Surefire Ways to Shorten the Sales Cycle

Of course you want to secure business as soon as possible and put that commission in your pocket. Here are seven tips for quicker results. By Manasee WagH

On the surface, sellers and buyers might seem to be playing tug of war. While the seller wants a quick, profitable exchange, the buyer might stall for time and express doubt about getting a good deal. It doesn't have to be that difficult.

The means to a swift and satisfying sale lies in knowing your customer, a mantra repeated over and over by sales professionals specializing in a diverse array of products and services. It's a common thread that runs through these essential recommendations to a shorter sales cycle, from approaching customers to closing the deal.

1 Offer High Quality and Stellar Service

This point seems self-explanatory, but bears repeating. If the product being sold isn't good quality, then customers will disappear, says Lisa Peskin, CEO of Business Development University (BDU) based in Fort Washington, PA.

Her company helps sales and sales management professionals in business, financial institutions and banks maximize their sales potential. Part of her job is to help them close more business deals and exceed sales goals and expectations. After more than 25 years of experience in sales performance and management, Peskin is armed with a reputation for getting results.

However, filling the pipeline to ensure you keep the goods and services flowing means finding new customers and pulling them back for repeat business. Building relationships and showing you care about a client's needs is so important, Peskin adds.

"No one likes being sold anything," she says. "Instead, figure out how to help a company or an individual with your product or service, and you both win."

Though the goal is to shorten the sales cycle, sometimes the time spent making sure the product or service is the best you can offer is worth it in the long run. Nelson Penalver, director of Logistical Outsourcing (asi/255497), says his company takes an extra step by providing solutions to problems customers didn't know they had. Penalver says doing your homework about how to improve a client's business can impress and lead to a quicker sale.

His company, which sells marketing products and printing and promotional item services for many large outfits, provided one client a self-assembling display that had the client coming back for more business.

In dealing with TracFone Wireless, he saw an opportunity to improve that company's promotional methods.

"Their promotions at trade shows are always the same, like a coffee mug, a mouse pad, that kind of thing," Penalver says. "It wasn't attracting much attention, so I created a solution for them that turned out a better display. I was coming in from the get-go, telling them about this issue they have and giving them a better solution using the products and services we provide."

2 Customize With Consideration and Creativity

Dean Schwartz, president and owner of SOBO Concepts (asi/329592) in Miami, FL, says his company's promotional products and branded apparel aren't just a vehicle for T-shirts and mugs with logos slapped on them. Instead, they value each client's unique needs. Like Penalver, Schwartz says it's important to suggest customized options. "We design the products," he says. "It's part of how we differentiate ourselves. That way, we can create a custom look and be as unique as possible with our orders."

Forming a relationship with the client and smartly narrowing down the choices for purchase allows SOBO to speed up the sales cycle. "Getting to know them means we will have the credibility to do what they need," Schwartz says. "We'll know their brand."

Of course, it's quicker to do the logo slap, and that's something the company struggles with every day. It takes more work at the front end to mock up design options and to talk to customers about their specific needs, but providing prototypes ultimately helps clients to envision the product and prevents a lot of back and forth communication to finalize the order.

Though creating a quick sales cycle is not his company's primary goal, Schwartz says creativity is what gives SOBO Concepts an edge in a competitive world. Its clients include law firms, hotels and MasterCard.

In the long run, the company has been able to shorten its sales cycle and open new avenues of business, such as redesigning an entire chain of chocolate shops bought by one of SOBO Concepts' clients, a private equity firm. The process ran smoothly and quickly because the company had already gotten to know the ins and outs of its client's needs, says Schwartz.

In another, similar case, his company noticed that a hotel client with which it had a deal for promotional T-shirts lacked a lobby location for selling the shirts. SOBO Concepts wowed the hotel by designing a secure art deco fixture that attracted attention and served a practical purpose.

"So it's a lot more than just designing the T-shirt. We're trying to find out what their objective is, and how to help them from a marketing standpoint, vs. just being an order-taker," says Schwartz. As a result of this perspective, subsequent deals with clients are generally completed more quickly, he says.

Sellers also need to do their homework about competing products. Nicole McNamee, director of business development at Boundless Network (asi/143717), an Austin, TX company that improves how organizations buy and manage branded merchandise, has been in the sales industry for 10 years.

When McNamee sells a card wallet, a product that attaches to the back of a phone and holds business or credit cards, she actually recommends a cheaper brand to her high-end buyers, because it's the only one that won't demagnetize a hotel room key.

"I'll say, 'here's the price for this one and here's the price for that one, but here's the one you need to get and why,'" she says. "Customers appreciate that."

3 Get On the Same Page

Walking a customer through the sales process can require much legwork, research and a thorough understanding of both the customer's needs and your own as the salesperson. First, avoid flat-out cold-calling if you can. It's the most inefficient way to bring new clients into the fold, says Peskin. "For every 10 prospects that you cold-call, maybe three will give a positive response," she says.

A better way to increase that ratio is to find more qualified prospects through referrals. Taking advantage of a personal connection could enhance positive responses from 75% to 100% of potential customers, she says.

In addition, you will only be effective if you deal with a decision-maker, Peskin advises. Salespeople can waste a lot of time trying to make deals with people who aren't actually in a position to make final decisions.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, the distant whisper of closing a deal is already present at the start of the sales cycle. "You need to let the customer know up front what the process to close will entail," Peskin says.

