Evolving Your Sales Process: The Four Stages to Becoming a Market Leader


Thanks to some of you for your calls regarding the weather here. We got lucky: The weekend storms hit south of us, in downtown Atlanta, and north of us, in the Cumming and Gainesville areas.

While the storms were coming through, I wanted to swap the cars in the garage. If one of our cars would be damaged by hail, it should be the old Mazda we’re saving for when Kira (our 15 year old) starts driving actively. Leslie thought the risk was low and resisted.

I prevailed, and 2 hours or so after the swap, the weather had cleared, the sun was shining, and there had been no hail.

Then, when I next looked up from my desk, giant hail was coming down in the backyard. I ran upstairs to find Leslie, and there, in the driveway, my car was getting pounded.

Ever wanting things in proper order, Leslie had returned my car to the driveway!

In a scene reminiscent of the Keystone Cops, we grabbed umbrellas and dashed out to re-swap the cars. The hail lasted a remarkably long time. Fortunately we avoided any real damage to either car.

I guess that goes to show the difference between perception and reality. Leslie hates it when I’m right, of course, but for a while it looked like I was wrong.

People (and especially businesses) need a clearly defined way of knowing the facts. They need to give it careful thought, observe how well their method performs, and correct the method when it errs.

This is one of the hallmarks of a good sales process as well. A good sales process is the result of sound thinking to identify what we know and especially how we know it. That insight is what leads to this week’s article.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts about it.

Until next week.

Michael Webb
March 19, 2008


Evolving Your Sales Process:  The Four Stages to Becoming a Market Leader

Children go through developmental stages as they grow up. They are physically and psychologically important, inevitable, and predictable. Similarly, customers go through stages in their buying decisions. And, sales and marketing organizations go through stages on their way to improving performance. These stages are all also inevitable and, fortunately, a lot more predictable than you may think. Understanding them helps explain what is holding your company back and what you can do to help it advance.

Stage One: Tribal Knowledge

This is the stage in which little thought is given to sales or marketing.  It is characterized by:

  • Minimal sales language, technique, sequence, or system in common
  • Difficulty articulating the process
  • Marketing operates independently from selling
  • Service is seen as remedial at best
  • Forecasting is weak (impossible?)
  • Success is dependent on heroic efforts of certain individuals

This stage often exists when a company has the right product in the right market at the right time. Revenue and profits flow, and the sales process consists of “whatever it takes to get the business, and get it shipped.” So long as demand exceeds supply, companies in this mode can survive and profit. They have no need to get analytical about the customer, or anything else, unless their problems start getting too painful.

Assuming some level of market demand exists, the painful problems managements have focused on have been production problems. Process improvement methodologies (Lean, Six Sigma, and Theory of Constraints) emerged as a means of solving those production problems. The underlying ideas and logic of process improvement are right; they work. The biggest challenges are not the analytical or scientific ones; they are in leadership and organizational change.

Yet when some level of demand can no longer be assumed, companies feel pain from uncontrollable portions of the income statement (SG&A). Leaders can’t drive a sales and marketing strategy with confidence because their assumptions about the marketplace, their customers, their products, or their people are too often wrong. Conflicting world views of marketers and sellers cloud the problem. Predicting the outcome of any given initiative is difficult. Data with which to make informed decisions do not exist. Pressure to improve performance and accountability increases.

Whether the pressure comes from competition or from   visionary leader, the only alternative is to begin working on the sales process (finding, winning, and keeping customers). When this happens, the organization moves into Stage Two of the evolution of their sales process.

Stage Two: Emerging Sales Process Awareness

  • Someone articulates the sales process for the group
  • The focus is on internal stages
  • CRM or sales training may be tried
  • Some improvements from common language
  • Salespeople (and managers) ignore the process as they see fit
  • Forecasting remains a guessing game
  • Difficult to generate hard data
  • Marketing remains focused on products and brands
  • Marketing feels overwhelmed when drawn into tactical responsibility (like lead generation)

The person who takes the “bull by the horns” to define the process can be anyone. Sometimes it is a vice president. Other times it might be an analytical or outspoken salesperson or a team whose charter is to set up as sales training or CRM software. Often there is some improvement, people respond positively to more precise language about the sales process, and perhaps some of the new tools help them sell more effectively.

However, this critical first step is a frustrating one for most companies. Many make the mistake of assuming the sales process is “about what salespeople do,” and thus ignore the roles of marketing and servicing. Yet, if those roles aren’t somehow helping generate revenue, what good are they? Process definitions can feel oversimplified to salespeople, yet what is the point of increasing its complexity? Virtually every element of customer interaction depends on salespeople. Scratch the surface and the “sales process” is a bewildering mare’s nest of responsibilities and complications. And the company’s life depends on it! Often the company’s best and brightest minds live it and breathe it.

It takes a while for things to sink in: “Well that ‘sales processes might work for some people, but it doesn’t work for me.” “It might work for little accounts, but not for big ones.” “Hey, I guess we really don’t understand what salespeople do.” “Our process actually makes it harder for salespeople to do their jobs, not easier.” “Maybe we should try to force some kind of compliance?” “So long as salespeople bring in the revenue, we’ll just have to deal with their lack of structure.”

