7 Sales Cycle Stages: Insights into Sales Process & Playbook

If you read our blog on the Sales Pipeline, we took you briefly through what an SDR does to get her sale through. Selling has been happening forever. But the last 100 years have seen that process being streamlined and thought about from different angles by leaders, and these ideas have crystallized organically into best practices.

That sentence sounds pompous. David Ogilvy references Claude Hopkins 5 times in his book Ogilvy on Advertising. The last reference says: Nobody should be allowed to do anything with advertising until he has read this book seven times. That book is Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins, published in … 1923. That was exactly 100 years ago. The Sales Cycle has evolved around this organic introspection process, but before we get there, a team must first define the Buyer Persona.

Before we get into the Sales Cycle, it is essential that the Marketing team has identified their Ideal Customer Profile. Documenting this phase would be a blog post just by itself. In Chapter 3 of ‘Inbound Sales’ by Brian Signorelli, there’s an entire chapter dedicated to creating the Buyer Persona. Once your ICP documentation is complete, you identify the various personas to target. Their problems and pain points are articulated clearly, and the product team has developed a compelling solution. With the entire sales team convinced of this solution, they get to work selling.

The Sales Cycle

A sales cycle is the step-by-step journey from introducing an offering to your Prospect to closing the deal. It’s like a map for salespeople, steering them through stages like lead generation, nurturing, and closing. Tracking these stages can help you predict sales timelines, tailor messages, pinpoint bottlenecks, and make data-driven choices. 81% of sales teams don’t analyze and correct their sales processes.

Benefits of Tracking Your Sales Cycle

Let’s see how Alex, the head of Sales, has tracked his Sales Cycle and continuously improved his Sales Process

During the early days of Selling, he noticed that Amy, his team member, was not on the phone with appointments during the afternoon block. Upon questioning her, he realized that she didn’t have many appointments set up. After deep diving, he learned that Amy closed two deals 2 weeks ago, and due to the deal closure-related task and celebration, she did prospect and connect as much as she should have. In fact the dip was over 50% in the number of emails sent out.

Now, this is a challenge that could have been avoided if Alex had rigorously tracked and optimized his sales cycles and his sales processes. 

 So, In the following week’s Sales Review meeting with the team, he asked them to post the daily number of prospects identified, emails sent, replies received (with a break-up of positive & negative), and meetings booked every day. This needed to be posted in a channel all his reps had access to. This change to the process in the Prospecting – sales cycle stage made a huge difference. The team was more consistent on prospecting and sales outreach and it also drove competitiveness within the team

In another review of the Sales weekly roundup, he noticed that the drop-offs were high in the Connect and Fitment stage. 

Now, Alex’s team was selling “SmartReach.io” cold email software to sales teams looking to sell their product or services to other businesses. Their target audience is SMBs that spend big money on generating a qualified lead. Hence, SmartReach concentrated on the deliverability of cold emails to the prospect’s primary inbox (valuing each lead) with features like human-like sending, spintax, warmup, etc

So, after analyzing the reasons for non-fitment, he realized that many leads were looking for Marketing Email Automation (sending bulk emails or promotional emails) and were also moving forward into the Connect and Fitment stage. 

Alex then instructed the team to ensure that marketing leaders or profiles were not part of the prospecting list. And that they should only prospect for sales development leaders (SDLs) or the sales leadership in case that business didn’t have an SDL. He also added another question to the Discovery Call Form – “What would be your expected daily sending volume for the integrated email?”

There was further probing to isolate and eliminate two types of leads. The Marketing Email Automation customers and potential customers whom he did not have time to educate on how to run a cold email campaign well.

In his team briefing, he said, what we have observed is that even if we let in customers who want to have high sending volumes, we have noticed that they don’t frame their emails well (quality), get blocked by their email providers for high sending limits or worse still – get marked as spam, causing nightmares for our tech team. 

These two changes to the sales processes in the prospecting and connect stages of the sales cycle considerably increased the fitment ratio. His team was concentrating on deals that had more chances of closing.

In another sales cycle review, he also noticed that Amy sent out a  recently created case study on Email Deliverability to all her prospects, and she had a spike in her conversion rates. Alex then adds this as a sales process, where his team sends out something of value, like a whitepaper or case study, to the prospect. And in his next team briefing, he instructs them to follow the process.

As we can see from these examples, Alex initially was not aware but unknowingly was optimizing sales processes whenever an issue came up. This was a more reactive approach. He then set up a process for him to monitor and measure the sales cycle proactively.

Is this something you do? Or would you like to start going? If yes, then start with understanding the various sales cycle stages.

Sales Cycle Stages

Analyzing the way Sales happens across teams in various industries across the years has resulted in the following Sales Cycle Stages that Sales Reps continuously go through: 

  1. Lead generation 
  2. Prospecting and Lead qualification
  3. Connecting with the Prospect and fitment evaluation
  4. Research: Understanding their problem statement deeply 
  5. Presenting your solution. Getting a buy-in
  6. Overcoming Roadblocks
  7. Closing the Sale

Whether you know all these stages or not, your internal sales team will follow these Sales Cycle stages. Not being aware of this will have consequences.  For some of the above stages, we will put down a few of them.

