The Sales Cycle – From Handshake To Close (7,984 Free Words)

12

So you’ve landed the appointment – now what?


In business, you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate. 

– Chester L. Karrass


You’ve worked hard, organized your marketing efforts, implemented your strategies consistently and energetically, disqualified every tire-kicker you’ve encountered, and landed the sales appointment. Congratulations! Now it’s time to make sure that effort pays off by building a relationship that rocks! But before we get to the subject of the sales cycle, let’s cover some high-level concepts, so you don’t fall back on old habits and cost yourself the sale.

People buy from people they trust. If you do anything in a sales situation that leads the prospect to distrust you, your odds of closing the sale become virtually zero.

You can’t create profound trust in a few minutes. Everything you’ve ever been taught about creating deeply felt trust in only minutes is garbage, unless the words “a million” preceded “minutes.” Deeply felt trust is earned over time, not stolen by employing some interview tactic. Do you want to be trusted? Then be trustworthy at all times.

Sales resistance does not naturally exist in the selling process. The actions you take during the sales conversation will either create sales resistance or stop it from occurring. The trick to eliminating sales resistance is to always keep the prospect’s best interests in mind. That way, even when you challenge his or her thinking – because you honestly believe a mistake is being made – you will maintain a collaborative relationship and avoid sales resistance.

Karma, chemistry and commonality have little to do with sales success. Yes, there are instances in which two people simply don’t “click.” But the idea that someone won’t buy from you unless you have the type of chemistry that creates lifetime best friends is ludicrous. If you want to make “chemistry” irrelevant, simply be honest.

Ignore advice to match to your prospects’ behavioral makeup. Many experts advise that you interpret a prospect’s personality type and then change your behavior to a compatible type. If you plan to manipulate people into buying things they don’t want or need, this is a necessary tactic, because, without creating this type of “warm fuzzy,” your prospects will see through your manipulation quickly and boot you out the door. However, if your honest intentions are to help the prospect make the best decision for his or her company, this tactic is pointless, because you’ll already have all the warm fuzzy you need.

You cannot reach the pinnacle of success by being something you’re not. If you have the same personality, behavioral and motivational profile as I do, then use what I’m about to tell you verbatim. Otherwise, as you read about the Honest Selling Sales Cycle, concentrate on molding it to leverage your strengths and mitigate your weaknesses; otherwise, you’ll never achieve success at selling.

Organization creates success. I’ve been harping about getting organized for 11 chapters now, because, by simply getting organized, you’ll increase your sales results. But there’s another reason: Prospects love buying from people who are organized, because organized people rarely renege on commitments or fail to meet their obligations. So if you aren’t prepared to organize your sales cycle as carefully as you have your marketing plans, then I won’t be able to help you become the top-tier salesperson you want to become.

Now, let’s get down to the business of organizing your sales cycle and creating a method for handling every type of sales conversation you will have.

What Is A Sales Cycle?

When I refer to a “sales cycle,” I’m talking about the process that begins with the first sales appointment and ends when the prospect either decides to buy, or decides not to buy. Don’t confuse that with the “sales relationship,” which begins the moment your prospect first hears your name and doesn’t end until you cease to be a salesperson. 

In previous chapters, I covered many types of marketing activities that are part of the sales relationship and designed to land you your sales appointments. While I won’t go further into those activities in this chapter, it is important to understand that they are part of the overall sales relationship and therefore affect the sales cycle.

So, after you learn the concepts of handling the sales cycle, your sales relationship activities to see where you might change them to better support the sales cycle.

Shortening The Sales Cycle

A collaboration-model sales cycle is composed of a series of events designed to produce one of two specific outcomes. First to determine whether you and your prospect have a reason to do business and, if so, to outline the business you’ll do and establish an agreement. Second, to connect the prospect to the right resource when it turns out your solution is not a fit. This cycle includes sales events, such as phone conversations, face-to-face meetings, and preparing and delivering presentations, but is also impacted by marketing and prospecting events like making cold-calls, sending cold-letters, speaking in public and attending networking functions, and fulfillment events, such as writing and sending proposals and contracts, delivering goods or services, invoicing and servicing client accounts. While your methods of handling each of these individual events must be organized, believe it or not, the transitions between these various events will actually have a bigger impact on your success than how you conduct the events themselves.

To show you what I mean, I want you to put yourself in the position of buyer, rather than seller. You’re shopping for a new car, and are behind the wheel during a test-drive in your dream vehicle. The sun is shining on a warm spring day. You have the windows down, you’re cruising on a beautiful country road, the moon-roof is open, and the your favorite tune is blaring.

