If you watch a lot of TV and movies, the selling process seems very random and exciting.
One might imagine some hot-shot salesperson walks up to a guy who seems uninterested in buying anything and then sweet-talks them into purchasing a motorcycle right on the spot.
Or maybe a flashy Wall Street stockbroker pulls off a sale worth millions of dollars and celebrates by popping champagne around his cheering colleagues.
In reality, selling is a lot more methodical. It's captured in what we refer to as the sales cycle, and it generally includes several recognizable milestones you need to hit in order to close on the prospect.
The sales cycle explained
The sales cycle refers to the process that encompasses everything about selling a product, from identifying a prospect all the way to closing a sale.
While the sales cycle can differ depending on the marketing and sales strategy of individual companies, they follow the same general characteristics.
The main variation appears to be the start point. Some say it begins with nothing and ends with the sale, others say the cycle doesn't begin until you have a qualified prospect.
The stages of the sales cycle (and tips to master them)
The sales cycle has seven stages, and each one is vitally important in order to close a sale and then retain the customer, especially in B2B sales.
In the phase of prospecting, you identify and then qualify a prospect.
You should have a buyer profile that describes what your typical customer looks like and is interested in, which should help you determine whether a potential customer is likely to buy your product or service.
This may be your most important step. If you don’t do this correctly, you might waste your time on the next six steps in the cycle on someone who is not likely to buy from you, no matter what.
Tips for prospecting
- Create a customer profile: You need a profile of your typical customer so you can determine if a potential prospect is likely to purchase your product. Who do they sell to? What are their B2B marketing strategies?
- Do your research: You should devote enough time to get this right, because otherwise you’re wasting your time on the next six stages.
- Consider having a colleague weigh in: A second pair of eyes can spot red flags that may indicate you’re not filtering prospects correctly.
With a prospect identified, it’s time to research the client to determine what their business looks like and what their needs are.
This will help you identify a pitch that will resonate with them and answer any objections that are likely to come up.
By researching the company and their needs, they will trust you more as someone who truly understands their business.
Tips for researching
- Identify the problem: You need to be able to identify an acute problem that is costing a company time or money, or both.
- Lay out what a solution would look like: You should determine what kind of solution would resonate with the company. Put yourself in their shoes.
- Understand what success for a company looks like: Yes, all companies are looking to make more money, but not all of them are approaching it in the same way, so understand how your prospect is likely to measure success.
3. First contact
With the research done, you can make your first contact with the client. This is not an attempt to close the sale or even to make a full pitch.
This call should be relatively conversational and introductory. You should introduce yourself and your company, and talk about matters that interest the client.
It’s a good idea to ask a few questions and propose a follow-up call to talk in more detail.
Tips for contacting the customer
- Do it quickly: Yes, researching your client is important when you get ready to do the presentation, but a quick phone call within minutes of identifying a lead means you are striking when the iron’s hot.
- Don’t try to sell right away: This is an introductory call where you probe a little bit about the company’s needs. It’s not yet time to make a sales pitch.
- Try to arrange a meeting: Hopefully, by the end of the call, you’ve arranged a follow-up call or a meeting where you can make your pitch.
Once you have settled on a meeting to make a more serious sales pitch, prepare a presentation that breaks down the client’s problem and how your solution will handle it.
The presentation should be heavily focused on the client and not on your product. The purpose of this presentation is to show that you understand the client’s needs and you have a turn-key solution to solve it.
Tips for presenting
- Keep it succinct: Most people don’t want a long-winded presentation. Get to the point and show that you understand their problem.
- Hit the problem before getting to the solution: Too many salespeople start with their solution, but a good salesman knows to demonstrate an understanding of a company’s problem.
- Ask if they’ve heard enough throughout: You may not need to deliver a 30-minute presentation — at 10 minutes in, your client may have already made a decision. Feel free to interrupt your presentation every now and then and ask if they’ve heard enough to make a decision.
5. Handling objections
Objections are likely to come up at some point in your presentation.
There’s really no way to avoid them, but you can minimize their impact and even use them to your advantage. Counter them with even more compelling evidence that your product is the right choice.
Tips for handling objections
- Use hard numbers: Give your client some red meat, like revenue figures, for their company with your product versus without it.
- Do your research beforehand: You should know what common objections are by now, so have a planned response to each of them.
- Preempt objections: Bring up common objections at the start of your pitch and answer them to keep clients from bringing them up later.
This is where you attempt to get the buyer to make a purchasing decision.
It’s different from the other stages of the sale because you are no longer trying to convince the client that your product will solve their problem; you’re trying to get them to commit to an action.
Part of being a good salesman is being an effective closer, so you need to master this part of the sales cycle.
Tips for closing
- Have an arsenal of closes: Identify which closing techniques seem to work the best and have a number of them memorized so you can pivot if one closing technique doesn’t work.
- Make it easy to say yes: Have paperwork that is ready to sign so you can convince them that it’s easy to get the product or service right now.
- Never allow the customer to sell you: Customers often successfully sell salespeople on the idea that they can’t buy. Don’t let them. Always pivot to another close until it’s clear they just aren’t going to pull the trigger. And even then, throw one last attempt at them.
Things can still go wrong after you close.
Your client could change their mind, or they could ditch the product a few months down the road when they decide it isn’t meeting their needs.
You need to send a follow-up email or reach out with a phone call to make sure they are enjoying the product, and to step in and fix any problems if they exist.
Tips for following up
- Show genuine interest: Ask how they’re enjoying the product, and quietly listen to anything they have to say, even if it’s very negative. Always agree with them and immediately step in to make things right if they’re unhappy.
- Have processes in place: You should have a general idea of what problems new customers are likely to face, so stay in control by having a process in place to deal without scrambling.
- Look for upsell opportunities: It’s always easier to sell to existing clients than new clients, so look for opportunities to provide additional features and services.
Should you use a CRM to manage your sales cycle?
CRM software (customer relationship management) is vital to any salesperson, for a few key reasons:
- Organization: You need to juggle many different customers who are in different stages of the sales cycle.
- Optimization: By knowing where customers are at, you can hit them at exactly the right time with exactly the right email or phone call.
- Efficiency: You’ll get a lot more done in less time, allowing you to get more prospects into your sales pipeline and increase your revenue.
- Customer relations: You’ll stay better connected to your customers, who will trust you more and recommend you to others — or buy more of your products.
You need to start following the sales cycle now
If you aren’t adhering to the full sales cycle, sales forecasting becomes virtually impossible, and your sales pipeline is going to be a mess.
You are leaving money on the table and missing out on potential sales if you aren’t carefully moving customers through the sales cycle.
For maximum success, you need to get organized right away and set up your own sales process.
The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends HubSpot and Salesforce.com. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.