How Should We Transition to a Proper Sales Process?

Often, people write me to ask for assistance launching sales process initiatives:

“I am trying to learn and introduce a Six Sigma Selling system into my company – My boss has asked me to speak to companies similar to ours who have made a successful transition …”

The first concern I have on hearing a request like this is “What, exactly, do they mean when they say ‘Six Sigma Selling System’?”

Not many people use such terms. Many sales executives cringe on hearing the terms “six sigma” and “sales” used together.

In my book “Sales and Marketing the Six Sigma Way,” I did my best to show how six sigma could benefit the sales department. People still cringe, though. I always encourage clients to select a name for their initiative carefully. It should mean something credible to the people it is going to affect. “Evidence-Based Selling” works for some companies. “Sales Excellence” works better for others. It depends on your situation.

What ever name you use, the first thing I ask the caller is “What are you trying to accomplish?” Normally, that discussion goes through three stages:

1.    We want to improve our sales productivity.

They say:

“We know what we do now is wasteful, so we need to get training on this approach to figure out what our sales process should include and what it shouldn’t, so we can improve it.”

At a high level, this is easy to address: a proper sales process includes three distinct elements: Finding, Winning, and Keeping. That’s because your customer sees you as a single company throughout their buying cycle. Often managers can’t shift to that perspective over night (due to the organizational structure), but that is the direction to go in, eventually.

A proper sales process definition also includes the stages of the customer’s journey, the details of salespeople’s daily work to move customers through their journey, the details of how the work and the results will be measured, and the details of what management will do with the measured information.

Of course, there are all sorts of potential best practices within finding, winning, and keeping. Should you standardize on what your best salespeople do, or do you need to get outside expertise? How do you know which practices are the right ones?

This is where things start to get interesting, because it always leads to the next point

2.    We want the ability to measure and predict.

“We know we need to measure things, and to predict our results better. We know we need to get data from salespeople, so we need to learn how to do that too.”

Getting data from salespeople is a tricky problem because it requires extra work and usually provides salespeople with no benefit. Edicts from executives aren’t very effective. Worse, most measurements are not used (making sense of data is not a simple matter). As a result, the measurement effort can end up detracting and causing waste, rather than adding value.

This happens because most so-called sales processes are missing an essential ingredient: a feedback loop to detect whether value was added or not.

Without this ingredient, the sales process is just a glorified administrative system that runs “open loop,” like a DVD player set to repeat a presentation or a demo at a tradeshow booth (only far more expensive). If you don’t get the order, who cares whether you said everything correctly and followed all the process steps?

Providing a sales team with training and best practices may have a positive effect for a while. Yet without a feedback loop (the ability to associate salespeople’s actions with the customer’s reactions), you are flying blind in at least two ways:

  • You won’t know what salespeople are really doing.
    Salespeople are professionals at telling people what they want to hear. Rather than argue about your process, the wily rascals usually just keep their mouth shut. You won’t know what is going on in the field, which means no improvement is possible.
  • With no feedback loops, you have nothing but anecdotes to go on.
    Introducing “best practices” may be better than the “everybody go sell” approach for a while, yet they are still someone else’s idea (i.e., not the salesperson’s idea). Data from feedback loops provides evidence that is more persuasive.

Most people recognize it would be valuable to get cause and effect data from the sales process. They just don’t know how to get around the many obstacles to good measurement:

  • Poor accuracy and repeatability, because people don’t understand how to measure, or what the measurements mean.
  • Bias in the data, because people believe information will be used against them.
  • Low participation, because the measurements require extra work of no value to them.

Unfortunately, until you increase the quality of what goes on between the ears of the salespeople and between salespeople and their managers, the data you get will be of low quality too.

The so-called “sales process” ends up being a frozen, arbitrary example taught to new salespeople. Unless you find a way salespeople can benefit from it, the value decays over time.

3.    We want the sales force to embrace and help improve the sales process

Unfortunately, this is usually where the rubber does not meet the road. I’ve touched on some of the reasons above.

The sales process is not something you can buy off the shelf from a training or a CRM vendor. It is core to the value of your company. It needs to embody the insights your people already have (if they are to embrace it).

So, where do you start? How do you get your team, and especially the head of sales, to buy into and support what doing a sales process requires?

Next Thursday, Sept 3, you’ll have an opportunity to learn some valuable answers to these questions. Todd Youngblood of YPS Group and I will be presenting a valuable new SPIF! webinar:

“How to Sell ‘Process’ to Your VP of Sales:
Three Principles that Engage
Sales Minds and Hearts
to Improve Discipline, Measurement,
and Performance

I look forward to chatting with you on the webinar next week.

Michael Webb
Aug 26, 2009

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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