By Barbara Bix - There are many reasons that sales cycles stretch out. As we discussed when we reviewed how businesses buy, most companies delay buying until they: 1) recognize a clear need for a solution, 2)have a sense of urgency, and 3)identify product or service providers that they believe will meet their needs.
At that point, however, most buyers have a heightened awareness of the cost of delay--and are anxious to move forward. When they don’t, it’s a telltale sign that your product or service is missing the mark.
When interested buyers fail to purchase--after learning about how your solution will address their concerns--sales cycles stretch out as they seek a better match. If they find another provider that will give them exactly what they want, they’ll purchase there. Even when prospective buyers later purchase from your company, delays hold up your ability to recognize revenue—and may also run up your sales and marketing expenses as you try to close the deal.
In short, maximizing sales productivity clearly depends on your readiness to give prospective buyers exactly what they want, the way they want it. The question is, “How do you determine what that is?”
Effective marketing research is the fastest route to winning solutions
To design great solutions, you need a thorough understanding of prospective buyers’ most pressing needs and want. To get this information, it’s helpful to conduct primary marketing research by going straight to “the horse”, but not necessarily to the horse’s mouth.
One of the best ways to find out what’s most important to prospective buyers is to observe what sells and what doesn’t. One common mistake, however, is asking prospective buyers what they want. That’s because most of us only think we know what we want. We get it wrong, however, because we fail to take into account all the factors that come into play at the time of purchase.
We're lousy predictors of our own behavior
Look at your own clientele. If you ask them, many would say they want an accountant who will find tax savings that they would otherwise miss. They might add that for this reason they seek out professionals with experience in their industry with a demonstrated track record of generating savings for others just like them.
Nevertheless when you look at actual buying behavior, many factors come into play—some of which ultimately end up taking precedence over the ones that are top of mind. Examples include availability when clients need to meet a pressing deadline, the ability to accept 90 day payment terms, a pleasant reception when they contact your office, or a plethora of other factors that prospective buyers are not fully aware are important to them until faced with a real situation.
Look to actions, rather than words
In our experience, the best way to find out what prospective buyers want is to look at their past purchasing patterns. That’s because we’re creatures of habit. We tend to do things the way we’ve always done them and maintain the same priorities.
One way to do that is to start with your existing clientele, specifically your best clients since they’re likely to be the best proxy for your most promising prospects. If, on the other hand, you’re losing the most promising prospects to the competition, start there with prospective buyers that chose to buy elsewhere. In either case, it’s important to focus on just your most promising prospects because you can’t be all things to all people.
To get at past purchasing patterns review your sales history. If you maintain a lead tracking or contact management system, check your notes to determine:
- Which solutions did prospective buyers purchase right away?
- When they delayed why did they delay?
- What questions did they ask?
- What was the single most important reason they purchased?
- What concessions, if any, did you need to make to get their business?
- Under what circumstances were they willing to pay a premium and why?
- What caused them to select you over the competition?
- When they recommend your company, what do they say?
- If they went to a competitor, what was the reason?
- When you lost, what if anything could you have done to get the business?
If you didn’t record answers to these questions, it’s okay to go back and ask. Nevertheless, remember to focus on past purchases. As we discussed above, most people make far better reporters than analysts.
Worried about annoying people? Don’t! Most people are flattered that you’re interested in their insights and happy to share them with you if you are courteous and schedule an appointment in advance. If you’re just starting out, and don’t have any clients, interview your competitors’ clients.
Tip: Build your sales history as you go
At BB Marketing Plus, we do a lot of marketing research to help our clients rank development priorities. Here are some tips your company can use to capture what is important to your clientele:
1. Implement a system that helps you map prospective buyers’ behavior including the stages of their buying process and:
- Who was involved at each stage
- What information each individual required
- What follow up questions each individual asked
- The time it took to move to the next stage
- The reason for any delays it took to move from one stage to the next
- Why you won when you won
- Why you lost when you lost
2. Ensure that you keep your system up to date, calling back buyers and prospective buyers to fill in knowledge gaps
3. Ask a lot of questions to get a sense of their entire situation and priorities, rather than just their immediate requirements
- Keep your questions open-ended, rather than making assumptions
- Ask individuals to report on past behavior, rather than to predict the future
4. Follow up regularly to assess satisfaction
- Ask about every aspect of your business interactions
- Find out what you’ve done well and what needs improvement
- Act on what you learn
- Thank people for their insights and communicate what you’ve done as a result.
Our clients find that they can learn a lot from the past. One of the findings that many find surprising is that while price is important, it’s generally not the deciding factor. Another revelation is that their clientele often has different perspectives—than they do--when it comes to defining quality. These are important insights when your goal is to give prospective clients exactly what they want and do it their way.