Don’t Bother Me With Process!


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Maureen Blanford challenged me with an interesting question, “What do you do with a person that consistently makes their numbers, but refuses to use the process?”

It’s a great question, here’s my take.

First, some set up. The sales process represents our organization’s best practices in winning business. We develop the sales process by looking at what our top performers consistently do to win deals, analyzing past wins and losses, and making sure what we do through the sales process is aligned and creates value through the customer buying process.

Consequently, leveraging the sales process is critical to getting each person to perform at the highest levels possible. Our job as sales leaders is to continually assure this, coaching and developing sales people so they can maximize their performance.

Now let’s get back to our sales person who consistently makes the numbers and refuses to use the process.

If she is a consistent top performer, she may have something. We may want to look at what she’s doing, incorporating critical aspects to improve the overall sales process—raising the performance bar even further. Consequently, much of what this sales person is doing is incorporated into the process. She might also see new things in the process that enable her to ratchet up her own performance (top performers tend to do this).

This becomes a real win all around. We’ve learn more, we’ve raised the bar and will see improvement in what she does, but the rest of the organization will improve as well–benefitting from her experience captured in the new sales process.

If, on the other hand, our sales person is making the number, but not a top performer, he is leaving money on the table–in the form of commission/bonus dollars to him, and revenue to us. See what’s happening, if he isn’t using the process, is he isn’t maximizing his performance—since that’s what the sales process should facilitate. He isn’t leveraging our best practices in winning, so even though he is making the number he has the potential to do even more.

I’d make sure the sales person understands this. I’d appeal to his sense of “greed” by showing him he could make more money by leveraging the process. If he’s smart, and he probably is, if he consistently makes his number, he probably will jump right to it.

See that’s what we miss when we “impose” a process (or a program, or a tool) on sales people. Until we show them what’s in it for them, there’s no reason for them to change what they are doing and what they feel is making them successful. We have to show them what’s in it for them, whether it’s more commissions, or makes it easier for them to do their job, makes them more impactful with the customer, makes them win more faster, or whatever.

Now here’s the bit of nastiness–maybe it’s just a peculiar quirk of mine. If, after all this, the sales person still doesn’t see the light. If he isn’t as smart as I think and adopts the sales process to serve his own self interest, then I’d raise his quota. (I’m really a sick SOB, aren’t I?)

See, if he’s somehow made his number through sheer dumb luck, and just wants to coast through, making his number, but not maximizing his earnings. He’s going to be forced to scramble. He’s going to be forced to change if he wants to make his number. I’d encourage him to do it the “easy way,” and use the sales process. He needs to do something and he’s most likely to start using the sales process.

Perverted leader that I am, if that doesn’t get the person to use the process, then I keep raising the quota. At some point he will use the sales process because it’s the only way he can possibly make his number. Or, he might not–but emerge as a top performer, in which case, we know what to do (go back and re-read the top performer paragraphs).

Most good sales people figure things out. They’re pretty smart and will work to achieve their goals. If the large part of the organization is not using the sales process–but still making their numbers, then something’s wrong with the process (our people’s actions are telling us something important.). But if we’ve got a great process in place, and one or two aren’t using it, we need to focus on what’s in it for them.

How’d I do Maureen? Thanks for the challenge!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Brock
Dave has spent his career developing high performance organizations. He worked in sales, marketing, and executive management capacities with IBM, Tektronix and Keithley Instruments. His consulting clients include companies in the semiconductor, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, computer, telecommunications, retailing, internet, software, professional and financial services industries.


  1. Hi Dave: If I read this correctly, for salespeople, ‘process’ is a two-edged sword. When it’s effective, follow it to the letter (“The sales process represents our organization's best practices in winning business.”). But when there’s a better way, call an audible (“We may want to look at what she's doing, incorporating critical aspects to improve the overall sales process—raising the performance bar even further.). Following process by rote works when things are static, but that’s seldom the case.

    In my experience, the connection between the formalized company sales process and salesperson performance is tenuous. Case in point: one of my clients engaged my company to help them figure out what top performers were doing to maintain their consistent revenue achievement.

    We discovered that the approaches top performers used actually required significant departures from the management’s process playbook. Ironically, the less-experienced salespeople were following ‘process’ because they were not experienced enough to know where and how to circumvent the dysfunctional steps – nor did they have any leverage to push back. Part of the company’s issue was exceedingly high sales force churn at over 35%. Go figure!

    Part of the challenge is that the very people creating process and enforcing conformity do not have field-level experience. A sales process created to fit the manufacturing vertical doesn’t necessarily work for healthcare (as I know firsthand). Yet, managers in the corporate office might not sense the differences if they don’t understand that a particular rep’s territory depends on a somewhat different base of prospects.

    In my client’s case, the process that management expected utterly did not fit the non-profit world in which their reps were selling. Sadly, that didn’t matter – underperforming reps were put on ‘Plan’, which meant – you guessed it – even closer scrutiny on process conformity. It would have been better off for everyone if they had just been fired on the spot!

