How Does Lean Process Excellence Conserve Resources In Sales and Marketing?

How Does Lean Process Excellence Conserve Resources In Sales and Marketing?

By Michael Webb

The Lean philosophy enables companies to identify and eliminate waste in manufacturing environments, where the specification—what the customer will pay for—is known.  But how does this translate to sales and marketing environments, where figuring out what the customer will pay for is the goal?

Properly applied, Lean enables companies to conserve sales and marketing resources by improving the ways in which managers allocate those resources and the ways in which salespeople use their time.  This also improves sales productivity and performance. 

In sales and marketing, Lean process excellence can facilitate this by:

  • Defining the sales value stream
  • Increasing visibility into the sales process
  • Providing a specific method of improvement

Defining the Sales Value Stream

Sales and marketing is difficult to manage in most companies because they have copious data on sales results, but almost none on the activities that produce the results. There is also lack of agreement on which sales and marketing activities create value and which create waste.  This dearth of data and knowledge would never be tolerated in a manufacturing environment.

To apply Lean in sales, you must recognize that producing an order requires multiple steps, just like producing a product does. Manufacturers know what work is required at each stage of production.  Similarly, sellers must understand the stages customers go through in becoming aware of a problem, gathering information, comparing solutions, making the purchase a priority, budgeting the funds, and implementing the purchase decision.  Along the way, the seller must command prospects’ attention, provide information, earn their time, gain their trust, and motivate them to act if they are to win sales.

These stages comprise a value stream known as the “Customer’s Journey,” though the specifics vary in different markets and change with market conditions. Aligning the work of the seller to the needs of the buyer at each stage eliminates huge amounts of waste from the sales process, because the seller avoids wasting resources on poor quality prospects. Far more resources are expended on poor quality prospects and sales opportunities than are used to identify, measure, and qualify those prospects and opportunities.

Identifying your Customer’s Journey so you can allocate sales and marketing resources effectively and efficiently is a necessary first step.  This goes beyond simply understanding their “purchasing process” or believing you know how existing customers buy just because they are existing customers.  It also goes beyond establishing sales stages based on “best practices” and arbitrary estimates of conversion at each stage.

Rather, it means aligning every marketing, selling, and servicing activity to an element of the Customer’s Journey in order to actively propel customer actions (and generate data) by offering valuable assistance to the prospect at each stage of their journey.

Increasing Visibility into the Sales Process

Traditional approaches regard sales as something you do to prospects and customers. A Lean approach holds that selling is something you do with them. This more collaborative approach generates a more transparent sales process. 

For example, you use Voice of the Customer to learn the stages of the Customer’s Journey, and then identify signs or actions which indicate the stage a given prospect or sales opportunity is in. Rather than relying on salespeople’s assessments of how likely their prospects are to buy, management can review observations of prospects and sales opportunities (data) that indicate their position in the value stream.

The resulting visibility into the sales process enables managers (and salespeople) to reduce the amount of resources they expend producing:

  • Ads and collateral no one reads
  • Tradeshows, promotions, and “leads” that don’t pan out
  • Prospects who don’t appreciate your value
  • Quotes and proposals that don’t sell
  • Products and services no one wants
  • Customers who are not loyal

Anyone who has attempted to reduce sales and marketing expenses in areas like these has heard the objections: “You never know where a prospect will come from! You have to spend money to make money!  You can’t increase sales by cutting costs!”

Of course indiscriminant cost cutting is a blunt instrument. Tracking the movement of prospects in the value stream provides a more powerful approach to identifying costs, distinguishing value from waste, and allocating resources.  It enables managers to identify bottlenecks, and to know which part of the value stream needs improving. Visual indications of the flow of prospects can be created and regularly communicated, providing more insightful and actionable information for management decisions.

This enables the focus to be expanded from simply identifying the flow of prospects and sales opportunities to identifying their quality. Instead of being accountable only for results, salespeople can be held accountable for identifying the observable characteristics of their sales opportunities that make them more or less likely to buy.

One client struggled due to one of the most common mistakes in sales: attempting to get prospects to do things they were not ready to do. When improvements were made to offer helpful information at each stage, salespeople found it much easier to implement the sales process. When they defined observable characteristics of prospects that were most likely to buy and used check sheets to track these characteristics, amazing things happened. First, they were surprised to learn that the data more accurately predicted which prospects would buy than they could. Next, by allocating their sales efforts according to prospects’ quality scores, they immediately increased their close ratios.

Once you make the quantity and quality of prospects and sales opportunities visible, salespeople and their managers can better understand and calibrate the sales process. Yet that’s just the beginning, because this is where the most powerful characteristic of Lean process excellence in sales kicks in.

Improving by a Specific Method

An initial step in defining a process is to establish respectful agreement around “the best means of doing the work” (sometimes called standard work).  When applied properly in a sales environment, standard work serves a crucial purpose: it defines the work at a level of detail that is useful for the sales team and provides the basis for improvement.

Sales operations – like economies, companies, cultures, and species – either evolve or decline. Working methods which are not improved over time inevitably become ineffective, inefficient, and uncompetitive. When salespeople lack the means to improve their work, improvement stops, motivation is killed, customers move on. Problems crop up repeatedly, unidentified, unsolved, unabated.

To counter this, management must create an environment that enables workers to improve the process. Edwards Deming’s PDCA (plan-do-check-adapt) management cycle is precisely that kind of approach. It is the key to sustaining and extending the gains in any process because it recognizes that the technical/process side and the social/people side of the business must be managed with equal priority. In addition to harnessing the creativity and motivation of the sales team, this approach provides management with a constant stream of data around common, high-impact issues which prevent sales from achieving its goals.  This approach also gives salespeople the means to improve their work.

In the client example cited above, the sales team handled prospects more consistently and improved their qualification criteria and selling tools. This generated a higher perception of value among prospects and customers and increased the average deal size as well as margins and close ratios. The financial impact of improving the process over time was roughly a 40% improvement in sales productivity, with potential for further significant gains.


Once you commit to following the data trail as described above, the traditional sales management approaches used in most companies seem antiquated, inadequate, and disorganized. Lean in sales and marketing enables managers and salespeople to conserve resources, cut costs, create value – and increase sales – by focusing on what the customer wants from the sales process and then delivering it.

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.

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