Congratulations on your deal!  Didn’t you tell me you were going to close that months ago?

Even as a CEO of a content marketing agency, I still get this pressure from my board and colleagues—and they all know how buyers have more control these days, buying on their own time frames, not ours.

If you’ve been in the sales game for a while, you’ve probably noticed some differences in both the ways that customers are buying and the ways that sales cycles have become less and less predictable. 

In fact, the last few deals that we’ve won have varied from a one-month close to over 13 months. 

The differences are being caused by significant changes in the way a customer finds solutions to their problems, and most companies haven’t changed their internal sales and marketing processes to deal with them.

If you think about the traditional sales funnel, marketing established the brand and generated awareness through a series of projects and campaigns. The sales rep could easily fill their calendar with appointments leveraging off of that branding. 

But now, the internet is crushing a sales reps ability to generate their own leads. Buyers search for their own solutions by reading white papers, watching videos, attending webinars, etc—and they are just not going to engage with a sales rep until they’re good and ready. 

And that’s made the sales cycle a lot more complex and difficult to predict. 

Do you remember the children’s game Chutes and Ladders? The new sales cycle seems to look more like that: 

  • There’s an original spark—a business problem that needs to be fixed.
  • The prospect performs a web search and they look at whitepapers, articles, videos, webinars
  • Maybe at this point they engage with a sales repand have a demonstration, but not always. 
  • They then go back to their company and create an evaluation committee, which often leads to…
  • Expanding the scope as they bring new ideas into the conversation
  • As the project gets really serious, senior leadership is engaged, and then what happens?
  • They reduce the scope.
  • Oh great, a new competitor has entered the picture. Who is that? I’ve never heard of them.
  • Uh oh, there’s a change in leadership, and now there are new players involved.
  • Now there’s a budget cut, and your project is tabled. 
  • Six months later, the new leadership has the brilliant idea that this business problem needs fixing (and it’s the same one that was identified six months ago).
  • But new leadership brings in new competitors, new scope, new criteria, new faces, and a new CEO.
  • And what does that new CEO do? They freeze the budget. 

But finally, the budget is approved and…YOU WIN! Congratulations! But your board just says, “I thought you projected closing this months ago.”

Ingrates!

For sure, this process this is not linear, and there’s no way you could have predicted it.

After all, they might have told you a time frame for closing early in the process only to get a change in leadership and a frozen budget.

And I’m also sure that the last deal you closed is not going to look like next prospect you’re engaging with. Again, the whole thing will happen on their time line, not yours. 

So if buyers aren’t engaging with sales reps until much later in the process, you have this huge hole to fill in the middle of the funnel where conversations aren’t getting started or being brought to their natural conclusion.

What’s making it so difficult is that this middle-of-the-funnel engagement is that it still requires a one-to-one interaction, which is where I believe most companies are getting stuck. 

In the old model, this is when sales reps used to schedule face-to-face meetings where they could ask questions and react to their answers and read body language and pivot that conversation based on their responses. The skills needed for this formed the basis of most consultative sales training, and to a large degree, it still does.

As you’re thinking about how to increase revenue in 2016, you have to start with a new premise:

Each prospect will engage with you in their own way, and no two buying journeys are alike. There are not a series of projects that you can assign to marketing that maps to this journey. Following up on marketing qualified leads is going to take way more work than your closers are going to want to put in. 

In fact, the entire sales and marketing process needs to be reworked on agile principles to be able to capitalize on the one-to-one conversations (digitally AND personally) needed to work prospects through the funnel.

Otherwise, conversations with your board and colleagues are going to remain uncomfortable.