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Seller leads a successful finalist presentation

Mastering the Sales Cycle: Definition, Stages, and Tips [+Infographic]

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Written by Erica Schultz
Chief Marketing Officer, RAIN Group

No two deals are ever quite the same, but every seller needs the same set of core skills to win sales. From the first outreach to closing a deal, each of these skills is necessary to move the sales cycle forward.

In our research into the capabilities of Top-Performing Sellers, we found that no single capability distinguishes the best sellers from others. Instead, Top-Performing Sellers overperform across the sales cycle in the strength and breadth of their capabilities.

For each stage of the sales cycle, there are several key areas where Top Performers stand out. Each represents an area of development likely to have an outsize impact on your sales results. If you can master these sales cycle activities, you’ll be much more likely to meet your goals, win more sales, and achieve premium pricing.

Read on to explore the stages of the sales cycle and discover which skills are essential for each.

What’s the Length of the Sales Cycle?

It’s difficult to generalize the length of a sales cycle, though it’s almost always measured in months. If you can benchmark the typical period of a sales cycle for yourself and your organization, you’ll have a baseline by which to measure improvement. Factors such as your industry, cost of your offerings, and the efficacy of your sales process may influence the length of your sales cycle.

A stalled sales cycle means more opportunities lost to no decision. Unfortunately, this is on the rise: in a recent study 44% of sales leaders report the percentage of opportunities lost to no decision has increased. So it’s important for you to look for ways to improve your process and speed up your sales cycle. Learn to recognize when to move buyers from one stage of the sales cycle to the next and know the selling activities necessary to act accordingly.

6 Stages of the Sales Cycle

Knowing and understanding your sales cycle is necessary to manage opportunities and align with the buyer’s place in the buying process. In this infographic, we share where Top-Performing Sellers stand out across the sales cycle. Keep reading to discover how each stage of the sales cycle contributes to closing a deal.

Click the infographic to enlarge and access links for more information.

Infographic: How to Sell Across the Sales Cycle

1. Prospecting

Prospecting is the process by which sellers identify potential buyers and create interest and conversations that may lead to sales. Whether you’re conducting an email outreach campaign or bringing in new leads through referrals, you’re prospecting.

Top sellers are proactive about prospecting and keeping their pipelines full. But too often, sellers don’t dedicate enough time for prospecting, forcing them to scramble to find new leads when the pipeline dries up.

As with anything else in sales, prospecting takes planning and effort to do well. When it takes an average of 8 touches to generate a meeting with a buyer, it’s necessary to reach out multiple times across multiple channels. To catch the buyer’s attention, break through the noise, and start with a strong offer, it helps to build an Attraction Campaign.

An Attraction Campaign is a coordinated series of outreaches customized to your target buyer. Give them a compelling, value-based reason to interact with you, and include a variety of contact methods with downtime between each.

2. Driving & Discovering Need

You have the buyer’s attention. Why should they keep listening and move forward with you? To drive value, you not only need to diagnose your buyer’s needs, but also dig deeper and understand them.

You can do so by leading a thorough needs discovery. It can be tempting to pitch a solution quickly, but many solutions address symptoms instead of root causes. A good needs discovery requires patience. You’ll need to ask the right questions and know when to listen. You’ll also need a strong understanding of the buyer’s industry and your own offerings.

By leading conversations in which you uncover needs and offer new perspectives, you can get buyers thinking differently. From there, you can build solutions that fit their needs.

These conversations aren't limited to new buyers. This stage of the sales cycle is also essential to upsell and cross-sell key accounts. Maximizing value from existing accounts doesn’t just increase your revenue—it also builds relationships, increases the chance of referrals, and protects accounts from competitors.

Strategic account management is so powerful that organizations with a strong account management process are:

  • 3.1X more likely to grow revenue by 20% or more in their key accounts
  • 3.4X more likely to grow profit by 20% or more
  • 4.5X more likely to experience year-over-year client satisfaction improvement

With that potent of an impact, it’s worth building a strategic account management process to identify and capitalize on opportunities to grow key accounts and sell your full set of capabilities.

3. Solution Crafting

Once you’ve determined how you can help your buyers, you need a solution to match. Note that your solution shouldn’t be a sales pitch. While you’re still trying to persuade your buyer to buy, solution crafting should be a collaborative process.

Here’s why: when you can collaborate with your buyer on a solution, not only will you create something more tailored to their needs, but they’ll also feel more invested in the process.

