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The Secret Reason Your Company's Sales Process is Not Working, and What You Can Do to Fix It Now

by Michael Webb | Comments (0)
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Recently, in the boardroom of a major corporation, my friend Steve was recommending the roll-out of a sales negotiation program from Think! Inc., an internationally-recognized business negotiation training and consulting firm. The company's Senior V.P. of Sales was there, along with his directors of sales operations, CRM, sales training, plus several regional vice presidents. Laptops were open and papers were being passed around as they combed through Think! Inc.'s proposal.

"So, tell me, Steve," the sales trainer began, "We've spent an awful lot of money on our sales training and software. How will you integrate your negotiations approach into it so we can preserve our investment in training and software?"

There was a pause as Steve collected his thoughts.

"I understand what you are asking," Steve said carefully, "yet I don't think it's the right question." He paused again briefly.

"Is this about getting bigger and better deals and landing them faster for your company, or is this about perpetuating your current sales training?"

The Senior VP looked up. He slapped his laptop shut. He leaned back in his chair. The room went silent.

"Do your shareholders reward you for being consistent with your current process," Steve continued, "or, do they reward you for better business results - which start with better business deals?"

The answer was obvious, but so was the Senior V.P.'s concern. Steve definitely had everyone's attention.

"If you had to choose between the two, would there be a choice?"

Steve paused for effect and then continued, "I don't think so. The right question is not about preserving your investment. If the investment in your current approach were working as well as you'd like, I doubt we'd be talking right now."

"The right question is more like, 'How can the Think! Inc. approach help you obtain higher-margin deals more quickly, so you can get a better return for your investors?'"

Avoid the Dangers of the Functional Mindset

Steve had touched on a critical secret of the sales process. Most companies believe their sales process is connected to results. With a little prodding, however, they'll admit that their marketing process aims to optimize marketing, while their sales process aims to optimize short-term revenue. In other words, they are trying to optimize different functions with their processes.

When "processes" aim to optimize "functions," they become disconnected from results in subtle, yet painful ways. Steve's situation above is one example. The sales trainer's instinct was to preserve "the existing investment." In fact, she should have been looking for just the opposite: what needs to be changed in order to improve the company's performance?

Consider which of these additional situations are occurring in your company:

- Does your marketing department produce piles of product-
focused collateral that does not solve problems or help
people buy (and do your marketing executives wonder why
no one reads it)?
- Does your company conduct branding campaigns that inflate
egos and create "awareness" (while salespeople are
fruitlessly turning over rocks attempting to find
opportunities they can sell)?
- Is one of the marketing department's goals to reduce the
cost of leads (without knowing whether low-cost or high-
cost leads generate more or fewer sales, or high or low
margin sales)?
- Does your firm mandate sales training that ignores
fundamental problems of the sales job (and do managers
wonder why behavior recedes so quickly in the field)?
- Do your sales executives struggle to negotiate with
internal department managers who are rewarded only for
protecting the company's interests (meaning, the sales
department's "whining" is ignored)?
- Has your company spent enormous sums on vast and complex
software systems that do not help salespeople sell (and
then management wonders how to get people to use them)?

The list of problems brought on by the functional mindset is huge. If you said "yes" to more than two or three of the examples above, you are suffering from it. The functional mindset disconnects the sales process from the results because it drives people to try to become more functional, without changing any of the underlying … functions.

Like Steve's client, most companies just assume that the parts of their marketing and sales process are working. Since they only measure the end result, they don't really know how easily prospects take the intermediate steps toward the sale. The "sales process" is literally disconnected from that information.

To be sure, the company believes its "process" works. Yet, knowing if it works (and how well it works) requires measuring something about the actual flow of leads and qualified opportunities through at least some of the stages. (Assigning arbitrary "percent chance of close" to each stage doesn't count - and is a huge mistake in any case.) A process without measurements is really just a set of activities people feel they must preserve and protect.

Connect Your Sales Production System to Results Now!

The alternative to the functional mindset is a true process approach. It starts with the recognition that your company is a system of moving parts whose purpose is to make money (value) by finding, gaining, and keeping customers. It seeks to identify how all the moving parts interact so as to optimize their effect on the overall system.

One dramatic advantage of looking through the process lens is that it links the activities to the results at intermediate stages by identifying the outputs (results) that can be measured at each stage:

- Are you finding and nurturing enough relationships
(process) to generate the quantity of qualified
opportunities (output) necessary for the sales department
to make its goal? How do you know?
- Are you converting enough of those qualified
opportunities into orders (process) at satisfactory
margins (output)? How do you know?
- Are you managing customer relationships well enough
(process) to generate enough ongoing revenue,
testimonials, and referrals to make your goal (output)?
How do you know?

Implementing a process approach means, of course, that your people will have to be crystal clear on terms such as "leads" and "qualified opportunities." People need to spend the time to hash out the details of how things work now, and how to improve them.

The reward of a well-designed process is getting the results in the fastest, cheapest, most effective way possible. That's because the process approach considers both your company's and the customer's interests at every stage.

Many companies are surprised to find they have been getting in their own way. They learn that many of their sales challenges result from focusing on what they want to do, instead of what the customer is ready to do. They learn to reconsider their sales process from the buyer's perspective:

- Why should we (the prospect/buyer) read your ad or your collateral?
- Why should we believe anything you say?
- What good are you to us?
- How can you help solve our problems?
- How will you minimize our risk?

These questions focus the seller on the right priorities (those of the customer). They highlight the basic blocking and tackling of sales and marketing: Unique Selling Propositions, testimonials and case examples, focusing on the customer's perspective of value, reversing risk through guarantees, and so forth.

While answering these questions, sellers will also address issues such as:

- What action do we want the customer to take?
- Why should they do what we want them to do?
- What can we offer that will help them do what we want them to do?
- How will we know if we've succeeded?

The best strategies help customers to move along a path of incremental steps, such as opting into a newsletter, attending a teleconference/seminar, filling out an assessment, taking a sales call, providing coaching information, supporting a proposal, negotiating an agreement, and eventually, writing a testimonial.

Learning to connect your process to those results (the customer's baby steps) is the key to unlocking the flow of customer actions to make your sales funnel flow faster. That is because you can examine the causes and effects, and change what needs to be changed.  It enables you to spot bottlenecks early, when the problems can still be fixed. Further, you won't have to fix things that don't need fixing.

Michael J Webb
Sept 26, 2006

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