Sales Cycle – Should You Push It Forward, or Stay Patient?

Some clients seem ready to start with you right away, but then something happens and they cool off. They want to wait a month, or even indefinitely. What to do about it? I’ll give you some strategies to address this directly, and 5 ideas for updating your sales process so you have a chance at preventing it from happening in the first place.

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Full Episode Transcription:

Hello and welcome to the liston.io show. I am Liston and I am here to help you build a better consulting business. Whether you’re running an agency or a professional services business or you’re doing some management and strategic consulting, I want to help you build a better business with advice on how to grow effectively. Now in today’s episode, I will be covering those moments when you have a client who’s very excited to work with you and all of a sudden something changed and they just disappear or they start to delay your engagement with them. So I have plenty of advice where that came from. Before I get into that though, I do want to let you know that if you have questions about growing your agency, I would love to help you. All you have to do is apply for a strategy call with me.

Just go to liston.io/strategy; fill out the form there. I’ll take a look at what you have to say and if there’s a fit for us to maybe work together, we can spend about an hour on the call and I will give you a minimum of three insights that you can apply to your business, whether you decide to work with me or not. So that’s liston.io/strategy. Today’s topic is a question that was sent to me on the podcast page on my website. It’s liston.io/podcast, so if you go there and record a question, I will answer it here on the air, and today’s question comes from Andy [Starch 00:01:42] and Andy asks, “Hey Liston, this is your friend Andy Starch with Advantage Performance Group loving your podcast and all the stuff you’ve been putting out there. I always learn something new when I listen to you. I wanted to take advantage of your voice recorder here to ask you a question about a situation that’s come up for me about three times recently.

I’m in pretty high end consulting, selling, training and development to big companies and three times recently I’ve had a really good sales meeting with a client or a prospective client where we discussed a pretty big opportunity and they acted like it was fairly urgent. Like they wanted to get moving on it and get something in place for 2019 or even before, we’re in October now. And then after the meeting when each of those situations, they’ve kind of put me off or said we’re not able to get the next meeting scheduled for another month and a half or we don’t have the right people in the room for quite a while and it ends up taking, I don’t know, another month or month and a half to get it scheduled.

My question is, should I be pushing back on that to say, ‘Hey, I thought you wanted this more urgently,’ or should I be going along with what the client wants, give them the best service possible and meet them where they are and just wait patiently to sit on their timeline? Wondering what your thoughts are. Thanks buddy.”

All right. Thank you Andy. So I have a lot of thoughts about this. And the first and most pressing thing that I recommend is to figure out what happened. Something obviously changed internally and so I would want to know what is it? What caused this change? What is going on with the company now that wasn’t going on before? And I think about those changes in a few different ways. And so the way you’re going to react to whether or not you push … I think that your main question is should you push on it or should you just wait? I think the question is well, why? Why did their priorities change? And I would look at that in a few different buckets.

So one is someone else changed their mind. You have a contact there, they really wanted to do this training and development project that you’ve suggested to help their team improve their skills or whatever outcome they’re looking for. And maybe someone else related to that decision who either you don’t know or you’ve had limited contact with, has changed their mind and that has thrown a wrench in the whole thing. That’s one possibility. Now, if that’s the case, I would suggest, hey, we can all talk about it together and bring yourself offer to be part of that conversation so you can plan accordingly or help them plan accordingly for the training and development work that they want to do.

The second thing that could happen is a re-shifting of priorities at the organizational level or the C-Suite level. So that usually comes in two flavors. One is budget and the second is agenda, and usually they’re related. But perhaps it’s a possibility that someone or someones in the C-Suite have decided to reallocate their budget based on a change in what’s important for the company this quarter, next quarter, next year or whatever. So I would want to know that as well because what you learn in that process would also dictate to you how aggressively you’re going to be staying in touch with this person and how much you’re going to invest in kind of helping them out and working things along. Because if you find out, “Hey, this is definitely not a priority for two years”, then you know what to do, which is just to take it a little bit easier. Maybe contact the person you’ve been working with quarterly or every six months, kind of maybe not check in, but add something of value to them and keep the conversation going.

