A sales cycle is the length of time it takes a consumer to go from awareness (of a product or service or seller) to purchase.
A sales cycle is measured in two ways. We can measure a sales cycle individually (it took me three months to buy a coat). And we can measure a sales cycle as an average (it takes the average person four years to buy a hot tub).
Measuring sales cycles is always an inexact science because for most businesses, it’s hard to put the date of awareness on a calendar. But it’s good to have a basic idea of how sales cycles work – both on the individual level and on the average level – so you can manage expectations in your business.
So today, I’m going to teach you a little bit about sales cycles, give you 5 real-life examples from my coaching practice this week, and give you a few things to watch out for moving forward.
I will also show you pictures of kittens, because visual aids assist in information retention. We’ll start with this one.
A “sales cycle” is not as truly linear as we have been led to believe. Traditional models aren’t wrong, but they are only models, like the cycle of four seasons is a model. Winter doesn’t automatically turn into spring just because March 21 rolls around. It’s a sloppy, unpredictable cycle.
That doesn’t make a “cycle” a bad model, however. It’s a great way to get a sense of how a process works. For example, the AIDA sales cycle (Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action) is valid. But it doesn’t usually happen very neatly. People can skip through Interest in a flash, or take forever in Desire, just like you can have a cold snap or a heat wave even if it’s out of season.
Unfortunately, this unpredictability means that you can’t accurately guess where any particular customer is in their sales cycle. Ever. (Sorry, dude.)
But you can understand more about why they buy, even if you can’t predict when they’ll buy. And that can give you a lot more influence over the process.
Now, let’s take a look at how this works.
The Dot: A Real-World Look At Your Future Customers
In this picture, we have you, doing your thing. And all those dots around you are the people in your audience (email list, web traffic, social media followers, etc.) who will eventually buy from you. (I know this because I can see the future.)
Some dots are people in your audience who haven’t bought anything yet, but they will someday.
Other dots are people who have bought from you before and are still part of your audience. (They may even buy again, because you’re awesome.)
They’re all dots, and they’re all wonderful.
Let’s take a closer look.
See the dots? These show individual people and a few key pieces of data about them. They show:
- the moment they became a part of your audience
- how long it will take them to eventually buy something from you
- their LTC (lifetime customer value).
Notice how weird the numbers look? How it looks like there’s no rhyme or reason to them? (That’s because there’s no rhyme or reason to them.)
So, what gives? Why does it take so long for one person to buy, and another is ready right off the hop?
There’s a reason. Well, 3, actually.
I’ll tell you what they are after this kitten.
3 Critical Changes That Get People “Ready” To Buy From You
You, personally, can do a lot of things in your business to “get” people to buy – things like running ads or a promotion, creating calls to action in your blog posts and emails. These things are called “triggers”, and I’ll talk about them next. But before a trigger can lead to a sale, the customer has to be ready to buy.
“Ready” here simply means they’re willing to consciously consider your offer.
“Not ready” means that, for whatever reason, even if you gave them a great deal, they wouldn’t take you up on it.
(If you just ate a big dinner, and you’re full, you’re “not ready” for another meal, even if it’s your favorite dish. And free. And comes with a bonus dessert and a hug from the waitress. You’ll just say no – you won’t even consider it, because you’re not hungry.)
Once something changes (e.g., several hours pass), you’re hungry again, and that favorite dish is something you’ll say yes to.
So how do they get ready? Well, something changes for them, too.
1) They could change.
Maybe they finally get motivated. They make peace with spending money. They solve an upper limit issue. Your topic area becomes more important to them. They’ve had enough exposures to you to trust you. They read an inspirational quote on Instagram. (Are you following me on Instagram? Because I must say, my quotes are quite inspirational.)
2) You could change.
Maybe you uplevel your brand. You change your brand. You start getting your shit together and look more respectable. You start taking PayPal and not just credit cards. You start emailing more, and you become more top-of-mind. You let your personality come through, and they begin to like you. You offer something new that they’re interested in.
3) Their situation could change.
Maybe they have a financial windfall. They lose their job, or get one. They get married / divorced. Their kids graduate from college and now they have more disposable income. They get a second car, and now they have more time. Life happens and now “doing the thing” becomes urgent.
That’s why the numbers are so weird. Anything can happen in one of those three areas to tip them over the edge into “ready to buy from you”.
You can control what you’re doing in the “You could change” arena, but you can’t control the effect it will have. More often than not, you’re blindly doing your best and waiting for something to happen in the “They change” or “Their situation changes” arenas.
You’ll see how this works in detail when we get to the customer examples.
But first, a kitten. Because learning.
The Trigger: What Makes People (Finally!) Buy From You
Assuming one of your dots is ready, one more thing has to happen for them to move to the end of the sales cycle. There needs to be a trigger. Triggers come in a few different flavors.
Internal triggers happen inside the customer.
Something changes (usually rapidly and intensely) inside a customer to make them super-ready to buy. They see something, experience something, or think something that leads them to (metaphorically or literally) slam their fist down on the table and shout “Screw this, I’m gonna start taking [this thing] seriously!”
(Or, “I’m 42 years old – I am DONE with buying bargain toilet paper.”)
