The message is heard in every sales meeting: “We just can’t seem to close that deal. It’s dragging on longer than we expected. We know they’re going to buy, but we can’t pin it down.”

The problem is equally frustrating to those in management. What’s wrong? Is the sales force not pushing hard enough? Are we too laid back? What else should we be doing?

Although selling is a skill that can be improved, this particular problem has little to do with either a lack of determination or faulty closing techniques.

What just about every company contends with today is an “extended buying cycle.” Whether it’s a business-to-business telecom sale or the consumer purchasing a new furnace or air conditioner, the decision-making process is getting longer and longer.

Taking their time

A group of nearly 200 professional life insurance salespeople were asked if they had noticed a change in the length of time it takes to close. They were unanimous in agreeing that no matter what the face amount of the policy — $100,000 or $10 million — it takes longer and longer to get an application signed.

Have you noticed that it’s taking longer to get your customers to sign onto extended service agreements?

It isn’t just that buyers are considering more options or spending time researching on the Internet. As one telephone system salesperson said, “Purchases are more thorough. No one wants to make a mistake. People are taking time to sort out all the options. They will only move when they are ready.”

If the salesperson recognizes that buying cycles are getting longer, it’s possible to get ahead of the competition by using the extended buying cycle to advantage.

Handling the longer cycle

Here are several ways to make a longer buying cycle work to your advantage:
  • Get a picture of the customer’s buying cycle. Don’t waste time trying to read the customer’s body language or worrying about trial closes. That takes your mind away from the major task of looking for clues to the process the customer is using to make this purchase.

    But what about the buyers who are very clear about what they want? Don’t be deceived into thinking that all it takes is finding out what they want and giving it to them. Quite often, such openers are merely a way of announcing who’s in charge.

  • Get yourself ready for the long haul. The message of the extended buying cycle is that most salespeople quit too soon. Because they get the message that the buyer isn’t about to make a quick decision, they move on. After the second or third contact, they’re off looking for a “hot” one. They lose a sale because they are not around when the customer is ready to buy.

    To position yourself properly, share your sales philosophy with the customer. “While I want your business, I’m not just here to sell you something. I’m here to work with you.”

    This commitment announces to the buyer what to expect from you over a period of time. There’s not going to be any pushing or pressuring. The salesperson is viewed as being at the customer’s side, the place you want to be when it’s time for the order.

    An Advertising Research Foundation study indicates that 35% of purchasers took up to 90 days to make a decision, while another 28% placed an order between three to six months. And 19% waited from six to 12 months after making the initial inquiry to buy.

    The same study revealed that when it came to future purchases, only 13% would buy within three months; 44% would require six to 12 months to decide. Yet, 20% announced at the beginning that they would require a full year or longer for the sale to be completed.

    How many salespeople take such information seriously? How many assume they can shorten the process by being more adept or persuasive than the competition? Or, worse yet, how many drop out when the customer doesn’t follow the salesperson’s “let’s close the deal” schedule?

  • Become a part of the customer’s thinking. Salespeople should become mentally prepared for long-term selling.
  • The extended buying cycle can be turned to an advantage by the salesperson becoming an indispensable resource for the customer. The task is to provide a regular flow of information. One time it may be a new product sheet with specifications; the next time, a copy of an article relating to the prospect’s business or the product or service under consideration. Perhaps it’s a relevant research report.

    This process provides the customer with a comfort level in dealing with a salesperson. Customers feel free to make inquiries. They are more open to keeping a salesperson informed about the competition. The goal is creating a selling situation in which the customer feels supported, not threatened.

    In the final analysis, the sale itself becomes something of a “non-event,” the natural outgrowth of a process.

  • Plan your sales two to five years in advance. The first time a group of salespeople heard the idea of planning sales over several years, they rolled their eyes, slid down in their chairs, and almost laughed. If selling is a profession, then managing the process is all-important.

    If, on the other hand, sales is simply grabbing every possible lead and scooping up the hottest sales as quickly as possible, this concept fails. While this was possible at one time, it isn’t today. Every day should begin and end with planting seeds for the future.

    Savvy salespeople never stop thinking about who they want as customers. They plan to be at the customer’s side when a deal is closed, no matter how long it takes. The best customers may be “under cultivation” for two, three, or five years.

    Staying ahead of the competition is not so much a matter of having more bells and whistles or even the lowest price. The essential element is knowing who will eventually become a customer and developing a plan to be there when the customer is ready to buy.

  • Move in on your competitors’ customers. Although planting seeds is critical when it comes to winning customers away from the competition, there is another strategy that comes from longer buying cycles.

Once it’s clear the prospect is not going to buy quickly, a perfect opportunity exists for another salesperson to move in. At this point, customers can feel a sense of let down, neglect, even rejection. It’s not unusual to have two or three salespeople drop the prospect at about the same time.

After working hard and conscientiously to close the sale, we’ve all watched as another salesperson walks in and grabs the sale with little or no effort. Why does this happen?

The longer the buying cycle, the more vulnerable the prospect can be to what may appear to be “new, exciting ideas.” This is why it’s important to be seen by the prospect as a knowledgeable, interested advisor who is always on the cutting edge.

If your role is correct, the customer won’t make a decision behind your back should a new salesperson come through the door.

The more astute salespeople will see the longer buying cycle as an opportunity to educate the customer and to demonstrate professional sales qualities. In the end, these are the people who will be there when the customer signs the order.