That’s not to say you should sit back and let the buyer tell you what they need. During this stage, you’ll be using the information you’ve gleaned to determine the best option for them.

Consider the buyer’s aspirations and afflictions. If their afflictions don’t get solved, what are the consequences? If their aspirations come true, what will they be able to accomplish? Answering these questions will allow you to start building an impact case that keeps the buyer interested and puts you in the running to present your solution.

4. Solution Presentation

At this stage in the sales cycle, you’ve put in the work to understand the buyer’s needs and craft a solution to meet them. Now, you’ll need to persuade them that your solution is worth pursuing, both in general and over your competitors.

The core of your solution is your value proposition, the collection of reasons why buyers should buy from you. Your value proposition will need to do three things to succeed:

  1. Resonate: The buyer must want and need what you’re selling.
  2. Differentiate: You need to stand out from other available options.
  3. Substantiate: The buyer needs to trust that you’ll meet your promises and deliver desired outcomes.

Even with a strong value proposition, you’ll still need to justify the impact your solution will have. Traditionally, this means building a strong ROI case, but this is just one part of making an impact case to your buyer. You need to show buyers the ROI in the context of their New Reality—the results the buyer can expect to achieve when buying from you.

Inexperienced sellers often struggle with this stage of the sales cycle. They might be more linear when it comes to offering buyers solutions, pitching options they’ve already considered rather than bringing new ideas to the table. They may also present the buyer with the ROI without considering the context—the buyer needs to know what tangible outcomes will be achieved beyond just the numbers.

5. Negotiating

At this stage, the buyer is interested enough in your solution to negotiate, but there’s still plenty of work to do. Even if the sale has gone well up until this point, you can lose the sale in an instant if negotiations go south.

Even if you win the sale, you can often lose margins in negotiations. With more buyers versed in common negotiation tactics, the rise of procurement, and greater seller access to information, sellers are more challenged to lead successful negotiations than ever.

But you can still stay confident and win negotiations with preparation and understanding of your buyer. You should go into sales negotiations prepared to make trades, but sellers too often immediately cave on price. This signals to the buyer that they can get more from the seller and encourages them to press for additional concessions.

Be aware of your value and the leverage you have. In fact, the best sales negotiators go into negotiations with an idea of when they should walk away. This gives you more control: even if you want the sale, once the buyer perceives that you need it, they’re more likely to force you to drop margins.

6. Winning

This is it. You’re on the cusp of winning the deal, but you need to close it out, win, and gain commitment from the buyer.

You’ll need to do three things:

  1. Build confidence and drive urgency with the buyer
  2. Outsell competitors
  3. Give the buyer a sense of what it’s like to work with you

Done well, a finalist presentation can do all three. Even if you’re confident that you’re the front runner to win the sale, a solid presentation can close out the sale while building the foundation for a strong client relationship.

By this point, you should have a sense of the decision makers involved in the sale. If you haven’t identified and interacted with all key decision makers, you could get blindsided at the end of the sales cycle by an executive with the power to kill the deal.

Similarly, you should know your competitive position and whether you need to do more work to differentiate. If the outcome of your sale isn’t a sure thing, consider ending with a Big Play to win key sales opportunities.

Even once you win, there’s still work to do. You still need to drive value, upsell, and build client loyalty. When you master every stage of the sales cycle, loyalty and repeat business become much more likely.

How to Build a Sales Cycle Process

Your sales cycle isn't set in stone. Your sales cycle process—the specific, tactical steps you take to move through the sales cycle—is always worth refining.

Doing so takes some amount of experience. If you know where your biggest challenges lie, you can set actionable goals to improve performance. For example, if you’re spending too much of your time on low ROI opportunities, you might need to put more effort into qualifying your leads or maintaining margins in negotiations.

If you’re not sure where to start, prospecting is always a good area of improvement. When you’re consistently working to bring in better leads and drive value from the first touch, it’s easier to keep sales flowing.

Additionally, the rise of AI has created new opportunities to drive efficiency across the sales cycle. Advocates of AI have already started using it to improve messaging, reduce time spent on manual tasks, and conduct research, among many other use cases.

Bringing the 6 Stages Together

A sales cycle is only as effective as its weakest stage. For you to drive sales, you’ll need to develop skills across every stage. If you focus on skills exhibited by Top-Performing Sellers, you can win deals at higher margins, stand out from the competition, and build lasting client relationships.

Last Updated February 5, 2024

Topics: Sales Opportunity Management