Is sales “process” really the right metaphor?

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The term “sales process” has become an almost universal cliché (and yes, I have been as guilty as the rest). Research is regularly published to prove that organisations with a defined “sales process” outperform their less well organised competitors.

In simple, high-volume sales environments – where success is often seen as a numbers game, and where sales people do not need to be overly sophisticated in their approach – I can see how having a process can help.

But in complex, lengthy, high-value sales environments that require sophisticated sales skills, the idea of a rigid, universally applied and consistently implemented step-by-step sales process seems increasingly inappropriate and ineffective.

I’m writing this article today because I’ve just listened to a video that likened a sales process to the step-by-step, corner-by-corner instructions we might get from a satellite navigation system. This seems to me to be an entirely inappropriate metaphor, and here’s why…

SatNavs make the assumption that we are getting from our starting point to our destination along made-up roads using predictable routes with clear signposts – and as many of us have discovered, they struggle to cope if they detect we are going “off piste”.

A dirt road, rather than a highway…

But anyone involved in complex B2B sales knows that – although we might have a destination in mind – the path to success is rarely rigidly defined. Yes, we have to pass through a number of waypoints along the way, but our path often seems more like a dirt road that jinks one way or another en route.

If we keep our heads down and blindly follow the pre-programmed rules built into a rigid “sales process SatNav”, rather than carefully observing and adapting to the terrain around us, we are likely to get stuck along the way.

In many ways, complex sales often feel more like a cross-country orienteering exercise than a brisk uninterrupted walk along a straight and predictable tarmacadamed path.

Yes, we need a sense of direction. Yes, we need to identify the key waypoints along the way. And yes, if we come across an impassable swamp, we need to use our initiative and experience to find a way around it. And yes, if conditions get too treacherous, we need to have the common sense to abandon the journey and follow a more productive path.

A flexible framework, not a rigid process…

Having a rigid process mentality is more likely to hinder us than help us under such circumstances. What we need is a framework that can guide us, and a set of simple checklists that help us to think through what we need to do when faced with an obstruction that might otherwise hold us back.

Processes imply that there is “one best way”. That might be true in high-volume manufacturing processes, but it’s the wrong mindset to apply to complex sales environments.

Frameworks, on the other hand, incorporate the concepts of best practice but are also designed to act as flexible guides, rather rigid cages. They recognise the power of awareness and initiative and encourage those qualities rather than suppress them.

They are constantly evolving to take account of the latest lessons learned (rather than relying on an annual map update) and are designed to adapt to specific local market conditions.

Helping our sales people to think for themselves…

Frameworks encourage our sales people to think for themselves, rather than forcing them to follow an overly-prescriptive path. They are far more likely to be adopted by our top sales performers (particularly if they have helped to craft them) and far more likely to be effective in guiding our middle-of-the road sales people to make thoughtful choices.

They are less effective in environments (they still exist!) where the average sales person is less capable of showing real initiative or of thinking for themselves. But I’m guessing that your sales environment is more complex than that, and that paint-by-numbers processes and turn-by-turn instructions would have the effect of dumbing down your sales people rather than making them smarter.

So – I’m curious about where you stand on this: are your sales people more inclined to blindly rely on a SatNav or to demonstrate their orienteering skills? Does the guidance you are giving to your sales people feel more like a rigid process or a flexible framework? And if the former, can you see the potential of loosening up a bit, and trusting to the intelligence of your sales people?


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