the business-to-business marketing.  There is a continuum of readiness among prospective customers.  Keep this in mind as you work to build relationships that fit each prospect.  The following four stages of readiness can help you define and understand your prospects’ mindsets:

  • Preoccupied.  At this stage, your prospects are so preoccupied with their current priorities that they will not even notice your networking, seminars, exhibits, articles, advertisements, newsletters, and web sites.
  • Not-Yet.  This group of prospective customers might be interested in what you have to offer, but they need more time to “come out from under” their current obligations.   These prospects will want time to complete the major priorities that they currently have in motion before being asked to take on anything new.
  • Considering.  These prospects are considering adding the evaluation of your product or service to their next group of priorities.  If your marketing messages have been consistent, these prospective customers will have paused to listen or read your messages, or may have kept a few of your marketing items.
  • Ready.  These prospective customers recognize your topic as a high priority and are ready to discuss details.  If your marketing messages have been in their language, you may even be the only company contacted when these prospects are ready to buy.

Preoccupied Prospects

If one type of prospect never seems to move past being Preoccupied, your marketing manager should review your company’s databases for accuracy.  Maybe these people are not real prospects.  If they are, it is usually a good idea to make sure that your company’s marketing messages have been presented in the prospects’ language.  If the prospects are in an industry that your company wants to serve, focused market research can uncover what is important to those prospects.  Your marketing message or methods may need to be revised based on the findings.

Not-Yet Prospects

Not-Yet prospects have noticed at least some of your marketing messages.  If you respect their priorities, they may even talk with you about potential work “down the road.”  Use a marketing maintenance program for this group.  However, realistically, you’ll need to keep tabs on their progress.  This is a relationship-building stage for the salesperson.

Like all relationship-oriented sales situations, these prospects may not be ready to consider you because they don’t’ feel comfortable with you.  Don’t push.  They may be stalling in order to test your persistence or sincerity, and to give themselves time to get comfortable with you.

Considering Prospects

Considering prospects accept you as a possible vendor.  Keep your focus on moving from vendor status to consultant or advisor.  Unless you have a clear unique selling proposition, you’ll need to focus on building trust to differentiate yourself from competitors.  Helping prospects with other priorities when there’s no benefit to you is an important relationship-building technique.

Identify the concerns of these prospects and you will have a head start over your competitors.  Ask Considering prospects to tell you one thing that makes the transition from their current priorities difficult for them.  Armed with that knowledge, you can start working on solving that problem for them.  Prospects gain the value of your problem solving skills.   Plus, when you are ready to communicate your solution to that problem, you have another opportunity to accelerate the sales process.

An example of helping prospects solve problems is Southern New England Telephone’s 12-year co-sponsorship of the SUCCESS Symposium series of seminars for small businesses. Southern New England Telephone (SNET) has attracted 33 straight sellout crowds.  In addition to the good will that the seminars generate, the programs give SNET opportunities to develop relationships with owners of Connecticut’s small businesses before they make important decisions about local, long distance, or Internet services.

Ready Prospects

Once you have the attention of a prospective customer, apply classic sales skills such as listening, emphasizing benefits over features, tailoring services to their particular situation, and so forth.  If you’ve built a solid relationship, “closing” will involve mutual problem solving in an atmosphere of cooperation.  Remember, closing the sale is simply the opening of the serious relationship.  You don’t want to revert back to old-fashioned, hard-sell methods that may get one sale at the cost of the long-term relationship.

 

WHERE DOES YOUR COMPANY FIT?  

 A Mutual Selection Process

In the final analysis, you can’t force anyone to move up the buying continuum.  You can only invite them to move more quickly by building trust and demonstrating value and sincerity.  By the time the first order is closed, it should be anticlimactic – just a minor offshoot of a more central relationship.

At the same time that prospects are coming to trust you, you must evaluate their suitability as long-term clients.  Replace prospect groups who aren’t moving up the readiness continuum with another target industry or type of business that might at least move from Preoccupied to Not-Yet more quickly.

