December 18, 2015

The Unexpected Benefits of Aligning Sales Cycles to Buy Cycles

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This is a guest post from Tibor ShantoPrincipal at Renbor Sales Solutions Inc. Tibor has been a sales leader for over 25 years, helping companies increase results, sell better, and translate strategy into results.  As a Sales Execution Specialist, Tibor focuses is on critical aspects of tactical execution and adoption of sales initiatives.  Tibor develops salespeople who understand that success in sales is about Execution – Everything Else Is Just Talk!

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One of the most positive business developments in the last few years is the desire to break the barrier between marketing and sales. Companies are now working to align and coalesce the two departments around one single theme: revenue.

As with any steps forward, new challenges arise. How Chief Revenue Officers choose to deal with these challenges will determine their success, pace of evolution, or lack of measurable progress.

While some may not like the analogy, I have always viewed revenue teams much like units of an armed force. Let’s be clear: we are not fighting our clients; we are fighting for revenue that is also sought by others.

In that battle, marketing provides air cover for the ground troops: sales. Marketing, sales, and other assets are used to different degrees throughout the client life cycle, based on the reality on the ground. Sometimes it’s all sales, other times marketing is in the lead — each leveraging available resources required to achieve defined objectives. Success is usually characterized by alignment and coordination.

One interesting outcome of this revenue team formation is how they utilize key resources — none more crucial than time. One can’t emphasize enough that time is the only true non-renewable resource. As a result, timing becomes crucial to revenue success.

One element of time that needs to be addressed more effectively is the actual length of sales cycle, as well as the stages within that cycle. In fact, calling it a “sales cycle” contributes to the problem, as it drives misalignment with the most important participant in the process: the buyer.

For the buyer, it is a “buying cycle.”

Sticking with the sales side for a moment, I invite you to ask sales people how long the average length of their cycle is. Their reflex response is often, “It depends.” Then they set a number that sounds good but isn’t based on data. Ask a marketer the length of the sales cycle and after a long prologue, they’ll land on a different number (usually longer) than sales. But since there are three players, we need to ask the buyer the length of the buy cycle. And you’ll get a different number again.

Unless those three timelines are aligned — and you would think that it should be aligned to the customer —  you run the risk of losing the sale or, at a minimum, extending the length of the sale. This in turn requires more resources, which increases the cost of sale and opportunity loss risk, as your team is occupied with other things.

So while many salespeople and sales leaders spend effort trying to shorten their sales cycles, they should actually try to shorten the buy cycle. One of the primary functions of the revenue team should be figuring out how to make it easier for the buyer to buy, which reduces the timelines and related costs in the process.    

The first step, aligning around the buyer’s process, should seem easy enough. Once you know that, you can line up you assets (the message, touch points, etc.) as needed and sell in a way that supports the buyer’s journey. To do this, salespeople have historically gone out and asked their buyer’s what their buying process is and how long their buying cycle is. Marketing does their own research as to expectations and what buyers anticipate. Which would all be good — if, in fact, the data was dependable, which is not always the case.

There is a naive underlying assumption that the data and information provided by the buyer is accurate. But there is a difference between buyers’ expectations as to what it will take to make the purchase, how long that takes, and the actual length of the cycle. As it turns out, buying cycles are much longer than many buyers anticipate. There are many reasons for this, and for a great exploration of the topic, readThe Challenger Customer” by the folks at CEB.

In simple terms, it is hard to hit a target that is not there.

The goal here is not to abandon everything the revenue team is doing, but perhaps borrow an element from manufacturing, the concept of “Just In Time.” Know what assets you need at each stage of the buying decision, then use them in a way that not only moves the process forward, but helps eliminate or reduce things that slow down the buying cycle.

The challenge for many in sales and marketing is this usually has little to do with the product. This is why I always tell salespeople to leave their product in the car (with the window cracked so it can breathe).

Instead, focus on clarifying the buyer’s objectives — and there could be multiple objectives, so you’ll need to prioritize. Leveraging your experience, i.e., 360o Deal View, you can see clear milestones and turning points in the buy process. Knowing those, and what moves buyers past those, will allow you to deliver the right information at the right point. This reduces stall and builds confidence in the decision the buyer is about to make.

This will take effort. Not just figuring out the right assets, but coordinating those internally.  Again, this is especially a challenge for those coming from a product world. But once you do take the product out of it — and put the focus on the buying flow — you are able to help the buyer shorten their buying cycle, or feel more confident in disqualifying those buyers that are not likely to complete their buying cycle. This will require change, new resources, and habits. But not as much as the costs related to endless cycles, or the frustration and costs related to guessing at things rather than proactively executing things.  

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