The sales strategies of marketing teams and sales managers need to be built from an acute understanding of how to work their sales cycle, so let's dive into defining a cycle's stages and how you can master each of them.
A sales cycle defines the stages every rep and their prospects experience before a sale is closed. A cycle’s details vary by industry and product or service, but every seller should aim for one that’s expedient. A cycle generally includes the following stages:
- Handle Objections
- Generate Referrals
The first stage of a sales cycle is identifying potential prospects. Prospecting exists for a reason; you can’t sell a product if you don’t have someone to potentially sell it to. But this doesn’t mean gathering the contact information of as many people as you can.
Prospects come from leads and leads come from either inbound sales efforts like ebook downloads or blog subscriptions, or outbound sales efforts that typically require research on the part of the rep.
It’s important to consider this stage as the foundation for a future sale. Quality prospecting involves research that saves time later on in the cycle by beginning the vetting process before a prospect is contacted. You might want to sell to everyone, but trying to do so will ultimately be a waste of resources.
Prospecting with a clear focus on discerning whether your product or solution is viable for a lead is how top sales teams find success. Doing so also means you’re gathering valuable information for personalized outreach that will elevate your correspondence with prospects.
How To Guide Your Prospecting (it’s all about finding the best customers for your company)
Your prospecting should mostly be informed by what you’re selling. The pain points your product or service is the solution to is number one. You can’t sell new tires to someone who doesn’t own a car. Use your ideal customer profile (ICP) and buyer personas to guide your search, as well as tools like LinkedIn and its company pages feature, Hunter (for email addresses), and Google Alerts for your prospect’s name as well as their company name.
Your company’s website or social presence is another powerful way to generate leads. However, the best prospecting tool is the almighty referral.
For an in-depth look at determining your ICP, check out our guidebook.
Research a lead’s company through recent news stories, their website (don’t forget to visit their “About Us” page) and their company’s socials as well as your prospect’s personal accounts. Twitter is especially useful for understanding your prospect. Look for blogs written by your prospect or subscribe to blogs from their company.
If you don’t have a grasp on what’s going on at your prospect’s company, you won’t be able to identify if they’re the right fit or how to effectively connect with them. Don’t forget to look for mutual connections either. Not just in the form of people but also through common interests, alumni, vacation spots, past work experience, almost anything positive you can find, just remember not to get creepy.
Prioritize prospects based on their likelihood of becoming a customer, the size of the opportunity or their potential lifetime value. You’ll need to craft the perfect first touch, which your research will help guide. Just remember that you’re not selling while you’re prospecting.
You should also evaluate your process frequently to understand how it can be improved. Take notes to track which activities generated value and which wasted time. What were your challenges? Where did you meet resistance? Do you have a healthy list of resources? Keeping track of the status of each prospect is also helpful for revisiting those who became a closed-lost.
Now your potential customer needs to hear from you, but the goal of your initial outreach is not to sell. Instead, you should aim to secure a discovery call or meeting. Will you use email? A phone call? Social media? Sales reps are tasked with pinpointing the best channel for reaching their potential clients, and choosing wisely is important.
Whether your prospect started as an inbound or outbound lead will usually help indicate your first move, but almost every sales team can expect to use multiple channels and numerous attempts before they get their prospect’s attention.
First Contact: It’s What You Say AND Where You Say It
The channel you use for your first contact will vary. There isn’t a one size fits all approach. Some teams like emailing first because it gives a lead time to sit with the information you offer. Others like using phone calls so they can adjust their tone on demand, and if the prospect doesn’t pick up, they’re likely to check their voicemail. We like starting with a few social touches before anything else.
The one point of consensus is that however you choose to connect, it shouldn’t be done without prior research. Learning about a lead will not only guide your talking points, it will indicate which channel is most appropriate for getting in touch. You increase your odds of making the right choice when you’re aware of which socials your prospect is most active on, what their lifestyle might be like or what the average day in their role includes.
In addition to your research, cross-reference your own data with your team’s to look for trends among buyer personas. Historically, which personas respond well to email? How about phone calls? Doing so will allow every sales cycle you’ve already launched to inform your decisions and will help your methods become a running experiment that self improves over time.
If you have a reference or a mutual acquaintance, the connect stage is the perfect time to use it. Ask your mutual connection to make the introduction for you, as this greatly increases your chances of engagement. If that’s not an option, then your first contact should be an email.
