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The Customer Focused Sales Process

by David Brock on November 16th, 2021

We’ve long known (whether we use it or not) about the “sales process.” Virtually every organization has some variant of a sales process with stages we move through and, possibly, critical activities we should be executing within each stage.

Usually, these are all focused on what we have to do to achieve our goal–getting a PO. We prospect to find potential opportunities, we qualify some with the idea the prospect is interested in buying our products. Then we go through some sort of discovery process. Usually this focuses on identifying their needs for solutions we sell, understanding how much they know about our products and the competition. We assess the competition, we identify people involved in the process. Once we have those identified, we propose, presenting our solution then, ideally, move the customer into closing and getting the purchase order.

This is all independent of the customer solving their problem–our sales processes tend to focus on our goals, getting the order and not solving the customer problem.

Sometimes, we create try to align the sales process with the customer buying journey. We may create our versions of their buying process. The problem is, most of those focus on the activities customers would go through in buying a product–with their goal being submitting a PO. Again, the activities focus on a product/solution selection. Things like identifying the product capabilities, features, and functions. Perhaps it includes a demo of some sort. Some if it is checking on the suppliers and rating them.

But somehow this isn’t working–at least as well as it may have in the past. We have so much data about the majority of customer buying journeys ending in failure. Customers abandon the project and don’t buy any solution. We know customers struggle in their buying journey, trying to make sense of all the information.

And then we know the buying journey is not a linear process, in fact it’s quite confusing. The famous Gartner “spaghetti chart” is a great illustration of what a buying journey might look like and how customers struggle.

Despite this, our sales processes tend to still be linear, focused on getting a PO.

Then it gets even more complex, the customer is completing much of this without the support of sales people. They leverage digital and other resources to support their buying journey. And we know a huge number of customer buying decisions have significant regret.

So we have a huge disconnect with our selling process–to the point where it seems to have meaning only to us and not to helping the customer.

Perhaps we need to start rethinking our sales process, aligning it more with what customers are going through and helping them achieve their goals — so we can achieve ours.

I’m not sure I know what this looks like, but some things such a process must include (not in any order).

  1. Since so much of the buying journey is completed independently of sales, our process must not be dependent on what sales people do. It must include the digital and other interventions required to support the customer. What are the critical digital interventions? These won’t just be at our websites, so where else might the customer show up and we should show up? What about the non-digital interventions–for example customers that our prospects might be talking to, experts they may be talking to? How do we show up where the customer is showing up? How do we make sure we are responding to what they need when they show up?
  2. Related to the prior point, we need to change our own mindset about the sales process. We traditionally think about it in terms of the things that sales people must do with the customer. But now we see that sales only influences a very small part of the customer buying journey. Others are involved in this process. How do we identify who they are, what they do, how we measure/track engagement in their part of the buying journey. For example, marketing and customer experience play critical roles in this new process–how do we monitor and track those? Right now we may track them outside our process as leads and we measure them as MQLs and other things. But in the customers’ minds, they have gone much further in their buying journey through these interventions?
  3. Since much of this is done through non sales interventions, how do we develop pipelines to start tracking customers through the process? Most of our pipelines are sales generated and managed, yet the customer journey is occurring outside sales. But, since all sales engagement for customers buying journey’s represent less than 17% of their time, the customer is engaging and going through a buying journey. They may have qualified us, they may be well into their discovery process, they may even have gotten some samples or demos through sources other than sales. Yet they won’t show up in our pipelines because sales is not involved.
  4. Typically, we engage customers in a very small part of their journey. They actually aren’t on a buying journey, they are on a problem/opportunity solving journey. But our sales processes typically don’t focus on helping them through those parts of their journey. We qualify them on, “Are you looking to buy this kind of solution? Do you have funding? Are you the decisionmaker?” But because we focus on products, we are working with them on the smallest and possibly the easiest part of their work effort. Customers really aren’t driven by buying, but buying may be something they do as part of a change process.
  5. Related to the previous point, maybe we need to redefine our selling processes in terms of helping customers recognize problems/opportunities, and change efforts, each of which have a high probability of needing the solutions we sell. For example, a customer may not be thinking of buying an engineering design tool. Instead they are thinking about how they can bring more products to the market faster. Or they may not be looking for new manufacturing systems, instead looking at reducing manufacturing cycle time or improving output. Or they may not be looking for a marketing automation system, instead looking for how they find and develop more customers. Our products are part of what they need to address the challenge but probably not what is driving their problem solving process. So if we were to get more involved in their problem solving process, we might drive a higher need and demand for our products. But our sales processes don’t start at this point.
  6. This ripples all through our activities in our sales processes. Rather than prospecting for people looking for certain products, we should be prospecting for customers that have certain problems or opportunities. Instead of qualifying their interest in our solutions, we should qualify their urgency and commitment to do something about the problem/opportunity.
  7. Likewise, our sales processes tend to focus on proving our product value and influencing the customer decision to buy our products. Yet where customers need the most help with their process is managing their problem solving journey. They worry about, “do we really understand the problem we are trying to solve, what more do we need to learn about the problem, how do we define it, what happens if we do nothing, who does this problem impact, how do we get them involved, what questions should we be asking ourselves, what are the risks we face in trying to solve the problem, ……” Little of this has anything to do with our products/solutions, yet our sales processes focus on these. What if we start defining our selling process in terms of the customer problem solving process.
  8. At the risk of repeating myself, as the customer is considering and addressing these issues, as they develop a project plan to maximize success, they are not looking to sales for help. So how do we provide that help and measure it’s “helpfulness” when sales isn’t involved? These need to be part of a customer focused selling process.
  9. And the customer problem solving process doesn’t end with our getting a PO, it continues past this. So a customer focused selling process would continue to their successfully achieving their goals in solving the problem.

I’ll stop here, but you get the point. We define our sales process in terms of what sellers do to achieve their goals. If we define a customer buying process, we focus it on their interactions with us in buying our or a competitors products. Yet we know the majority of time spent by customers in “buying” has nothing to do with sales activities. And, more importantly, we know that buying is the smallest part of what the customer is trying to do.

We need to rethink and expand our thinking of the selling process and how we engage customers in a way that helps us both track and achieve our shared objectives.

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