The disconnect between the process definition and the real world means investments in CRM software, sales training, marketing campaigns, and product launches continue to “float” with unpredictable results. Executives are frustrated by apparent compliance issues with salespeople. Managers continue to manage “by the seat of their pants” (because they have little choice in the matter). The functional mindset makes changing things difficult.

Getting out of this stage of evolution is difficult because, while everyone agrees things need to change, nothing seems to work. Who knows what the changes need to be? People (and companies) find ways to live with the pain, until the pain gets too great. Competitive pressure can force companies to find an alternative or start shrinking.

When market demand is not assured, customers have the power: They have free will to do what they want to do. Fortunately, it is possible to gain insight to what they want and how they go about solving their problems. Eventually, when the pain becomes great enough, someone may begin paying attention.

If that person is an executive who can affect change, the company can move on to the next stage of development.

How to Turn Your Sales and Marketing Into a Lean Six Sigma Production Machine That Runs Like Clockwork (And Do It in a Way Your Salespeople Will Love!)


Stage Three: Sales Process Aligned with Customers

  • Focus changes to the customer
  • Process is designed backwards from the customer’s stages
  • The process attracts the customer to take the next step
  • Instead of “rushing” the customer, relationships are nurtured until they are ready to take the next step
  • The customer’s actions/progress enable interim results to be measured
  • The process begins generating reasonable data:
    – Quantity/count and flow by stage
    Quality (observable characteristics correlated to likelihood of close, aka, forecast)
  • Salespeople follow the process because they understand exactly how it helps them sell more effectively

Once people realize that everyone’s performance is going to be judged by the customer’s interim actions–what they do and what we can observe–clarifying the customer’s journey becomes urgent and meaningful. Marketing vs selling is irrelevant. If it helps the customer take a step forward, it is good. If not, it is waste.

For example, if media, newsletters, and teleconferences can be shown to educate more of the right kind of prospects to self-select, perhaps salespeople can avoid cold calling and other low-yield activities. More of the right prospects at lower cost to salespeople is good.

Changing the environment so that salespeople can actually spend more time selling (less time not selling) increases the spotlight on their effectiveness. This drives yet another improvement in culture: “How do you know the prospect is serious about this?” and “How do you know they have the kind of problem we can uniquely solve?” become more important than “How many people did you demonstrate and propose to this week?” Accountability for interim results (instead of amount of activities) ensures less wasted effort.

These improvements depend on precise use of language. To achieve these, each salesperson and marketer needs to examine their experiences, internalizing the meanings of words so they refer to the same aspects of reality. Getting everyone in the organization up this curve is hard.

Yet the ROI is huge. It establishes common ground between the interests of the customer, the marketer, the salesperson, and the company. It provides a concrete framework for distinguishing value add from waste (did more customers do what we wanted them to do or not?). It coordinates everyone’s skills and knowledge. It throws off enormous amounts of hard data, traceable to facts.

Once that happens, the next phase of evolution is not far behind.

Stage Four: Rapid Learning and Improvement

  • Robust process management identifies characteristics of deals that flow faster
  • New ideas, marketing, and selling tactics surface often from the field
  • Improvements are well thought out, field tested, and deployed consistently
  • The sales process evolves slightly ahead of the market and customers
  • Sales, marketing, and customer service jobs are define with no discernible “gaps” or lags for customers
  • All interactions add value in the eyes of the customer, often surprising them with new features
  • The company is viewed as a “pleasure to buy from”
  • The company commands a premium pricing position

At this point sales managers have a comprehensive view of deal flow, bottlenecks, and competitive opportunities. Sales managers can act like managers, selecting tactics appropriate to their conditions rather than just chasing deals. The nuances of the process become proprietary to the business, because the unique knowledge available and the competitive advantage that knowledge creates become obvious
and measurable.

CEOs no longer need to constantly check in on sales performance issues, because they already know the results, the reasons for the results, and have confidence that the right actions are being taken. Their “face time” with the sales and marketing lead team shifts to more strategic issues of far greater weight, such as improving the next product launch or creating better market intelligence.

This is the future, and it is a much healthier and happier world than what most executives have experienced in their corporate lives. Not because the work won’t be hard, but because it will be focused more on getting the right information to solve the right problems for the right people and less on the politics of personality and power.

Michael J. Webb
March 19, 2008


Michael Webb

Michael Webb founded Sales Performance Consultants to create a data-driven alternative to the slogans and shallow impact offered by typical sales training, sales consulting, and CRM companies. Michael helped organize and delivered the keynote speeches for the first conferences ever held on applying Six Sigma to marketing and sales. Connect with me on LinkedIn.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
bob - March 26, 2008 Reply

The key to turning your organization into a world class operation is to put into place the policies and procedures that made every single person perform like a top producer.

When I worked for billionaire Charlie Munger I discovered the secret to doubling sales and proceeded to double the sales of nine different divisions, all within 12-15 months of taking each of them over.

Top producers go after only the biggest possible clients. Top producers write effective sales letters. Top producers follow up with a vengeance. They send constant promotional pieces depicting more and more benefits of their product.