Use the name of the reference in your subject line so your prospect is aware you have a mutual connection as soon as they check their inbox. Then wait a day, no more than two, and call. Whether you reach your prospect or leave a voicemail, you need to mention the mutual connection.
The need for a rep to research their lead will almost never end, but some of the most valuable insight can be gained only from the prospect themself. Cue the qualifying stage. Qualifying is basically a series of open-ended questions posed by a rep. This is easiest to do during a meeting or a call, but some buyers are hesitant to move away from email. Meet your lead where they’re at and focus on getting answers.
People generally like answering questions, particularly when they’re talking about themself, but there’s no guarantee that a lead will feel compelled to give you the information you need. This is why the caliber of your prospecting is important. If you’ve found someone who could truly benefit from what you’re offering, they’ll be more inclined to help.
The same is true for your outreach. Once you’re convinced a prospect needs you, your outreach needs to convince them of the same thing. Both of the stages before qualifying can make or break this portion of the sales cycle.
The Value of the Qualifying Stage
The qualifying stage is crucial for understanding the details of a prospect’s state of affairs. It significantly improves close ratios, mitigates the risk of pursuing leads who aren’t a good fit for the product and redirects your resources to those who are most likely to buy.
Another bonus is the bump it gives your ability to personalize approaches designed for smaller segments of your ICP. Overall, qualifying is a way to ensure that your time and resources are being used to positively impact revenue.
Fortunately, many buyers are willing to participate in the qualifying stage because it can be mutually beneficial. If digging into your lead’s needs, goals and challenges exposes that your product or service isn’t truly helpful to them, don’t be misleading. Personalizing is different than bending the truth. If a prospect isn’t the right fit, understand that selling to them anyway could lead to poor representation of your product publicly.
Additionally, how the qualifying stage is handled will set the tone for the relationship going forward. Your level of investment in your lead and how well you listen and adapt will either shine through or be undermined. If you can provide an ample amount of attention to the qualifying stage, the rest of the sales cycle will be simplified and you’ll have a better gauge on your chances of winning their business.
Familiarizing yourself with your prospect’s needs means asking open-ended questions that become more detailed with each answer you receive. Your buyer personas, ICP or even current customers can help guide your qualifying questions.
Ask about their company, their role, their responsibilities in terms of staff, metrics, software, whatever is applicable. Pose questions about their goals, the problems they’re trying to solve and whether those problems have been addressed before. Their priorities, timeline, budget, experience with a similar product and what a solution looks like to them are other useful topics to broach.
Your questions should provide context for either qualifying or disqualifying the lead and their company. This means it’s important that you don’t leave something you need to know unaddressed. It will only cause problems for you later and disrupt the flow of your prospect’s experience, so keep asking questions as they arise. Don’t forget to end each correspondence with plans for following up on a specific date as well.
Tip: Disqualifying leads when it’s apparent they should be is advantageous. While it can seem like taking two steps back, knowing when to disqualify is actually helpful in the long run. The reputation of your product or service relies on its proper use, which can’t happen with a poor fit. However, some buyers will be a fit after an education on your product. These cases shouldn’t be disqualified, especially if your customer support services are strong. Overall, the qualifying stage will help ensure that your resources are going toward the right prospects.
At this point in the sales cycle, you can consider your lead to be qualified. You’ve gained information from your own research and from the qualifying stage that indicates the potential buyer is a good fit for your solutions. It’s finally time to sell.
Often sales teams use a pitch template that involves a presentation or demo. Whenever possible, ensure key stakeholders are present during your pitch. If not, you’ll have to rely on the accuracy of your qualified lead’s communication about the product to decision-makers, or you’ll end up giving the pitch multiple times, which isn’t great for your own time and energy.
Your pitch should also be heavily personalized. If your team does use a template, regard it as a preliminary blueprint that needs to be customized prior to every pitch. At this point in the cycle, you know what your qualified lead is looking for and what challenges they’re experiencing. Your pitch needs to reflect what you’ve learned.
The options for pitch presentation tools are endless. If you aren’t currently using one, finding the right tool for you is as easy as starting with a Google search. Popular brands include OctaSales, Canva, Slidebean, Prezi and even Google docs. Whatever you’re looking for from a presentation tool, whether it’s intuitive usability, sleek design or trackable metrics, there’s a tool for it. But pitches aren’t limited to a presentation style.
