In some types of sales, the "agreement to buy" is just the start of the real buying process.
When you're selling a simple product, like a car or a house, there's a point where the customer agrees to buy whatever you're selling. That's called the "close" and it's an important (and happy) event.
In business-to-business selling, however, the "agreement to buy" is simply the start of a process. Even if you're fairly certain you've "closed," there's always a high probability that some roadblock will occur that will prevent the sale from actually being executed.
This is because businesses make decisions differently than individual consumers. For any purchase of importance, the customer organization needs to reach consensus that the purchase will actually take place, even if a senior executive is gung-ho to make it happen.
In business-to-business selling, it's not at all unusual to have sales situations drag on for months, without a final decision being made to buy from your firm (or at all, for that matter).
When these situations occur, it's often because you haven't defined the customer's buying habits well enough to determine whether the opportunity was real in the first place. Without an understanding of the customer's buying process, there's a chance that your "close" was just the fantasy of some middle manager who lacked the real authority or influence to push the deal through to completion.
Buying Process Document
The way to avoid these costly (and irritating) situations is to uncover the customer's buying habits as part of your selling process. This not only makes your sales revenue more predictable but lowers your cost of sale, because you don't end up spinning your wheels on fake deals.
According to Julie Thomas, CEO of the sales training firm ValueSelling Associates, when you believe you've got the commitment to buy (i.e. you've "closed the deal"), your next step is to work with your customer contact to create a written document.
This document describes what needs to happen for the transaction to actually take place. It should include information about all the stakeholders, potential vetoes, possible roadblocks, and required procedures and systems on purchases of this type.
One important note: When creating this document, it's important to discuss the buying process without threatening the contact's sense of importance. Avoid direct questions like "Who is the real decision-maker in the organization?" Instead ask questions like "How does the budget get allocated for this kind of purchase?"
If possible, work with multiple contacts within the customer organization to create the document. If your primary contact truly wants your firm's offering, encourage him or her to review the document with others in the organization in order to ensure its accuracy.
Using the Document
Your "buying process" document serves multiple roles.
First, it provides a guide to execution, making sure the deal takes place in a predictable way.
It also, when rolled up with other similar documents, becomes a primary source of accuracy for your overall sales forecast.
Third, the document serves as a model for future sales opportunities with that customer. In most cases, the original document will simply need minor review and adjustment in order to reflect any relevant organizational or operational changes have taken place since the original sale.
Finally, the document gives you a road map to the customer organization: The sales support and accounting organizations within your own firm can use that information to understand events that take place at the customer's end, and know what needs to take place in order to ensure that the relationship proceeds smoothly.
GEOFFREY JAMES writes "Sales Source on Inc.com," the world's most-read sales-oriented blog. His new book, Business Without the Bullsh*t, will be published in early 2014. To get weekly blog updates, sign up for his free "Insider" newsletter. @Sales_Source