Lead Generation

Leads are potential customers for your business, and you can sell products and services.

If you don’t have a consistent, steady lead generation process, you will face problems hitting your sales targets. You may run into the 30-day rule or The Law of Replacement. Read about them in Chapter 5 of Fanatical Prospecting. Marketing Qualified Leads (MQL) are the food provided by the Marketing team to the SDRs. Businesses use these Leads at the start of their Sales Process.

So, what’s an inbound lead generation strategy?

Let’s say your product is about mechanical keyboards. You write a blog post on that. For example, on key switches and the sound they make. Or a video on mechanical keyboards. You talk about the different key switch companies. You blog about split or ortho-linear keyboards, and suddenly, you’re generating traffic. You still need some content to get them to exchange an email with you. But on a YouTube channel, you could ask them to subscribe to your channel. Now, every time you post something, a notification goes out to them. 

In a business-to-business (b2b) scenario, that would be a white paper in exchange for an email. For example, here’s our pitch. Download our whitepaper on how a customer leverages our cold email solution to increase his conversion ratio and put his sales on autopilot – [Backlink to Dean’s paper]

Oh, the other hand, here is an example of an outbound strategy: from YouTube by Jordan Platten on how to generate leads in about 30 minutes using Google Maps. 

A healthy lead generation pipeline means your SDR team is constantly qualifying leads. Consuming your lead pipeline means your team’s sales training will halt, and you will have a bad month or quarter. You want to have a continuous eye on your lead pipeline. When you ask your team to start Fanatically Prospecting, you must have at least a Low Watermark and fill that list again. That is an excellent book by Jeb Blount concentrating on just the Prospecting stage of the pipeline. 

Prospecting and Lead qualification

Now that you have your lead list, it’s time to prospect and find that hidden gold.

You may want to enrich every prospect with as much information as you can gather. Smartreach allows you to integrate Hunter, Clearbit and similar tools to enrich your prospect with email information, linked profiles, and phone numbers. ProspectDaddy is another email finder tool you may want to check out.

At this point, you’re ready to reach out to them. You may have a multi-channel strategy or choose a single channel to reach them. Using SmartReach, you can set up a multi-channel campaign targeting Email, LinkedIn, and Phone.

If you’re using email, you can start an email campaign using a cold emailing solution like SmartReach. It has AI-integrated features to help you message your target persona correctly. 

It will also automatically track replies and put them into a Shared Inbox – with a particular folder for your prospects’ replies. And automate follow-ups.

Whether your team is sending cold emails or picking up the phone and calling Prospects, you now have a pipeline of qualified prospects – who are interested in taking the conversation forward.

If you do not do this process correctly, you will not hit your revenue targets because your SDR team will be sitting idle after their prospecting block as there is no one to book an appointment with.

Connecting and Fitment

Now that you have qualified leads, it’s time to connect with them via a meeting and evaluate if they are a right fit for you. Understanding the exact use case of the product is key to gauging fitment.

For example, During SmartReach Discovery Calls, we probe and learn that few clients are looking for email automation software to send bulk or promotional emails. SmartReach is not built for bulk emailing since email deliverability is in its DNA; its apes are human, like sending emails one at a time, at regular intervals. Hence – No Fitment

Over time and experience, you and your team have identified cutting questions that identify a prospect you want to work with. You also have those inputs from the best sales Leaders who have written books on the same, like Neil Rackham – SPIN Selling – Question-Based Approach. Btw, SPIN Selling is a way of selling where you ask questions to determine what the customer needs and how your product can help them.

Using those warm leads, your SDR team sets up appointments. 

Here are a few examples of SmartReach’s fitment questions for a cold emailing prospect:

  1. Have you used a sales engagement solution before?
  2. How many emails do you want to send a day?
  3. How many Inboxes are you looking to integrate?
  4. How many team members will be using this solution?
  5. Which CRM do you use?

Once fitment is evaluated, the lead is scored. Your team knows how many points to allocate to the answer to each question.

Research: Understanding their problem statement deeply 

Your team will also be told how to probe the customer’s problem. Using your Sales Playbook, they will surface problems that determine if your solution fits their prospect’s needs. We must dive deeper into understanding their problem and presenting a solution if fit exists. Your SDR’s following appointments are about presenting your solution and winning that sale.

Problems in moving the Sale forward here could indicate a product weakness. You are missing a specific feature that is suddenly hot in the market. Compliance that you need. You could be missing testimonials or whitepapers to drive your arguments.  Maybe you’re not ready for enterprise sales. This will open conversations with the product team or the marketing team to create suitable content and case studies. You have instructed your team to log detailed notes in this stage as to what’s blocking a sale.

