By Andrew Neitlich

Long Sales Cycles: How to Handle Prospects Who Won’t Agree to Move Forward

By Andrew Neitlich

Recently a reader expressed his frustration about prospects who won’t agree to move forward. They delay, make excuses, say they are still thinking about it, etc. What can he do to make progress with these prospects?

Here are some thoughts:

First, this problem happens due to poor set up in the beginning. One of your jobs as a salesperson/marketer is to ask the client what their decision making process and timeframe is. If they don’t have one, give them one (e.g. “What I propose is that we take a day or two to assess your needs, and then I respond with a brief summary of what an engagement might look like. If you like it and want to move forward, I’ll draft a proposal by the end of the week. How long do you and other decision makers need to review this?….”)

Once you have a process and timeline in place, you know whether your prospect is serious about moving forward or not. Also, you have an agreement you can use to “call them” on their behavior and set new agreements.

Second, a “maybe” is worse than a “no.” Many prospects don’t want to say no to you, or want to work you for as much free advice as they can get. Meanwhile, you waste time, energy and even money. If a prospect does not keep their word during the sales process, then I’m not so sure I want them as a client. I tell them straight out that I’d prefer them to say no than to keep delaying, and listen to their answer. If they have a real reason for delaying, we agree on a new timeline for a final decision.

Third, go through the basic qualifiers and make sure you haven’t forgotten any:

– Is there a budget?

– Are you talking to the right decision maker(s)?

– Does the prospect have a compelling reason to move forward (e.g. a real event or situation that demands your services)?

– Have you shown that you are uniquely qualified to do the job?

– Have you shown that the VALUE of the job far exceeds your fees?

If any of the above are missing, you don’t have a real opportunity and should move on.

Finally, think about how you can create a sense of urgency to persuade the prospect to move forward. For instance, show what they are giving up by not saying yes to you right now (e.g. “The sooner we get started, the sooner you can start attracting prospects to your web site…”).

What else?

  • This kind of slick salesperson harrasment is more than likely to get people telling you to go fornicate in Austalia. Business people here have an aversion to such obvious leveraging techniques and it just kill organic growth and referalls in a business. If anyone want to apply these techniques better to sell insurance – a product without an on-going relationship.

  • aneitlich


    Could you please specific about which of the above elements is “slick salesperson harrassment”? I agree with you that the last piece is risky. You definitely have to create urgency in a natural and appropriate way, not with language that comes across as slick or harrassment, and in rereading what I wrote I can see how that might be the impression left. (So I’ve written a replacement example in place of what I originally wrote.)

    However, if by slick you mean confirming basics like budget, decision making, timeframes, and whether there is a compelling need — then I’m not sure what to say. Those elements of the sales process are basic things that are applicable in all countries, so long as you ask about them in a natural, non-tacky way.

    Please tell me you’re not questioning those things….

  • jmdaviswa

    There is nothing slick or manipulative here. Having an understanding of the budget and decision making process is fundamental to a business relationship. No one is suggesting that you be dishonest, just that you and the client have a mutual understanding of the decision making process. Building an on-going relationship with a client requires building mutual trust and respect. If the project is real and the client is unwilling to share the decision making process with you, you have not yet won their trust and have more work to do.

  • jmdaviswa

    There is nothing slick or harrassing about this. This is basic stuff for a business relationship. Why should I invest my time with a client unless I understand the budget and the decision making process? If the client is unwilling to share these things with you then the client does not yet trust you and you have more work to do.

  • Yeah – I don’t have a problem with this either (and I’m in Australia!)

    And if they do tell you to get lost, at least you’ve got an answer!

  • jimbov

    It’s all about the decision making process, which itself is vital to materializing your vision of the project and the strategy, set of objectives that keeps the (potential) project alive and kicking…

    I can say with no doubt that both the article and the comments helped me a lot!
    Thank you all!

  • John M

    First- Make sure you are dealing with the organ grinder and not the monkey. Second- Don’t tell the prospect (suspect) how clever you are and what you’ve done etc. they couldn’t care less. First you have to build trust. Do that by asking questions about their business and any problems (real and potential) they are experiencing. By keeping asking questions you will slowly build empathy and trust. No one will ever buy from someone they don’t trust. I always ask the suspect what their goals are for the website. It’s an excellent opener and gets them talking. Remember to ask open ended questions, not closed. In other words: don’t ask questions they can answer with a simple yes or no. Pay close attention to what they tell you because that will often provide you with the leverage to get further. Lots of head nodding and “Mmmmm’s”. Listen at least twice as much as talk. Never give ballpark figures or advice at this stage. Tell them you need to digest what they have told you and come back with a proposal. Ask what the timeframe is and make the next appointment right there and then. Again, make sure that there isn’t anyone else you need to talk with,like sales, design, accounting or whoever. Hey, it takes practice but you get perfect by the doing. When it works take note of how it got to the success stage. Equally when it doesn’t work track backwards and see where it went wrong. Hope this helps you out. It works well for me.

  • Hi sorry for the delay.. Been working my booty off! :)

    Look the way you write it reads like you are treating potential clients as binary in nature..i.e If they don’t snap back to your satisfaction during the pre-sale period – your not sure if you want them as clients?

    Well IMHO, by jumping straight to an ultimatum you will lose 60% of your future business.

    The art of sales is outlined above in just 1 sentence – demonstrate your product/service to be saturated in value. That is it. In addition, be flexible and contactable. Anything else just makes you (me/us) seem like a P.I.T.A to a prospective client.

    See all clients are either people, or groups of people – and they have something more important than you (us web services) until they do not.

    Once you ARE the most important item on THIER agenda – you’ll know. Don’t be a pain in the ass to people. Most people don’t like to be headed like cattle to their chequebook.

    Try a big company or government.. Contingencies can arise and again, you are going to have to be flexible.

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