For some products or services, a demo or simply orating without visuals is a better demonstration of value. Regardless of your chosen format, record your pitch and email it to the potential buyer after. They can then share the recording with any decision-makers who weren't present.
A sales pitch itself should embody the thought behind the product being sold. In other words, the before, during and after.
Before- What was the core challenge that required a solution? What type of expertise went into it? How did it come to exist? Who were the people involved? Humanize your product to help your potential buyers see themselves in it and therefore its value to them.
During- What are the applications of your product? What are its features? What is it like to experience your product? If it were used perfectly, what would that look like? A potential buyer should come away from a pitch feeling like any mystery surrounding your product has been expelled. Familiarity is crucial. Without it, buyers can’t make an informed decision, and an informed decision is what every buyer is looking to make during this stage.
After- What results can a buyer expect? What will become more expedient? In what ways will a team using your product be more cohesive? How involved is your customer support? Where will resources be saved? Be specific, use quantifiable metrics and tailor your predictions to your potential buyer’s company. Once again, you want stakeholders to see themselves in your solutions, so it’s important to be thoughtful about how your product will look in their hands, on their desktops or anywhere else it will live.
Cost should never be a secret, so it’s useful to calculate the total cost of owning your product with fees for implementation, maintenance and upgrades included. You should also be prepared to compare your product to that of a competitor’s. If applicable, demonstrate how a small difference in cost adds up over time. This is not typical of every pitch, but it’s worth trying as transparency will appeal to many buyers. The process will feel more like a collaboration rather than a situation where your potential buyer must discern whether or not they can trust you.
Tip: Know how much your competitors cost, and be able to speak about how those differences could look for your client. Staying up to date on competitors does require more of your time, but it also adds to your preparedness and attention to detail.
Customer testimonials are also a helpful tool to use throughout the sales process. From the connect stage to closing, you can use case studies to balance out the bias every team has toward their own company.
For many, user experience is more compelling than any other factor like data, features or price. Just be sure to use a case study from a company that’s relevant to your potential buyers in some way.
Expect pushback after your pitch. The tailoring solutions stage, also called the handling objections stage, accounts for the questions and concerns almost every prospect will have. Don’t let the neat confines of the average sales cycle mislead you, objections can and will surface at any point, but it’s often after the pitch that a prospect will voice their true concerns.
When-not if-this happens, understand that it usually means your prospect wants to buy. There is a difference between generalized excuses and genuine concerns. When a prospect provides a specific anxiety, it means they’ve been listening and envisioning your solution at their company. They’re coming to you for certainty on the details.
If they weren’t interested, they’d simply walk away. Tailoring solutions is about taking the opportunity your prospect is giving you to prove that in every way, your solution is right for them. If a rep and a prospect can get through this stage together, a mutually beneficial relationship is on the horizon.
Strategies for Handling Objections
Your listening skills need to be at their peak performance when a potential buyer voices their concerns. So does your resilience. When an objection is presented, never interrupt. Once your potential buyer has finished their thought, make sure you clearly understand what’s being said.
Don’t hesitate to ask your potential buyer to elaborate or provide more context. Often, a simple “What does blank mean to you?” can work in your favor. For example, an objection might sound like, “Onboarding my staff onto your platform sounds too difficult right now.” Reply with, “I hear you, and of course you have to look out for your team. Can I ask what difficult means to you?”
If you can prompt your buyer to provide specifics when they’re making more general objections, you’ll have a greater opportunity to alleviate their concerns.
Your potential buyers deserve all the information. Go over the pros and cons of the purchase so they get a sense of your product’s value without feeling like you’re promising the world. Using platitudes and vague emotional appeals is exhausting, especially for a prospect who is proposing objections.
Making concessions where it’s relevant can help build trust and supplement your prospect’s authority, which they always need to feel they have. When a con does arise, don’t attach negative emotions to it with your words, tone of voice or body language. Instead, address it matter of factly and discuss the specific actions your company is taking to improve in that area. No product is perfect, but the good ones aren’t stagnant either.
It’s also helpful to anticipate common objections and strategize based on what you’ve heard in the past. Learn which objections are typically industry specific, company size specific and so on. Documenting objections according to buyer persona is a great way to be better prepared for every stage of the sales cycle. But don’t let the objections you anticipate deter your listening or make your responses sound mechanical. Potential buyers need to feel heard, not shuttled through an assembly line.
Overall, how well this stage is handled can be the difference between a buyer choosing you or a competitor. Focus on using open-ended questions, collaborating, actively listening and not becoming discouraged.