But you wouldn’t pursue that as aggressively as if you found out, “Hey, someone else in here changed their mind.” And your contact says they’re not really sure what to do about it. There are things that you can do to influence that. If it’s happening at the C-Suite level, probably not. A third possibility is they went with a competitor and they’re either too embarrassed or too shy or they just don’t want to tell you for whatever reason, who knows? And so if they go with a competitor then you would want to know that also obviously. And so really you’re trying to get to the crux of what’s happening. And in particular if they went with a competitor, I would want to know not, “Why didn’t you pick me? But why did you pick them? What was so appealing about them?” Because that’ll give you input not only to this deal, but to other deals in the future so that you can anticipate those objections and address them proactively prior to your client making up their mind on their own.

The kind of fourth bucket is maybe this client wasn’t really ready to move as fast as they let on in the first place. When we talked to outside consultants, they’re excited about what it is that they do. They have a way of being persuasive. They’re excited about the possibility of working with us and so we may get wrapped up in that excitement and in this case, Andy, maybe your client got wrapped up in the excitement that you brought to the equation, which please keep doing that, you should do that, but it is something to consider that there are some personalities and people who are a little bit more on the side of pleasing others, not making any waves telling us what we want to hear when really they’re not ready to move as fast as they are letting on for whatever reason. Those are the four things that I would keep in mind that could be the cause of why someone changed their mind or why it seems like they’re ready to move right now, but they’re no longer ready to.

There obviously could be other small nuances and I’m not including every single situation here, but those are really the big ones. Now, what I would suggest to you is maybe consider altering your process in the future. What I mean by that is if you could have addressed some things prior to this happening, and I don’t mean hindsight is always 2020, that’s not what I mean. What I mean is you may want to change your process permanently moving forward. So a couple things that I would think about in your process, and I don’t know what your process looks like now, but one thing you might think about is really deepening the pain. So how expensive and costly and emotionally draining and taxing is it for them right now? And so if you’re selling training and development, what some people might be thinking is we want to improve our culture, We want to increase skill acquisition, we need to train the next leaders of our company. Maybe get deeper into that. Okay, you want to train the next leaders of your company, why is that so important? And just keep asking why. Kind of like a five year old would. That’s what I did when I was a five year old.

Keep asking why and not in an annoying way, but to really get to the heart of why is this so important. So if they’re looking to train the next batch of leaders, why? “Well, because we want to make sure that we have loyal people who really understand our business and not go outside and hire other people who are leaders in other companies but maybe don’t know what’s going on with us.” And then you would of course ask why to that. And maybe they would say something like, “Well, we’ve tried hiring outside before but it didn’t work.” And you would of course say why to that? And they would tell you, “Well our business is so complicated.” Or, “We find that outside people don’t really get us, they don’t fit in culturally.”

And then you would say why to that, right? And so you would keep going down this road and by the end of it, I think Sandler is the one that calls this ‘the five whys’. By the end of this discussion, you’re really going to understand not just that they want to develop the next leaders, but that they want to develop the next leaders because hiring outside people kind of sucks. There’s not a cultural fit there. They start to lose their culture and they feel like they’re losing their brand identity every time they bring someone else in, and that’s bad for them and it causes attrition internally. I just made all of that up, but you could see how that’s a much richer understanding of what the pain is rather than just we’re looking to train the next batch of leaders.

So that would be one thing that I would say is, consider altering your process so that you’re really deepening the pain and uncovering the pain and what’s behind those sort of surface level drivers for a project. The second thing you might want to think about is to quantify the cost of inaction. So this is a pretty complicated topic, it has to do with valuation. If you want to read more about this, I really, really recommend the book, ‘How to measure anything’, finding the value of intangibles in business, and it’s a book by Douglas W. Hubbard that’s linked in the show notes here if you want to go grab it. This is the one book that I really, really recommend you look at if you’re having a hard time quantifying your impact, especially as a consultant, especially as an agency. If you’re having a hard time putting a number to what you’re doing, this is something that you should go look at immediately.

But one thing to think about is let’s just do a thought experiment here. You’ve already deepened the pain and you know the cost or at least the painful part of not being able to develop the next batch of leaders internally. So in order to quantify that, I would say, “Well, how do you think that affects your culture?” A lot of people would say, “Well, we know that people are leaving the company.” “Oh, okay, cool. How long does it take someone to get ramped up in order to like really feel like they’re part of the culture?” “12 months.” “Okay, What’s your average salary for those kinds of leadership candidates?” “150,000.” “And are people leaving at a really high rate?” “Yeah. We’re losing like 10% of our batch of next leaders because of this cultural issue.” Okay, so now we have some numbers to work with.