Most importantly, they never let rejection slow them down. In fact, when rejected, top producers become even more determined. If you can hire nothing but top producers, than you probably do not need to read the rest of this. But if, like me, you’re having a constant battle trying to find star talent, than you can follow the formula in this article and dramatically increase sales performance across the board. Even your top producers will perform better using this formula.

You can get profound results in your business if you work on it (rather than just in it) only one hour per week. As long as that one hour is designed to be proactive and you’re committed to improving the process incrementally.

If today, you started working on how you get appointments, for example, and you looked to, once per week, make that skill just a little better, within ten sessions (ten weeks) you can have a profound improvement.

In most sales organizations, the sales are ad-hoc, with everyone running around doing what they think is best and the management setting very little or no minimum standards of performance.

For example, what is your standard for what type of account your salespeople should go after? Have you worked “on” this aspect of proper targeting? What exactly are they going to present? What are the top five strategic objectives you want to achieve from every interaction with every buyer (seriously, have you sat down and talked about that, planned that out? Practiced it, role-played it and polished it to a fine luster?)

Let’s take “getting appointments.” Every week, the sales reps should work on their activity level, who were they targeting, what were they saying, what tools did they have? etc…

For example, we came up with seven elements of what would make someone want to meet with our sales reps? How many of these have YOU developed? How to close more sales? How to find the best buyers? These are all part of a formula for creating the ultimate sales machine. Then you role-play the with your sales team, constantly improving every little word, every sentence. Done right, they will enjoy the process.

One company worked on this for twenty weeks, just one hour per week and went from getting three to four appointments per week to 30 appointments per week with the exact same sales team. We just kept adding more and more ideas and incentives and strategies for getting appointments and each week, made everyone a little better at it. In the “role-plays” we came up with a come back for every put off.

And here’s the kicker, all of the meetings that this company got appointments with were all what I call “Dream” prospects. Dream prospects are the big accounts or players. So many companies chase 10,000 clients, when 100 HUGE clients would change their lives. But they lack the devotion it takes to penetrate huge clients. I’ve personally sold more than 60 of the Fortune 500 my services, and most of them at the CEO level. There is no executive that won’t get to know exactly who you are if you go after them every single week.

Now let’s work on the client sales call itself. What’s the first thing you do when you walk in? What’s the second? What are your methods for establishing a little rapport? What are the exact questions you’re going to ask and why are you going to ask each one of them? What are you looking to do for every question you ask? A top sales manager doesn’t leave any of this to chance.

Then the presentation. What are all the strategic objectives you are looking to accomplish in every interaction with a possible client? How will they be met? What do you want the next move to be? What would be ideal and then what are the five layers of alternatives below if you can’t get the “ideal” thing to happen?

The more you can systematize the sales process, the more you can rely on excellent selling going on in your organization.

Another important tip for you: Make your weekly meetings mandatory. That’s how you get real progress. Since each session takes you deeper and incrementally builds upon the previous session, everyone must be inn every session. Use teleseminars or conference calls so even if a rep is sick they can attend. I tell my staff that there’s only two reasons they miss a weekly sales meeting: Dead or dying. No doctor appointments, no dentist appointments, etc… Make the sales meeting at the same time every week, usually Monday at 4:00 and just tell everyone to plan everything else around that time, because at that time all you’re going to be doing is working on the business.

The full formula: Take every aspect of the sales process and bullet it out. Then work on it until you’ve given yourself at least five alternative ideas for reach area. For step one: “Getting the appointment,” we have twenty ideas full spelled out. For “strategic objectives in a meeting with a client, ” we have 14. That’s why we outsell every competitor we have by a wide margin. And if you’re not sure what to work on, here’s the best possible tip I can provide: Ask every person to tell you two things: “what’s going great and what needs improvement.” Plenty will come up that you can work on.

Michael Webb - April 2, 2008 Reply

So, Bob,

This is real traditional, old fashioned stuff you’ve pasted in here. Sorry, but I feel we’ve all read this kind of thing a hundred times before.

Most sales managers are already working hard enough. Process improvement is about working smarter as an organization so you can get more results from LESS input, not more input.

I’d love to hear any ideas you might have about that.

Michael Webb

Peter O'Tool - August 24, 2008 Reply

Hi Bob,

I enjoyed your article. You articulate a logical process which those involved in selling sometimes need to remember. Interestingly, I work for $1m size IT company and we have spent the last two years stumbling through the 4 processes you describe.

I agree with Michael that process improvement is key – but which process? Most sales managers measure the pipeline $$$ process. However, it is the sales activity which is really key. Sales activity comes before pipeline – worth a thought!

As someone always seeking to improve the effectiveness of my team I agreed to participate in the trial of a new website from micontacts.com. They trialled the site with 10 sales managers from different IT companies. The site basically deals with the process of managing sales activity associated with winning new business (not managing it). We all fed our thoughts back to the company and I understand the site is now due to be launched in January 2009. Worth keeping an eye on if you are interested in that type of process.


Leave a Comment:

Verified by MonsterInsights