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Longer shopping cycles lead to shorter sales cycles when the economy begins to turn; will your organization be ready?

As 2009 has progressed, what was an economic downdraft has become a full-blown wind shear for some sales leaders, with reductions in spend and stalled deals becoming the norm rather than the exception. An oft-forgotten byproduct of this climate will be shorter sales cycles when the economy begins to turn, as prospects will have spent an inordinate amount of time getting themselves ready to buy.

While most would see shorter sales cycles as a good thing, it can be very dangerous for unprepared sales teams that will have fewer opportunities to drive a prospect’s decision and recover from any missteps that are made. In this article, we will explore the care and feeding of the business shopper and how not to fall into the bunker mentality trap.

Dealing with the Shopper

Adapting to longer shopping, shorter decision-making cycles requires tuning up a number of the processes that likely already exist with your marketing counterparts. Focus in five areas is critical, including:

* Lead definitions. In many organizations, marketing and sales create lead definitions that weave in various combinations of BANT (budget-authority-need-timeline) requirements in order for sales to accept and work leads. In down times, fewer prospects will have verifiable budgets and timelines for purchase, meaning one of two things. If sales wishes to maintain the flow of leads it has come to expect, the hurdle for an acceptable lead will likely have to be lowered, perhaps only requiring authority and need. If reps are unwilling to work more “unqualified” leads, they will have to expect lower lead quantities and be forced to do more prospecting on their own. Alterations can be made by product/service line, choosing to hold back leads for certain offerings while advancing others.

* Lead nurturing. If agreement will be made with marketing to retain greater amounts of prospects within its boundaries, a robust lead nurturing program must be in place; if no such program exists, one will have to be quickly developed. Such programs must be stocked with the proper content to maintain a positive “shopping experience,” a timeline for communication and a consistent information collection strategy to help the organization better understand when nurturing should end and active selling begin.

* Activity tracking. Over the course of nurturing that will last weeks, months or even quarters, a shopper will view, download or otherwise engage in a variety of marketing tactics. This trail of activity offers keen insight into a growing knowledge base and an indication of what is important on a prospect-by-prospect basis. Providing the sales rep with a profile of these activities and their sequence will enable a more complete understanding of what shoppers have learned and what they will most likely need next once active buying begins again.

* Assignment of “strategic shoppers.” There will be some shoppers where having a direct relationship with a sales resource is the best way to nurture, be it a strategic account or one with significant potential revenue. The development of account-based marketing tactics created by marketing but deployed by salespeople on what we call a “situational selection” basis will provide sales with consistent themes on issues, implications and benefits, as well as continued opportunities to provide value-added materials to prospects until they are ready to buy.

* Shoppers playbooks. The development of a sales playbook that helps prepare reps to systematically walk a prospect through a longer shopping process, and to understand the signals where the shopper becomes a buyer should be developed. Sales readiness resources – in conjunction with both product marketing and field marketing – can assemble the appropriate set of messages, collateral, case studies or references a rep will need to accelerate a prospect toward a decision.

Ready for the Tipping Point?

When the economy recovers or prospects can no longer wait, shoppers will become buyers. To better capitalize on this inevitability, sales management will need to take three pre-emptive steps, including:

* Qualification. Verifiable budget and a decision timeline distinguish buyers from shoppers. Sales training teams should develop a module reinforcing the qualification process and providing the appropriate questions salespeople should be asking in the discovery phase. First-line sales managers also must carefully inspect all new opportunities to ensure that the criteria for budget and authority has been met before committing pipeline acceleration resources (e.g. specialists, sales engineers).

* Sales readiness. The difficulty of selling in today’s economy and the changes that will define tomorrows’ require the creation of a specific function geared to drive productivity at the rep level. We have long written about the need for this function that we call sales readiness; now more than ever, we see it as mission critical. The fact that sales readiness also acts as a go-to function for marketing only adds to its value, as marketers now have a place to rework lead handoff definitions, service-level agreements and requirements for marketing support (both in terms of better content/tools and specific pipeline acceleration initiatives).

* Call preparation. Buyers will be looking for sales professionals who can build on their knowledge base, answer their detailed questions and execute their buying activities. Sales reps that walk into the first call asking generic discovery questions will be left behind; thus, sales managers must recognize and stress the importance of first-call execution and inspect, strategize with and coach sales reps and review activity histories.

* Sales execution. When salespeople blow a call or an opportunity in more prosperous times, they have the ability to move to the next opportunity. Not only is this not so now, it will be less so for the growing ranks of shoppers that will convert to buyers relatively more quickly in the months and quarters to come. This will challenge conventional thinking of sales leaders in terms of knowledge support, ongoing training and the often distant relationship with marketing. It will also challenge conventional mechanics; rules may currently be in place to hold specialists or subject matter experts away from new opportunities until they are proven out; in the future, these rules may need to be changed for quicker deployment of such resources.

B-to-b buyers have always been known for their care and acumen when it comes to making purchases. For salespeople challenged to bring value to interactions with these buyers in normal times, we’re sorry to say that the bar will continue to raise when these buyers have even more time to educate themselves. For sales leaders, making changes right now both in terms of broad strategy and specific tactics will make sure their reps aren’t left out in the cold when the buying environment begins to heat up again.

About the Author:

SiriusDecisions, a leading source for business-to-business sales and marketing best-practice research and data. SiriusDecisions Executive Advisory Services, Consulting Services, Benchmark Assessment Services, Learning and Events provide senior-level executives with the sales and marketing operational intelligence required to maximize top line growth and performance. 

©Sirius Decisions, 2009. Reproduced with permission.



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