How long is your sales process?

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One of the early questions I ask prospective customers with a complex, B2B sale is, “how long is your sales process?”

The answer is almost always, “it depends, it can be three to eighteen months depending …”

In the past few years we’ve all gained a stronger appreciation for the idea of the customer’s buying process.  Sharon Drew Morgan’s contribution with Buying Facilitation(R) helps us. Ardath Albee’s buyer journey gives us a clear understanding. Automated lead nurturing has forced us to think through the buyer’s journey and how to support it with relevant, compelling content.

Sales professionals know the sales process applies to qualified and interested opportunities. Sales participates in the active consideration phase of the customer’s buying journey.

Two primary factors determine the sellers sales process:

  • How long it takes to assess an active buyer’s needs, engage all buyer stakeholders, influence buying criteria, configure a solution, deliver a successful proposal and complete the contract process;
  • How sales people are managed, motivated and compensated

In most B2B selling organizations, this is one to two quarters. With sales people pressured for monthly business with quarterly accountability, any opportunity that will enter the active buying phase outside this period will not be on the sales person’s active dashboard.

The customer buying process may well be six to twenty four months, from initial awareness of the problem through final vendor selection and contracts.

I see this as an alignment problem. The business challenge is to align the customer’s extended buying process with the sales person’s practical selling timeframe.

Traditionally, the sales organization was responsible for finding, qualifying and closing every opportunity. This made sense in a simpler, product oriented selling world. Once offerings became more complex, more solution oriented, and buying moved from the professional procurement function into the business functional group, the selling process had to change.

Most organizations I speak with are seeing selling costs getting out of control. IDC recently reported selling costs in the technology industry are rising 4.7% while revenue grow is growing 3.2%.

A fundamental challenge is finding ways to make the sales organization more productive — to increase the yield from each sales professional. This is more than just improving skills, knowledge and time management. It has more to do with having well qualified opportunities to work.

We are in an era of specialization. The previous, monolithic selling effort has been disaggregated. This introduces a key role and opportunity for marketing. Lead generation, lead nurturing and telesales functions are more effective and affordable ways to handle the start of the buying selling process than an individual rep with a phone and email as primary tools.

This doesn’t completely remove the prospecting function from sales. But sales people are better at the in person activities, where marketing have better tools to engage the broader market with attraction and influencer marketing programs.

A marketer recently told me sales people need to take the long view. I disagree. Sales are the people who get the fish in the boat. Marketing are the people who take the broad and long view, who determine where the fish are, what will attract them, and how get them ready for sales to move them into the boat.

The classic marketing and sale disconnect is and will be replaced by a collaborative effort. This is the best way to deal with aligning dual realities: the extended buyer’s process and the practical selling process.

With careful sales process design, mature demand management practices, and effective hand-off of well-developed leads, “how long is your sales process?” could become an obsolete question.