(Or, “I’m cold. I need a new sweater.”)
Then they go directly out and buy something, or they immediately respond to the next offer that comes their way.
External triggers happen outside the customer – they’re something YOU do.
You did something. You ran a sale, or released a new product, or you linked to an offer in an email, or mentioned a product in a blog post. You made a special offer to someone else’s audience, or you ran ads.
Essentially, you did a thing that gave them the opportunity to buy. (Pro tip: You should do this a lot.)
Engineered internal triggers are designed by a marketer to happen inside a customer.
This is when the marketer does something to make you experience an internal trigger. Sometimes you’re aware of it happening, sometimes you’re not.
L’Oreal’s original “Because you’re worth it” campaign is an example of an engineered internal trigger that the prospect is aware of. They hear it, and they consciously think, “Yes! I am worth it!”
The use of testimonials in advertising is often an example of an engineered internal trigger that the prospect is unaware of. They’re minding their own business, reading a testimonial, but it’s been engineered to trigger certain feelings and experiences – usually, “OMG, me, too!!”
Using engineered internal triggers (without going over to the dark side) is beyond the ability of most marketers, so you should probably just forget this even exists as an option. Done well, they can be a thing of beauty. Done badly, they’re a sign that you’re an asshole. But, yes. It exists. It’s a thing.
5 Real World Examples Of My Dots And How They Work
Over the last 10 years I’ve collected a lot of dots.
I’ll tell you the detailed stories of 5 of them – who they are, what they bought, and why.
For privacy reasons, I won’t tell you their names. Instead, I will replace them with kittens, and make subtle changes to their personal details. (Interestingly, all five have developed spontaneous affection for yarn, and are now devoutly avoiding water.)
How the story begins: Last week I sent out an external trigger (an email announcing a discount on my one-on-one coaching packages).
A number of my dots purchased coaching hours directly from my Work With Me page, without contacting me in any way.
Other dots got in touch to talk about how we might work together, and signed on shortly thereafter.
A few other dots are still hanging out, being dots – they want to buy, but they’re still thinking about how many hours they want before they move forward.
All of these dots were ready to buy, and that trigger – my email to them – helped them reach the end of their sales cycle (for coaching, at least). But while they are similar in that they’re all now at the END of their sales cycle, how they got here, and how long they took to do so, is very different.
Let’s meet our fine feline friends.
Sales Cycle for one-on-one work: 3 years, 2 months. Bubbles got on my list on 2/4/14.
Previous History: None. No prior purchases. Not even a $29 teleclass.
What changed to make Bubbles buy now? Bubbles mentioned some revenue model questions she has in a private Facebook group. Unbeknownst to her, one of her fellow group members is also an IttyBiz reader, and an old client of mine. He recommended she get coaching. She said, “Hey! I’m on her list!” She booked a Getting To Know You Session, and bought a long-term coaching package the same day.
Sales Cycle for one-on-one work: 9 or 10 years. Yes, you read that right. Applejack has been on my list so long, I don’t even have data on the date. But she was one of my first subscribers, in late 2007 or early 2008.
Previous History: Applejack bought one product from me in 2010, and then didn’t buy a product again until 2015. (Consider that when someone tells you “if they haven’t bought in a while, they’re done with you.”)
She then bought The 1-Hour Content Plan 13 months later, Product In A Weekend four months after that, and just came in for coaching last week – 2 months after that last product purchase.
What changed to make Applejack buy now? Changes in her day job situation made getting her business to a full-time income a priority. Also, in her words, “I have money now.”
Sales Cycle for one-on-one work: 5 years, 1 month. Lucky got on my list on 3/25/2012.
Previous History: Back in 2012, Lucky was a student in a business planning class I ran. He later sold that business, but stayed on my list (much to my surprise – I had no idea he was still around. I hadn’t seen his name in my inbox since January 2014).
Why changed to make Lucky buy now? A few reasons. One, he’s decided to start a new business. Two, he met a girl and it’s getting serious. He wants to get out of corporate for good now. He recently looked at my coaching page and was considering working with me, but had not yet moved forward. Then he got an email from me saying coaching is available at a discount, and – his words – “decided it was a sign from God.”
Sales Cycle for one-on-one work: 3 years, 10 months years. Lucky got on my list on 6/16/2013.
Previous History: Monty made his first purchase (a class I offered in 2014) after being on my list for 9 months. Since then, he has been a regular purchaser of small products (and larger offers, when they had payment plans).
All in all, he’s purchased 15 IttyBiz products and classes over his time here.
What changed to make Monty buy now? This is tough to say. I think Monty has been ready for a long time, but coaching was either out of his price range, or out of his psychological price range. He said that when he received the discount email, coaching was “a no-brainer”.
Sales Cycle: 1 day. Pepper wasn’t even on my list. She heard me on the Hack The Entrepreneur podcast, came to my website, and purchased Product In A Weekend and The Ultimate Digital Marketing Template Pack the same day.
Previous History: None. This was a brand new buyer. The reason she’s being mentioned here is because she didn’t buy coaching but she did something similar – she wanted to pay to interview me, and I accepted. (Note: I don’t do interviews for other people’s paid projects as a rule. But the topic of the interview wasn’t about marketing, so it caught my interest.)