Sometimes, you will do best in seemingly unrelated industries.  For example, the approach of my growth strategy-consulting firm seems to best match the needs of high-tech communication companies, family-owned businesses, professional service firms, and distributors.  My venture capital firm has the best fit within service industries like hospitality and electronic bulletin boards.   When I started, I didn’t know that these industries would prove the most profitable.

 

HELPING PROSPECTS MOVE UP THE BUYING CONTINUUM

Use the following techniques to help prospects move up the readiness continuum.

Improve Coordination Between Marketing and Sales

The best way to move a Not-Yet prospect to the Considering stage is to have good coordination between your marketing and sales effort.  Without coordination, you will miss opportunities.  Marketing people will assume that the salespeople are handling something while the sales people assume that the marketing department is handling it.  When prospects fall between the cracks, nobody benefits.

Handling Considering Prospects

Paint a picture of a brighter future.  When prospects are just beginning to seriously consider you, they may not have a complete view of the benefits.  Not only will they need information, but they will need your help to imagine their future–a future that is better because you are there.  Most business-to-business sales people could learn from fashion designers who send computer generated photographs of their prospects wearing beautiful gowns in glamorous places.

Accept a boost from a strong friend.  You may know someone who has the ear of your prospect.  When prospects are not ready to talk with you, they may be open to listening to someone else.  For instance, motivational keynote speaker Mikki Williams landed a major account by asking five of her most prominent customers to make phone calls to a prospect.

Use transition campaigns.  My growth strategy-consulting firm has successfully utilized transition campaigns to advance Not-Yet prospects to Considering status.  Instead of emphasizing the benefits of our services – which the Not-Yet prospects have said they are not yet ready to consider – a transition-marketing campaign conveys three messages:

  • Genuine interest in prospects’ current priorities
  • An explanation of the connection between their current priorities and our normal area of focus
  • Ways to ease the transition from their current priorities to consideration of our services.

You want prospects to view these transition marketing messages as a free service because they have been helped rather than pushed.

You can convey transition messages via mass marketing techniques (and not feel prematurely forced to do more expensive one-on-one selling).  There are priorities that prospects predictably face prior to considering your products or services.  Once you know the typical patterns, you can have transition messages ready to send in the form of reprints of published articles, direct mail pieces or e-mail.  Prospects feel affirmed when they see articles about their exact situations, and prospects recognize and value your understanding of their situations.

Become a resource for quality referrals.  Sometimes your prospects’ priorities that must be met before purchasing your products or services are dramatically different from the solutions you offer.  In this case, familiarity with firms that provide those solutions can help speed movement up the readiness continuum while establishing you as a helpful consultant.

My firm’s interactions with Not-Yet prospects have become decidedly more productive because when prospects say they are “wrapped up in other priorities,” we believe them.  When you aren’t busy trying to convince prospects to do something else, you can more comfortably shift to a conversation about their current priorities.  Positioned as a source of constructive assistance, we can make solid referrals for other specialized services.  For instance, because distributors are one of our target industries, we keep up on ECLIPSE and other brands of inventory-management software.  Distributors return our calls when we phone to check on how their major investments in computer hardware and software have worked out – because we’ve helped them.

Expanding your products and services to address prospects’ priorities that typically come before yours.  Although it’s not the first option to consider, my company has sped up prospect readiness by broadening our range of services to address prospects’ needs that tend to take priority over use of our core services.  Accounting firms that create departments to select and install new computer systems for their prospects and clients are an example of this approach.  Once these firms have established a working relationship with a client about their computers, the move up the readiness continuum regarding their accounting services proceeds faster.  The firm that provides both computer and accounting-related services usually has a head start over competitors that only provide only accounting services.

