Complex Sales Cycles
Changes in the way customers buy also have increased the complexity and the length of the sales cycle even in what are traditionally transactional markets. Buyers are more cautious in making investments and there are more choices, which often lead to longer buying decision processes. In addition, many consumers now rationalize their buying decisions by taking cues from peers, seeking advice, and conducting their own research to get the best product at the best price. Consumers and business buyers are now logging on to the Internet more frequently for information on products and pricing. Rather than a consumer buying something in the store, they may go home and spend days, if not weeks, searching for a better deal—or even the same deal without paying taxes and shipping.
Sales cycles become lengthier and more complex as salespeople have to deal with third parties, such as purchasing committees and procurement professionals, only concerned with hammering out the lowest price. One manager noted, “Procurement has ten times the power than they did four to five years ago.” Finally, this trend in lengthy and complex sales cycles is also a result of sales organizations trying to elevate their presence and participation in the sales process by identifying and solving business issues.
The buyers and purchasing processes of yesterday are no longer the purchasers and practices of today. To a great extent, this shift can be taxing for both sales professionals and their sales organization in terms of the energy and resources they consume. Further challenging the sales organization is the fact that some of these challenges require new skill sets that require investments in training. The sales professionals we interviewed most notably observed increased investment in the sales cycle via:
A more formal request for proposal (RFP), even from long-term and existing customers
The presence of purchasing committees of varying shapes, sizes, and scopes
The increasing power of procurement departments
Stricter requirements to demonstrate a real return on investment (ROI), providing proof of their organization’s financial solvency, and more on-site demonstrations
The number of senior leaders involved with purchasing decisions replacing a lower ranking associate who would have previously made the purchasing decision independently
Longer sales cycles, making it harder to get a commitment from customers
The presence of third parties, such as external consultants and procurement departments, selecting vendors and making buying decisions
Increased centralized or corporate-based buying as purchasing authority has been stripped of field offices
These trends have resulted in longer sales cycles in addition to making sales processes more difficult and more resource intensive for the salesperson. With more players to deal with, additional decision layers to negotiate, and standardized requirements that mean more work for the salesperson, making a sale has become an increasingly complex activity.
Heightened Performance Expectations
Being on the front line, the salesperson directly confronts many of these challenges on a daily basis. Consequently, organizations require that their sales professionals possess the necessary skills for overcoming these challenges and winning sales. Sales professionals at all levels identified a number of human resource concerns that have a real impact on the sales organization’s success. As marketplaces mature and evolve, some of the skill sets required of yesterday’s successful sales professionals have likewise changed. For example, learning how to sell to new audiences, such as senior business leaders and more savvy consumers, being trained to effectively link the benefits of a product offering to a prospect’s bottom line or an individual’s hidden personal needs, or understanding how to interpret financial statements to determine profitable versus unprofitable opportunities are critical skills for winning sales. Yet once again, these emerging training needs arise at a time marked with tighter training budgets.
We interviewed some organizations, especially in the technology sector, that participate in markets that require salespeople to possess some degree of technical knowledge. Lack of technical competence in some industries can put the salesperson at a disadvantage, especially in the absence of a cross-functional team-selling environment. Moreover, finding and keeping salespeople with a mix of sales experience and the necessary technical aptitude can be a daunting assignment. Technological competence is also important from the standpoint of being able to fully leverage the sales technologies, such as a customer relationship management (CRM) or sales force automation (SFA) system, that organizations today rely on.
Like most company divisions, the sales organization wrestles with recruiting, hiring, developing, and retaining individuals who have strong skill sets and a good cultural fit. Many sales managers pointed out that it is all about hiring the right people from the start, and then training them to achieve their potential. Once the talent is onboard, it’s critical that the organization be focused on developing and improving the necessary skill sets of its people. Striking and sustaining a perfectly balanced sales force—recruiting right and training right—to maintain competitive advantage, under any circumstance, is no small feat.
Other sales managers also shared that “working with what we’ve got” was a significant obstacle to their success. In response, some forward-thinking sales organizations avoid the hazards of complacency by continuously reassessing sales responsibilities, positions, and individual strengths to maximize resources for the best gains.
Sales skills and professional development among sales managers is equally as important but has received far less attention in many organizations. So often, sales managers achieve their role based on sales expertise and have little or no leadership skills, which can hamper their ability to successfully navigate the daily maze of hurdles and to keep focused on the bigger picture. The lack of time, resources, and support for training managers further inhibits sales leadership development, and, when all combined, can present the sales organization with some significant challenges—starting at the higher levels.