Could you want this car any more than you do right now?

Fortunately for you, and unfortunately for the salesperson, you’re not an impulse buyer. So after your test-drive, instead of buying your dream machine on the spot, you leave the showroom to “think about it” – creating a transition, or time lag, between two sales situations. Because your desire to buy was at its absolute peak during the previous sales situation – the test-drive – there is only one direction your desire can go now that you’ve left the dealer’s showroom – down.

If you want to become the best salesperson possible, you must minimize both the number of transitions in your sales relationship, and the negative effect these transitions can have on your prospects’ desire to buy. The good news is, you can accomplish both objectives using the same technique.

Reducing Transitions

To reduce the number of transitions in your sales cycle and maintain a commitment to buy during those that remain, manage every transition by doing three things:

  1. Make a commitment to do something for the prospect, such as show up for an appointment, prepare and deliver a presentation, or write a proposal or contract.
  2. Ask the prospect to make a reciprocal commitment, such as moving forward to the next active step in the sales cycle or, perhaps, buying. 
  3. In the next step of the cycle, confirm the commitment the prospect made.

Since this is a chapter on handling sales appointments, as an example I’ll show you how to handle the transition between the phone call that sets the sales appointment and the appointment itself.

You’re on the phone with your prospect (“Amy”), who called you because she saw you speak at an association meeting. You’ve discussed what Amy wants and haven’t disqualified her as a valid prospect. You’ve asked her whether she wants to meet with you for one hour to discuss working together, and she agreed. The appointment has been set for next Tuesday at 2 p.m. at her office, so you’ve already agreed to do something for her – you’ll take a shower, dress nicely, drive across town and give her an hour of your time to help her make the best choice for her and her company.

To best manage your sales transition, you must end this event (the phone call) by securing a reciprocal commitment from Amy. Then start the next event (the appointment) by confirming that commitment.

At the end of the phone call to set the appointment …

You: I’ll see you next week Tuesday at 2 p.m. at your office. One more question before we hang up: When we’re done with our meeting next week, if it looks like I can help you accomplish your objectives at a fee that delivers the best return on investment, what will you do?

Amy 1: I’ll hire you on the spot.

Amy 2: I’ll introduce you to my boss to see if he agrees with me and wants to hire you.

Amy 3: I’ll bring you in for a presentation to the board of directors, so you can answer their questions and give them what they need to make a decision.

Amy 4: I’ll think about it for a while and decide later.

Amy 5: I’ll ask you to create a proposal that I can compare to five other proposals I’ll be securing.

Amy 6: I’m not sure. I’ll have to let you know then.

Amy 7: I’m really only shopping around, so I don’t want to commit to anything yet.

At the start of the sales appointment …

You: When we spoke on the phone last week, you agreed that, if it looks like I can help you accomplish your objectives at a fee that delivers an optimum return on investment, you’ll [hire me on the spot]. Has anything changed?

It is entirely up to you how you react to your prospects’ reciprocal commitments, or to their responses when you confirm those commitments later. Some people, for example, will cancel the appointment unless they get the first response above – a commitment to do business – while others don’t care what commitment they get, as long as they get one. Regardless of how you choose to react, I can tell you that asking the transitional question is always worthwhile, because even when you don’t get firm commitments, you still increase your knowledge of the prospect and his or her business practices, which helps you make better decisions. And by getting a commitment now, then confirming it later, you will establish a professional relationship based on mutual trust and respect.

Keep in mind that transitions can often occur during a single event. Take our car salesman above, for example. His key transition was not when you decided to leave the showroom, but when you asked to take the test-drive. At that moment you were asking him to give you something – the keys to the car – and he should have asked for a reciprocal commitment in return: 

“A test-drive? Absolutely. There are some beautiful country roads about a mile from here, where you can really see how this thing handles. One question, though, before we leave: After the test-drive, if this car is everything you think it is, what will you do?”

If you said, “I’ll buy it,” he should have gone on the drive with you. If you responded with anything like, “I’m just shopping right now, so I’ll want to think about it for a while,” then he should have tossed you the keys and let you take the test-drive on your own, so he wouldn’t miss his chance to sell to the prospect who walks in the showroom while you are on the road “kicking tires.”

Two Sales-Cycle Secrets

Using the organizational structure I’m about to explain, I’ve closed huge deals in as little as 30 minutes on the phone, and closed multiyear sales transactions that included dozens of meetings, presentations, and proposal and contract revisions. The structure is extremely versatile, but to implement it effectively, you must learn two secrets – collectively they will eliminate the snags that might otherwise make the process fail.