 

BUILD RELATIONSHIPS WHILE YOU WAIT

One indirect benefit of longer sales cycles is that you have more time to build rapport with prospects.  Whatever techniques you use to try to accelerate the sales cycle, make sure you don’t harm the potential long-term relationship.  Repeat business is where the major profits lie.  The first sale is only your starting point.

Take the opportunity to learn more about your prospect.  When service providers misinterpret “not yet” as “no,” they miss opportunities to get to know their prospective customers.  Sometimes prospective customers do not realize that they are revealing important information when they discuss priorities that do not directly relate to our core services.  We can learn how to view vendors, if they are organized, if they are logical and fair, what is important to them, how fast they move, how their decisions are made, and so forth.  This information can come in very handy when it’s your turn to submit a proposal.

Start treating the prospect like a customer.  We have found that it’s a good idea to add the Considering prospects to our distribution list for some of the special services that are offered to our clients.  It’s relatively easy to include prospects in book discount programs, special newsletters, referral services, on line chat sessions, and seminars.   Several of our clients have created “Friends Of” programs to begin providing special incentives for their prospects while maintaining strong client-only programs.  Simple gestures like inviting a prospective client to attend a Chamber of Commerce function with you can speed up their movement from Considering to Ready.

Spread your contacts.  The prospects that have told you that they are busy and cannot consider your products or services at this time may not be the only persons involved with buying decisions.  It pays to send information about your products and services to an expanded group of people within prospective companies.  Someone else may not be quite as preoccupied.  For example, office equipment salespeople who first pitch their products to me do much better if they figure out that their future calls and literature should be directed to our office manager.

Build credibility in their eyes.  Not-Yet prospects like to be remembered but not pestered.  Sending a copy of an article relevant to their situation will be appreciated, but kept the cover note short.  If your name is in front of them, it’s more likely that they will think of you when they move up to Ready.

 

RECOGNIZE THE VALUE OF HAVING PROSPECTS FROM ALL FOUR CATEGORIES

Salespeople sometimes fantasize about having only Ready prospects active in their contact management systems.  But if prospects came to you ready to buy, you wouldn’t have time to get to know each other.  Without the foundation of a solid relationship, how could you differentiate yourself from other vendors?  Ready prospects would largely be price shoppers dealing with commodities.  That’s not where you want to be.

Ready prospects can slip down the continuum to Considering when you least expect it.  If you haven’t been working with Considering prospects, you may miss cues or not understand what is important to people who have not yet found time for you. Similarly, Preoccupied prospects can suddenly advance to Ready.  You would not want to lose accounts merely because you were out of touch with these prospects.  The most successful salespeople I know work on all four groups simultaneously to keep their sales pipelines flowing.

 

Relationship Readiness

Looking at your prospects along a continuum of readiness will be a good parallel as you look at them along a relationship-building continuum.  The two will move together closely.  But each will give you ideas on how to behave to enhance the relationship and the likelihood and speediness of the sale.

Tracking the movement of your prospects along the readiness continuum will help you tailor your messages, see what is working, feel a sense of progress, focus on long-term relationships, and build momentum.  All of these actions will help you produce more sales.

 

Known as The Growth Strategist®, Aldonna R. Ambler, CMC, CSP helps professional service firms, technology-driven businesses, and construction-related product/service for distribution companies reach their goal of Achieving Accelerated Growth With Sustained Profitability® through a combination of speaking, consulting, executive coaching, authorship, and growth financing.  She has executed an ESOP, grown multiple international businesses, won just about every major award an entrepreneur can win, provided expert testimony on economic growth at over 30 legislative hearings, conferred with 4 different Presidents in the Oval Office, and published two books and over 100 articles.  She currently hosts a weekly Internet radio show, The Growth Strategist®, every Tuesday at 11 a.m. ET at www.GrowthStrategistShow.com.  Aldonna Ambler can be reached at Aldonna@AMBLER.com, 1-888-ALDONNA (253-6662) or at www.ambler.com.

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