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But We Have A Sales Process……..

by David Brock on December 2nd, 2009

A couple of weeks ago, I was on a panel with a number of peers. A couple of the panelists suggested the majority of companies they worked with had no sales process in place. I have a slightly different point of view, one that is perhaps worse news. Most of the organizations I work with have a sales process in place.

At least that’s what they say. They’ll even pull out a piece of paper, a flow chart, or show me their CRM system to prove they have a sales process. I’m always curious, so I ask a lot of questions and generally I find a couple of things at play:

1. While a company may have a sales process, it has not been updated to fit current market realities and priorities.
2. The managers and sales people just aren’t using the sales process.

It’s actually pretty easy to see this.  Just sit in a pipeline review and listen to the conversations managers and sales people have in reviewing their deals.  As they discuss the deal, look at the activities they have defined in their sales process.  Ask a few questions about the deal, using the activities as a guideline for your questioning.  See if the responses are aligned with the sales process.  For example, the other day I was sitting through a review with a new client.  They had two key activities in the discovery phase of their sales process:  Understand the customer decision making process and who is involved.  Also, Understand the criteria by which the customer will evaluate the investment in the solutions and justify it internally.  Great criteria!  However, we were reviewing a number of deals that were in either the proposing or closing stages of their sales process.  I started asking some questions, “How does our solution look based on their justification criteria?”  “Who is involved in the decision making process, who’s the real decision maker?” 

If these deals were truly in the proposal and closing phases of the sales process, the sales people would have had very clear responses to those questions.  They didn’t–they mouthed some nominal responses, but really didn’t answer the questions—–then they went on to talk about what they were doing to win their deals.   Hmmmmmm, what’s up here?  Clearly they aren’t using the sales process.  A few more questions and you can determine whether the sales process is out of date or just not being used.

The only reason to have a sales process is to help sales people manage opportunities from qualification through closure as effectively and efficiently as possible.  The activities identified in the sales process are a result of analyzing both how customers buy, and the activities critical sales must undertake in facilitating the customer’s buying process.  If sales people aren’t using the process (and it’s an appropriate process), then they aren’t performing at the highest levels possible.  Additionally, since the pipeline is an aggregation of all the deals sales people are working on, the integrity of the pipeline and it’s accuracy for forecasting are immediately suspect. 

Sales people not using the process are not performing as they should.  Managers not assuring their sales people are using the sales process are being irresponsible–both to the sales people and to their organizations.  Deal reviews are most effective if they are initiated by talking about where we are in the process—that means using the process to inspect the deal, using the process to provide a road map on next steps, using the process to assure you are competitive, and using the process to make sure you are creating value for the customer.  Everything else is a drill down into the details of the activities.

As I mentioned, one of the reasons sales people and managers don’t use the process is because it has become irrelevant.  Over time, the way your customers buy changes.   Markets, competition, and your solutions change.  What may have been a great sales process 5 years ago, is probably irrelevant today.  If your sales people aren’t following the sales process, but consistenly winning business–reassess and update your sales process.  The only thing worse than not using an irrelevant sales process is using an irrelevant sales process–but you will see that with plummeting win rates, long cycles and loss of competitiveness.  Make sure you review and update your sales process periodically.  If there are major changes in market conditions, if there are major changes in your target markets, if there are major changes in your solutions–you probably need to update your sales process.

Organizations that don’t have a sales process need to have one.  Organizations that have a sales process but are not using it are fooling themselves.

If you want to drive the highest levels of sales performance, make sure managers and sales people are using it.  Make certain your process reflects current best practices for winning business.  Everything else is a waste of time.

From → Leadership

  1. Dave,

    I could not agree more with you. I would just want to add, that it does not take 5 years for sales processes to become obsolete. In my experience many sales processes implemented in CRM systems were never relevant. They did not follow your assumption: “The activities identified in the sales process are a result of analyzing both how customers buy, and the activities critical sales must undertake in facilitating the customer’s buying process”. They are already at the outset only a sequential list of what sales people ought to do. The way the customer is buying was not considered at the outset, so change in buying behavior go unnoticed.

    • Christian, great comment! I tend to believe we should reassess our sales process at least annually and at every major “disruption” point. Thanks for your continued outstanding contributions.

  2. Jeff Ribman permalink

    Thanks for the article David. I’ve taught sales processes but have never really flow charted them (except sometimes on the whiteboard for demonstrations); mainly because the process has to change. I’ve held many sales and sales manager positions and no matter what product or solution we were selling there was always a process. Even now when I sell businesses there is a process (us seasoned professionals may overlook it but we are progressing along that process). I use a CRM system now that is quite helpful with time management and follow-up.

