Remember when sales leaders used to brag about shortening their sales cycle? It seemed as if every sales manager and VP wanted to boast to their CEO or executive board about how they had been successful at shortening the amount of time that someone spent in the funnel, by days or weeks (or if they preferred, some percentage).
But now that we finally have CEOs and boards trained to ask about “sales cycles,” things are changing. It's become a topic many try to avoid rather than promote. Why? Because sales cycles are not what they once were in B2B.
B2B sales now look a lot like B2C sales.
Things have changed, and the culprit is this thing called "inbound marketing." Rather than buying lists and cold calling everyone, inbound marketing is introducing this idea of inbound sales -- that is, calling inbound leads (those who show interest in your business first) who are entering your buying cycle at different stages.
In the B2C space, we never really tracked sales because we recognized that so many buyers were different. Here's an example of this, showcased through two women ordering at the same restaurant:
Scenario 1: Lucy
Lucy goes online to peruse the menu, read some reviews, and makes a decision based on recommended dishes. By the time she shows up to the restaurant and actually places her order, three weeks have passed.
Scenario 2: Laura
Laura, on the other hand, only looks at the menu the same day she walks in. She then decides what she wants a few seconds after skimming the options.
So, what was the length of each sales cycle? Anywhere from five seconds to three weeks.
This example is seen over and over again when we think about how we buy today. Amazon, Zappos, Netflix, and even brick-and-mortar retailers are used differently by everyone. Everyone has their own sales cycle.
Now when we look at the B2B side of business, we see the same thing. Rather than nailing prospects down to an arbitrary 60 days, we are noticing cycles from 10 days to 240 days.
How has the sales cycle changed?
This changing sales cycle is illustrated by the above analogy. In the past, salespeople started and outlined the process and then controlled the information and flow of the sale. But now, many of these “milestones” happen in secret -- or simply without the involvement of the salesperson.
Rather than having a solid “average sales cycle,” we simply know how long we've been engaged with them (not how long they've been in the process of buying).
This is an important distinction. Although the data on how long we've been engaged with someone might be interesting, that is all it is. It can't be used as a touch point to turn on the pressure. It can't dictate that someone is “ready to close by now” -- something by which many salespeople were managed in the past.
I discuss this topic of sales becoming more difficult in my book Sales Shift, because it indeed has become more difficult. Think about the new skills with which salespeople must be able to execute in today’s market:
- Salespeople need to manage multiple buyers with different personas.
- Salespeople need to sell to teams and influencers as opposed to one mysterious, ultimate decision-maker.
- Salespeople need to manage different buying patterns and timelines.
- Salespeople probably need to handle more people in the pipeline.
Does this mean that it doesn’t matter how long someone is in the pipeline? Does it mean that there is no advantage to shortening the cycle? Does it mean that urgency is no longer important? Of course not. However, it does mean that the way we feel about it, and communicate those feelings, might need to change.
We need to become very skilled at working with someone else’s process (that of the buyer) in order to have an effect on any of these. Buyers simply don’t care about our sales cycle. Then again, who does?