We spend much of our time thinking about how attractive our customers look to us. The secret to shortening manufacturing sales cycles is to understand how attractive we look to our potential customers. Think about it. In meeting after meeting and spreadsheet after spreadsheet we analyze customers based on their purchase volume, profit margin, and product mix—celebrating those customers that buy a lot, pay a lot, or buy what we want to sell. In the same breath, we grumble about customers that require gobs of TLC but then don’t buy very much, spend very much, or order what we would like to sell.
Don’t get me wrong, analyzing the performance of our book of business is critical for the success of the business. Without it we would fall victim to the adage of, “Lose a little bit on each one, but make it back on volume.” Still, this analysis gives us zero insight into how we can be more attractive to our customers.
We all know that understanding and meeting customer needs is the key to a successful sales cycle. Yet, many sales people I meet undervalue the customer’s point-of-view. If you are a supplier, what do your distributor or OEM customers truly value, and how are they different? If you are an OEM, do you truly understand the role your products play for your retailer, dealer, or end-user customers?
A sales manager recently told me, “We as a group need to do a better job reflecting on what a customer thinks of us. It’s holding the mirror up to yourself and saying, ‘So that’s what they really think of me?’”
The salesperson that understands the customer perspective has opportunity at five stages of the sales journey to shorten the sales cycle.
- Walking away
I want to share what I’ve learned about improving each of these moments, but to do that, I need to share what I have learned about customers.
Compressing the sales cycle
It’s hard to imagine that a customer prefers a lengthy sales cycle any more than you do. Still, customers will make purchase decisions when they are ready. Pieces that need to be in place for a purchase are out of our control. For example, we may have little control over when and how a customer starts looking for a solution. Similarly, we do not control a customer’s internal business timing or approval process. However, we do control our own activities.
By turning the mirror on ourselves, I believe there are five steps anyone in manufacturing sales can take to improve reduce their sales cycle and improve their manufacturing sales effectiveness.
1. Make a Prospecting Quadrant
The best way to improve your prospecting efficiency is to spend more time hunting in areas with many customers that are a good match with your offer and the way you go to market. If that seems obvious (but impractical), try this exercise.
First, map out the way you think about your customers. Pick two different points of view for the role your product plays in your customer’s business. A manufacturing supplier may find his distributor clients are seeking his product because it “Helps me add value for my customers” or “Helps me manage inventory efficiently.”
Next, pick two different points of view for the type of relationship customers want with you. The supplier may find his distributor clients perceive your relationship as “Partner” or “Vendor.”
You can sketch these dimensions out on paper like in this example. You can even get creative and name the quadrants. Next, write in one or two of the customers you believe fit in each of the quadrants. Then, ask yourself, which of these groups have higher conversion rates? Shorter sales cycles? Higher customer satisfaction?
When a theme emerges, your prospecting should focus on organizations that belong in that quadrant.
2. Create a Qualification Process that Matters
A typical qualification process focuses on verifying the budget, authority, need, and timing of your customer. However, all qualified leads are not created equal.
Think back to the four quadrants you sketched out in the prospecting exercise above that represent your customers’ varying points of view. For each quadrant, sketch out 4-5 simple steps that that represent the buyer journey you believe those customers would prefer to follow.
For example, a large distributor that behaves like a “Deal seeker” may start the buying process at a certain time of year or a certain point in the market when prices are low. They may prefer to get multiple quick quotes and base their final decision on price and logistics factors assuming minimum quality thresholds are met. Your guide to the buyer journey might look like the following sketch.
DEAL SEEKER Buyer Journey
Put this plan into action with your customers by adding to your qualification checklist a couple of questions that will place a customer into one of the quadrants. These could be as simple as asking, “Which would you say is a higher priority for you now, ensuring your customers’ ultimate success or managing your inventory efficiently?” and, “How would you describe your ideal relationship with a company like ours, as a respectful supplier or as a partner?”
Now as you qualify customers, you can be their guide down the path they are more likely to follow anyway based on how they want to buy. Remember, keep your perspective fresh because the way they approach buying this time may not be the same as the last based on changes in their business such as new boss or changes in the market such as raw material price changes, new suppliers, or new technology.
3. Use Discovery to Learn What Really Matters to Your Prospects
The quicker you learn what your customer values most, the shorter the sales cycle. The reason is simple. You make more progress towards a deal with each touch when you have better information and your customer feels understood.
Ask questions at each interaction to learn what is truly important to the customer and how she perceives competitors. You will be surprised at how many times the answers will be unrelated to the product features and benefits.
Here is a question I picked up from an experienced seller that provides insight around both the important factors and the competition. The setup for this question is a customer conversation where you know the competitor where your customer buys. Rather than asking about that competitor directly or about yourself, pick a third competitor, let’s call them XYZ, Inc., and say, “Tell me about why you aren’t buying from XYZ, Inc.?”
A word of caution on this tip. When we have a long-term relationship with a customer, we become overconfident about our take on the customer’s values. Ask questions anyway! The same customer will approach the same buying occasion differently based on their business cycle, the overall economy and how they feel on the day.
4. Close with the Right Package
When putting together a proposal for the customer, measure twice and cut once. Put a package together that makes sense for your customer not just for you. To do this, identify the customer’s job to be done and desired relationship with you at this moment. Then, ask yourself two questions:
- Does my proposal match the way this customer prefers to buy?
- Have I highlighted the important factors that the customer believes are unique to my product or service offering
If your answer is no, fix it. This is your best chance for success.
It is possible to influence some customers over time towards the way you would prefer that they buy. However, that is a process that takes time and investment in the relationship. When it is time to close the deal, it is time to focus on meeting the customer where she stands today.
5. Know When to Fold ‘Em
The sales people I know are innately competitive. Rather than call it a day, you may tend to double down on your efforts when sales cycles stretch and the momentum peters out. The silent killer in manufacturing sales teams is the average number of days to declare an opportunity, “Closed-lost.” The sooner you make the call to walk away from a dead-end opportunity, the sooner you are spending time with opportunities that will become “Closed-won.” But, how do you make the decisions to pull out when sales glory might be only one call away?
If your average days to “closed-lost” is close to your average days to “closed-won,” congratulations. You are managing your opportunities well. On the other hand, you have work to do if you are like the rest of us with the average days to “closed-lost” more than the average days to “closed-won.” Try this two-step approach:
- Review opportunities in your pipeline that exceed your average days to “closed-won.” You should be suspicious of each of these opportunities.
- Ask yourself the following questions:
- Have I correctly identified the role my offer plays in my customer’s business and the type of relationship they prefer with me?
- Have I identified the most important factors in my customer’s decision?
- Have I presented a proposal that treats my customer how she prefers to be treated and highlights the benefits she most values?
If your answer to these questions is yes, and you don’t have a decision, walk away.
Reframing how we think about our customers – or rather, how they think about us – is the key to transforming your manufacturing sales cycle. You will be on your way to spending more time with the right customers and shortening your sales cycles.