    • Jeff, thanks for the comment. Without a process, selling is like taking a random walk through the forest—you never know where you’ll end up. A well defined sales process provides a clear roadmap of the most effective and efficient means to facilitate the customer in their buying process. I think the process needs to be documented, even for the very small or sole proprietor type of organization. Without this, we tend to fool ourselves. The process needs to be kept current, I advocate a semiannual review. Finally, tools like CRM systems help reduce the clerical tasks and facilitate your productivity.

      Thanks for the comment. Keep following and commenting!

  3. Joyce Witowski permalink

    I agree completely, my experience is that most companies use the sales process primairly as a diagnostic tool – what went wrong when we lost an order – rather than as a vital part of how business is carried out. Any suggestions about how to make the sales process more integral to the functioning of the sales team without having a bunch of heavy handed Bureaucracy?

    • Joyce, outstanding comment and you asked the key question: How do we have a process without being bureaucratic? The best processes, sales and otherwise, are almost elegant in their simplicity. A good sales process provides a roadmap of how to guide the customer through their buying process. It doesn’t describe every pothole in the road, every slight turn. The biggest mistake I’ve seen organizations make is to “overengineer” and overcomplicate their selling process, trying to make it cover every type of customer every possibility, etc. One Fortune 100 client, took our 1 page-20 point sales process, and expanded it into 9 pages of single spaced bullets. It was so complex the sales people couldn’t use it. So the first step is to develop an elegantly simple process, that really reflects best practice within your organization.

      Second it train your people and get them to internalize it. If you have designed the right process, it should feel natural (think of perfecting a golf swing or a tennis serve, or something similar). People need to see, through example and practice, that the sales process reduces their sales cycle and increases their win rate.

      Third, managers must constantly reinforce the use of the sales process by using it in deal reviews. In any opportunity review, the discussion should start with where you are in the sales process, how you know, and where you are going. If managers use this as their own roadmap for reviews, they will not only reinforce the use of the process, but they will simplify their own jobs and improve their own productivity.

      We’ve spent a lot of time in this area, would be delighted to help, just give a call! Thanks for your thoughtful comment and question.

  4. The entire discussion about sales process could be brought to question when considering that most sales managers do not really know how to manage and most sales people do not know how to sell. Couple this thought with the fact the any sales process that does not recognize that often different industries use different buying processes and often different people in common industries just react differently and we might have to have a process review for every prospect in the sales funnel.

    • Dick, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I think there is a lot of room for improvement in the practice of sales management and professional selling. At the same time, every year I meet with thousands of sales managers and sales people who do well and are looking to improve their performance.

      A good sales process one of the cornerstones to outstanding performance by any sales professional, and and important element f.or managers to inspect and develop with their people. In my experience, I have never encountered a business in which the sales process or processes cannot be well defined. I think one of ways people design bad sales processes is to try to address every type of customer or situation that might be encountered. A well designed sales process is a rough road map, it should stimulate thoughtfulness on the part of the sales person in thinking about where they are at and what they should be doing next in facilitating the customer buying process.

      The intent is to identify the major activities and milestones critical to success. I’ve seen too many good organizations and individuals, with well defined and executed sales processes to believe otherwise.

      I think much of what you refer to may be a result of poorly thought out, poorly designed and poorly executed sales processes. or lack of clarity on target markets and how organizations approach those markets. In that sense, I agree with many of your comments.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. You may want to read my latest post which extends some of the discussion. I would welcome your comments on that.

  5. Dan permalink

    Dave, a great observation especially the criteria in closing sales. From my experience, a sales process helps to track an opportunity from start to finish and most CRM claimed they are the process. However, while it is good to know the process, what is more important as you pointed out are the criteria that they could not answer you while at the final stage of the negotiation.

    The sales process may be in place used or unused but what is the point when the sales team could not understand how to execute the criteria which I quote from your blog “They had two key activities in the discovery phase of their sales process: Understand the customer decision making process and who is involved. Also, Understand the criteria by which the customer will evaluate the investment in the solutions and justify it internally”.

    The centre of the sales process is to be able to link their solutions to the business drivers of their decison makers and demonstarte clearly the financial benefits and in another word ROIs. The discovery process is in understanding the business priorities of the BDMs.

    Sadly, most experienced understand the process but they just don’t know how to execute the part on engaging BDMs and convert the access into value and thus they lost their strategiuc deals and customers and finally lose all interest in upkeeping the sales process and those without sales process, this discussion does not exist.


