Buying Process Or Selling Process Or Sales Methodology

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Recently, I’ve seen a renewed interest or discussions on Buying Process, Selling Process, Sales Methodology.  Part is driven by an old article of mine, Sales Process or Sales Methodology.

There still seems to be a lot of confusion, some thinking we have to focus on one or the other.  And then, unfortunately, there are too many, that while they might know the buying process or have a sales process or have a sales methodology–they simply don’t use them, instead choosing the Bumper Car approach to engaging the customer and selling.

I thought I’d try to walk through these topics—at a high level, perhaps in later posts I will drill further into each one.

Customer Buying Process:  It’s fashionable to say, “We need to align/follow the customer buying process.”  I suppose, by mouthing these words, we indicate our  intent to be “customer focused.”  Ironically, I walk into organizations espousing this, then watch as their sales people continue to pitch their products, without understanding where the customer is and what they are trying to achieve.

We have to be aligned with the customer and their buying process.  But do they have a buying process and if they do, is that where we should be focused?

In transactional types of buying, where the customer buys frequently, they are very knowledgeable, the risks are well understood and managed, customers do have a buying process.  They have a disciplined approach to evaluating alternatives ans selecting a solution.  In this case, we need to be in lock step with them, as they go through their buying journey.  Some sales people think transactional buying processes are only for low cost/low value purchases, but my experience is there a many multimillion deals (average deal size) that fall into transactional processes.

Also, while, I’m at this stage of the discussion, too many think confuse the contracting process with the buying process.  For instance, right now, I’m involved in the contracting stage of what’s been a very long complex buying process.  The decision has been made, pricing has been agreed upon, since this is a new client, our company needs to be registered as a vendor/supplier.  Something can still go wrong, but the odds of that (unless I totally screw up) are extremely low.  Every buying process — transactional/complex has this as an element and we have to include this in our sales process.

This brings us to complex buying processes.  Again, 1000’s of articles focus on, “we have to align with the customer buying process.”  If the customer has a buying process, we certainly have to be aligned with it.

But think a moment.  Look at the data.  CSO Insights show somewhere around more than 50% of forecast deals end in No Decision Made.  CEB data shows over 60% of pipeline deals end in no decision made.

If customers have buying processes, then why is the failure rate so high?

When you drill down, where the buying process has gone off the rails has nothing to do with solution selection, but everything to do with aligning priorities, interests, agendas, gaining internal support and making a decision.  Customers struggle with this, they simply may not know how to resolve these challenges.

Customer struggle with buying, too often, our thinking is they have a buying process, when we need to be teaching them how to buy and facilitating that process.

Alternatively, we misunderstand an internal project management process with a buying process.  The project management process may have some stages (e.g. define the problem) and milestones–but it doesn’t address the issues critical to buying.

Then there’s one final, perhaps the most important element to understanding the customer buying process.  As sales people, we are so focused on the customer buying decision, that we lose sight of the bigger picture/issues.  The buying process is just one element of the overall change management or problem solving initiative the customer is going through.  Even if the customer is looking at a major new initiative, let’s say CRM, the CRM system itself is just a part of the transformation effort itself.

There are plenty of things outside of “buying” that customers struggle with in these change management initiatives.  While the data is somewhat old, as much a 70% of customer internal collaboration/change management initiatives (this has nothing to do with buying) fail.  So if customers struggle with this, if they fail in the problem management/change management journey, however well defined their buying process, however well aligned we might be, we don’t get the order and the customer initiative fails.

We provide greater value when we look beyond the buying process itself, looking at everything the customer has to achieve in their overall problem solving or change journey.  While we may not be able to play a significant role in this, the better we understand it, connecting the buying portion of the journey to these broader objectives, the more value we create and the more likely we can help the customer achieve their desired outcome.

Selling Process or Sales Methodology:  There’s a lot of discussion about sales process or sales methodology.  Before diving into each, some comments.

  1.  Sales process and methodology are different—ideally they are complementary and reinforce each other.
  2.  It is never a question of either/or, but rather an issue of both/and.
  3. And as much as the vendors of sales training would like it to be one methodology, generally what we are seeing is the highest performing companies have a hybrid of a number of methodologies, adapted to their business needs and priorities, built on their sales process.  There are no “off the shelf” training methodologies that meet 100% of a customer’s or their collective customers’ needs.  Again, we tend to see, in the highest performing organizations, an artful blend of many methodologies supporting a key process(es) and go to market strategies.

Diving in a little more deeply.

Sales Process:  Every company has to have a sales process(es).  That process is unique to the company.  The process is driven by the organization’s strategies, priorities, culture, their attitudes toward the customer, the customer experiences they want to create, their strategies for differentiation and value creation.  It is based on their collective experience of what works and what doesn’t work, what drive success in engaging the customer and winning business.

