Lengthy sales cycles represent a revenue suck that SaaS companies can struggle to break free of. Longer sales cycles can lengthen time to profitability and disguise other problems with sales processes and rep performance, as well as leaving the same deals floating in the pipeline seemingly forever.
Here’s what you need to know for a shorter sales cycle.
Longer sales cycles consume resources and lengthen the time to profitability. That’s a big issue for SaaS companies that already struggle with a front-loaded sales process and a backloaded income stream. You’re paying for sales now, but your income doesn’t come in in a big lump. So you can find yourself pulling in a bunch of big deals and still actually losing money. It’s the natural result of the SaaS model coupled with the very high rates of growth required of startups and even midstage SaaS companies.
Inside the deal process itself, the clock is running too. The longer a deal is on the table, the less likely it is to get signed. And yet, the closer to a resolution you get the more the objections, pleas for more time and prevarications increase - and that’s true even of highly qualified leads.
It’s not customers not knowing how to get rid of you and you’ve got to shove the deal down their throats - if that ever worked it doesn’t now. Think you can pull it on the CXO of a multimillion company? Good luck. It’s just natural: as the deal becomes more imminent, prospects seek clarification. They want to look at more data and they want time to think it over. That’s fair.
Trouble is, with a longer time to profitability and a longer deal length you’re going to be losing money for longer.
Eyeball Your Sales Cycle
To pull sales cycle time down, you need to understand you sales cycle in a granular way.
Start with data. Use Salesforce’s dashboards or whatever tool fits with your CRM to show you what’s happening at each funnel stage. Are deals loitering just before closure, or further up the funnel? Clarifying what’s happening at each stage of the cycle lets you concentrate your efforts on the appropriate members of the sales team and the appropriate tech and content to support them.
Speaking of the team, that’s your other source of understanding. Get hold of them and ask them what’s happening. They’ll give you information no analytics tool can deliver.
When you put the two together, you’ll be in a position to identify which reps have the longest sales cycles, and which have the longest individual stages. So if Jack has the longest sales cycle overall but his qualification stage is really short, while Nancy has an average length sales cycle with a very long qualification stage, these two can both provide great ideas about how to coach reps.
You can talk to Nancy about why she has such a long qualification stage, and maybe suggest some of Jack’s ideas to her; meanwhile, Nancy’s shorter cycle overall could help provide the clues as to how Jack can fix his process.
Aside from reps and the data on the stage-by-stage of your sales cycle, you should also compare your sales cycle with your loss cycle.
Your loss cycle is the sales that don’t make it. The biggest difference between these two is that time spent in the sales cycle eventually pays off: the additional time Nancy spends qualifying might be less efficient but at the end of her cycle is a deal and revenue for the company. Every second spent on a loss is time thrown away. The time a loss stays in the pipeline before falling out is time that could have been spent on a productive deal. Identifying loss cycle stages and killing off deals with no future as soon as possible is one of the best things you can do to make your overall sales process more efficient.
… And Your Prospects’ Buying Cycle
Understanding your sales process requires an understanding of your prospects’ buying process.
At each stage of the cycle that you identified earlier, do the same thing for prospects as you did for reps: look at what moved them to the next stage. What did the prospects who became your best customers need at each stage in order to progress? Knowing the answer to this for each step along the funnel will give you the opportunity to give prospects what they need to make the move they want, rather than trying to herd them through the funnel as quickly as possible.
How do you get this data? Reps, CRM and customers. If your reps are logging activities in CRM you can see the trail that led up to each conversion on the path to purchase. If you consistently see that everyone who was qualified saw the same webinar, make showing that to leads a part of every rep’s process.
Talk to reps and ask them what customers say. If four-fifths of reps say prospects want more hard facts, you know what to supply them with.
And don’t forget to talk to prospects and customers. Ask them what they like and what they wish they would have seen more of, in terms of contact, rep behaviors, content and everything else. There’s nowhere else to get this information and it’s gold dust.
Never Be Closing
No-one likes to be closed. Making closing the gold standard for sales rep behavior is unproductive because prospects don’t like it. And Neil Rackham, in SPIN Selling, identified that the most successful enterprise level sales people used the least closing techniques. They didn’t close the deals - they sold professionally and the deals closed.
For sales people, the pressure needs to be off so they can concentrate on helping and advising without being up against the wall for their paycheck.
