The Selling Process–Yep, That Again

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Continuing my series of posts on the things we thought we understood about selling but really don’t, I’m tackling the selling process. I can already hear the groans and suspect many of you are about to click, moving onto something else. But hang in there, the selling process is one of the most important fundamentals to our effectiveness as sellers.

There’s so much to cover, I’m going to split this into two posts. In this post, I’m going to focus on the basics of the process and it’s importance. I’m going to ignore the relationship of the selling process to the buying process. I’ll be covering this in the next post.

You might be thinking, “they’re so intertwined, it doesn’t make sense to separate them.” That’s not wrong, but until we understand the fundamentals of the process, from our point of view, we won’t understand the interrelationship to the customer buying process. So I’ll start from the point of view of sellers.

Why are you calling it a “selling process?” Glad you noticed that, the jargon, at least ever since I’ve been selling, has been the “sales process.” Traditionally, it’s been focused on what sales people do to customers–oops, with customers. But as we will see, the buying process covers a lot more, including initial awareness through implementation. We can’t ignore those early or later stages, if we want to work effectively with buyers.

So the selling process covers critical marketing, sales, and some customer experience activities.

This broader view of the selling process is even more critical when we look at the increasing preference of customers to leverage digital tools in their buying process. Our digital tools and our ability to engage customers digitally, make them critical in executing our selling process. In fact, it is conceivable, even for complex B2B to start thinking of this process as digitally led, sales supported. We will look at designing people based sales interventions into this engagement process.

Who is it for: Yeah, the knee jerk reaction is, “It’s something managers and sales enablement foist on us and keeps CRM vendors selling more seats….” Sadly, that’s not untrue. I think, too much of this happens because we really don’t understand the purpose and value of the selling process. But, it’s really for front line sellers–marketers responsible for creating awareness, interest, and demand. Sales people responsible for finding and managing opportunities through to conclusion. While lots of others have interest in the selling process, it’s primary purpose is to support front line sellers in effectively managing the critical activities in attracting customers to buy and working with them as they navigate their buying process. Note the word effective–I’ll be using that frequently in this discussion.

Why should we care? This is best illustrated through an example. Let’s imagine we are on a road trip. One group of us has decided to make this a technology free journey, just letting their instincts and whim guide them to the destination. The other is leveraging the nav systems in their cars or on their phones. Both plan to meet at a certain time in a restaurant at the end of the road trip. Loser pays.

The first group knows roughly where they want to go, but they don’t know precisely how to get there. They reach the first major intersection, do they turn right, left, go straight? Or maybe they started going in the wrong direction in the first place. They choose a direction and keep going. They happen on a landmark, “We’ve seen this before, we think it is an indicator we are going the right direction, but we’re not sure what it means….” They keep driving, the freeway traffic builds up, someone suggests they take side roads, and they wander. They may get distracted by a scenic route, they may have disagreements about whether they are going the right direction. And, you guessed it. It takes a lot of time and luck to get to that restaurant, or they may never get there.

And you know what the second group did. They leverage the nav systems. They may have chosen “primarily freeways,” or “surface streets.” Or when there was traffic, the nav systems gave them alternatives. They reached the destination effectively, were probably consuming after dinner drinks when the first group arrived–if they arrived.

Our goals, as sellers, is to reach our destination as effectively and efficiently as possible (and in the next post, you will see it’s to help our customers to do so, as well.) Like the nav systems, great selling processes provide us alternatives that we can choose, improving our ability to get to the destination. And when we encounter obstacles on the way, our selling process helps us figure out how to navigate those obstacles.

Our selling process is unique to us! This is a pet peeve–and a mistake that too many training vendors, consultants, and CRM providers make, which misleads us. Let’s start there, let’s look at CRM systems–but the exact same thinking can be applied to virtually all sales training and most consultant work.

These systems come with an embedded process and stages. Typically, prospecting, qualifying, discovering/developing, proposing, closing. They define the objective of each stage, critical activities of each stage, exit criteria. Some, also, tell us that when we complete each stage we have a certain probability of winning.

And those systems are bought by consumer package goods companies, selling to retailers; by semiconductor companies, selling to produce designers, by SaaS companies using PLG approaches, by industrial/technology products companies, medical device, financial services, oil/energy companies, and professional services.

All of these are very different. Their target markets are different, the way they engage customers are different, the things they have to do with those customers are very different. Sales cycles are very different.

Yet these suppliers provide us with one selling process, believing one size fits all. They believe things we do to sell oil/energy to those customers are similar to selling semiconductors, financial services, SaaS, industrial products, and they provide us the same sales process, critical activities and probabilities calling it the “sales process.”

It’s a basic intelligence test to know each of us has very unique approaches to engaging our customers, different experiences that have created success. But these training companies, CRM, and many consultants must not think highly of our intelligence, because they sell “once size fits all.”

Corollary, selling process and methodology are different. The selling process is unique to us. The methodology (ies) are a set of tools we apply in implementing our process. They may increase our effectiveness and efficiency in doing this.

Our selling process is unique to us and we may several selling processes. Our selling process is based on our past experience in engaging customers in their buying process. It focuses us on our ICP. We look at the things that we have experienced in the past, both in winning and losing. We started seeing similar patterns of activities that cause us to succeed and things that cause us to lose. We can start leveraging those patterns of activities to help us engaging new customers in their buying efforts.

