If you look at your deal or opportunity record in your CRM system, you’ll see a field for the sales stage. Typically, CRM systems use this field to help sellers express the odds of closing business. For example, you’re more likely to get a deal that you’ve quoted than a potential project that you’ve just identified. It’s intuitive and helps the system build an estimated pipeline value. It also allows sellers to see where their deals are in the process.
So, our CRMs have a sales stage field. But that’s not your sales cycle. Your sales cycle is a series of interactions and exchanges of value that lead to a sale. It’s the process your sellers go through to close the business. It typically involves emails, phone calls, meetings, requests for information, quotes, and, sometimes, requotes.
Depending on the size and shape of your business, you could have several different sales cycles. For example, distributors who sell a mix of commodities and engineered solutions would have at least two different sales cycles. Commodity sales are price- and availability-driven, while we sell engineered solutions on value creation and problem-solving.
Is it a distinction without a difference?
You might be thinking that the difference between your sales cycle and a deal’s sales stage is silly. A sales stage tells you where the salesperson thinks a potential is in the pipeline. How reliable is that estimate?
Look at your CRM system’s pipeline report. Can you identify a spot in your pipeline where opportunities seem to sit forever? These are black holes in your pipeline. Deals go in but rarely come out. In our experience, this is the “Quoting” stage — where the salesperson sent a quote and is waiting for the customer’s reply. We know that they aren’t all the same. For some, they’ve just finished the quote. While for others, the quote is about to expire, and we don’t have an answer. They may be in the same stage in the CRM, but they aren’t at the same point in the cycle.
How can you tell the difference?
Well, using the sales stage field is a start. You could change the available options. You may want to break up the pipeline black hole. Quoting could become three separate stages like:
Another option is to add a field. You could create a dependent subfield for the sales stage that shows more granular options. A user would select quoting, but then also tell the team that they’ve sent the quote and have scheduled a follow-up.
A different way is to use guided fields. Guided fields ask sellers to answer questions about the opportunity. The answers to these show leaders where the deal is in the sales cycle. Think about qualification and decision focused prompts like:
Finally, you could use activity-based information to figure this out. Using data from emails, call reports, and appointments, we can see how often and for how long a salesperson has worked the deal. You could use information about the total number of items, data from those records, and the number of future and past ones.
It's hard to see the sales cycle while it's happening
When you run a race, it’s hard to know where you are in the pack. There are a few ways that race organizers give runners feedback. For short races, they set up time points. A clock counts up the seconds since the start of the race. For longer ones, they add pace runners to the mix. A pacer runs at a predetermined pace, say 8:50 per mile. If you’re running near them, then you are roughly keeping that pace. If you know your speed, then you know your rough position.
It can be hard for salespeople to work lots of deals and see where they are in the process. They’ve invested a lot of effort, time, and emotion into these deals. Sometimes that means they’ll hang on too long, and other times it means they cut bait too early. As leaders, we can help our salespeople see where they are using the data they provide.
Think about a fresh seller going after their first sizeable piece of business. An eager salesperson will often skip critical qualifying questions because they’re excited about closing it. The seller is optimistic. They “see the potential.” So, they start an opportunity in the “quoting” stage. They spend hours and hours developing a quote — using engineers and project managers to help them with it. They deliver the quote to the customer and wait.
Lead your salespeople through the sales cycle
You know the rest of that story. The customer doesn’t buy or goes with somebody else. These lessons are critical for new sellers to learn. But, could we have changed the way this played out?
What if we used guided questions on the form that gate off engineering? For example, engineering can’t work on a request until the seller fills out the qualification information and specification fields. Yes, we want to be agile and respond to customer requests quickly. However, we don’t want to spin our wheels. Using your CRM can help you find that balance.
This example is for a sizable piece of business. The salesperson jumped the gun, what if a manager got an alert about a new opportunity? They could review the deal and associated items, start a conversation, and set the seller in a better direction. Of course, you don’t want to know about every one of these. But, you want to know about some potentials.
Putting it all together
These examples illustrate how you can create simple ways to make your sales cycle visible and actionable within your CRM system. This valuable information helps deliver a critical promise of CRM — more effective selling. Using screen and field design, alerting, and business processes, we can create better systems within our sales organization.