Sales Process: Stick to the Path or Go Your Own Way?


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Ask a top sales producer about keys to success, and they’ll share insights like “prioritize your work,” “maintain a good opportunity pipeline,” “serve the customer,” and “be like a duck.”

“Be like a duck” seemed weird the first time I read it. But the explanation makes sense:

“On the surface, a duck glides gracefully and calmly. Beneath the water, though, a duck’s feet are working a mile a minute, battling the current and accelerating that duck in the right direction. Salespeople need to show that calm confidence to prospects and clients, who should never know the pressures of quotas or monetary concerns that go hand-in-hand with the potential close. This makes people want to buy from you and makes people want to follow you!”

Good to know. Adios, poker face. Hello serenity. Even as you’re staring down a pink slip, and the hatchets are falling all around you.

I’ve heard many anecdotes to explain a top producer’s ascent to the pinnacle. Curiously, one that nobody mentions is “I conform to the sales process.” This lack of recognition strikes me as odd, considering how much attention is paid to creating, developing, maintaining, tweaking, and overhauling the alleged best path to closing the deal. Maybe there’s a reason.

A sales process is “a set of repeatable steps that a salesperson takes to take a prospective buyer from the early stage of awareness to a closed sale,” according to one definition I read.

Well stated. Just beneath this definition, a circular flowchart outlines a process sequence: Prospecting, Preparation, Approach, Presentation, Handling objections, Closing and follow up. A smaller circle overlays the larger one at the final step. Inside that circle, the phrase, Repeat sales and referrals. Bang on! To keep a customer, you first have to get one.

But like many process descriptions, this one fails the road test. Selling Girl Scout cookies involves more sophistication. I recently purchased four boxes, and I’m sure I wasn’t an easy mark. “Are the Tagalongs fat-free?” I asked the young seller at the shopping center. My wife kindly reassured her. “You don’t have to answer his idiotic questions, Sweetie.”

Real-world selling is messy, and tribulations are hard to represent using arrows, lines, boxes, and decision branches. The engagements I’m familiar with include Fits and starts, Squabbles, Indecision, Indifference, Infighting, Infatuation, Inaction, Firm Commitment, More indecision, Hidden agendas, Misunderstanding, Rejection, Reconsideration. Flowchart that!

Still, simplified sales process flowcharts serve a purpose, albeit limited. I recommend using them as teaching tools for Biz-Dev 101. Baby steps. Tip for the professor: tell students from the get-go that Handling objections is rarely one-and-done. And Preparation isn’t a step. It must precede every planned conversation. I’ll share firsthand what happens when it doesn’t. I need to write a book.

Still, kudos to the writer for that solid definition of sales process. Solid, that is, up to the sentence immediately following: “Simply put, [a sales process] is a potential customer’s journey from realizing they have a need for a product to making an actual purchase.”

No. No. Triple-no! A sales process represents the seller’s activities, not the buyer’s. Don’t confuse the two. Been there, done that, didn’t make quota.

Documented sales processes can range from an ordinal list of formulaic actions to loose guidelines for conducting a sales engagement. A primary benefit a sales process is that it prescribes a plan for successfully completing a selling engagement. The degree of required conformity depends on the organization’s culture, internal process inter-dependencies, litigation and regulatory risks, the rate and magnitude of change, and importantly, prospect expectations for consistency.

Some vendors cannot operate without tightly controlling sales activities and the sequence in which they are performed. For example, when a senior living community works with a prospective resident, the sales process often requires the prospect to submit to the facility’s cognitive, mental health, and financial assessments in the early stages of the engagement. For legal reasons, some states do not permit these steps to be circumvented. There are marketing reasons, too. When promoting the advantages of moving into the community, talking about evictions are as welcome as a root canal.

Sales of many types of products require rigorous process adherence, for example, custom-engineered capital equipment and high-volume industrial components. Skipping steps or lax conformity increases the risks of customer dissatisfaction and litigation. In addition, when transactions are subject to stringent trade and regulatory oversight, sales process conformity is an essential mitigation practice, benefiting both buyer and seller.