Secret 1: Blatant Honesty

Always tell the hard-core, absolute truth. If you hit a point where the decision-maker is worried about something you can’t explain away, be honest: 

“I’m not sure myself whether we can hit the numbers you want to hit, because we’ve never done it before. My gut tells me we can, and I’d love to take on the challenge, but the truth is, doing this would be a massive risk for you. So if you aren’t willing to assume the risk and go shoulder to shoulder with us to tackle the challenge, you should probably boot me out the door right now.”

Secret 2: Your Magic Wand

When I was 18 years old, I went on my first sales call ever. I was meeting with a homeowner who had a 1,200-square-foot cedar deck on the back of his house, and who needed some sunblock applied to the wood, so it wouldn’t turn black. The deck was several years old, and it had been sealed a few times already, so the owner had a good handle on what the job would cost and how long it should take.

After negotiating the details of the job and my $500 fee ($150 for materials and $350 for labor, which was close to what he’d paid in the past), I handed my one-page contract and pen to the owner and asked him to sign it. He took the contract and my pen, put the contract on the rail of his deck and leaned over to sign, pausing with the tip of the pen only a quarter-inch from the signature line, as he read the contract.

After about 45 seconds of reading, he looked up and asked, “How long will this job take?”

I replied, “One long day. I’ll spend the major part of the day masking your house, sidewalks and everything else with tape and plastic, to avoid any spills and over-spray. Then it will take me about an hour to spray the deck with the first coat of sealer. The sealer you want needs an hour to dry between coats, so when I finish the first coat, I’ll be able to start on the second coat, which will also take an hour. Cleanup and touch-up will take me another two hours or so, so I can get the whole job done in one long day.”

The owner quite angrily said, “But the last guy took two full days to seal the deck.”

To which I replied, “That’s probably because he used a brush. I’ll be using an airless paint sprayer, which does a more thorough job and is much faster.”

I’ve been selling for 40 years now, and what occurred next is still the most obstinate and angry prospect reaction I’ve ever experienced. As soon as this guy heard I could finish in one day what others had taken two days to complete, he violently ripped up the contract, jammed the pen in my hand, said, “There’s no @$&%#!$ way I’m paying some punk kid $350 for one day’s work!”

The lesson I learned that day is one of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned about sales, and has been one key to my success as a salesman throughout my career. When you own a magic wand – in my case, an airless paint sprayer; in your case, the wealth of knowledge and technology you bring to the table – you absolutely must tell the prospect about your wand before asking him or her to sign the contract.

In every deck-sealing sales call I had after the one above, before handing the contract to the prospect, I would say, “Now you know, you’re paying me $500 to seal your deck, not for the time it takes me to do the job. So, as soon as you sign this contract, if I pull a wand out of my pocket, wave it and magically seal your deck, you still write me the check. Or, if it takes me three weeks at eight hours per day, it’s still just $500. I’m pointing that out, because I want you to know that I actually own a magic wand, and I don’t want you to be upset when I wave it, and your deck is magically sealed.” (Many times we then had a laugh over the fact that my magic wand was an airless paint sprayer.)

You have a magic wand – your wealth of experience, knowledge and tools – and if you’ll only tell people you have a magic wand, you can overcome virtually all fear of the unknown that your prospects experience. And, as in the example of fee-setting I used in the chapter on public speaking, your wand can also secure two or three times the fee you may have gotten had you not offered to wave it.

The Three Stages Of The Sales Cycle

To make sure I cover everything that could happen in any sales cycle, I’m going to explain this process in three stages – the “conceptual” sale, the “technical” sale and the “contractual” sale. If your sales cycle is a 30-minute conversation, you will cover all three stages in that one meeting. On the other hand, if your sales cycle takes 47 steps over 18 months, you should examine every step to determine into which of the following three stages each step fits, so you can handle the transitions between stages effectively.

In an ideal sales situation, these stages will occur in a linear fashion – Stage 1, 2, 3. However, most sales situations aren’t ideal, so I’ve structured the process to be agile enough to adapt to unforeseen roadblocks. For instance, if you encounter something during Stage 2 that forces you to reevaluate the agreements you made in Stage 1, that’s perfectly okay, provided your next step is to go back to Stage 1 and finalize agreement regarding the new issues. So, for instance, your sales cycle might look something like this: Stage 1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 2 and, finally, 3.

Regardless of the order in which your stages occur, at the end of every stage, you must have:

  1. Created a firm agreement as to the concepts discussed in the stage that is ending. 
  2. Agreed on what you and the prospect will each do prior to the next stage’s beginning. 
  3. Agreed on what will occur at the end of the next stage, if no showstoppers are found.

