Accelerating Your Deal Velocity: Are You Driving a ’79 Civic?

Brian Williams, PhD

My first car was a used 1979 Honda Civic. Five-speed manual. Cracked dashboard. Brown. She was a beauty. At 60 horsepower, there was no possibility of burning rubber. Yet, my mother relentlessly warned about the dangers of driving too fast: “Speed kills, young man!”

In modern sales, it’s the opposite. Deal velocity is the name of the game. I guarantee at this very moment some sales manager is admonishing a rep about their sales cycle length. It’s hard to ignore the truth in the old cliché: “time kills all deals!”

In the first quarter of 2018, we collected data on more than 5000 deals. Compared to past years, our analysis finds sales cycles are slowing. The average time for deals to move from initial lead to close has grown. Even in sales models historically considered ‘transactional’, buying decisions are taking longer. Today’s deals are trending more toward my ‘79 Civic vs. Tesla Ludicrous Mode.

Slowing deal speeds should come as no surprise given today’s B2B selling environment. The increasing number of decision makers. Confusion over the problem definition. Fear of change. Risk aversity. The real question is, what can sales leaders and reps do about it?

Shorten your sales cycle length with four targeted actions. These strategies are both foundational (common sense, but not common practice) and more advanced, based on emerging research.

1. Ensure reps are executing the basics, particularly meaningful early discovery. Taking the time to accurately understand customer needs will decrease time to close. This is a simple example of Covey’s maxim to “go slow to go fast.” Unfortunately, our recent ride-alongs found too many reps still rushing through the process. Making assumptions around prospect business issues and opportunities is a common selling sin. Even worse is taking at face value what you hear from your customers. Our research finds that buyers frequently misdiagnose their problems. The more complex the issue, the higher the rate of misdiagnosis.

Bring your insight and experience to help your prospects better understanding their issues and desired solutions. When it doesn't kill the deal all together, bad discovery slows down the sales cycle.

2. Don’t ignore the power of an objective qualification process. Losing fast after an objective assessment of opportunity and account conditions can be empowering. Many sales teams have gotten lazy in the area. We continue to see too many ‘DOA deals’ flowing through to the late stages of the pipeline. These ‘zombie opportunities’ are major distractions to reps and managers. They also artificially impact sales cycle statistics. One or two poor fit deals may eventually become a win. But let’s face it – you can’t optimize your pipeline with these deals in the mix.

The time devoted to force-fitting low probability opportunities represents a huge hidden cost of sales. A consistently executed go/no-go process means the deals that make it into the funnel will close faster.

These foundational actions will improve deal velocity, but our research suggests more. As we’ve advocated for years, one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to selling. Our multi-year dataset points to the importance of adjusting deal strategy based on the situation. One football play isn’t ideal for every game situation. Likewise, no one deal strategy works in every deal scenario. Being a ‘challenger’ for instance, might work in one case. But using this approach in the wrong opportunity or customer interaction can severely bog down deal speed. Given this, what else can sales teams do to shorten cycle length?

3. Equip reps with the tools and training to improve situational awareness. Your best reps (and elite fighter pilots, surgeons, and athletes) have strong situational awareness. But the key is converting this individual trait, honed by years of experience, into an organizational capability. Review your wins and losses to identify the most common deal types. Often the patterns aren’t obvious. But deeper analysis can reveal underlying commonalities. These patterns help reps prioritize what really matters, so they advance deals faster.

Focusing on a select set of deal situational factors makes reps more efficient. This approach allows them to qualify and prioritize opportunities at a faster pace, minimizing time spent on poor-fit deals.

4. Build sales plays mapped to your unique deal situations. Sales plays are pre-defined selling actions optimized for specific deal scenarios. Based on what your best performers do, plays codify the ‘must-do’s’ for each type of deal: What to ask, what to say, what to show, and what verifiable action comes next. Sales plays are adaptive to the deal as well as the multiple pivot points within a deal. Adaptive opportunity management also makes coaching more time efficient. Sales managers center their coaching conversations around two questions: Has the rep identified the situation correctly? And if so, is he or she running the right play?

An adaptive methodology institutionalizes the situational fluency of your highest-performing reps. Standardizing the selling and coaching for your common deal situations will dramatically shorten sales cycles.

Improving average sales cycle length should be a priority for all sales leaders. The good news is that there are a set of specific actions that are proven to help. It starts with adding sales length to the list of leading indicators actively managed by leadership. But it must also include the right sales enablement and front-line management.

Contact us to learn more about how class-leading companies are reducing sales cycle length. We’re happy to share more about how your reps can get out of their version of my '79 Civic.

Brian Williams, PhD

Brian Williams, PhD

Researcher, consultant, and sales leader, Brian uses a data-driven approach to drive sales effectiveness. His clients include leading sales organizations in financial services, technology, healthcare, and professional services. Using insight from academics and change management, Brian helps senior leaders and sales enablement teams understand and succeed in today’s more demanding market. His research has been published in Harvard Business Review and other outlets.