Understanding those “patterns” that have caused us to succeed or fail is important to everything we do. They provide us insight on the most effective things, base on what as worked in the past. They can never be perfectly predictive or prescriptive, but they enable us to be doing more of the right things in the right ways with the right people. They help us engage our customers more purposefully, getting us to our shared destination more effectively and efficiently than just wandering aimlessly, hoping we will eventually get to the “restaurant.”

Our experience, the things we do to succeed with our customers, is different than those things our competitors do. It’s different than what other similar organizations do. Even though we may be selling very similar solutions, to very similar markets, the things that consistently lead to our success are unique to us, different than what has caused them to be successful.

Further, we may have multiple processes. For example very different solution types targeting very different customers and markets. The “patterns of success” may be different for each of those, necessitating different selling processes. For example, I have a customer that has a category of offering that are very transactional, roughly $50K, that it sells to specific markets. They have another category of complex offerings, over $1M, that are sold to different markets. This customer has two selling processes, one for each category.

But, we can’t have “infinite” numbers of selling processes. One could take the previous section, and extend the argument to say, “Since each customer has a unique buying process, don’t we have to have unique selling processes?” It’s actually a keen observation, but there are several problems with it (I’ll just cover one in this post). While each customer has a unique buying process, we know, based on our past experiences in engaging 1000s of customers, there are a number of “similar” things each customer goes through–or that we go through with these customers.

These patterns form our process. They enable us, and our customers, to recognize the things most critical, based on 1000s of prior experiences. No opportunity will, precisely, follow these, but having the process enables us to leverage those past experiences–and at the same time, frees us up to provide a context in which to evaluate and manage those things that are unique to this situation. Stated differently, we don’t have to start from scratch, we don’t have to wander aimlessly, we can more effectively identify commonalities and differences, with a context/process that enables us to do so.

Our unique selling process embodies who we are, what we stand for, how we hold the customer. Our selling process is unique, also, because it has a lot to do with who we are as an organization and what we want to stand for in with our customers. This set of purpose, values, principles are part of what make us unique, differentiated. It is fundamental to how we create value with our customers. It is fundamental to what causes customers to want to work with us. If our sales process is just like everyone else’s, how do we stand out, how to we provide leadership, how do we win?

No selling process can be perfectly prescriptive. In recent years, there has been a huge misunderstanding of the selling process. We have failed to recognize that each customer buying process is different. We have been more focused on what is best for us, failing the recognize what is effective for the end result we hope to achieve with the customer. As a result, we design selling processes we believe to be perfectly prescriptive, not allowing sellers to deviate to better help the customer in their buying process.

All selling processes must be adaptive. The world is constantly changing, our customers are changing, the things that we do to create success evolve and change. As a result, our selling processes must continue to evolve if they are to serve us and our customers.

We need to continually be re-assessing these selling processes, looking for shifts in the patterns, new patterns, things that we’ve learned that help us improve. The days of defining a process, locking it down, revisiting it every 5 years whether we need to or not, are long gone (if they ever existed). If we are to improve our ability to engage our customers, if we are to improve win rates, deal sizes, sales cycles. If we want to expand our markets or solutions, we must continually reassess and adapt our selling processes, enabling us to be most effective and efficient in helping our customers navigate the their buying process.

The importance of project management. As sellers, we tend to like being different from everyone else. We create selling processes with stages, exit criteria, and critical activities. We attach selling oriented words to those, making them unique to us, an entirely different vocabulary than our customers.

But in reality, a selling process is a specialized application of project management. Every project has a defined project end goal and date. There are critical milestones identified as waypoints along the way to achieving the goal. Each milestone has goals and metrics, when viewed collectively, is enables us to achieve the project end goal.

Within each milestone, there are a number of activities that must be conducted to achieve that milestone. And these activities help us move from milestone to milestone. Some are on the critical path, some may be less important or restraining.

But the project plan identifies the end goals, milestones, and activities. These guide our work on the project, help us understand whether we are doing the things critical to success, whether we are achieving our goals to get to the milestones, ultimately, to complete the project.

When we get off track, the project plan, provides us the framework to figure out how to get back on track.

This is what the sales process is—it’s a specialized version of a project plan, it applies all the great principles of project planning.

There is one thing different—particularly in how great project managers work.

In selling, when we hit obstacles, when things change, when difficulties arise, we tend to change our goal or slip the commit date (buyers often do the same). As a result, selling projects often come in when they come in–very often late. Or they are abandoned.

Great project managers are different. As much as possible, they try to keep the end goal and target date “fixed.” As they encounter problems in executing the project, they rework the project plan, figuring out how they get the work done, while keeping their end goal/target date fixed.

Great sellers do the same, but we should adapt this as a fundamental principle by which we leverage the sales process and manage to our/our customers’ shared goals.

Enough–for now. This has been a long discussion, thanks for hanging in there. But this is the start, I will continue with aligning the selling process to the buying process. But, please reflect on these. Too often, we think too lightly about the selling process. Or we ignore it, altogether. But it is the cornerstone to everything we do in successfully engaging our customers. Without this, we may get orders, but we will create little differentiated value, and will always underachieve our potential.

Afterword, I’m writing a series of posts on “Basic Selling Skills,” just to remind us what/why we do what we do. The link will take you to that collection.

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