Only after accomplishing those three objectives should you move to the next stage, even if your entire sales cycle is only a 30-minute phone call. 

The figure above shows a visual example of the Honest Selling Sales Cycle, constructed in the shape of a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid, Tier 1, is the return on investment (ROI) the decision-maker wants to achieve, and at the bottom, Tier 7, are your specific products, services, processes, etc., that can help the decision-maker achieve that ROI.

On the left are two brackets depicting the conceptual- and technical-sale stages. On the right are several brackets depicting everything from a cold contact to the entire client relationship. For purposes of understanding the three stages of the sales cycle, pay close attention to the pyramid tiers that the conceptual-, technical- and contractual-sale brackets cover.

Stage 1: The Conceptual Sale

The conceptual sale is a verbal agreement between you and the prospect that, provided no technical or contractual showstoppers are found, your products and/or services are the best solution for the prospect. You reach agreement by identifying three pieces to the conceptual-sale puzzle:

  1. Determine what the prospect really wants – his or her true ROI. For corporate decision-makers, this almost always boils down to money, because they are typically judged on financial performance. However, money is not the bottom-line ROI for all decision-makers, such as independent restaurant owners who are truly in business to meet people, shake hands and be recognized for the quality of the dining experiences they deliver. 
  2. Determine what the prospect must increase or decrease to attain the ROI. The reason you have a sales appointment is simple – the prospect believes you can increase a positive or decrease a negative that will help him or her achieve the desired ROI. (Prospects will more quickly pay to decrease a negative – eliminate pain – than to increase a positive – gain pleasure – so remember that, as you create your marketing material, elevator speeches, etc.)  
  3. Explain what you bring to the table that can help the prospect increase the positive or decrease the negative, but do it using the prospect’s words – his or her unique value proposition (UVP) – not your words.

To reach conceptual-sale agreement, you must use the techniques described in earlier chapters to interview the prospect until you’ve identified puzzle pieces 1 and 2 above, so you can match your technology – products, services, expertise, processes, resources – to the prospect’s issues, and conceptually prove that what you sell fits the bill.

I have yet to see a product or service that can’t be conceptually sold in a one- to two-hour conversation with a decision-maker, provided you discuss only results-based issues.

By being blatantly honest with your prospect, and by pulling out your magic wand whenever the conversation turns from what to how, you can conceptually close any sale of any size in one hour or less. Honestly, this point is so critical to your success in shortening your sales cycle that I’m going to repeat it: I don’t care what you sell or to whom you sell it. If you can get an appointment with the top decision-maker, you can conceptually close any sale in two hours or less, if that close is conditional on the technical and contractual sales processes resulting in no show-stoppers.

In the pyramid diagram, notice the Conceptual Sale bracket on the left, the Cold Contact and Personal Chat brackets on the right, and the top four pyramid tiers they encompass. The top three tiers are:

  • Tier 1 – ROI: What the prospect really wants. 
  • Tier 2 – Increase Positive, Decrease Negative: What must be increased or decreased to achieve the prospect’s desired ROI. 
  • Tier 3 – Unique Value Proposition: Your products or services described in terms of results using the prospect’s own words.

Note that the Cold Contact bracket, which represents the marketing messages you convey to your prospects, encompasses only these three levels. Remember that I said you could close any conceptual sale in one hour if you can secure an appointment with a decision-maker? Well, the way to secure that appointment is to change your marketing messages, so they include ROI, positive increases and negative decreases described in your prospect’s language. (Again, if you don’t discuss results, you won’t meet with top decision-makers.)

If you want to become the best salesperson possible, you must change your sales message so it “speaks” to decision-makers, not to only their subordinates. (It’s okay to include the details, but be sure the first part of the message is results-based.) By doing that, you will secure appointments with these decision-makers, close conceptual sales with these decision-makers, and become the provider of choice with the people authorized to make that choice.

One of the most important things you will ever learn about sales and selling is to close the conceptual sale before you do anything else. Think of the conceptual sale as the first domino in an intricate topple design – as soon as it falls, provided nothing out of your control mucks it up, you get to sit back and enjoy the show.

Tier 4 – Conceptual Sale, Personal Chat

Now look closely at Tier 4 of the Honest Selling Sales Cycle pyramid. This tier represents the agenda for the conversation you must have with the decision-maker (“Joe”) before you can close the conceptual sale.

