As soon as you put the words ‘business’ and ‘long sales cycle’ together it’s easy to become quite fearful when you are but a small startup. You need that traction now, not in 12 months’ time when you don’t even know if you’ll still be doing what you’re doing right now. But the old adage of ‘patience is a virtue’ rings true here more than ever - you just need to add a bit of grit into the mix too.
For context, our business offers a product for managing and motivating sales team members through real-time competitions and digital displays. There are a lot of moving parts where the data flow from the client’s systems are concerned - calling solutions, CRMs, financial systems etc. This, combined with finding the ‘right’ time to launch the product into a company and all the ‘sorry, lets pick this up next month’ emails you receive can lead to sales cycles as long as 12 months (sometimes as short as two weeks - but that’s not what this article is about).
We’ve had sales meeting after sales meeting to answer the question of; ‘how do we get our clients to move forward with us at a faster pace?’ There were three key takeaways we feel have improved the speed at which prospects move through the pipeline, even when they’re monolithic corporates.
1. Don’t offer dates, give them
One of the biggest influencers in moving a deal forward is how we present dates to a prospect. Here’s an example:
‘Okay Mr X, let’s get a meeting in the calendar - how’s next Wednesday?’
‘Hmm, next Wednesday isn’t so good for me.’
‘Okay, when works for you?’
‘Let me get back to you on that.’
What’s the problem here? You’re leaving the ball in their court. They’re now dictating when the deal moves. There’s an art to sales, one I’m far from a master in, but I know that the best sales person guides you to a deal’s close and never truly loses control. How about the below:
‘Okay Mr X, I’m keen to move this forward as soon as we can - I’ll pencil in a demo on Wednesday next week for 2 pm and I’ll speak to you then.’
Here you’re literally saying ‘here’s when we’re meeting’. It’s very direct and comes with momentum, so it’s a lot harder to softly deflect away. Responses I’ve had to this include:
‘Hmm, I’ve got a meeting at that time, Derry; can we do 2.30pm instead?’
‘I’m on annual leave next week - can we do something next week instead?’
Any of these statements should have you snapping at their heels to provide an alternative.
‘Okay great, let’s say next Monday at the same time - I’ll send you a calendar invite. Have a great week and I’ll speak to you then.’
Does this always mean that meeting always happens when you expect? Of course not, plans change all the time. But don’t be afraid to take the bull by the horns and steer it to where you want to go. Otherwise, you might just find you’re the one being taken for a 12-month ride like we were in the early days.
2. Get the signature before you start
One thing we learnt early on was that sending software agreements over email at random points in negotiations often resulted in them being ignored. Whether it was mid-trial, pre-trial or even at the end of it, we’d have to chase and chase to get a signature (and with it, payment).
So, what did we change? A couple of things:
- We take blank software agreements to all of our meetings now. It gives the prospect the chance to review the terms and we can agree on pricing and contract length there and then. We walk away with a signature, they walk away with an agreed action plan: win-win in my books.
- We require a signature before we start any work. We won’t build an integration (unless they’re pre-integrated) or carry out extensive work until we have that dotted line signed else we could be wasting our time.
There’s a great example recently of the latter. A very small company asked for a trial without signing a software agreement. It’s a risk, and we’ve done it for larger companies, but we often find they’re more serious about it due to all the time and people they have to invest in arranging it. Smaller companies can take you for a ride - play with the product for the trial then go ‘eh, we’ll build it ourselves one day’.
We lost this small company’s business but potentially saved ourselves days of work to get them up and running. Alarm bells should be ringing if they aren’t happy to sign - be wary!
3. Make the process clear
When you set out on a journey, you like to know when you expect to arrive. Imagine setting out for work in the morning with no idea what time you’ll arrive - you just wouldn’t do it. So, why do it with your clients?
Timelines, processes and expectations need to be defined early on. If it’s going to take four months to get started, let them know. If you need two weeks before you can meet them, let them know. Even better, tell them what every step of the process looks like in terms of timing. Here’s an example of ours:
- Initial contact: Wednesday July 5
- Demo: Booked for Thursday 13 July
- Second demo to stakeholders: Tuesday 18 July
- Physical meeting: Wednesday 26 July
- Negotiate, review and sign software agreement: 11 August
- Integrate systems: 1 September
- On boarding training: 5 September
- Begin with platform: 11 September
These dates look very far apart, but when you’re selling to directors and C-level staff, schedules can get pretty full! This is quite a realistic pipeline for us - two months from initial contract to close. And that’s with a ‘good’ client. Some are great and move through in weeks, others can take nine, 10, even 12 months. Hold ups their end, a stacked out development pipeline at our end, delays due to system changes; all sorts can go wrong.
There are many other improvements you can make to your sales pipeline and sometimes they aren’t always obvious or easy. I’m a developer by trade, not a salesman - I hate asking for payment or a signature, but when my business lives or dies because of not receiving one of them, I have to start asking for both repeatedly. Spend a couple of hours discussing with your co-founders or advisors what really slows down your prospects progressing and what you can do to affect that. If you’ve got any questions or just want a chat, you can reach me on [email protected].
Derry Holt was a finalist in The Pitch 2016 with his business One Up Sales. The Pitch offers an inspiring programme of advice, ideas and events; we want to educate and empower entrepreneurs and early-stage startups to succeed in business. Applications are open now - find out more here!