Why did Pepper get in touch now? I guess she liked me?
These people are all dots, and they are ALL normal.
The sales cycle for any individual is completely unpredictable.
No matter how many Ideal Customer Avatar worksheets you fill out, people will act like the autonomous beings they are.
If I’d emailed about the coaching discount a month ago or a month from now, who knows what would have happened? Some of these people would have still bought, some wouldn’t, but others probably would have replaced them. Those others who would have bought in an alternate timeline? I may never know their names, because I may never hear from them now.
Now, before class is dismissed, I want to give you a few key sales cycle takeaways.
Sales Cycle Advice: 6 Things You Need To Know Moving Forward
1) Don’t try to control parts of the sales cycle that you cannot.
You cannot affect people’s internal state of readiness to buy. That is up to the gods, the stars, or random chance. Any particular person will jump forward in their own sales cycle for their own reasons, not one of which can be controlled by you.
This applies to us as much as it applies to our customers. Pepper got me to say “yes” to the interview because she caught me on the right day. Lucky signed on for coaching with me because he met a girl.
Yes, there are things you can do to make it easier to get people moving along their sales cycle. You can influence it, but you can’t “control” it.
2) Focus on influencing the average of the dots, and not any individual dot.
Every time you publish new content, every time you email your list, or show up on a podcast, or run a Facebook ad, you are influencing your audience.
You are giving them an additional exposure to you or your product. You are reinforcing your branding, and their opinion of you. You are creating another opportunity to impress them with your skill. You are keeping yourself top-of-mind.
Those are the things that, overall, begin to influence the average. More people, on average, will know, like and trust you. All your little dots become warmer and warmer leads across the board.
3) You can never know how many people are ready until you have provided a trigger.
People need opportunity in order to take action. The average seller provides far too few triggers. Newbies often provide no triggers at all.
Many sellers also wait for clients and customers to come to them. That works – sometimes. But remember Lucky – he was on my list (but silent) for several years, and he had looked at my coaching page a week before… but didn’t get in touch.
Had I waited for him to be “ready”, I might still be waiting. But when I sent out a trigger (my email), it gave him something to respond to.
4) Just because your trigger DIDN’T work, doesn’t mean it DOESN’T work.
Too many people have given up entire streams of revenue because their first trigger didn’t work. (“I offered coaching to my list but nobody bought it!”)
I’ve sent out emails promoting coaching many times, but neither Bubbles, or Applejack, or Lucky responded to them. Other dots did, but those three didn’t. The trigger didn’t work for them until NOW.
Remember that when you send out your triggers – when you run ads or do interviews or link to your products in your email. Even if nothing happens today, it can happen later. Remember that most people need many, many exposures to triggers before they’ll act on one.
5) People legitimately in a sales cycle are almost never bothered by external triggers.
Every time you send out a trigger, some people will leave your audience. You see that and you think, “OMG, potential buyers are leaving!”
It is extremely rare for an honest-to-God potential buyer to leave because of a promotional trigger. You have to do some pretty over-the-top stuff to get a person in a sales cycle to leave.
If a person is remotely open to buying in the future – when either they change, their situation changes, or you change – they’ll stay on the list, and they won’t be bothered when promotional triggers come their way. Or they’ll leave for some reason, and keep tabs on you every once in a while.
(I bought a $2400 group coaching program last week, and I got off the guy’s list years ago. But I come back every few months to catch up on blog posts, and he announced he was going to be offering a thing soon. So I resubscribed, and bought the day it opened.)
Don’t worry. True potential buyers will almost always stick with you no matter what.
6) Different people skew differently in the internal/external trigger spectrum.
Some people are almost entirely driven by internal triggers – they buy because they have come to the opinion that they want to buy, all by themselves. You can send out 100 promo triggers to them, and they won’t make a purchase until they’re good and ready.
Others are almost entirely driven by external triggers – they don’t even think about buying until someone puts a compelling offer in front of them.
Most people are a mix of the two. Their internal triggers create the base desire to buy a product or service, but they feel a little resistance to getting out there and buying something, whether it’s an information product or a package of chicken breasts.
Then an external trigger comes along – a discount, a coupon, a commercial, an email with an ad in it – and they say “Ok, I’ll go ahead and buy that now.” The desire to buy was already there, but the decision to buy today came from the trigger.
Now, that was a lot to read. Maybe another kitten, now?
Collect dots. Provide triggers. That’s all you have to do.
When it all comes down to it, you have two jobs.
1) Keep Collecting Dots.
Build up your audience, and keep building it every month. As that number grows, so does the number of people who could buy from you at any given time. The larger that number gets, the less it matters who buys “now” rather than “later”.
2) Keep Providing Triggers.
Every trigger you send out to your audience will capture the people who are ready to buy today. The more triggers you send, the more opportunities you have to catch any individual person on the “right day” for them.
I hope this behind-the-scenes look at how sales cycles work in the real world has been helpful for you.
If it has, please share it on social media by clicking a button below. (Thanks for that!)