Tier 4 of the Honest Selling Sales Cycle pyramid consists of five building blocks:

  1. Conduct Inquiry: At the beginning of your sales conversation (after whatever pleasantries you prefer to use when starting a sales appointment), you start the inquiry by asking a simple question about whatever Joe said he wanted when you set the appointment. A very common first question for me is, “Why do you want sales training for your people?” This simple first question launches the Visceral Trust interview, which you should conduct until you have determined the true ROI. 
  2. Offer Insights: At some point during the Visceral Trust interview, you will have learned enough to change the conversation from an interview to a diagnosis. Honestly, I can’t explain how or when this happens, because it occurs differently for everyone. But trust me, if you’re paying attention as you conduct the interview, you’ll know it when you hear it. In any case, when the conversation turns to a diagnosis, begin to offer insights based on your experience and knowledge. Your goal is to create analogies from other client transactions, draw conclusions and explore their validity, and generally work collaboratively to explore any and all options for increasing the positives or decreasing the negatives you just found. 
  3. Challenge Thinking: Wise decision-makers surround themselves with people who can challenge their beliefs, because they know that people who agree with them all the time add no value to their lives. So whenever you get the chance to apply your lifetime of experience to challenge the way a decision-maker thinks, seize the opportunity. I prefer to always ask permission first, however, because it eliminates the possibility that my challenge will be perceived as overcoming an objection, and result in sales resistance. So I simply say, “I’d like to challenge your thinking on that, if I may,” and wait for the inevitable, “Okay.” (I’ve never had a decision-maker say, “No,” to that question.) 
  4. Learn Prospect’s Vision Of Success: Decision-makers are visionaries. Having vision and doing what it takes to achieve that vision is how they reach the level of decision-maker. So after you’ve discovered what Joe really wants and what to increase or decrease to get it, learn his vision of success: “Assuming for a minute we can accomplish everything we just discussed, what does success look like, and how will we measure it?” (Be certain to use the word “look” or “vision” in whatever question you ask, because those are visual words that will encourage Joe to tap into his true vision.) 
  5. Discuss Transitional Pain: Every decision-maker knows that pain will always increase before the positive is achieved or the negative is eliminated. Now is the time to discuss this transitional pain, because, if you don’t, Joe will assume the pain to be greater than it actually will be. Fear of the unknown is always worse than fear of the known, so never end a conceptual-sale step without discussing all the ways that achieving the result is going to hurt. It’s also a great idea to discuss future pain, such as what new problems will result from increasing the positive or decreasing the negative. (We once had a client whose software system became so efficient after our programming changes, it caused problems with the client’s manufacturing schedule.) 

After the Tier 4 sales conversation, you must close the conceptual sale before you proceed to the technical-sale stage, because you want the decision-maker fully committed to your solution, before you encounter the many technical or contractual obstacles that may exist. The reason for this is quite simple: The time you just spent helping Joe verbalize what he really wants, what he must do to get it, how it will look after he’s gotten it and how bad it will hurt along the way was probably the most productive 30 minutes to an hour this executive has spent with a salesperson in his life. After all, instead of trying to “sell” him on an idea, you helped him figure out the bottom lines to achieving his goals.

At this moment, Joe is more committed to you and your solution than he ever will be again – he’s at the end of his test-drive in your Ferrari – so you will never have a better opportunity to seal the deal. And if you do seal the conceptual deal, you’ll have a decision-maker in your corner who will then help you overcome future obstacles placed in your path by those you’ll encounter during the technical- and contractual-sale stages.

To close your conceptual sale, summarize what you’ve learned, ask Joe whether there’s anything you missed, then wave your magic wand, and ask for a commitment. To demonstrate what I mean, I’ll share a real-world example of a conceptual-sale close that secured a $110,000 engagement for Orbtech – the software management and development company my partner and I created in 1996.

Gill: Okay. I think I have a pretty good handle on your situation, so let me summarize what we’ve discussed up till now. Because of outdated software, the canning plant you just got is losing $100,000 per month. To stop the bleeding, your internal development team is working on creating a new system, but that’s going to take at least six months. During the six months, you need someone who is highly creative at problem solving to put out the fires that the old software creates on a day-to-day basis. You’d also like this person to look for ways to generate as many quick-wins as possible for plant executives, so they don’t get mad and jump ship before the new system is done.

Joe: Right.

Gill: I challenged you on the idea that the best person for this task would be someone who understands the language of your current software, and you agreed that what you really need is someone proficient in a lot of languages and platforms, so he can apply whatever tools he needs to get the daily results you want. We’ve also discussed Pat’s skills and experience, and agreed that he seems to be a fit.

Joe: Yes, provided the programming and database languages he knows are applicable to our situation – I need my guys to meet with him to make sure.

Gill: Agreed. Anything else at this point, or should I go on?

Joe: No, go on. 