Once you’ve addressed your potential buyer’s concerns, you’ll ask for the close. If they’re ready to buy, you’ll provide next steps. Usually, this involves drawing up a contract and sending it over for review and signing, or connecting with relevant departments like legal or IT.
At this stage the sale can feel like a done deal, but the attentiveness you’ve shown your potential buyer up until this point can’t falter. If your prospect isn’t ready to buy, there are either still objections to handle or they’re simply not interested.
If there’s more information you can provide, do so, but also know when to walk away.
What To Remember While You Close
There’s not a single way to close. One school of thought is to create urgency by emphasizing the importance of buying right now. Teams can use projections that estimate the financial implications of postponing the purchase or employ customer testimonials from similar companies to help entice an immediate sale. Highlighting deadlines like the end of a quarter or the buyer company’s upcoming events can also incentivize making the decision in a timely manner.
However, the line between creating urgency and being pushy is thin. For a gentler close, teams can allow potential buyers to set the pace, at least to an extent. Agree on a date for a follow-up, make it clear you’re available to answer any questions in the meantime and check in again as the follow-up date approaches.
This may need to happen a few more times before the sale is won. If the buyer’s business is valuable enough, reps may be willing to engage in a drawn out close. But take notice if there’s reticence to schedule a follow-up date. This may mean the buyer isn’t serious about making the purchase.
Another approach is to list everything the buyer has said they need in a product and review your product against that list. Don’t leave anything out, even if your product doesn’t have it. This will not only show that you’ve been listening, it’s an effective way to summarize why your product is the right choice, but in your potential buyers’ own words.
Some Less Than Friendly Closes
The tone of how you close is up to you. While many studies show that empathy, kindness and respect can help sellers get further, there are strategies that take a different route. These include: telling your prospect you’re not sure they’re the right fit, using scare tactics like FUD (fear, urgency and doubt) to describe the consequences of doing nothing, creating conditions to the close (I’ll give you this, if you agree to this), or rushing the close by stating if you want this by this time, you have to sign now.
Some reps and sales teams find a more aggressive closing style to be effective, but not everyone will. It’s important to remember that there are many well documented and pre-existing approaches you can take, but you can also come up with your own. Keep experimenting and pay attention to what works for you.
If You Lose a Deal
Wait an appropriate amount of time before reaching out to the prospect to ask about their experience throughout the sales cycle. This could be anywhere from two weeks to a month to six months later, depending on how the correspondence was left off.
Reaching out to discuss a buyer’s experience is a way to nurture and potentially convert a qualified lead from a closed-lost, but it shouldn’t involve additional selling. Reserve this style of engagement strictly for information gathering about their reasoning. You can use this insight for future accounts and once a year has passed, to re-engage the lead in the sales cycle again.
By inquiring about a buyer’s experience, you’re not only showing interest in their opinion, you’re communicating that customers are given a voice at your company and that feedback is valued. This alone could convince a buyer who initially declined the purchase to change their mind, especially if they were on the fence.
Even if their decision remains the same, you’ll have set the stage for a future purchase.
Follow Up and Generate Referrals
Reaching this stage is usually cause for celebration and for good reason. Successfully selling is no small feat, and the work isn’t done even once a sale is won.
Customer relationships need reinforcement that continues indefinitely. The transition from prospect to customer is handled once a deal is closed, usually by customer support or customer success teams. The goal is to carry out an onboarding process that prioritizes the customer’s time and needs while also ensuring that they have the knowledge they need to use the product or service to its fullest capacity.
After onboarding, fueling customer retention, which is increasingly important as customer acquisition costs rise, should become the focus. Upselling existing customers is also simpler and more likely than attracting new ones. And the referrals that happy customers can potentially generate are invaluable.
More than any other strategy or tool, referrals are consistently effective for generating new leads and winning sales. When a buyer hears about your company from someone they trust, you’ve already won half the battle, so how your customer is nurtured even after the sale is extremely important.
Fine-tuning your sales cycle is a never ending project, but it’s worth taking the time to do. Sales requires learning and ingenuity, not stagnation or a “bare minimum” type of attitude. Aim to do your best, keep track of both your successes and opportunities for improvement, and with consistency, your sales cycle will reflect the caliber you’re looking to sell at.
Don’t forget that regie can help get you there sooner with our campaign builder. To learn more about our optimized cadences and AI-powered content, head over to regie.