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What is the Purpose of the “Sales Process” in Your Company?
by Michael Webb
Most executives and managers would acknowledge that their company should have a sales process. But what does this term actually mean?
To the extent that your company has a sales process, it is probably thought of as “what salespeople do,” which usually means qualifying prospects, conducting sales presentations, submitting proposals or quotes, closing deals, and other sales activities.
Yet a true business process firmly roots any given job into all of the functions necessary for value to flow. Processes exist in a value stream, and organizations who map these value streams gain the perspective they need to eliminate bottlenecks and waste. A sales value stream map aligns the functional groups with the priorities required to generate the flow of desired customer actions. This map can point out which minor variations in quality or procedure in the value stream make a huge difference. They also point out the functions that, when distracted by other priorities, tend to impede or even halt the flow.
In other words, a true business process reveals interdependencies to other functions, and displays more consistency, reliability, and accountability than the traditional perspective on “what salespeople do.”
When management and salespeople within a typical business-to-business (B2B) company realize that sales process is important, they often start by deciding on general guidelines for what salespeople are supposed to do and call this “the sales process.” This does give them a better way to begin thinking and talking about their work. Unfortunately it may not change what salespeople actually do very much (even after spending money to develop supportive training and software). When this happens, these companies get far too little return on their investment of time and effort.
Why? Because although they think they have established a process, in reality they have not yet done so. Why? Because they don’t yet grasp the purpose of “a process”; - especially when it comes to sales. Until executives and managers understand the purpose of a process, they will continue to be frustrated dealing with lip-service and the inability to improve.
This article examines three key mistakes that executives and managers make regarding the sales process, and then discusses characteristics of a true sales process and why every organization needs one.
Mistake #1: Considering a sales process as an “ideal” method of selling
A sales process is often misinterpreted to mean some ideal method for getting customers to buy. In a sense, sales are a performance art, something to be practiced and perfected. As such, it’s also subject to being thought of as some “ideal” methodology. Yet there’s a downside to this approach. Whether promulgated by a senior executive, sales manager, or sales training company, the “ideal method” may tend to ignore the company’s specific obstacles and sales challenges. If this happens the method amounts to a script that salespeople should follow (although prospects often may not) or it amounts to extra work that someone wants salespeople to perform (for example, regarding the CRM system).
Sales training programs usually teach desirable behaviors, but also can fail to connect them with the reality of how orders are won and money is made out in the field. Sometimes the “method” comes from a CRM company’s default configuration settings. In either case, if the company’s salespeople had little or nothing to do with defining the method, it may not be of much value in helping them to sell – if indeed they even use it.
Mistake #2: Disconnecting the sales process from reality
The above error is usually compounded by officially disconnecting the so-called process from reality. This occurs, for example, when companies assign arbitrary standards such as “30% chance of close at Stage Three” rather than collect actual data on what salespeople do and the results they experience. (This occurs with most CRM systems, unfortunately.) So salespeople, who played little or no role in creating “the system”, are asked to provide information that can be used against them. Rather than collecting data on deals that progress through the stages and close, salespeople may be held accountable for their own or someone else's arbitrary assessment of the “likelihood of close” at various stages. Let’s face it, people in that situation may be encouraged to fudge some related numbers from time to time. This also often occurs with companies’ sales goals. No wonder the “data” in sales forecasts is so unreliable.
Mistake #3: Assuming that the salespeople are the problem
Salespeople are generally expected to overcome all obstacles, work around all inconveniences, and deliver at all costs. This is true for other departments as well: when any department fails to reach its goals, executives may conclude that there must be a problem in that department. Meanwhile, the people involved may just as likely be hamstrung by a broken process. (Recall Deming's famous view that 95% of the problems employees face can only be solved with management involvement.)
I’m not saying that sales should be easy, or that salespeople’s methods or motivations are never the problem. I am saying that management needs evidence drawn from the sales process (and not just from sales results) before concluding that salespeople are the problem. In this context, the key question is: How can the organization obtain evidence of whether the root causes of sales (or other) problems lay in the market, marketing, product, pricing, salespeople, training, management, or some other factor?
Any of these three mistakes can prevent an organization from developing and benefiting from a process approach. This is even truer of a sales process because by its nature, the sales process is cross-functional: it is heavily dependent on the performance of other functions to succeed (not to mention the actions of customers, which by definition cannot be controlled).
The antidote is to understand the real purpose and nature of a sales process.
The REAL Purpose of a Sales Process
Think back to a time when you were trapped in a process incapable of producing the desired results. Perhaps you waited tables in a restaurant with a helter-skelter kitchen, or did time as a telemarketer for a dialing-for-dollars business, or worked in a similarly frustrating situation. Were you interested in improving your performance? Did you see any viable way in which you could?
I didn’t think so.
People need explicit, motivating, practical ways of improving their performance. They need an agreed-upon means of learning and improving together. So, the real purpose of a sales process is to give salespeople, their managers, and the business a means of learning and improving.
It is OK for an organization to begin by defining a generalized approach to their process. However, a sales process isn’t about some surefire sales method or having salespeople marching in lockstep. If a generalized approach actually removes the right kinds of variation, short-term results may improve (though that doesn’t happen often). However, if a process approach is to succeed at the customer-facing level in the long run (i.e., if it is to serve its purpose for the people within the organization), it needs to enable them to clarify what they are trying to do, identify ways of improving their ability to do it, and know whether improvement has occurred, over and over again. A real process enables participants to connect their own activities to outcomes. It enables all to see what works, what doesn’t work, and why. Then, and only then, can real learning occur. This ability to sustain and improve is the most telling difference between a real process and an ersatz one.
A process is not a static thing; it lives to create improvement. It represents respectful agreement within the team on the best currently known method of accomplishing the goal (in the case of sales, that means enabling customers to take the steps you want them to take). It is constructed to reveal the causes of success or failure. Sometimes these are within salespeople’s control. Sometimes they are in another function or department or out in the marketplace. Data revealing where these opportunities and problems reside is vital to the business.
If a business is to improve its results rather than endure frustration, its managers must enable customer-facing teams to develop a sales process worthy of the name. Doing so can uncover uncomfortable truths and require difficult decisions. But respecting these realities and making the hard decisions is essential to winning the respect and participation of customer-facing teams, and to elevating the performance of the entire enterprise.