Gill: As for measuring success, your bottom-line measurement is that, instead of your plant executives’ screaming about problems every day, they’ll collaborate with Pat and, eventually, praise him for the job he does. We’ve agreed on fees for having Pat work with your team for six months, provided he meets the objectives we’ve outlined. We also agreed that you would pay us in two-week increments, in advance, and that, at the end of every two weeks, you could fire us from the project and get your last payment back, if you aren’t happy with the job Pat does. Is that correct?

Joe: Sounds fair to me.

Gill: The last thing we discussed was transitional pain. I told you that Pat would have a sizable learning curve to overcome, because of the many systems at the plant, and I explained that, during the first four to six weeks, your executives might yell a bit louder and your losses might actually increase, because Pat will need to pull people away from daily tasks to get his questions answered. I also promised that, after this transition, things would begin to get better, and that by week six your executives would be glad to have Pat on the team. I also told you that some of the strategies Pat creates will probably be so attractive to the plant executives that your internal team may end up having to incorporate them into the final system, resulting in some additional modification costs after the new system is in place. Do you have any other concerns about the transitional period?

Joe: No. You covered it all, and I’m glad you did, because now I can manage expectations much better.

Gill: That’s all I have at this point. Is there anything you can think of that I’ve missed or that you want to change?

Joe: No. That sounds incredibly accurate, actually.

Gill: Great. What’s next?

Joe: I guess we need to get Pat introduced to my team and make sure there isn’t anything that would keep him from being successful.

Gill: Okay, but before we schedule the technical meeting, let me ask you a question. Suppose I could wave a magic wand, and there would be no showstoppers, meaning Pat is a perfect fit for the job and gets along with your team. Under those circumstances, are there any other issues that would stop us from getting this project?

Joe: If Pat has the skills we need, and if my people get along with him as we expect they will, this is a done deal.

Nowhere in our conversation did Joe and I discuss the actual database languages, operating systems, programming languages or detailed project requirements, because those are technical issues that have nothing to do with Joe’s ROI, which, in this case, was to get his plant executives off his back. If you want to elicit words like “done deal,” “I’ll hire you” or “I’ll cut you a check on the spot,” you must become proficient at closing the conceptual sale before you have the technical discussion.

The conceptual sale is the most critical part of the Honest Selling Sales Cycle – practice and perfect your conceptual sale until it’s rock-solid. In most cases, the rest of the process is nothing more than ironing out details.

Transition From Conceptual To Technical Sale

Now that you’ve made the conceptual sale, you must handle the transition to the technical sale – keep from losing the sale due to some technician’s personal agenda, rather than to a true showstopper. It’s how you handle this transition that becomes the next most critical piece of the sales-cycle puzzle.

Let’s pick up my conversation with Joe. 

Gill: When would you like to get everyone together?

Joe: Can you and Pat get on a plane next week and come here, so we can make sure everyone is on board with the whole plan?

Gill: Absolutely. But to be sure we don’t waste a trip, I’d like to be the one to set the meeting agenda and run the meeting. Is that okay with you?

Joe: What type of agenda do you mean?

Gill: As I see it, the meeting has one purpose only – to see whether there are any showstoppers, either personal or technical, that would kill the deal that you and I just made. I’d like to explain to your executives what you and I discussed and see whether they disagree with anything. What I suggest is Pat and I have lunch with your two guys, where I’ll go over everything and look into all the technical issues. Assuming we find no showstoppers, then Pat and I will want to meet with you after lunch to explain what we found and see whether you want to move forward. How’s that sound?

Joe: Are you saying you don’t want me at the lunch?

Gill: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying, because I want to see whether your top execs have anything to add, change or remove from what you and I discussed, and I don’t want any possible office politics to keep them from being absolutely honest. Bottom line: If they have a problem, it will rear its ugly head once Pat gets there, and I’d rather find it and cover it now, than risk two weeks of Pat’s time, only to get fired and give you back the fee.

Joe: I like that idea. Are you and Pat available next week Thursday?

Gill: Yes, but it’s a $2,000 trip, so I’d like to make you a deal. If your guys throw up some roadblocks that we can’t overcome, and we end up not getting the engagement, I’d like you to cover our travel costs. If we all agree on the deal, though, I’ll cover them. Is that fair?

Joe: I think that sounds like a fair deal. 

Gill: Will you be available after lunch?

Joe: I’ll keep a 1:30 slot open for you and make sure my guys are available for lunch. So after you meet with them, you can stop by and tell me what you found. Should I tell them what we discussed, or would you rather wait and tell them yourself?