Now obviously I made that sound really easy, but I think the key point here and what Hubbard really communicates in how to measure anything is you have to know the questions to ask and how to approach measuring the problem. You may say, “Well, quantifying the cost of inaction in that way doesn’t give me the exact right number.” And to that I would say, “Goldstar. You’re absolutely right.” Of course it’s not the exact right number because there is no exact right number to a question like this. However, what we can do, the point of measuring is to reduce the uncertainty in making a decision. I’ll say that again. The goal of measuring is to reduce the uncertainty in making a decision. And what we can do is become more certain and have a better idea of what the cost is than just by saying it’s impossible to measure that.

So I would think about that. Quantify the cost of inaction. If you can do that, obviously not in your first meeting, I don’t think that’s the time to do it, but I would say by the second meeting to start to pull at that. And so the way that I would do that with my clients is to ask them, “What’s going on right now with your sales operation?” And I would figure out what is a client worth to you? How many meetings do you have to take to close a client? What is your income goal? And then we can really start to look at with just three, four, maybe five parameters, a pretty rich understanding of what they’re after. Which doesn’t mean that I’m guaranteeing that they’ll get that. I can’t. I don’t work at their company, just like you can’t Andy. So even if you could go in and say, “Okay, you’re losing 10% of your next leader in 12 month up time, you have 100 potential leaders, that sounds like a 1.5 million dollar problem, our training is whatever, 30,000, 50,000.”

You’re not saying you’re guaranteeing that they’re going to recapture that 1.5 million dollars, but what you are saying is your proposition is a very small fraction of a high potential upside, right? So it contextualizes the dollar amount that they’d be investing in you and your firm’s services to what they may actually gain. Which brings me to point number three, demonstrate value in ROI. So that’s what I did right there. If you quantify the cost of inaction, that is a prerequisite to the next point, which is to demonstrate the value in the ROI that you can bring.

Number four thing you should consider in altering your process in the future is to look for correlated metrics to make your case. So in this example I gave the metric of attrition, how many people are being lost? There’s all kinds of other things that would point to whether or not someone has a problem and to what magnitude that problem exists. So let’s go back to the culture example. You know, an obvious example of this recently in the news was Uber. Uber has all kinds of cultural problems. How do you observe cultural problems at Uber? well, let’s start with the number of sexual harassment suits that are being brought against them. That’s a cultural problem.

It’s also a legal problem, but it demonstrates that there’s something rotten inside the culture when people are complaining repeatedly ad management isn’t responding to it. And when they do, they tend to protect the abuser. Okay. Right. Hopefully we can all agree that’s a horrible problem and needs to be addressed. Related to that at Uber again is attrition. Related to that is probably the number of sick days that people are calling in. Related to that is probably the number of vacation days people are taking. All of these things would point to unhappy workers. So that’s what we want to get at, is what are those correlated metrics that maybe won’t tell us exactly how bad is our cultural problem, but will tell us at least directionally, yeah, we got a freaking problem here. We want to know that.

The fifth thing that I would recommend you consider altering in your process in the future is to have some smaller conversions. So if what you’re trying to do is to get to a meeting where you start to kind of demonstrate exactly how the training would work and what value it would create and how you can customize it for your client. If that’s your goal, look for some smaller conversions along the way so that you get further commitment from your client prior to reaching that stage of the sale. So some examples of that might include breaking up your first meeting from an hour or two hours, however long your meetings are, to a half an hour with the goal of getting to a second meeting, that’s an hour, two hours.

What that does is it creates more touch points, builds potentially more affinity, more rapport between you and your client. Everybody’s a little bit more comfortable. You’re more trustworthy through repetition. So that’s one thing, is to find ways to have more meetings. Of course, they all have to be goal oriented. We don’t like to meet just to meet. In fact, we don’t do it. Another thing to think about is something as simple as an NDA, so if that’s your process already, great, keep doing it. But if you’re not asking for a Non-Disclosure Agreement or your client isn’t asking you for Non-Disclosure Agreements signatures on a regular basis, you might consider adding that.

