How Much Sales Process Is Too Little? How Much Is Too Much?

I had lunch last Thursday with a very smart woman who just started a six-figure executive sales position in a health-care company. She seemed a little frazzled as she described the sales process at the new company: “It’s like, ‘Oh Boy. Everyone Go Sell!’” she said. It had taken her a week to figure out things such as which six people had to approve client proposals, who last worked on the hospital account she was calling on, and how to submit expenses. She found another salesperson that supposedly had developed a customer-oriented “sales process” on her own, only to be told it was not for general sharing.

Companies like this (who aren’t even doing “Sales Process-Lite”) essentially have a learning curve for each salesperson, and it takes a long time for those salespeople to independently figure out how things should work. The sales organization as a whole gains nothing from their progress, because the learning is ad hoc, not systemic, and has limited transferability to others. Such a company is at level 1 in the stages of sales process improvement that I wrote about last week.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are companies whose salespeople are wrapped up in heavy-handed process compliance and data entry. Salespeople in a major bank, for example, are expected to stick to memorized scripts. A major networking equipment company penalizes salespeople when their orders don’t exactly match forecasts. (Imagine getting penalized both for forecast deals that go south AND for bluebirds that were not on the forecast. Sheesh!)

The sales process in this company feels much more like a manufacturing process because it emphasizes rigid compliance (no room for local variation, creativity, or participative involvement).

Although the second company would say it has a sales process, I believe both are probably the flip sides of the same coin. Whether management abdicates the sales process to the salespeople (“it’s their problem, just get rid of them if they don’t sell”) or lays down rigid work steps with arbitrary “percent chance of close” assigned to each one (or whatever), it is not really in a dialogue with customers. Neither company is learning from its salespeople (who often have unique insights) or from customer behaviors (which are always changing). Yet, this kind of learning is some of the greatest intellectual property any company can have.

In a sales and marketing operation, the greatest power of a process approach lies not in eliminating variation (as it does in manufacturing), but in providing a means of communicating complex, nuanced information that cannot be learned in any other way. Here are two examples:

Direct-response Advertising
Skilled pay-per-click advertisers use Google AdWords to continually test the market’s responses to different words in those little text ads that appear all over the Internet. This experimentation gives those penetrating insights into how their customers look for information, thereby increasing their response rates (sometimes dramatically). (I learned about this sort of thing from Perry Marshall.) Their process is to experiment with ad copy alternatives, measure the responses, and use the results to improve the next experiment. It is a sort of conversation, but the customer is providing actions, not words. Each experiment is essentially a different little sales process. After numerous experiments, they learn how to increase the click-through rate. The advertiser learns to sell better.

Complex Sales Process in the Automotive Industry

In the mid-1990s Bob Ferguson worked closely with DuPont Automotive’s refinish business unit, whose market share was in second place and declining. They established a sales process for their outside sales force (which was distributed across North America) and a sales management model based on Deming’s PDCA cycle (plan, do, check, and act). The idea was to use process tools to enable salespeople and managers in each region to know what they are doing now (by defining it in process terms), so when they did something that worked better the next week, they could know why. When they spotted something that seemed to work better in one region, they would try it for three months in a different region. If it worked better there too, they refined it and rolled it out to the entire sales force.

By this means, DuPont was able to achieve a substantial number of improvements in their sales process (fed largely by ideas from field salespeople rather than by MBA marketers who never carried a bag). The company transitioned from girly calendars to sponsoring NASCAR races. They learned that the traditional (but costly) way they did demonstrations was largely ineffective. One salesperson in California developed an approach for customers facing environmental regulations. Once it also worked in another region, DuPont was able to roll out its first nationwide green initiative, which was successful. The combined force of these changes and many more enabled them to end up dominating their market. Ultimately, the General Managers involved were featured on the cover of Fortune magazine. DuPont’s case is a great example of using sales process as a management tool, producing market advantages and improvements.

In most sales and marketing organizations, when someone does something that works better, the organization doesn’t know why it worked. The power of process thinking is in its ability to harness this knowledge for the benefit of the organization. This enables management to orchestrate not only a dialogue with the customer, but a dialogue with the sales force as well.

By Michael J. Webb with Robert K. Ferguson


I spend a lot of time helping executives understand that the sales process is more than just what salespeople do; it is about aligning the entire organization around the customer’s journey. In this way process thinking provides management the most powerful tools imaginable to grow the business. I’m constantly on the lookout for examples and illustrations of this concept. If you have a story you’ve lived through, send it my way ( I’ll publish it here for you.


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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