Gill: I’d rather you tell them everything now, so they have time to search for showstoppers before we get there. That way, we can cover everything and be sure we either leave with a signed agreement or know the reason it can’t work.

Joe: I’ll tell them what’s going on today.

Gill: Okay. I’ll get the flights booked and let you know what our schedule is. Is there anything else you need from me right now?

Joe: Nope. We’re all set. Thank you very much.

Gill: You’re welcome. I’ll see you next week.

Never set a technical-sale meeting without also scheduling the follow-up conversation with the decision-maker, because “underlings” will often try to keep you from returning to the decision-maker for discussions or guidance.

Stage 2: The Technical Sale

The mistake most salespeople make is to have the technical-sale conversation before the conceptual sale is closed with the decision-maker. What they do is attempt to win the sale by convincing the technicians of their prowess, and then hope the technicians will “sell” them to the boss. But serious problems exist with this approach:

  1. Unlike decision-makers, technicians often can’t say, “Yes,” to your solution. They can say, “No,” and “Maybe,” but that’s it. 
  2. Despite having authority to do so, technicians rarely say, “No,” because they love to learn. So instead of letting you know that you have no chance of closing the sale, they stay enthusiastic and upbeat – letting you educate them even further. 
  3. Unlike decision-makers, technicians are highly risk-averse, so it’s rare that one of them will actually propose your solution to the boss. (Convincing a technician to take a risk on your behalf is usually more difficult than convincing a decision-maker to meet with you. So where do you think your time is better spent?) 
  4. Technicians hate losing their valuable resources, so if you become a resource of value to the technicians, they will wrap their arms so tightly around you that you’ll never get an appointment to see the decision-maker. 
  5. Technicians don’t like losing control of their pet projects – you may be seen by them as usurping their authority.

Unfortunately, because technicians don’t want you to have a relationship with their decision-makers, they generally aren’t happy when they learn that you’ve gotten around them and secured a deal before they had a chance to add their two cents. So the fact that you closed the conceptual sale already means you may be starting your technical conversation in a somewhat hostile environment. Fortunately for you, however, by scheduling the return trip to Joe in advance, you have exactly what you need to quickly convert their hostility to helpfulness within the first 30 seconds of your meeting. 

Here’s how I started the technical meeting with Joe’s two executives:

Gill: As you know, Joe and I spoke last week and discussed plant operations. We have two reasons for meeting today: The first is to see whether there are any technical showstoppers that would keep us from being able to accomplish what Joe wants; and the second is to get you two introduced to Pat, because if we move forward, you and he will be working together for the next six months. I’ve got a meeting set with Joe after lunch to go over everything we discuss, so we have about an hour and a half to see whether there are any problems. I’d like to start by giving you an overview of what Joe and I discussed, so you can let us know whether we missed anything, and add, change or remove anything we’ve planned.

A magical thing happens when you start the technical conversation like this. Before you explain that the purpose of the meeting is to see whether anything will keep Joe from getting what he wants, and that you’re already set to discuss the results of the meeting with Joe, many technicians will be sitting upright and confident, and, in some cases, even aggressive. But as soon as they learn that they may be the reason Joe won’t get what he wants, and that you’re the one who is going to report findings to Joe, their postures relax, their confidence wanes and their aggressiveness is replaced with helpfulness. Of course, the secret to getting them to relax is to respect their roles, by inviting them to add, change or remove anything they believe is appropriate.

Tier 5 – Technical Sale, Presentation

In the Honest Selling Sales Cycle pyramid, Tier 5 contains five building blocks representing the agenda you’ll follow to make a successful technical sale. By “successful,” I mean that you’ll position yourself as a peer of the decision-maker, not the technicians, and you’ll find all of the true showstoppers that exist.

  1. Explain Prospect’s Vision Of Success: Start your meeting by summarizing what you and Joe discussed in terms of his vision of success. Again, it is very important to use the word “vision” in your summary, because that will establish you as Joe’s peer, and the technicians will be more likely to follow you wherever you lead.  
  2. Estimate Results: A second way to disarm technicians is to discuss results and the means with which they’ll be measured. This is the time they come to terms with the fact that you’re in charge, and they’re cogs in the machinery. 
  3. Seek Showstoppers: Once you’ve positioned yourself as Joe’s advocate and peer, begin the hunt for showstoppers by inviting them to shoot holes in your argument. Don’t hesitate to be a bit aggressive in your hunt, because decision-makers do this all the time. If the technicians aren’t voluntarily helpful, pick someone with whom to have a one-on-one conversation about problems. 
  4. Describe Transitional Pain: As part of your showstopper hunt, describe the transitional pain you and Joe discussed, and ask them to offer comments. Seek additional transitional pain by discussing previous experiences. Now is the time to learn whether some technician has an axe to grind – or that axe may chop your head off later.  
  5. Design Solutions: After you’ve uncovered whatever showstoppers exist, engage the technicians in a conversation to overcome those showstoppers, either by employing processes under their control or under yours. As a general rule, you should never present a problem to a decision-maker without also presenting a proposed solution. So don’t end the technical meeting until you have exhausted your efforts to design a possible solution to every showstopper you found.

