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If your sales cycles seem to be dragging, it may be time to revamp your communications plan. Effective communications plans can leverage salespeople's time and speed up the sales process by anticipating and getting prospective customers the information they need to move to the next level—wherever they are in the buying process.

Done well, your communications programs can generate demand for your solutions, create a sense of urgency, attract prospective buyers' attention and keep you prominently on their radar—all without sales intervention. Your communications program can even encourage prospective buyers to "raise their hands" when they are finally ready to purchase by offering the right enticement.

The key is getting the right message to the right person at the right time. Not everyone who needs your organization's solution is ready to buy right away. In fact, most buyers proceed through a series of stages before ultimately deciding to purchase from you. First, they must...

  • Recognize they need what you have to offer
  • Develop a sense of urgency
  • Be aware of your firm
  • Realize that your organization can solve their problem
  • Remember your organization's solution when they finally become ready to buy
  • Determine that your organization's solution meets their needs
  • Find it easy to buy from your organization

Effective communications plans address every step of the sales process and move buyers from stage to stage. Sales people, on the other hand, are more productive when they can concentrate on accounts that are ready to buy right away. When sales people take on the role of the communications plan (i.e., they often find they need to spend a lot of time helping prospective buyers move to the next level), sales cycles drag out, impeding productivity.

If this is the case, then why does sales productivity continue to be an issue? Developing effective communications programs depends on fully understanding how prospective customers make buying decisions. Too many organizations underestimate the complexity of prospective customers' buying processes and therefore the complexity of designing effective communications programs. When communications programs don't work, sales people have to step in and address each buyer's concerns one by one.

An example

We recently saw a piece titled, "Digital mammography proves superior for women" on MedPage Today. We thought it would prove useful in describing the complex challenges communicators face.

The article cited the October 27, 2005 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine as its source. It reported that according to a study of 50,000 women, digital mammography is more accurate in detecting premenopausal breast cancer than traditional film-based mammography. It also noted that both were effective screening tools and that the digital systems...

  • Are no more effective than film in detecting cancers in other populations
  • Are 1.5 to 4 times as expensive as plain film systems
  • Are not covered by all insurers
  • Use lower doses of radiation
  • Are easier to use

If the primary objective of communications programs is to move buyers to the next level, then communicators' most important task is pinpointing where buyers get stuck and why. Yet, in our experience, the most common communications mistake that organizations make is addressing the wrong problem. Let's look at the above example from the perspective of a mammography systems vendor.

There are multiple reasons why a hypothetical mammography vendor could be losing sales. For example, since both film and digital technologies are effective screening tools, administrators of breast imaging centers may not perceive a need for the product. Or perhaps they see a need, but find that they can't justify the cost with insurers or patients. Or they may be in negotiations with another vendor because they don't realize that this company sells digital systems.

These are just three of many possible hypotheses. Chances are that each of the above scenarios applies to at least some of the vendor's prospective customers. Perhaps, however, none of these is the primary reason that the vendor is losing sales. Without first knowing exactly where the sales cycle is actually breaking down most often, organizations run the risk of launching marketing campaigns that waste both sales and communications resources.

Once an organization figures out what's delaying sales, it's just a matter of getting buyers the information they require to move to the next level, right? Wrong! This simple solution begs four questions:

1. Who at the buyer needs the information?

2. What information do they need?

3. What's the best way to reach them?

4. How do you get them to pay attention to your communications?

Of these questions, the first is the most important because both the messages and choice of media will depend on whom the communicator needs to reach. The second most common mistake we see is that organizations assume they know whom to target.

Using our example, it is likely that breast imaging center administrators consult with a number of people when evaluating new equipment. Possible constituencies include employees such as radiologists, clinical technicians, and financial analysts; prospective patients; referring physicians; and recognized experts such as the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and medical societies.

Even if mammography vendors ascertain that they are losing sales because administrators don't perceive a need for digital systems, communicators still need to know how the administrators came to that conclusion. Otherwise, they run the risk of succeeding in their communications objectives—but failing to affect the behavior that they are looking to change. For example, launching an advertising campaign may result in more patients preferring digital systems. These preferences, however, may be irrelevant, if as for many clinical services the only factor patients consider is their primary care physicians' recommendation.

Next Steps

In theory, pressure from any of the stakeholders could create a sense of urgency for administrators. There is only one way to find out. Ask administrators to walk you through the process that they used when making other similar purchases. Although everyone varies in their buying behavior, individuals tend to be consistent. Moreover, people tend to be better at reporting past behavior than they are at predicting the future.

The following steps, of course, are to determine what messages and media to use. In-depth interviews are the best way to get at motivation. There are a number of ways to find out where key audiences get their information. Finally, you will want to test various presentation formats and calls to action.


Communicators face many potential pitfalls. Chief among them are addressing the right problem and knowing what audiences to target. Too often, organizations make assumptions and skip steps because they are in a hurry to achieve their revenue objectives. Or, as H.L. Mencken noted, "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."

Organizations, however, that take the time to fully understand their prospective customers' buying process can succeed in getting the right messages to the right audiences at the right time. Their rewards will include making the most of their marketing dollars, speeding up the sales cycle, and improving sales productivity.

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Barbara Bix is managing principal of BB Marketing Plus, where she helps companies enhance their brands by capturing and enhancing the customer experience.