Presenting your solution and Getting Buy-in

This stage may involve many cycles depending on the ticket size of your product. Chapter 5 Explore and Chapter 6 ‘Advise’ of “Inbound Selling” has many techniques for identifying the Prospect’s problems and getting buy-in.

Based on historical questions asked in previous sales cycles, your team has a wide array of documents, white papers, and solutions using your product that can tackle the questions raised. Once your team has understood the concerns, they set up other meetings to unblock the Prospect.

Overcoming roadblocks

In the last meeting, after your solution was presented, the customer identified roadblocks that you would have to remove for them to go with your solution

Here are some roadblocks they may raise:

  1. How will we migrate the data if we switch from our current product to your product?
  2. We have never used a Sales Engagement Platform before; how will my team be able to use this system at scale when we are currently not organized in our processes?

     Here are some answers:

  1. We have a data migration process that we can trigger and import the data into our system
  2. Our Customer Success team will handhold your team for the next two months until the process is in place. We will set up key checkpoints to ensure that those milestones are hit.

Closing the sale

This is the final step in the Sales Cycle. If your solution demonstrated value to the prospect and solved their problem, your SDR should be able to ask them to buy without sweating or a high pulse rate. Again, there are many techniques for closing the sale. Getting the Prospect to agree to the value proposition and getting a buy-in should lead to a close. This technique is outlined in – Chapter 7, Closing and Negotiating of “Inbound Selling” by Brian Signorelli

But there is a lot of literature on closing a sale. You have coached your team on those techniques and documented them in your Sales Process.

So we talked about the Sales Cycle, but what about the Sales Process

Set up Sales Processes for Every Stage in your Sales Cycle 

When you analyze the sales efforts of different SDRs in your team, you may identify that some perform better than others. You may notice, for example, that one of them sends out a particular whitepaper at a certain stage, and that rep tends to have higher conversion rates than others. You want all your potential customers to have a uniform experience when buying from you. This is the Sales Process you set up for your team. 

Every touch point with your prospect in the sales cycle may have objections and roadblocks. 

“Hi, we just noticed your post about a new customer, X, on Linkedin. Are you using a cold emailing solution to generate leads?”

Response: “We have been growing on referrals, but I’ve heard about cold emailing. I’m open to being convinced about cold emailing”

“Here is a whitepaper that shows a customer achieving a 6% response rate to cold emails and building a steady pipeline. I would be happy to get on a call and demonstrate that in more detail”

This is an example of a Roadblock and a response to that Roadblock – removing it. 

Over many sales cycles, you and your team would have got many such questions at each cycle stage. For many of those questions, your team can resolve them with a solution. Over time, this has built into a document your SDR team refers to. This Sales Playbook guides them through the sales process. And it keeps getting enriched with links to case studies and solutions you have worked on with the product team. You go back to your Sales Process and make modifications to include the ones that should always go out to customers.

Must-Have in your Sales Playbook

20% of sales reps believe they lack the proper tools to maintain their sales processes effectively.

Sales Playbook provides valuable resources and strategies to help sales professionals succeed at each step of the process. Your Sales Playbook must have the following:

  1. Prospecting techniques an SDR can use if the lead pipeline is low
  2. A list of questions for the lead qualification stage. 
  3. Exploratory questions can be asked at the Connect and Fitment stage. Questions about Goals they want to achieve. They are looking to complete this goal the Consequences of not achieving those goals.
    1. A list of problems and solutions that come up at this stage.
    2. A list of whitepapers to support claims
    3. A list of customer testimonials to support promises
  4. How to write a follow-up email to recap the discussion.
  5. Strategies to nudge the customer towards the sale.
    1. A list of roadblocks and solutions that come up at this stage.
    2. Closing techniques are customized for various scenarios.

For your SDR, the Sales Playbook is a go-to guide enriched with history and context about the product. Over time, 70-80% of their questions can be answered using this Playbook and they know exactly what to do in many cases.

Since you will find articles that speak about Sales Cycle, Sales Processes, and Sales Playbooks interchangeably, we hope this clarifies things a bit: The sales Cycle represents the stages a prospect goes through, the Sales Process outlines the steps a sales team takes to guide prospects through those stages, and the Sales Playbook provides valuable resources and strategies to help sales professionals succeed at each step of the process.

Our separate post on the Sales Process will dive deeper into mapping your Prospect’s journey through the Sales Cycle and the process for every cycle step.

This post has taken you through various stages of selling a product. The Sales cycle marks clear transitionary points for the SDR to act on, starting with Lead Generation to closing the Sale. As a sales leader, you monitor each of these gates and gain a clear understanding of what is happening in the field.  You set up and refine a Sales Process and Sales Playbooks to ensure all prospective customers have a uniform experience when buying from you.  We hope this demystified the Sales Cycle and Sales Process for you; subscribe to our blog if you want to be notified of more such content. 

Substantial Reduction in Sales Cycle Length
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