In most technical-sale cases, these five agenda points are all that you’ll discuss. However, some groups will be more inquisitive than others, so, during the technical sale, you may need to discuss the items listed in Tiers 6 and 7 of the sales-cycle pyramid (which is why the Technical Sale bracket on the left includes these tiers). All in all, you’d be better off sticking to Tier 5 in this discussion, and discussing Tiers 6 and 7 in the contractual-sale stage. But be prepared for anything to happen.

To close the technical sale, end the meeting with a final question that summarizes Joe’s primary objectives and seeks additional showstoppers:

Gill: Is there anything we’ve missed that would keep us from taking care of the many software glitches and problems Joe wants us to fix during the next six months? 

Your technical sale is complete when the answer to this final question is “No,” but you must still handle the transition to the contractual sale.

Transition From Technical To Contractual Sale

Regardless of whether the meeting ended when you found the showstopper, or ended finding no showstoppers at all, be certain to let the technicians know that you’ll take it from this point back to Joe, or they might attempt to take control by going straight to Joe themselves.

Gill 1: Thank you for your insights. I’m sure Joe will be happy to hear that there are no serious showstoppers to getting what he wants. If there’s anything you can think of before my meeting with Joe, please call me and let me know.

Gill 2: Thank you for your insights. I’m glad we found the reason this wouldn’t have worked for your company. I’ll meet with Joe later today and explain how helpful you were in finding the showstopper. If he has any ideas of his own for overcoming the problem, I’m sure he’ll let you know.

You can’t stop them from talking to Joe if they want, but transitioning this way will keep most technicians from taking the initiative to talk to Joe after you leave.

Stage 3: The Contractual Sale

In your final meeting with Joe, discuss the entire technical-sale conversation. Explain every obstacle that was placed in your path by the technical people, and offer your proposed solutions. Then summarize every item discussed to date, from Tier 1 to Tier 7 of the pyramid, and ask Joe whether there is anything left to add, change or remove.

Whenever the conversation comes to its natural conclusion, simply ask, “What’s next?” If a handshake is all that’s required to book the deal, then shake hands. However, if you must write a proposal or contract – either because Joe prefers one, or you do – then end the conversation as follows:

Gill: My next step is to write this in the form of a proposal, which I can have on your desk in two days. One last question before I leave: When you get the proposal, if it contains everything we discussed, and there isn’t anything you want to change, what will you do?

Your contractual close will be made when the prospect agrees to sign the proposal or contract, provided it specifies exactly what you’ve agreed upon to date. 

Bottom line: You should never create a proposal or contract without first getting a verbal commitment that it will be signed, if it contains everything you we discussed. After all, if there’s something that will keep the prospect from signing the document, shouldn’t you learn that before you create it?

There are as many ways to write a contract as there are lawyers, and, in Chapter 13, I’ll discuss methods for writing letters of understanding and short proposals, so I will not delve deeply into the whys and wherefores of contract construction here. However, because I hate writing contracts and proposals that don’t get signed, I treat writing a proposal or contract as the first fulfillment step, instead of the last sales step. I do this by closing the contractual sale verbally, and carefully managing the transition from verbal close to signature close.

The [Your Name Here] Sales System: Sales Cycle

Before I wrap up this chapter, I’d like to point out one additional thing about the Honest Selling Sales Cycle pyramid. Notice at Tier 7 – Your Products, Services, Processes, Etc. – the brackets on the left and right. I specifically excluded this tier from both the conceptual- and contractual-sale stages, because, to become the best salesperson possible, you should strive to discuss results, and only results, with decision-makers. Sure, you may skirt the issues related to how you do what you do, but your best bet will always be to save the how discussions for the technical people, and discuss only what and why with decision-makers.

Even if your sales cycle takes only 30 minutes, you should segment your sale into three distinct stages:

  1. Conceptual sale with the decision-maker. 
  2. Technical sale with the technicians and other subordinates. 
  3. Contractual sale with the decision-maker.

By closing each sale before moving to the next stage, and carefully handling the transitions between each stage, you’ll close more sales and eliminate the time you would have wasted on sales that had no chance of closing at all.

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