    There are at least two reasons that process conformity is important. First, to ensure that ethical guidelines are not violated, which can be very damaging to a company’s strategy; and second, to make sure that compliance and accounting regulations are not breached.

    We’ve all read that ‘buying and selling are changing faster than ever’ – I’ve said it too. Based on that, I can think of no better way to foster sales agility than empowering salespeople to deviate from the ordained ‘process roadmap’, to learn from what succeeds and what doesn’t, and to bring that knowledge and insight back into not just the sales organization, but the company as a whole.

  2. Andrew, thanks for the comment. I’m not sure I would agree with your interpretation of my comments on a sales process.

    A great sales process provides guidance on the most effective ways for a sales person to create value, facilitate the customer buying process, maximize our ability to win, reduce the sales cycle and maximize our margins.

    It does not attempt to be totally prescriptive and totally formulaic, but should challenge the sales person to think about what they are doing.

    I liken it to a road map. The roadmap doesn’t describe every pot hole, twist and turn in the road. Nor does it describe actual traffic and related conditions the driver might encounter in the drive. It provides high level directions, but requires the drive to be attentive to what’s happening in real time. And occasionally, based on thoughtfulness and analysis, it’s perfectly appropriate for the sales person to deviate. Great sales process design and implementation recognizes this.

    But when the sales person deviates the majority of the time, then there is either a horribly bad sales process or the sales people aren’t maximizing their performance. There is too much really great data from people research companies that point to the performance differences of companies that have strong sales processes that their people use and those that don’t. The differences in performance are stunning–too much to ignore.

    The mistake too many people make in developing sales processes is they try to be too prescriptive and either fail in the process design or design a horribly bad process.

    Your example really is more one of totally horrible process design. It’s natural that sales people wouldn’t use it. But it’s sales management error not to recognize the bad process design and correct it.

    But horrible process design is just negligence on the part of management. It is not an argument against the use of the sales process. In the case you cited, the best thing would have been taking the top performers, understanding what they do and creating a sales process that reflects the collective best practices of the top performers.

    We always have to comply with ethical and legal/accounting regulations. But there is another very compelling reason to use a sales process. It works, the differences in performance between those that do and those that don’t are huge. If a sales leader’s job is to maximize the performance of their teams and each individual, they would be fools to not invest in developing string sales processes.

  3. Dave: thanks for your comment. Of course, depending on how you consider process, you can start at the high-level of steps or roadmap as you suggest, or get down-in-the-weeds detailed with branching flowcharts and decision boxes. Most of my process caveats have more to do with the latter – though not all.

    In area where I work – revenue risk management – creating and enforcing a process protocol is essential (see my recent post, A Little Quid Pro Quo Never Hurt Anyone.) When asked about process around submitting price quotes to customers, many executives I speak with tell me they don’t have one. This is a mistake, especially if the price quote or proposal requires a significant amount of time and expertise on the part of the vendor.

    Where I see the greatest advantages of sales process is its ability to create more consistent results. But this benefit is often confused with optimized results, which are far less common, at least in my experience. This is because – at least in the case of the firms I work with – the executives overestimate the efficacy of their process designs. The magnitude ranges anywhere between a little to a lot (as in the example I provided above).

    There’s another complicating factor – one that might make this Is Process Good or Bad discussion somewhat moot. For example, take the actual case of a territory rep who sells both capital equipment, and consumables to any account in her territory. Commercial and government. SMB and large enterprise. Manufacturers and distributors. Service companies and healthcare organizations. As you construct the picture of this diverse account base, the process roadmap, by necessity, has to become less detailed and less granular, because the selling situations I described in even this small vignette are vastly different. And she must cover all of them to make her number. Now overlay geographic differences across a large group of local and international reps, and you have a huge challenge to map out process-wise. My question for most companies is ‘who wants to develop and maintain this – because about as soon as it’s documented, something has changed.

    I’m not at all suggesting that process be ignored, but if executives don’t understand that sales processes are better at driving consistency than optimization (except in rare instances), or if they’re not prepared to invest in ongoing maintenance and review, over time, they will likely be disappointed in the results they achieve.

  4. Andrew, we may be talking past each other a little.

    1. “Down in the weeds, flowcharting,” etc. is bad process design. It doesn’t work.

    2. An organization may have to have several different sales processes. Clearly, a capital equipment B2B sales is different than consumables, is different than government and so forth. It’s very common to have different sales process optimized to a certain customer/solution set.

    3. Sales process does drive consistency and it should drive optimization (or at least drive toward optimization). After all, that’s what we are trying to do–maximize overall organizational performance.

    If executives aren’t committed to the implementation of a sales process, if they aren’t committed to reviewing and updating the sales process, then they simply aren’t doing their job.

    The sales process can’t be stagnant. It has to reflect the current realities of customer buying processes, the markets, and the best practices aligning with customers, driving their buying cycles and winning business.

    Again, there is just too much data that supports this to ignore it.

    The examples you cite are great cases of people not understanding what a sales process is, failing to design the right sales processes, failing to execute the process well and failing to keep it current.

    We need to avoid those in getting the most out of the sales processes we implement.


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