From my earliest days as a salesperson, I’ve been taught the “sales process,” and have tried to execute that process as effectively as possible. It’s always a structured approach to engaging the customer, working with them to make a buying decision.
The process has always reminded me of critical things I should be considering, to maximize my impact in working with the customer.
The sales process has always had multiple stages, stages that focused me on finding new opportunities, qualifying them based on a customer commitment to take action, understanding what the customer wanted to do, other things that may impact them, our competition and other areas. Inevitably, it drove me to present a solution and ultimately get the order.
It has been my checklist to make sure I didn’t forget anything and that I was managing the opportunity as effectively as possible. I’d check off critical activities, moving to the next, then the next. All perfectly linear and logical.
Every once in a while I’d skip steps, either through carelessness or wanting to push a deal through. Usually, I’d end up regretting that. I’d miss something important.
Sometimes, I’d discover I had to go backwards in my process. I’d think I was just about ready to propose our solution, then something would change with the customer. They would shift their priorities, new people would be involved, the direction would change. I’d have to erase all those check marks and go backwards in my process. I’d start going through it again.
Sometimes, I would be tempted to jump forward, skipping a lot of steps, because of the questions the customer was asking. It always worried me, because both the customer and I were missing things critical to their buying decision. I’d try to get the customer to consider those issues.
We developed our selling processes based on our experience of working with customers doing hundreds of deals, over the years. While each situation is always unique, we noticed certain patterns through those deals. Issues that usually came up. Things we needed to learn, things we needed to do in helping the customer through their buying journey.
Not everything applied to every deal. But the process helped us work with the customer in a structured way. We needed to be nimble, we needed to adjust and shift a little through the customer process. New things would arise, so we had to adjust what we did and how we’d work with the customer in a specific situation.
By this point, you may be really confused. You probably are thinking, “Dave has really flipped out. He’s always talking about aligning with the customer buying process. He’s talking about how we have to focus on that, not on our sales process. What gives???”
Yes, in some sense, I’m talking through both sides of my mouth. We have to focus on the customer and their buying journey. We have to align with the customer and what they are trying to achieve. We have to focus on the customer success, in order for us to achieve our goals.
But the customer really doesn’t have a buying process! We’ve always thought they had a structured process, but we’ve learned they don’t. They struggle in their buying journey, constant starts and stops, shifts in direction, shifts in who’s involved. They wander constantly and the majority of the time they fail.
When we think about it, it’s easy to understand this struggle. In complex B2B buying, they don’t buy very frequently. They only look to buying when they need to make a big change, or when they have problems that force them to think differently and do something new. As a consequence, they don’t have a process–since it’s not something they do every day or even every year. They don’t know what they should to, how they should do it, what questions they should be asking, who they should involve, and how to succeed. They invent the buying journey on the fly, struggling because they don’t know what they don’t know.
Our selling process is a result of working with 100s to 1000s of other customers going through similar journeys. We have learned what customers do to achieve success (whether they buy from us or not) and what they do that causes them to fail.
Our selling process provides a context or foundation to help teach the customer how others have succeeded in their journeys and what the customer might do to improve their success. It provides a starting point for the customer to develop their project plan to successfully complete their journey.
Our process can be very helpful to the customer in helping them buy.
But some important caveats.
- Too often we inflict our process on the customer. It’s the things we do to get a PO, not a tool the customer can use to help them develop their own process.
- Our selling process has a far narrower perspective than what the customer needs. We really need to look at the entire customer change or problem solving journey. Buying is just one aspect of it. Customers struggle through the whole process, not just the buying part of that process.
- (2) above reminds us that our “selling process,” cannot be focused just on the customer buying or getting a PO. Our selling process needs to focus on more than buying, but the entire customer change/problem solving journey.
- We use our selling process to help the customer think about their problem solving process. We can teach the customer, “here are things others do in looking at similar problems,” or “here are things we’ve seen others do to succeed,” or “here are issues you might find important.” What we focus on is less about our products, but more on what the customer might consider to achieve their goals.
- In the end, the customer develops their own process, which we must align to and support their efforts. While our process may help them develop this, they will have there own approach. So we have to continue to be nimble and adjust to work with the customer and help them succeed. We can’t rigidly follow our process, but instead use that process to help the customer discover their own.
Our sales process cannot be something we follow blindly and independently of our customers’ processes. But our process, can be very powerful to help the customer develop their approach and to succeed in their change journey.