Customer Stuck? Not Moving Forward?


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It’s a common lament among sales people,  “I’m trying to close the customer, I can’t get them to move forward!  They’re dragging their feet, they just won’t order!”

Last week, with several clients, I was doing pipeline reviews.  Too many sales people were saying this, slipping their forecasts, slipping their target close dates another month (one becomes suspicious when you see 11 sequential monthly slips on a deal–but I’ll leave that for another post).

How do we get them to move forward?

Recently, I saw some horribly bad advice on this.  Frankly, I thought these techniques had gone out with the old “foot in the door” trick.  Apparently, it’s alive and kicking.  The tips offered to move the customer forward were:

  1. Shorten the time the offer is available.
  2. Limit the quantity available.
  3. Announce a price increase.
  4. Offer a smaller amount to make the initial decision to buy less stressful.
  5. Walk away.

In complex B2B sales, these tactics are both manipulative and foolish.  They don’t get to the real issues of why customers drag their feet, instead focusing on the sales person’s needs.

Using these tactics is an indication of major sales errors far earlier in the buying cycle.

Why do customers drag their feet?  Why do they delay a purchase decision?

Some of the reasons I’ve encountered:

  1. They were never committed to changing in the first place!  Too often, we engage the customer in a “selling cycle.”  We go through all our pitches, the customer has an interest in learning, they may be thinking about changing.  Just because we are going through our selling cycle doesn’t mean the customer is going through a buying cycle.  Perhaps they are exploring, learning, trying to keep up to date with new solutions.  Too often, we and customers focus on the future and “how wonderful things could be.”  The very first thing we need to accomplish with customers, in qualifying them, is to get them to declare:  “Our current state is absolutely unacceptable.  We can no longer be doing things as we have, we must change!”  Until the customer makes this commitment, inertia or the fear/hassle of change will probably overcome the vision of “how wonderful things can be.”
  2. The customer hasn’t established a goal of when they want the change in place and when they want to start seeing results.  This is closely tied to the previous point.  Once the customer has committed to change, the next thing we need to work on is, “When do you want to start seeing the results from the change initiative.”  There may be deadlines  or compelling events that force customers to make changes by a certain deadline.  There may be legal, compliance, or other issues.  One of the most famous one’s from the distant past was Y2K.  This caused every organization to re-look at their financial, accounting, ERP and related systems.  There can be others, HIPAA drives changes for people in the healthcare segments.  Environmental regulations may drive deadlines for energy, manufacturing, and other organizations.  A product launch date may drive deadlines for decisions in design/development, manufacturing, and other areas.  Sometimes, we need the customer just to set a date, a deadline when they want to see results.  Often, we can leverage opportunity costs, lack of competitiveness, unacceptable spending, customer retention/acquisition threats to drive the sense of urgency and help them set the date by which they need to start seeing results.  Without this target, things will slip and slip and slip—100% of the time.  It’s our responsibility as sales people and to our customers to get them to understand this and commit to a “go-live.”
  3. They haven’t finished their buying process!  Too often, our selling process is not aligned with our customers’ buying processes.  This is just bad salesmanship.  Research indicates that for every stage of misalignment (say the customer is in their Problem Definition Stage and we are in our Proposal/Closing Stage), the probability of winning a deal declines by 15-20%.  So if we are trying to close the order, thinking the customer is dragging their feet, but they still haven’t finished their buying process and are ready to make a decision, then they aren’t ready to order–and the more we manipulate them into trying to get an order, the less likely we’ll get it.
  4. They haven’t finished their buying process!  In previous articles, I’ve introduced the concepts of Project Management in the buying/selling process.  Sometimes things will slip, the customer will get behind.  This threatens slipping the “close date.”  But more importantly it threatens to slip the “Go-Live” mentioned in 2 above.  That’s why having that Go-Live is so critical.  The customer doesn’t and shouldn’t care that you get the order when you need/want it.  But they are really concerned about missing dates, opportunities critical to achieving the results they want.  If the customer is slipping, and we are working in guiding them through their buying process, continuing to focus on the objective of when they want to produce results keeps both of us moving forward and minimizes the potential of dragging their feet.
  5. They don’t know how to buy!  By now, we all know the consensus decision and the 5.4.  We also know the high likelihood of the group failing to align, resulting in no decision made.  None of this has anything to do with vendor or solution selection, but with their own internal buying process and ability to collaborate as a buying group.  If we can’t help them solve this challenge, then they will never buy–regardless of the enticement we might offer.  Helping the customer with their buying process, helping recognize and align diverse interests, agendas, and priorities is critical to removing any roadblocks at the end or the process.
  6. They have failed to develop a strategy to sell what they want to their management!  Decisions and approvals are being forced higher in the organization.  Too often we can get the customer to make a decision, choosing us.  But when they go to management to get approval, they get turned down—even with fantastic business cases.  Our customers have to “sell” what they want to do to management.  For most of them, the concept of “selling” is the furthest thing in their minds and often very distasteful.  But if they aren’t aligned with the priorities and goals of top management, if they can’t connect the dots to show how their initiative contributes to the strategies and priorities of the organization, they won’t get approval.  Funding may get diverted into other unrelated areas.  We need to help our customers do this–perhaps co-presenting with them, but in the least helping them build their “sales pitch” to their management teams.
  7. We have failed to demonstrate our compelling value!  This is related to many of the previous points.  Customers may not go forward, simply because they don’t see the value in going forward—at least with us.  If we’ve gotten to the end of the buying process with the customer not recognizing and owning the value we’ve created through the process, as well as the return they get through implementation, then we have failed.  No artificial deadline, pricing manipulation, scarcity threat, or anything else will overcome that.  We have to go back to basics, making sure we understand what the customer values, communicate how we deliver on that, and gaining their agreement on the value total value of what we are suggesting.

Finding ourselves in the closing stages of a buying process with the customer continuing to drag their feet means something has been missed much earlier in the buying/sales process.  We may have made errors in execution, the customer may have missed some critical things in their buying process.  We can’t ignore these things with manipulative closing tactics.  We have to understand what’s happened, go back and address those root issues.  Sometimes it means starting all over (we may decide it’s not worth it–and walk away–but think of the wasted opportunity!).  Sometimes, it’s just identifying these things with the customer, quickly working to address them.

But the best way to avoid this happening is to do things right from the very start.  Make sure there is a commitment to change!  Make sure the customer has established a goal of when they want to see results!  Help the customer with their buying process and keep your sales process in lockstep with them.  Make sure they are selling to the needs and priorities of upper management.  Make sure the customer values what you are doing with them and the outcomes they will achieve with your solution.

Will customers get stuck?  Sure, but less frequently if you do things right from the start.  And if they do, you don’t have to resort to shabby and self centered manipulations.  All you have to do is remind them why they decided they must change (re-read 1), what they are missing by not moving forward (re-read 2), and revalidate your compelling value (re-read 7.)  Leverage what’s important to them to get them moving forward.

If you find yourself having to resort the horrible tactics at the beginning of the article, something’s gone terribly wrong.  B2B buyers are sophisticated, they recognize these manipulations.  Save you and them the time.  Perhaps, the only valid thing, if you can’t correct what’s been missed in the process is to walk away–making sure you don’t repeat the same mistakes in future deals.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Brock
Dave has spent his career developing high performance organizations. He worked in sales, marketing, and executive management capacities with IBM, Tektronix and Keithley Instruments. His consulting clients include companies in the semiconductor, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, computer, telecommunications, retailing, internet, software, professional and financial services industries.


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