And that starts with the organization having a selling process in place that means reps can make the grade at each step and expect to make a good amount of sales at the end.
Ratcheting up quotas doesn’t increase sales, just stress, and many of the reps who can’t hack it could have been good performers with the right training. The way to shorten your sales cycle isn’t to make everyone pedal faster. In fact, what you really need is to train reps to see deals as projects to be organized, managed and completed.
Qualify Early, Or, The Cylinder And The Martini Glass
Many of us aspire to a sales funnel that looks basically cylindrical: in an ideal world we’d sell to everyone.
In practice, most funnels look more funnel-shaped. But we shouldn’t want a cylindrical funnel, or even a funnel-shaped one. We should go upmarket a little and look for a martini glass funnel, with a wide top and narrow stem.
This bar room metaphor has a point: the most efficient funnels are those where qualification happens early and effectively. InsightSquared says their research found the fastest growing SaaS businesses were ‘ruthless’ about it. That wide top is all the leads that didn’t make it because they were never going to be good customers. Stripping them out of the pipeline before any more time and effort was spent on them improved efficiency and removed leads who were never going to give you anything but excuses and objections.
The other side of qualifying early is turning that idea of qualification on its head and almost looking for reasons not to pursue a deal. Tibor Shanto says:
‘Once you are actively engaged with a prospect, you should start thinking about disqualifying, specifically deals that are not likely to close now ("now" meaning current or the next sales cycle).’
Run Processes In Parallel
Most sales organizations run their sales processes in sequence. One finishes and another starts. But that’s not the most efficient way of doing it. Instead, run all qualified sales processes simultaneously.
This has powerful implications in the age of consensus sales. Working to get a decision maker’s green light is the beginning, not the end, of a process that can involve an average of 5.4 people from up to five departments.
Chasing them one after the other lengthens your sales cycle. Instead, once you have the go-ahead for each stage of the sale process, do everything in parallel - sell to all the decision makers simultaneously.
You can offer this as a service to prospects. Tell them: now we know we’d be a good fit, we’re going to approach everyone we need to have on board to make sure we’re ready to roll this out and get you started [benefiting from our value prop].
Your prospects’ expectations about the process have a major effect on how they’ll behave. If you’re getting those more-time objections a little too often you should think about coaching to set time, contact and process expectations during initial contacts. When you make qualifying calls, tell those prospects when you’d usually contact them. If they don’t want to hear from you at 9 AM, let them choose when you call.
Ask for commitment in return. John Barrows encourages reps to ask clients, ‘As we go through this process, if you need anything from me, I promise I will get back to you within 24 hours. What should I expect from you?’ and says, ‘If they tell me a week, then I will wait a week on my follow-up. But when I do follow up a week later, I’m going to hold them accountable and remind them what they committed to me.’
Psychologists have shown that open-ended processes with no time limit or structure are more cognitively demanding and emotionally stressful. If that’s what it’s like being part of your sales process, it makes the whole business of dealing with you uncomfortable.
A better way is to let prospects know what the usual sales process is. You’re not giving away any secrets, but when you call them and they know you’re going to be on the phone for ten minutes maximum, they can quiet the worry they’re feeling about how much time this is going to take up.
Oh, and the elephant in the room: price. Start talking about it early. Whatever your pricing, it’s lower than what your prospect is afraid of hearing after they’ve invested their own time and energy in the sale process, only to have pricing dropped on them at the last minute. Being up-front about pricing pays off.
Tying It All Together: Use MAPs
We’ve talked about how reps should have project manager-like approaches to sales, and we’ve discussed clarifying the process with prospects and getting clarification from them in return. And we’ve talked about reaching agreements with prospects about how to move forward.
A MAP - Mutual Action Plan - is a codification of that. It’s a document you’d share with a client that lets you and your clients agree on what you’ll both do - a contract for the sales process, in essence. John Affourtit of SparkCentral shared a dummy version with BoweryCap.com, though making one isn’t all that hard.
Again, there’s an element of qualification - no-one who isn’t actually interested will agree to this, and anyone who does has set out what you and they can expect from each other. No surprises, stalling or confusion means a clearer, faster sales process that benefits everyone.
Shortening your sales cycle increases revenue, makes each rep’s work more effective and hastens the ramp to profitability. The key to a shorter sales cycle is an agreement between clients and reps, and the most effective way to get that is by being as upfront as possible and encouraging clients to do the same.