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I’m going to talk about conducting online commerce today. And with the exception of this paragraph, I’m not going to mention shopping carts or credit cards . . . SET or SSL . . . shipping dates or catalogs.

I’m going to talk about the sales cycle. About companies that sell million-dollar satellite payloads, or $250,000 enterprise software licenses, or fleets of 18-wheelers, or nationwide ATM installations. About sales forces trying to uncover, pursue and close qualified leads. About companies whose sales process has nothing to do with online transactions and everything to do with shortening the amount of time it takes their professional sales force to turn a lead into a customer.

I’m going to talk about shortening the sales cycle, and about how online marketers like us can help.

CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?

I often hear complaints from marketing groups about how the sales force hates them. And I often hear complaints from the sales force about how the marketing groups don’t support them. The marketing folks think the sales force is short-sighted. The sales force thinks the marketing folks are trivial.

But really, there’s a common enemy . . . and if we turn and focus our attention on that enemy, everyone’s going to win. The common enemy is not the competition … or lack of good collateral … or high barriers to entry … or limited press pickups … or ineffective lead generation methods … or lousy booth positions … or overly strong prospect resistance levels.

The common enemy is time.

THE SALES FORCE’S FOCUS

For your sales force, there are two defining moments in the sales cycle (we’ll talk about that cycle in a second):

  1. The Moment of Qualification, when a qualified prospect is identified from the herd of leads generated by marketing.
  2. The Moment of Closing, when a deal is signed.

Everything else — all the hassles and questions, hand holding and hoop jumping, meetings and letters, credit evaluations and proposals — everything else your sales team must endure between those two key moments takes time.

Time your sales force should be spending pursuing the holy grail of Qualification and Closing.

Time you can use the web to eliminate.

LEARN THE STRUCTURE OF YOUR SALES CYCLE

Marketers: Sales cycles vary dramatically from industry to industry and situation to situation; they’re influenced by many factors. Have you asked your sales people to chart the model of their sales cycle? If not, you should. If you have, my guess is it looks something like this:

  1. Qualify. From the broad universe of leads that come into the sales funnel, only those companies that appear to carry the prime characteristics of qualified leads — money to spend, ability to spend it, and an identified need — are passed into the sales cycle.
  2. Approach. Get that first appointment, either by phone or in person, with the right people in the right context.
  3. Review. Your sales team must conduct a survey of the prospect’s business, current methods, and recognized and unrecognized needs.
  4. Present. Ultimately they will have to evaluate the product.
  5. Propose. This is the formal delivery of a meaningful business case and solution.
  6. Close. Sign the deal. Move the customer into the installation or service phase.

FACES AND PHASES

Once you’ve modeled your sales cycle, profile the people who drive that cycle — your sales force meets different groups or individuals at different points along the buyer’s cycle. And these people have requirements. Delivering what they want — before they tell you they want it — is where this web strategy really pays off.

What follows is my own broad characterization of the influencers your sales force will meet along the way, and what they’ll want. (Knowing this information about your company is critical to effective strategic marketing, online and off.)

  1. The Users. This group cares about themselves. How much trauma and difficulty is it going to be to learn something new? Users are likely to surface during the Present phase.
  2. The Specifiers. This group cares about how what you’re selling will fit in with its existing infrastructure. They want to know if your product is going to screw up the works. Specifiers are likely to surface during the Review and Propose phases.
  3. The Recommenders. This group wants to look smart and in touch and tough. They want tools to help them look that way. These folks are going to be around all the time.
  4. The Administrators. This group is going to sweat the details of the contract. Someone has to make sure that your terms and payment schedules and ground carriers are in keeping with the rules of their business. Administrators are likely to surface during the Propose phase.
  5. The Purchasers. This group — the only decision makers in the bunch — wants to make sure everyone else involved has done their job before they give over their budget. Purchasers are likely to surface during the Propose and Close phases.

Satisfying all these needs takes a ton of time. Time to deliver on promises made in meetings. Time to set up demonstrations. Time to gather supporting data — even competitive data. Time to sit with purchasing agents and contract managers. Time to write and rewrite proposals.

Time your sales force would be better off not spending.

Time you can remove by web-enabling the buyer’s cycle.

LET THE WEB SPIN THE WHEELS

Now we bring in the web, to bring together the cycle and the people who drive the cycle.

  1. For Users, create a separate secured site domain that helps them understand how easy whatever you make is to use. Let them register. Let them input their own concerns. They’re worried about how long it will take to learn to use new procedures — build side-by-side comparison sites for the major competitors.
  2. For Specifiers, create a separate, secured site domain that lays out the infrastructure. Let your sales force leave all those grid pads and flowcharts and measurements at home. They want to know what clearance is on those two-person sleeping compartments. They’re going to need to know about the exposed APIs. Put it on the ‘net, before they ask to see it.
  3. For Recommenders, create a separate, secured site domain that gives them the tools they need to look smart — let your web site be their mentor. You know that they’re going to be conducting a competitive analysis of you and the competition, so build a database that allows them to enter a competitor’s name (do NOT give them a list of the competition!) and build the competitive analysis for them — with your logo on the printouts.
  4. For Administrators, create a separate, secured site domain that describes in detail what your contractual model is. Let them have input to all of those areas through form-fronted databases. Why have a meeting when you can know up front which terms are acceptable and which need to be negotiated?
  5. For Purchasers — who are likely to spend the least amount of time on the site — provide a complete, up-to-the-minute report of how the process is going so far. Let your sales folks enter status information on a daily basis from an intranet form. And provide an area for them to provide input directly to you — perhaps the only place you’ll learn what they want until the end of the process.

CREATING EFFICIENCY

A web-supported sales cycle can help your sales force develop a faster and deeper understanding of the habits of your prospects.

For instance, much of my own sales cycle occurs on the web. All my proposals are delivered online, in secured areas. I know (through my access logs) the exact moment in time when someone’s read the proposal. (So my follow up never has to begin with the phrase, “Have you had a chance yet to read .”)

I know which areas of the proposal are of the most interest, and can interpret what that interest means in terms of my next approach (someone who goes to the “Cost” area first has a different mindset than someone who goes to the “Goals” or “Strategies” section first). I know which areas have no interest (if they don’t download a PDF file of my designer’s portfolio I can assume they will be looking elsewhere for tactical resources – an important piece of intelligence). That makes my entire sales process more focused and efficient from the moment it begins.

Just because you’re not selling products with low price points and commodity structures — products with prices that end with “99” to the right of the decimal point — doesn’t mean you’re not — or should not be — conducting commerce on the internet. As online marketers, our mission is to apply the internet to our business. And that includes supporting the field-reps and their prospects in their sales cycles.

As marketers, there are a number of things we can do to support the sales force in accomplishing their vital sales goals. If we did more of that, I daresay we’d convert the sales force from the enemy camp to the allied force.

If we did more of that that we’d have them eating out of our hands, instead of just trying to eat our lunch.

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