Situations where tight adherence to sales process is important:

• All government procurements. Contract awards can be protested by competitors, and can be revoked if non-compliance during procurement can be proven.
• Other procurements subject to regulatory oversight (e.g. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act or FCPA)
• Channel partner sales. These engagements are often rules-bound, and require the channel partner to document process activities such as account registration in order to receive payment from the vendor
• Engagements that carry high potential post-sale for customer lawsuits, service breakdowns, and high support costs
• Customers hold high expectations for consistent experience
• Company recognizes that omission or flawed execution of a specific activity has directly caused failure in multiple previous selling engagements
• Tight process dependencies exist between Sales and other departments, for example, Contracts, Sourcing, Operations, and Customer Support

Are your sales processes weak or insufficient? Look for these symptoms:

• Product returns and rework exceed targets, or are growing rapidly
• Support center cases exceed target, or are growing rapidly
• Frequent litigation from customers regarding the company’s selling conduct, product performance, or contract breaches
• Regulatory agencies routinely assess penalties for non-compliance
• Volatility in revenue attainment among new sales hires
• Complaints from customers about inconsistent buying experiences, or excessive churn

But too much process jeopardizes deals, too. It can even kill them. Some companies develop processes so detailed, restrictive, and burdensome that the sales force gets hamstrung. In extreme situations, management declares the sales process inviolable, and salespeople concentrate on following process rather than closing the deal. I’ve seen it happen many times. One organization I worked with even offered a bonus to reps for following process. As with many things, be careful what you wish for, you might get it.

The optimum sales process design allows elasticity in the right places. Easy to say, hard to do.

A case for process deviation. When I sold enterprise software solutions as an IBM VAR, every engagement involved configuring and proposing IBM hardware and my company’s software. One day, the standard process got thrown for a loop. A prospect contacted me and said they already had IBM’s hardware installed, loved it, and planned to keep it. The company was dissatisfied with their current software provider. This was a software-only deal.

At the time, I had no sales precedent for this. Pursuing the opportunity would mean substantially departing from the sales process. I mulled whether to disqualify the lead. That there was no hardware revenue presented another concern. I might complete the sale quicker, but my commission would be substantially less. And what about support challenges? Here was a prospect so rip-roaring mad at their current vendor that they wanted to dump their software investment and start over – very unusual at the time. Could we make the account any happier? Had I fixated on following process, I would have passed up the opportunity. But I didn’t.

Circumventing almost every selling step, I flew down the next day to meet with the company’s CFO, demo kit and contracts in hand. It was a short meeting. In over thirty years selling enterprise solutions, I can boast a paltry number of one-call closes. This was one of them. Another reason this is such a happy story: my client was an outstanding reference for many years.

Situations where process flexibility and adaptability are important:

• The buying or competitive situation is changing rapidly. Such situations require deviations from some sales process steps or activities
• The sales force works with customers in various industries, and must accommodate heterogenous buying preferences, procurement processes, and technical environments
• There is high likelihood that target buyer needs cannot be supported with the template process
• The vendor seeks revenue growth outside its core markets
Are your sales processes too strict or too inflexible? Look for these symptoms:
• Sales reps report that process requirements don’t improve probabilities of needed outcomes
• Sales reps document opportunity losses as a direct consequence of process conformity
• Sales rep recommendations for process change aren’t considered or accepted
• Competitors win opportunities despite appearing to have less rigorous or less time-consuming processes
• Prospects frequently request sales resources that aren’t included in the sales process, or they want them in a different sequence

In short, if you’re worried about whether your sales process is onerous or misaligned, listen carefully to your customers and your sales force. They will tell you in no uncertain terms.

Key questions to ask when designing and implementing a sales process:

1. Does the sales process effectively mitigate risks for sellers and buyers?
2. Is the range practical? That is, does the process beginning and end match how the organization intends to sell?
3. Does the process reduce the cost of sales, or contribute to the profitability of the organization?
4. Does the process expunge steps or activities that don’t contribute to customer value, or increase value returned to the company?
5. Does the process improve or enhance the firm’s competitive position, both strategically and in specific selling situations?
6. Can the process adapt when needed?
7. Is the process ethical, and does it protect the interests of the company’s stakeholders, including employees, customers, suppliers, and investors?
8. Does the process include mechanisms for learning and improvement?

Think of a sales process like a trail through the forest. For the next hiker, it might represent the safest route through a landscape containing unknown hazards or impediments. The trail, therefore, is a suggestion or guideline that others have made the same traverse, and the path has worked. The same for sales process. When a company has a few or more sales engagements under its belt, the activities that preceded the successful outcomes often cohere into patterns, and those can be documented, making it easier for others to repeat, and newcomers to learn and follow. This is important, as it enables standards, benchmarking, and cash forecasting.

Yet, with trails, conditions change. Trees fall across the path and block passage. Storms wash out sections and make them impassible. Fortunately, we have the ability to adapt and navigate new pathways. The same for sales process. When confronted with changing conditions, our capacity to change, re-route, call an audible, or make a judgement call enables us to move forward, and not get stymied.

I’ll wager that top producers have honed their knowledge of sales process. That involves knowing when the sales process serves the right purpose, and having confidence and discretion for when and how to make adjustments.


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