"Moving fast isn't the same as getting somewhere."
– Robert Anthony
When my first real band fell apart I put together a new one, recruiting a couple friends and a brand-new drummer. We set out to play paid gigs around Ohio, following a band called The Brothers Grimm. That meant playing four sets a night, mostly covers—as Ray Davies of the Kinks sang, "Give the people what they want!"
We rehearsed for three hours every day for months, following a simple rule: if any of us could play a given song, we all had to learn to play it. That sometimes meant following Metallica's “For Whom the Bell Tolls” with "My Sharona" by the Knack. Soon enough, all of us could play entire albums—everything by AC/DC and Van Halen, along with more than enough Led Zeppelin. Cobbling together a set of ZZ Top, Joe Walsh, and a dash of Lynyrd Skynyrd saved us from being thrown off the stage by crowds that weren’t, in hindsight, quite ready for Megadeth. We ended up with a repertoire of 500 cover songs, allowing us to play for many hours without repeating a song.
One day, we were asked to open for a band with a much bigger following, at the best venue in Columbus: The Alrosa Villa. It was our first time at the Villa, so we settled on an energetic, high-tempo opener: Van Halen's “Atomic Punk.” Unfortunately, when our drummer started the song, setting the pace for the rest of us, he started playing at half tempo. We all knew that our worst possible option was to turn around and glare at the drummer, turning our backs on the audience to tell him (and everyone in the room) that he was ruining our performance. But one by one, that’s what we had to do, and the set went downhill from there.
The idea here is called tempo giusto, setting the right tempo, and it’s just as important when it comes to sales. We live in a world where people worship speed, often elevating it above quality outcomes. One of my favorite restaurants wanted to turn tables faster, so they increased the speed at which they delivered the food. But when I’m having a romantic dinner with my wife, our main outcome is to spend time with each other—not to start chowing down four minutes after we sit down. Focusing on speed leads to conflict between businesses and customers, especially if you accelerate your sales cycle too far ahead of your client.
Important Principles to Improve Your Sales Cycle
With so many sales organizations trying to shrink their sales cycles, let’s start by agreeing on a few principles:
- Winning a new opportunity is better than losing it.
- Satisfying your contact’s needs may require more meetings for some clients than for others.
- If you have to choose between shortening your sales cycle and winning a deal by giving your prospect more time, take the win.
The Need for Speed
Shortening the sales cycle is supposed to let you close more deals in the same amount of time, a laughable goal when your prospective clients are weighted down with uncertainty about their future. In the increasing complex environment we find ourselves in, it’s just wrong to pressure clients into a decision—especially when they lack the experience to decide confidently and when the wrong call could devastate their company’s results.
In a complex sale, there is little to be gained by going faster. Sales is not Mario Kart: if you put your client in the rearview mirror, all you’ll see is them waving goodbye as they start looking for another salesperson. More to the point, the need for speed makes you self-oriented, putting your results far above your client’s needs. Four-star steakhouses should not try to imitate the McDonald’s drive-through, and consultative salespeople should not give their clients transactional experiences.
The Best Way to Control Your Sales Cycle
I am looking for a new primary care doctor, not least because my current doctor’s employer limits him to seven minutes with each patient. Fortunately, there are new models of health care that recognize this transactional system is no longer adequate for patients who want to be proactive about their health. What one business won’t do, another will.
Likewise, there is a way to take control of your sales cycle while being more consultative, removing some of the slack (and giving your client enough time) without ruining they experience of the buyer's journey you are facilitating. My best resource for controlling the process is The Lost Art of Closing: Winning the 10 Commitments That Drive Sales, combined with the Closing Simulator in Accelerator. Here’s what you can expect.
In a first meeting, but not first thing, you provide your client a roadmap of the conversations they are most likely to need and advice on who should participate. While explaining the different meetings, you can explain why each one is important to the client and their future results. This approach opens a dialogue about who needs to be part of these future conversations—including who will eventually need to approve and sign a contract. At this point you should recommend inviting this person to an early meeting, so they don’t need to play catch-up on the initiative before they approve a spending decision.
You are asking your client here to agree a process, the series of meetings. The art here—professionals don’t need tricks—is creating so much value early on that your prospective client can readily agree to a series of next steps. By asking for more commitment at the appropriate time, after you’ve clearly established that value, you demonstrate your professionalism. Specifically, you need to explain their buyer's journey, show how it serves them, and increase their engagement. You are not likely to create enough value to earn this commitment if your primary strategy for discovery is asking your client about their problem.
You're also going to establish that you have the expertise and insights to give a useful perspective on their business and their results. You are better off increasing your effectiveness than trying to reduce your number of meetings—effectively cheating the client out of your input and expertise. Your effectiveness and your ability to control the process will improve your sales cycle and improve your win rates.
Always sell in a way that gives you an absolute right to the next deal. If that requires giving your client more time, you'll get all that time back and more when you don't have to compete for their business—and when they trust you enough to allow you to pitch them what comes next.