If you want to bake a cake, you can’t just mix everything into a bowl at random and then throw it into the oven. You’re going to get something that closely resembles cake. It’s not a cake though.
Anyone who has ever watched The Great British Bake Off can attest that baking is chaotic, stressful, and fast-paced. But at the core, there’s a specific science that guides every action a baker must take in order to make something properly.
Kind of like sales. From the outside perspective, sales might seem like a free-for-all with no rules.
However, just like in baking, there’s a clearly defined method to the madness that almost every sales organization uses to guide their efforts and ensure their teams’ success. And it’s called the sales cycle.
This is the framework that provides focus, order, and efficiency to an otherwise chaotic world filled with countless phone calls, emails, contracts, and meetings. Below, we’ll explore the full sales cycle, the value it brings, and ways to ensure team leaders can use it to smoothly progress deals from first touch to closed-won.
What Is the Sales Cycle?
The sales cycle is a set of specific actions that sales organizations follow in order to steward prospects from their first interaction with your company to closed-won deals. It’s a tactical framework that’s made up of seven distinct stages:
- Handle Objections
- Follow up and generate referrals
The use of the full sales cycle helps teams organize their pipeline, properly prioritize incoming leads, and gauge the overall success of their efforts. It’s imperative that the sales cycle be clearly defined with milestone events so your reps can understand what everyone is working on.
The Value of the Sales Cycle
Let’s dig into the value with a quick thought experiment.
You have a sales rep who’s working three different accounts. Two are in the Connect phase and one is in the Present phase.
Now, let’s say this rep decides to leave your company for a different job. What happens to these accounts?
Most likely, you’ll redistribute them to other reps on your team. But you need to know exactly where they are in the sales cycle.
Worst case scenario: the prospect in the Present phase gets sent to another rep who puts them in the Connect phase. But this prospect has already met your team, knows your product, and is ready to see your sales pitch.
Now, all of the sudden, there’s a new rep reaching out to them with an initial connection touchpoint introducing themselves and your product. Deal killer.
Similarly, if you take one of the accounts in the Connect phase and it gets bumped up to the Present phase, they’re not going to be ready for a full sales pitch. Plus, they’ll be confused as to why they barely know anything about your product and are already being sold. Deal killer.
The sales cycle ensures your entire sales organization knows where every account is in their respective journey with your team and product. The transparency and collaboration it provides is priceless.
And, as a leader, it allows you to objectively evaluate your reps’ efforts by answering questions like:
- How well did they perform overall?
- What processes work well to move prospects through the cycle?
- Where do things go wrong?
- Did your reps deviate from the sales cycle, and what was the result if they did?
Without the sales cycle, chaos ensues.
The 7 Stages of the Sales Cycle
Almost every sales organization uses the same basic structure for the sales cycle. Below, we’ll give each of the sales cycle stages an in-depth exploration and show how you can make it work for your teams.
Here, your reps need to fill their pipeline with new prospects who will be a good fit for your service or product. That means they need to have a crystal-clear understanding of what they’re selling.
Specifically, they need to be able to answer these two questions clearly, effortlessly, and comprehensively:
- What differentiates your product from all the other solutions available?
- What pain points, challenges, and problems does your product help solve?
Successful sales leaders will ensure all their reps can answer this before ever engaging with a prospect. And, as new features are launched, they quickly get everyone up to speed with robust training materials.
Why are these questions so important? Because it’s how you determine who your best prospects will be.
As your reps deepen their expertise of your product offering, they’ll also be able to deeply understand the people who will use it best, get the most help from it, and become lifelong fans.
Your partners on the marketing team can also help with the prospecting phase as well. As they create collateral that engages your target audience, they can pass the lead information over to your SDRs as it comes in.
Since they’re not self-prospected, these leads may require slightly more qualification work from the SDRs to understand if your product is a good fit. But at the end of the day it’s another solid stream of leads your team can work into the sales cycle.
At the Connect stage, your reps know who they want to talk to. It’s time to get in touch.
Today, our communications span multiple channels. As such, you can encourage your reps to flex their creative muscles when it comes to which channels they use to reach out. Think through things like:
- Do they have a mutual connection who can put them in front of the prospect with minimal friction?
- Are your reps LinkedIn wizards who can engage in meaningful ways on the platform?
- Maybe they love to cold call and have zero fear of being on the phone?
No matter what their approach, this first touchpoint is relatively quick, albeit very important. You only get one chance to make a good first impression, and in sales a bad first impression can tank a deal faster than you can say: “But wait, there’s more.”
To help ensure your reps put their best foot forward, create cold calling scripts, email templates, social media selling strategies, or other plans of attack. And remind your reps that the true value in this stage is simply to start a conversation.
They’re just trying to establish contact with prospects in the hopes of setting up more conversations and meetings further down the line. Don’t try to sell now, that comes later.
After the first connection, when a prospect indicates they want to learn more about your product, your SDRs should set up a discovery call (in some cases AEs will also host the discovery call). The purpose of this call is to research and understand more about the prospect’s business, needs, and if your product can meet those needs.
Sometimes, a discovery call will show that your product isn’t a good fit, and that’s OK. In those situations, make sure your reps feel empowered to tell prospects that it’s not a good fit.
You want your reps to be viewed as trusted advisors instead of pushy salespeople. Plus, the next feature launch for your product might end up making it a good fit. And if you want that prospect reheated and put back into the sales cycle, the earlier trust-building effort will pay dividends.
At other times, sparks will fly during discovery calls and your reps will know it’s a perfect fit. Make sure they key in on some important questions during the call like:
- What are your team, company, customer, and financial goals?
- Are you having problems achieving those goals?
- Do you know what the source of that problem is?
