I went through my very first sales training class in the late 70’s. We were taught the various stages of the selling process. We stepped through prospecting, spent a lot of time on qualifying and discovery, moved on to proposing, closing, and implementation.
What I learned and sought to apply, for decades, is no different from what every sales person has learned about the selling process. Training programs have slight variations in the stages, some variations of the critical activities in each stage, but they are very similar in intent. The idea being, if we go through each stage, if we conduct the right activities in the right order, we will maximize our ability to win. Furthermore, we will do so as effectively and efficiently as possible.
We’ve trained thousands of people in the selling process, leveraging it for their deal strategies. We’ve leveraged the same concepts, though customizing it for each client. We identified the stages, the expected outcomes for each stage, the critical activities for each stage. We adapted these as checklists, sales people could use, keeping themselves on track in executing the selling process.
In the past fifteen years, all of us have recognized there is a buying process. In defining the buying process, we’ve tended to describe it in terms that mirror the selling process. It is always perfectly linear, perfectly rationale. We taught/learned the critical activities our customers went through in each stage, we adapted our selling process to mirror/complement those activities.
But, we are learning, the buying process, particularly for complex B2B solutions isn’t that simple. It wanders, it starts and stops, it circles back on itself, shifting as the customer priorities change and as they learn more. Where we hoped it would be a predictable set of steps, increasingly it is unpredictable.
We struggle to respond looking at our selling process, trying to think about how to adapt it to mirror the customers’ wandering buying processes. Some suggest, we abandon the concept of the selling process, just focusing on responding to the customer buying process. Alternatively, we drag the customer through our rigid, perfectly predictable process.
I’m uncomfortable with these concepts. I think we owe our customers more than just mirroring their wandering. After all, we work with hundreds to thousands of customers addressing similar issues. While each buying process/journey is unique, there are some commonalities and similar issues. We can help the customers more effectively achieve their goals in solving a problem or addressing the opportunities, by sharing what we’ve learned in working with others.
The process (buying/selling) will never perfectly linear or predictable–both for our customers and us. But we can improve the process/experience, helping more customers succeed in completing it, addressing the issues which caused them to initiate the process in the first place.
To do this, successfully, we have to become more agile or nimble in working with the customer. We have to help them define what they need to accomplish, perhaps aligning around a project plan–with the customer. We have to help the customer identify the critical issues, the outcomes, the support they need and what they need to learn. We have to help them identify who should be involved and help them learn how to manage the project to achieve the outcome they hoped.
It will never be the same for each customer. And, as we see with many projects, we have to accommodate changes and adjusting what we and the customer do; at the same time helping the customer maintain their focus on achieving their objectives.
We, also, have to adapt how we help the customer through this process–leveraging both digital and people interventions. We need to help them identify what/how they might learn and progress without a sales person intervention, at the same time identifying the things where a human intervention might be most appropriate.
This means we need to develop different skills with our sales teams. Rather than drilling into them a rigid, linear path, we need to help them develop new skills, enabling them to be more agile in working with the customer. Some of these are strong project management, problem solving. Some involve being more open minded and collaborative in helping the customer establish their goals and the process by which they will achieve their goals.
We have to help them understand there are multiple ways to achieve a goal, providing the skills to help the customer develop the plan that is most useful to them. We teach them how to earn the right to help the customer successfully navigate the process.
The selling process is very critical. It helps us understand how to be most helpful to the customer. It’s just not as simple as we thought it would be.