From the February 2004 issue of Entrepreneur

Triumphing every day in sales is a game of inches. It's the little stuff that can either bury you or catapult you past the competition. One method for winning more sales is to shorten your sales cycle.

Consider some hypothetical math: It takes you three months to close a $50,000 deal. If you can manage to whittle that window down to a mere eight weeks, presto!-you've just padded your P&L by $100,000 per year. Multiply that by your number of sales reps, and you have quite the compelling reason to use any tactic you can to shorten sales cycles. Here's how to do it:

  • Go for the warmed-up clients, aka referrals
  • . Referrals are beautiful things. You've got built-in credibility because the referral trusts the work you've done for other clients. Maura Schreier-Fleming, a sales consultant and president of Best@Selling in Dallas, is enthusiastic about referrals. "When an existing customer says, 'Take the salesperson's call,' you've really shortened the time it takes to sell," she says. Schreier-Fleming encourages reps to meet their customers in informal settings such as trade organizations or in a volunteer capacity. This tactic will help abbreviate the sales cycle because people are more likely to buy from, and recommend, known vendors.
  • Build a ladder from one great client to the next
  • . James Feldman, president and CEO of James Feldman Associates Inc., a performance improvement agency in Chicago, first worked with Toyota 25 years ago. His experience with Toyota impressed McDonald's, then Microsoft. "What you learn from one account should be applicable to your search for new accounts," explains Feldman. "Once you establish yourself as an expert resource, you can leverage that relationship."
  • Put a microscope on the little stuff.
  • What's keeping your reps from closing deals sooner? Some potential bottlenecks include problems getting requested materials (samples, specs, pricing, etc.) to prospects quickly and having contracts interred in your legal department for six weeks. Delays frustrate reps and hold up that almighty signature on the dotted line. Do everything you can to provide reps with what they need to shave and save time. "There may be delays in your support processes that slow down sales," Schreier-Fleming explains. "Fix those delays, and you'll speed up selling."
  • Start with the muckety-muck
  • . Strive to sell at the "C-level" (CEO, CFO, CTO) from the get-go, as lower-level executives don't have the muscle to push deals through quickly. "A general rule is that the lower down the organizational hierarchy you're selling to, the longer it takes," Schreier-Fleming advises.

Feldman has worked with other client luminaries including Apple, NBC, Walt Disney and Xerox. These are his rules to reduce the time it takes to close deals:

  • Stop calling prospects after the second call
  • . If they haven't bought after two calls, move on and look for a better prospect-one who is in the market to buy from you today.
  • If you spend more than 90 days on any sales effort, you're wasting time
  • . There are specific times during which companies buy for the year. If you're trying to sell to them at the wrong time or after they've made the annual purchase, then you are wasting precious time.
  • Make sure the company fits your corporate personality
  • . Choosing the right company to work with is an important step in speeding up the sales cycle. For instance, the value you offer is frequently more clearly recognized by small or midsize companies. At a smaller company, you're often working with higher-level or midlevel executives, instead of mid-level and lower-level managers at a large firm.

Kimberly L. Mccall (aka Marketing Angel) is president of McCall Media & Marketing Inc. www.marketingangel.com) and author of Sell It, Baby! Marketing Angel's 37 Down-to-Earth & Practical How-To's on Marketing, Branding & Sales.