As an example, we work with many companies that are head to head competitors, with very similar solutions, attacking the very same markets.  Yet as we work with them, their sales processes are actually quite different.  In fact the way the sell, the way they engage the customer, the way they create value in the process becomes key to their differentiation.

So why would we want to copy someone else’s process or use the “process” a sales training vendor recommends to all their customers-including your competition?  Where is the differentiation?  Where do we create value that is distinct from anything else the customer is considering.

So the first fundamental is your sales process(es) are unique to your company–anyone trying to tell you otherwise is not serving you well.

Now, is it one process, or is it multiple processes?  The only reasonable answer is it depends.  It depends on a number of things:

  1.  Are some of your solutions and the markets/customers they target transactional?
  2. Are some of your solutions and the markets/customers they target very complex in the way they need to buy and make a decision?

The degree to which you have a mix, requires that you have at least two sales processes.  We see this even in single product SaaS/XaaS companies.  Part of their strategy is a land and expand strategy, it’s driven by landing individual users or small departments.  There are usually a small number of people involved in the buying process (maybe only 1),  and the level of impact/risk to the organization is small.  Yet those same companies are also going after the enterprise win.  They are looking to their customer to commit the entire enterprise to a solution.  This is a very different sales process (a complex buying process, necessitating a different sales process.

Sometimes, the way certain markets or customer categories buy is different from market to market.  For example, at least in the US, the Federal buying process is very different than what many other industry segments/markets might have.  While each the buying process may be a consensus, complex process, there are great differences in how we engage the customer and how we guide them through their buying process.

So it may be impossible to have a single sales process.  But we want to have as few as we possibly can–striving for one, if possible.  We want to do this, simply because it becomes too complex and confusing for the sales people to know which process they should use.  In fact, in organizations that have many sales processes, we sometimes see the organization structured around the different processes.  For example a team that focuses on the transactional process and those customers where the transactional process aligns with their buying process, and another team focused on the complex process.

As we look at the number of processes, we want to strive for as few as possible (ideally one).  Simply because it is easier for the sales people to learn and execute.  Here’s where we look at the level of detail in describing the sales process.

I like to think of the sales process as a roadmap.  It doesn’t tell you where every pot hole in the road is, what the road conditions are, what the weather is at the moment (are the roads icy, dry).  It doesn’t tell you where on the road you need to be (race drivers refer to this as their line–each driver has a slightly different line, optimized to what they are doing).  It doesn’t tell you anything about how fast you drive from the start to the destination.  So each driver may embark on their journey to the same destination, at different speeds, using differing lines, and so forth.  As obstacles appear in that journey, the drive must adapt to the specifics of the situation.

I had a client who tried to define every possible outcome in every step of their sales process.  They reached 9 pages of flow charts (8 point font) and they had only describe the qualification process for one set of solutions in one set of markets.

So our sales process provides high level guidance, identifying critical activities or milestones that are more likely to drive success.  It is up to the sales person to use these high level activities, but to adapt them to the specifics of the situation–not only the market/solution, but to what the customer is going through in their specific situation.

So the sales process is the starting point for developing our deal strategies, but the sales person has to develop and execute a dynamic deal strategy addressing their specific situation.

Sales methodology:  Sales methodology is different than the sales process.  Generally, sales methodologies do just that–the provide methods, tools, techniques to help you in executing the sales process.  They don’t displace the sales process, but support and accelerate our abilities to execute the sales process.

There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of methodologies out there.  A lot are very similar, but use their own particular jargon to differentiate themselves, and may have slightly nuanced tools, and approaches.  I’ve been through a number of them–whether solution focused, customer focused, consultative, provocative, insight driven, value-based, question based, VITO, account driven, and so forth.  Some focus on specific aspects of the sales process or customer engagement process.  For example they may focus on the front end of the process—inciting the customer to change.  Others focus on understanding/probing needs, others focus on decision-making, and so forth.  As a result, many organizations blend various sales methodologies to support their sales process.

Sometimes sales methodology can be confusing.  The training companies provide the same sales training program to everyone.  For example, consumer product organizations, professional services, embedded components/production parts, financial services, healthcare/pharma, industrial products, smb’s, giga-corporations all may buy the same off the shelf sales methodology.  But clearly, these organizations have varying strategies, markets, sales processes, routes to market.  To get the most value out of the sales methodology, while it may involve an increased cost, make sure the methodology supplier adapts everything to your sales process.  Otherwise, sales people will struggle to get the most value out of the methodology.

Conclusion:  As we “engineer” our organizations to maximize performance and productivity, we have to look assess all of these areas.  We have to look at the customer problem solving process, their buying process, our sales process, the various sales methodologies.  We have to integrate these to maximize our ability to create value with our customers and to for our people to execute winning deal strategies.

We have to be sensitive to the complexity that we may create in integrating these.  We will never be able to, nor should we try, develop something that addresses every situation sales people will encounter.  Consequently, we need to enable the sales people to be thoughtful and nimble enough to adapt these to their specific situation, developing and executing winning deal strategies.

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