    • Dan, thanks for your thoughtful views. I can’t help tinkering, thought. A sales process is more than something to track an opportunity. It is a road map to guide sales professionals in facilitating their customers’ buying processes. It is designed to help the sales person be effective and efficient the organization’s business strategies and priorities. An analogy I’ve used before, is there are many ways to drive from Caliornia to New York. The path you choose depends on your goals and objectives—different organizations will chose different paths.

      The process should stimulate “thought-fullness” with the sales person, and not be a blindly executed checklist. In inspecting the process, for example the questions you ask a person, one of the goals is to look at the quality of their thinking about the sales opportunity. If they cannot answer basic questions having to do with the process, that should make a manager suspect and cause further inspection—both to win the deal and, if they consistently can’t answer these questions, of the person’s abilities as a sales person.

      Unfortunately, people focus on activities and transactions, not the process. When we do this, we lose the opportunity to really understand performance and drive great performance—which is the point you make very nicely.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, please keep it up. It creates a great dialog!

      We put the process in place because it enables us to achieve goals effectively and efficiently. We inspect how well our people are executing the process–which should be considered as guidelines

  6. Eric Burnheimer permalink

    Dave, I have found that not only do some organizations fail in consistently using a process to land that first sale from a prospect, but then they have no process at all on how to ensure you gain repeat business and how to grow the relationship from there. In short, to quote Mr. Covey, they don’t begin with the end in mind, so the process is either absent altogether or fatally flawed.
    Too many sales organizations assume the sales person has achieved a level of trust or respect from the initial success and his/her relationship skills will carry the day from there. That is not a process but it happens much too frequently.

    • Eric, great observations. It reminds me of the expression, “if you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” Beginning with the end in mind—and working backward on how you get there is fantastic. As you point out, we tend to do the reverse, we only think of the next step, then the next, then the next, purely reacting and not driving purposefully to the end.

      As you point out, we would be so much more effective if we were purposeful in what we do. Sales is about trust and relationships. It is also about purposefulness in helping the customer achieve their goals as we also achieve ours.

      Great observations. Thanks for contributing. I look forward to your future comments.

    • Jim and Eric, thanks for your comments. You each raise an issue that I have been lamenting about in other posts for some time. If you look at it, sales people, sales managers, consultants and guru’s have been having the same conversation for decades (at least as I can trace back in the professional literature). We talk about diagnosing, solving problems, the complex sales, customer focus, solutions focus, consultative, and the latest buzz word, provocative selling. We develop new buzz words to express similar ideas.

      However, if you look at it, the fundamentals we are talking about were discussed by Peter Drucker in his writings in the 50’s. Mack Hanan wrote “Consultative Selling” in the late 60’s, and Neil Rackham’s work was well known in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Everything since then has been fundamentally a re-expression of that work.

      Now here’s the kicker, we are talking about the same issues, with the same sense of transformational urgency. Take provocative selling as the latest incarnation. It is simply helping the customer achieve their business goals, solve their problems (realized or not). The key question is why are we, as a profession, still acting like Bill Murray in GroundHog Day? Why do we keep talking about the same thing, why can’t we execute and grow–as a profession an move beyond this. I first started selling in the late 70’s. I learned a consultative, problem solving sales approach. Why are we still having the same conversations? Why are we packaging and repackaging the same ideas (though the repackaging has some merit because it causes you to look at things from a slightly different perspective)? What causes us, as a profession, to be having the same conversation over and over.

      I have some guesses about this,and have spoken to other thought leaders about this issue. Recently, I spoke to Mack Hanan, and we tend to agree. I’d be interested in your views.

      Thanks for the comments. I’m really looking forward to the discussion.

  7. Great observations and comments. One thought that has not been mentioned is many sales processes focus far more on the selling than the marketing and this is why many sales people jump the gun and thus do not earn the sale.

    In my opinion, the sales process begins with that first attention be it a handshake or a reaction to some other stimulus and ends after the successful delivery of the product with a request for at least one referral.

    Also, there is not enough focus on the buying decision process along with qualification criteria including a detailed description of the ideal customer. What happens is a lot of sales people acting as Captain Wing It spraying and praying their actions all over the place. Thanks for an insightful piece.

    • Thanks for the great thoughts Leanne. You may want to read some of my posts where I speak about the importance of vicious disqualification—we are in compelted agreement. Likewise the posts on the integration of the buying process—the selling and buying processes need to be unifed. Thanks for the continued great insights. Regards, Dave

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