If you managed to reach or exceed your sales targets in the last financial year, well done. It was probably harder than ever though, and one of the key culprits is the ‘Long Sales Cycle’ – the Golden Staph of Selling.

Here are my top five ways to shorten sales cycles:

Stop talking to the Flunky

Your main mid-level contacts have limited budgets and authority. They don’t know everything that’s going on in their organisation. When they say, “I have no budget for 12 months” – it’s probably true, and simply an inconvenient fact. Your mother didn’t even carry you in the womb for that long, so why gestate him for 12 months in a long sales cycle?

Start talking to C Level and get your whole organisation involved. They will be able to move faster than a politician at a baby photo shoot if your solutions can help their business. 12 months becomes three if the right executive hears your potent story.

Use the client’s balance sheet

One company went back to their client and asked how the financial return or ROI was on their implemented solution. The client smiled like a kid who got away with farting in Science class and said, “Oh, we virtually paid for it in six weeks.”

The sales manager said, “Six weeks! Fantastic, but why did you bash us around for weeks for reduced pricing if you knew the ROI was that good?” The client smiled again (must be an ongoing flatulence problem) and said, “Just part of the game – we knew we could delay and push you against your quarterly targets – bit of fun really.”

Find someone who can read a proper balance sheet: a director, your CFO, or your weird Uncle Archie who likes over 50s Singles Ballroom Dancing at the RSA, but also happens to be a qualified Chartered Accountant.

Nothing shortens the sales cycle more than when you walk in with financial proof that every month the delay is costing them money or poor return on Assets/Capital/Cash Flow.

Qualify like a Reality TV Show

If you’ve watched any of the talent shows on TV, you know they are ruthless in weeding out the people who can’t cook, sing, dance or walk a catwalk. They even flaunt it for their own glory by showing you brief shots of these insecure, destroyed souls who missed out on the chance to burn a soufflé on national television.

Anyone who has been to an audition knows that it’s more ruthless than an ICAC investigation into Grange Hermitage (nb: Penfolds, do I get a 1959 bottle for the free plug? Happy to write a thank you note.)

Despite Bid/No Bid Systems, Sales Meetings and Forecasts, qualification is still done poorly. Mostly it’s because the pipeline isn’t big enough, so we hang on to prospects more than we keep our favourite pair of worn, de-elasticised, comfy undies. Yes, the red ones. Poor qualification leads to long sales cycles, and forecasts that are about as accurate as those from the Bureau of Meteorology – the place where pathological liars are sent for work experience.

Let’s have the courage to ask prospects questions like:

“Based on our initial meeting/s, before we go any further the budget for this is typically around $300–$500k. Are you happy to continue talking?”

“We have three experts coming off projects in June who will then be allocated for the next major client assignment. What are your thoughts on that timeframe?”

If the answers are positive, you’ve shortened the sales cycle. If not, you can still keep them warm, but they’re not part of a long sales cycle because they have qualified themselves out.

Your hairdresser, masseur, car mechanic; they all do this effortlessly. There’s no need to be squeamish about, “Are you ready for us or not?”

As the great philosopher Beyoncé said, “If you like it you should have put a ring on it.” Stop being the clingy, needy boyfriend or girlfriend. Move – or move on.

Get your Really Senior Management Involved

In my work consulting on major pitches, we have seen tremendous results by getting your CEO, Regional Director, Global CEO or Chief Superintendent of Intergalactic Greatness to call the client. Depending on the situation, he or she may say one of the following things to your client’s senior management:

“My people have been working with your people for 6 months – this has global visibility at our end and the ROI seems to be less than 12 months. What’s the hold up or what hasn’t my team done to prove this yet?”

“I’ve just come back from a meeting with one of your competitors who implemented our solution months ago. Help me understand why this appears to be dragging on so long?”

“With respect, I can’t give you our global expert, Rita, any further without some understanding of where and when this is going?” Basically, it’s the Jerry Maguire moment, “Show Me The Money.”

Timeline on a Whiteboard

We have used this to help win pitches for years.

NOW _____________________________________THEN

You work backwards from ‘THEN’ – the point in time where they indicate they need to see a result in cost reduction, implementation, cash flow improvement, customer acquisition – or whatever their Holy Grail is.

You then fill in the blanks with, for example:

  • 6 weeks to implement and train
  • 5 weeks for testing
  • 7 weeks for procurement and shipping
  • 2 weeks business analytics
  • 4 weeks stakeholder engagement and signoff

It will often become evident that they should have ordered this thing in 1978 to get the results they want. Too many salespeople do the opposite by promising that they’ll expedite things to help.

All that does is take the pressure off the client to commit, because she knows you’ll run around like a Coke addict (not the Cola kind) to get things done – even if they delay decision making. Stuff that for a game of Monopoly! Show them the real timeline – the one with in-built protection, assurance and quality – and ask them if they want to get a 457 Visa for Dr Who to Time Travel back so they can meet the deadlines, or if they want to simply place the Purchase Order now.

Shortening sales cycles is like sticking to the speed limit to avoid penalties. You have more control than you think.

Elliot Epstein is the CEO of Salient Communication.

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