Because what it does is it’s kind of a small conversion, right? They’re not going to ask you to sign an NDA if they’re not at least somewhat serious or considering hiring you. And that’s kind of the role of the NDA more from a sales perspective, of course, you want to be able to ask any questions that are on your mind. Personally, I’d ask them anyways, but offering to sign an NDA or asking your client to sign an NDA, I think what that does is it solidifies the commitment on both sides and that’s a really good thing.

Another small conversion tool you might use is some sort of collaborative planning that you can do with your client. So what that looks like is just to sit down with them and kind of work backwards, right? So if their goal is to execute this training, I would ask them, well what do you hope to get out of the training? And they may say higher employee satisfaction scores at the next review in 2019 and so you can work back from that and say, well typically we don’t see employee satisfaction scores impacted for x number of months and we would have to train y number of people.

And given those things, we would need to start at this date with our training in order to give you a shot of actually seeing those numbers impacted. So working with your client collaboratively live in a meeting demonstrating how this whole thing would work. I think that’s really valuable. And of course the longer your cycle, the more complicated, the more expensive, the more that’s going to be a very useful tool for you and for your client. Now back to your original question, should you push on this client and really remind them how awful and painful this thing is that they’re experiencing, and the reason I started with the question, why did this happen is obviously you’re going to choose your path based on what exactly is going on and why. However, if you are pushing me to choose one or the other, should you just let them operate on their own schedule or should you push them to make a decision?

If that’s the question, I would always err on the side of playing the long game. In enterprise sale or any larger sale could take three months, six months, 12 months, 24 months, several years, right? There’s lots of reasons why things can take a long time. Sometimes they’re in your control, sometimes they’re not, but overall, if you continue to play the long game with more people, you will accrue the benefit of that. Now, if all you care about is quarterly results, of course go ahead and push on them. It’s just not my way of doing things, right? I’m trying to build a really, really long thriving business here. And so my outlook is always, always, always to play the long game with that client so that they understand I’m not just in it for a quick buck. I really am here to help them, but also I believe that when the time is right, so long as I do the work in the meantime they’ll still come back to me and that’s an important point to make.

So part of playing the long game means looking for new ways to add value prior to the engagement starting. Now this is one of the reasons why I’m so big on content. This is one of the roles of this podcast. This is one of the roles of my newsletter and content I give away and things I publish on LinkedIn. All of these things kind of work together to keep me in front of sort of like billboards key me in front of my potential clients, people who aren’t ready to work with me now. No worries. Maybe there’ll be a fit for us to work together in the future. Maybe not, I don’t know. But what I would say is having these things in place makes your life a whole lot easier in sales.

So if you’re not in a position to do this, Andy, maybe ask your marketing department, “What’s happening to prospects who don’t buy now?” You should really know that. If you’re in charge of that decision, what I would say is you want some sort of regular touch to your client and what I would say is monthly on a one-to-many basis is probably about the right minimum amount. So that may be just an email newsletter that may be a Webinar that may be some large and useful piece of content. Maybe even just curate articles you went out and read new statistics about the role of training and development at hospitals or whatever industry you’re working in, and you can share that with your client and that’s valuable.

Another thing that you can do is share a client success story, so that falls under the bucket of content and providing value. But if you can share a case study that’s extremely relevant to the person and their problem and you can contextualize why you’re sharing it, why you think they should read it and what they might take out of it. That is huge. So that’s what I would say is if you’re pushing me to make a decision, play the long game and look for new ways to add value prior to that engagement. Maybe you thought of something new, maybe it’s just these newsletters or articles or you’re sharing case studies, but do something in order to stay in touch and not just continually ask, how have you been? Are you ready to get started? What’s going on? How’s it going? No one wants that. I don’t want that. I’m sure you don’t want that, Andy. So think about ways that you can add value prior to the engagement.

Andy, I want to send a big thank you to you for taking the time to leave that question on the site. If anyone else listened to this and there’s a question on your mind related to this topic or another topic about sales or growth, please do. Just go to Liston, liston.io/podcast, and there’s a big button there where you can record a voicemail and send in your very own question. Thank you so much for listening today, and I hope you have a fantastic day. Bye.