- Why is it a priority to fix it now?
- What does a successful outcome look like for you here?
- Do you have an estimated budget that will be allocated to solving the challenge?
- Who oversees that budget?
These are only a few of the many questions your reps will likely ask. But one of the most important things to discover is if the prospect is a decision maker.
If they are, do they show any interest in the product right now? If they’re not, your reps can politely ask to loop in a manager or higher-up into the next meeting.
Your SDRs have put in work to identify prospects, initiate contact, and qualify the lead. At that point, they typically pass these leads off to the AEs who pick it up and present an official sales pitch.
This is the sink or swim moment stage in the sales cycle, and it requires a lot of preparation.
The goal here is to pitch your product in a way that directly addresses the issues your prospect is facing. Clearly demonstrate how the product will improve the day-to-day operations for your prospect and show how your company achieves this better than anyone else.
The word “show” is very important here. Anyone can tell a prospect that their product is good. But how are you bringing that sentiment into a real-world, tangible example?
Show a prospect how your product can help with time-saving automation, streamline customer outreach, or help them dial through their outbound lists four times faster than normal. Walk them through the various features of your platform with a test account so they can understand what you’re saying.
And, during the presentation itself, remind your reps that body language, tonality, mannerisms, and appearance are important. These factors can, and do, influence a won or lost deal.
Side note: consider hosting a book club with your teams where you all read a robust book on body language, and then discuss it after as it applies to a sales meeting. And, yes, body language even has an impact in virtual meetings.
5. Handle Objections
Typically, your AEs will present to a team of decision makers at the prospective company. During the meeting, and future meetings, expect questions from key stakeholders both during and after the pitch.
Prepare for the worst and pray for the best, because these questions can be incredibly detailed and difficult to answer. They might want to discuss prices, competitor offerings, technical details of your product, or other issues.
These are commonly referred to as objections.
Train your AEs to listen closely, ask for additional clarity or context where needed, and ensure they understand every element of the objection before handling it. Further, your AEs can push deeper to explore the source of these objections with questions like:
- Do they come from a previous issue with a tech platform?
- Have past interactions with pushy sales reps diminished their trust in all salespeople?
- Does the prospect carry reservations from a past business deal gone wrong?
After digging in, before anything else, make sure your reps say: “Thank you, I hear you and understand your concerns.” The prospect and their team need to feel acknowledged and respected.
Then, and only then, can they go back and reframe their sales pitch to overcome objections. And, hopefully, this is the final victory that leads to a closed-won deal.
Last, don't forget to equip your reps with the responses they need to handle discount requests. If they have to deal with a customer's request to reduce price, but don't know what to say, that can tank the deal at this crucial stage.
Lock it up. Get it done. Smash the gong. Make that bacon.
Whatever fun thing your team calls it, it’s time to close the deal. It’s time to ask your prospect if they’re ready to buy.
Depending on how the preceding stages of the sales cycle have played out, the close could look different for each deal. In any situation, your reps need to be masters at reading the prospect’s mood or attitude (which is just one more reason to have your whole team do a book club study around body language and mannerisms).
A rep needs to tailor their closing style to match the unique personality of the prospects in any given situation. If the prospect has been excited, listening attentively, and there’s a strong rapport, your reps should feel comfortable using a direct-close approach.
“Let’s make it official. I’ll get the contract sent over and we’ll get it signed.”
Lower levels of enthusiasm demand a softer close. To help, circle back to the reasons why the prospect will benefit from using your product. After all, this is clearly defined and mapped out from the previous stages of the sales cycle, so don’t be afraid to draw from that well again.
Remind them why you met in the first place, and gently reiterate that if they walk away now they’ll be going back to a world filled with their current challenges and problems.
If, at the end of the day, the prospect declines don’t get angry. Keep that door open and let them know when they’re ready to make a deal you’ll be there waiting. People can change their moods quickly and be back in a few months ready to sign the contract right away.
7. Follow Up and Generate Referrals
When the prospect signs the deal, it’s time to celebrate. But don’t forget that there’s still one more sales cycle stage to work through.
Right after your prospect signs, before the excitement has worn away, there’s a prime opportunity to ask for referrals. This new customer is going to be excited about their new purchase, and they’re in a strong position to recommend other, new prospects to your sales team.
Your reps should always ask if they have friends or colleagues that might also benefit from your product. But, again, have them read the mood here. If the time or energy isn’t right, don’t force it.
You can always ask for referrals later on as the relationship strengthens over time. Some clients might want to see the product in action before they refer people your way. Whether they have someone for you right away, or it makes sense to wait for a bit, what’s important is you put the concept of referrals on their radar at this crucial closing moment.
Referral leads are highly valuable to your sales team and will likely be more qualified than many other inbound leads. Plus, since they personally know someone who already uses your product or service, there’s a higher chance they’ll move through your sales cycle faster than average.
Last, remember that referrals work well if you have a prospect in the sales cycle who wants to simply talk with other clients currently using your product. Make sure you cultivate a continual pool of clients who are open to speaking with other prospects about their experience.
Optimize Your Sales Cycle
Every sales team puts their personal flair on the ways in which they move through the sales cycle. And while specific tactics and processes might be different, the unifying factor across almost all sales teams is the sales cycle.
It’s the backbone that gives order to the world of sales and provides a way to measure your team’s effectiveness. As you work through your sales cycle, make sure to pay attention to the specific sales cycle stages that slow reps down, and those that are highly optimized.
As a team leader, it’s your job to ensure that there’s as little friction as possible during the sales cycle to ensure your team’s pipeline doesn’t get backed up. Don’t be afraid to tweak existing processes or implement entirely new ones. And good luck closing those deals.