In Complex Sales, Time Is on Your Side

What’s the relationship of time to sales?

Should we worry that “time’s a wasting?” Or pay more heed to “all good things in due time?”  It sounds like a trivial question, but it’s got some far-reaching implications.


In late 1964, an English group calling themselves The Rolling Stones got their first U.S. Top 10 record with a song called “Time Is On My Side.” It was a cover version of a song previously recorded by Irma Thomas, among others. The lyrics loosely proclaimed that “you’ll come running back” because “I’ll always be around,” and therefore “time is on my side.”

The Stones, it turns out, were talking about selling professional services – and more broadly, about consultative selling in general.

If you’re relatively new to business development (the preferred euphemism in services for selling), you’ve probably read several books or articles, seeking wisdom on how to better sell. And if you’re an old hand at selling (and have no time for euphemisms), you’ve probably read even more of the same.

Nearly all of those books and articles make one key assumption. It is an assumption so basic, so simple, that we don’t even notice it. It is baked into the studies, the definitions, and the very language we use to describe selling. And yet that one assumption is so profound that it affects nearly every aspect of how we approach selling.

It is the assumption that a sale is a transaction. It is a discrete event. It happens (or in any case is closed) at a point in time. It is singular. The plural of “sale” is a series of “sales,” where the whole is equal to the sum of the parts. Sales happen one at a time. And time, generally, is not on your side.

Sales as Events

Consider the implications of that viewpoint. It suggests that a sale is an event with a beginning and an end. It suggests that we can understand sales patterns by averaging the sales events. It suggests that someone who is good at selling is good at making transactions happen. And it suggests that processes for managing sales will track these events through a sales process, attaching probabilities and sizes to each sale as the leads pass through the process.

That’s pretty much every modern-day CRM program, most sales metrics and sales management processes. The defining characteristic of those systems is that they’re built around discrete, separate events. In fact, we’ve talked ourselves into a mode of thinking such that we can’t conceive of managing sales without conjuring up behavioral, trackable events. If you can’t list an action and put a date on it – it doesn’t exist.

The sale event begins with a lead event, an initial contact. It proceeds through various exchanges of questions and answers. At some point there is a more or less formal proposal made by the seller. The end of the event comes when the proposal is either accepted, rejected, or ignored. At that point, the event is considered “closed.” The buying company, unit, or person may show up again, and they may go on a contact list. But when they show up again as a buyer, the seller will consider it a separate event.

When we think of sales as events, time is generally not on your side. Time is money. Time is the denominator in measures of efficiency. Time is what’s a-wasting when you’re spending your time unproductively, i.e. not selling. Time is the unit that determines your bonus, and it is what your manager is talking about when he says, “What have you done for me lately?”

Viewed that way, the world of sales is a series of discrete events. To borrow a metaphor from subatomic physics, the modern view of sales sees sales particles, not waves.

And yet—as in physics—we don’t have a complete understanding of things unless we view things from the “wave” perspective, as well as the particle perspective.

Sales as Patterns

Sales as events may sound blindingly obvious, but consider an alternative. What if a sale didn’t describe a discrete event, but a pattern of events, or a state of relationship, or a condition? What if a sale happened over time, with no particular event being more significant than others? What if a sale were about a relationship, not a transaction? What if it were an adjective, not just a noun or a verb?

We would view selling not as about executing isolated, separate transactions, but as relationships.

We would talk mainly about the quality of the relationship with a customer. Individual sales transactions would be seen as indicators of relationship success, not as the sole driving purpose.
Relationships and transactions would trade places as ends and means. CRM systems would actually measure relationships, not just transactions, thus finally living up to their name. Sales managers would coach people on furthering customer relationships, not on check-boxing behavioral events and driving transactions through the customer organization.

Is Time On Your Side?

A critical difference between the transactional and the relationship view of sales is the role of time. Transactions happen at points in time; relationships wax and wane over time. How you spend your time varies:

  • If you view sales as transactional, then you’ll want to maximize transactions over time and view relationships as a means to that end.
  • If you view sales as relational, then you’ll want to maximize relationships over time and trust that transactions will come about as a byproduct.

Note: in the long run, the metrics converge. The longer the timeframe, the more relevant is aggregate dollar sales. The critical question is this: do you maximize long-term sales by focusing on short-term transactions, or by focusing on long-term relationships?

For some businesses, long-term revenue pretty much equals the sum of the short-term results. Possible examples are convenience stores, Wall Street trading businesses, and online ad revenue. Here the transactional view of sales works just fine.

But for many other businesses – especially professional and intangible services, and complex and high-ticket B2B sales – the reverse is true. You don’t succeed by micro-focusing on transactions, by relentlessly improving efficiency, or by scrimping on time.

Instead, you succeed by focusing on the qualitative – by improving relationships, by nurturing the conditions that lead to repeat business, loyalty, deep customer knowledge and intimacy. In the not-very-long run, that focus actually produces better results than focusing on the transactional.

The Stones were right: time is (largely) on your side. If you are prepared to be consistent, trustworthy, focused on the greater good of your client, and not blinded by the shiny object of the Next Transaction, time becomes your friend. Your customers will indeed come running back—at least as many and as often to make it a superior sales strategy.

4 replies
  1. David Heath
    David Heath says:

    Take out the word ‘sales’ and replace it with just about any other long-term activity any of us is involved with – love, career, growing old, and your story would easily remain unchanged… with one exception. We don’t see any of those activities as discrete in any manner whatsoever.

    Who was the bright spark who decided sales should be (assuming you’re not in the business of selling ‘widgets’ to people you never intend seeing ever again)?

    Reply
  2. Amadou M. Sall
    Amadou M. Sall says:

    Thanks a lot for this incredibly insightful post, Charles, especially as I teach translators how to market their services through Account-based Marketing. In fact anybody interested in ABM should read this post.

    Reply
  3. Greg Woodley
    Greg Woodley says:

    Love the concept Charles.
    Most of my selling days were spent selling specialty items that took months or even years to sell. e.g. Imagine selling anti counterfeit measures to the people who print dollar bills. So, building relationships was often a big part of what we did.
    I really like your comment “Relationships and transactions would trade places as ends and means.”

    Reply

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