Do your research prior to the first meeting or conversation. That fact-finding draws a picture of the individual you will be meeting, to help build business rapport and be on more stable footing in terms of knowing the client's needs. The seller should provide basic information, such as how long the meeting is expected to last, the agenda and what the seller's expectations are. The seller also needs to ask customers what their expectations are for the meeting.

"You can set the stage for the meeting by saying, 'I'll tell you my ideas as to what makes sense," says Peskin. "If everything looks good, we'll move forward.' I've let them know at the end of the conversation that we'll talk about next steps. Help move things along."

One way to speed up the sales cycle from the start is to find out if the person you're dealing with is willing to make a decision to buy on the spot. "If the customer says yes about moving forward, you know you're in," she says.

4 Quantify Success

Of course, salespeople must understand know how to present their ideas before starting any negotiation. Peskin recommends quantifying what success means for the client. Not only should the customer be a good fit for a seller's business, but their business objectives, their ideas and their budget should be clear. Keep asking questions until you know.
For example, a customer might be involved in trade shows. "Find out how many trade shows they are doing and how many pieces of merchandise they want," Peskin says. "Are they high end or low end? What are their criteria, and what are some other alternatives they'd be open to?"

Further questions: What's their decision-making timeline? When do they actually need what you're delivering? What kind of budget do they have and what do they consider must-have and like-to-have? "If I don't know that stuff up front, I'm not setting myself up in the best way," Peskin says. She suggests using prefacing phrases to prompt more information, such as "just so I'm clear," and "if you don't mind me asking."

Penalver agrees that lot of evaluation is needed, including looking at what the buyer's past experience has been with similar projects. When it comes to promotional products, the sales cycle can get very long, as seller and buyer negotiate alternatives. Part of Penalver's sales strategy involves presenting the client with samples without being asked. If they see the result up front, it not only saves time making a decision, but it's more impressive.

One size doesn't fit all, he adds. "Every opportunity is different. It all depends on the relationship you have with the person on the account," he says.

5 Handle Objections Helpfully

Of course, objections may crop up with every sale. The client may also have hidden reservations that are never expressed outright. Perhaps they are already seriously considering another vendor, or they don't trust you. How the salesperson handles objections can tip a customer who's on the fence one way or the other.

Be frank about wanting to assist with client's initiatives. Ask them to be honest about what is making them hesitate. Then address each objection patiently and stress that as a seller, you are looking for ways to help the client. As always, the better you get to know customers and their needs, the more likely it is you will be able to overcome any unwillingness to make a deal.

Heading off objections also comes down to asking as many questions as possible at the front end of the sales cycle. "Really understand not only your buyer, but also the end recipient of the product or service," McNamee says. "For example, the type of buyer who only wears Prada and is looking for a passport cover is not going to want to see cheaper plastic covers, but something more high end."

Some of her buyers are millionaire hotel owners who have everything. They appreciate not dealing with a lot of back and forth during the process, because it wastes their time. It also wastes the sales rep's time. "So I send a quote with six products and tell them my favorites," she says. "I say, 'this is what you need to buy.' Ninety percent of the time they go with what I suggest."

A technique Penalver uses to ensure a bump-free journey to closing is to anticipate what the problems barring a sale might be and head them off. That saves time.

As a sponsor for Sandals events and products, his company researches their resort needs and suggests new ideas to them. "They see me as a partner," he says. "I anticipate the problems and solve them, and so I control the sales cycle. If the client comes to you with a problem and tells you the solution, you are limited in what you can do, and they control the sales cycle. Even if you propose another solution, there's a lot of back and forth."

6 Seal the Deal

Assuming the deal moved forward, sales experts say face-to-face closings are best. "Close in person if you can or set up an appointment for the final decision," says Peskin. While various techniques work, she cites a few that she has used successfully.

"You can do an assumptive close, say 'all we need to know is how many colors and we'll be good to go,'" she says. "Or give them an alternative choice, say 'did you want to get 500 or would you like 1,000?'" In other words, if the customer is already ready to close a deal, you can push a bit harder and make the customer more likely to say yes. Offer choices at each step of the closing process, so that the customer doesn't waste time thinking about too many alternatives.

Pushing a promotion, such as an imminent sale, sweetening the deal by offering a discount if available from your supplier, or putting the sale in the context of a solution that can solve the customer's problems can all tip the customer's hand to signing the deal.

7 Stay Organized and Focused for Future Sales

If you maintain a positive attitude and stay organized throughout the sales process, clients will appreciate you and think of you the next time they need a marketing partner.

Having the right mindset to deal with the complexities of juggling different accounts may not always be easy. There are apps that can help reps organize "to-do" lists and projects. McNamee uses an online tracking system (Asana) that helps her keep in touch with recent and past buyers, as well as get to know prospective clients. This builds trust and credibility, which expedites future sales.

However, McNamee's focus on building client relationships is not all digital. She sends handwritten thank-you notes to buyers after closing a deal. She also sends potential clients notes to tell them more about herself, and also sends goodies in the mail to help them remember her.

Penalver agrees that it's important to follow up after a deal closes, in part to boost the possibility of a quicker sale to the same client in the future. He contacts buyers post-deal to talk to them about how his company's services are working for them. "When you become part of the family, you become their first option," he says.

Manasee Wagh is a PA-based freelance writer for Advantages.