The Five Most Critical Sales Process Problems, and How Management by Process Can Solve Them For Good

As the pace and complexiphototy of the business world accelerates, more companies are struggling to improve their sales and marketing performance. Many sales VPs of companies who are leaders in their markets face a similar concern:

“Our sales managers intuitively know our sales process. However, our business is getting more complex and I think there is a danger. Increasingly, our people aren’t communicating very well across the business.

Everyone needs to know how we sell today, and what it needs to be in the future. I’m looking for help because I have zero experience in how to do this.”

Since sales work is fundamentally different from manufacturing, few people have the experience necessary to design it well. They fall prey to assumptions that some “injection” of outside expertise or “best practices” will improve things, when they are far more likely to create immune reactions instead. The litany of sales training, CRM, and other initiatives that fail to create measurable improvements are testament to the invisible tug of war taking place in most companies.

Below are five of the most critical mistakes you must avoid if you are going to improve and sustain the performance of sales and marketing in any business. Each error is avoidable, once you grasp the basic principle. Most important of all, there is one principle that makes the others possible and enables the teams to pull in the same direction, which I’ll provide in the conclusion.


Mistake #1: Pushing Prospects to Do Things They Are Not Ready to Do

What happens when a salesperson tries to tell you about a product you have perceived no need for?

Wasted time. Even irritation, if you can’t get them to stop. Especially if they try to overcome your objections.  Salespeople who fail to respect the customer and their context, makes the world worse. Unfortunately, that lack of respect is likely to be built into your go to market strategy, which means it is happening right now in your brochures and on your website.

Most people know good salesmanship doesn’t just push people. It pulls them. It finds specific individuals with a need, and offers something they want to do. This is the role of a good headline, or perhaps the opening question a salesperson might ask, or of the company’s Unique Selling Proposition.

What most companies don’t do is figure out the big picture – what your prospects are willing to do at each stage of their journey. The principle is that everything your sales and marketing does should create value for your customer – and give them a reason to take the next step in their customer journey. This big picture is the first step toward building a slippery slope that gives your company a competitive advantage. And, except in the smallest companies, salespeople can’t do it alone.

So, if you think getting customers to buy is primarily the salesperson’s problem, you are making the second most critical mistake.


Mistake #2: Make Selling Harder by Not Solving Salespeople’s Problems

The methods most companies use to “help” salespeople sell are often more trouble than they are worth.  For instance, CRM software is generally designed to add reporting burdens, not alleviate them. Likewise, sales training that can teach ways of researching customer needs and creating better value proposition also adds time and labor to the salesperson’s job. Such messages are a good thing if they work. Yet, when does anyone think about making sales easier instead of harder?

Why isn’t sales treated as an interdependent part of the business rather than a lonesome end? Why shouldn’t improvements to the sales funnel meet the needs of all parties involved?

The principle is that a process must create value for everyone involved if you expect it to be followed. It doesn’t occur to the managers in most companies, who instead think in terms of doing more marketing, or selling more solutions.

That’s because they are unconsciously making assumptions, and these are the third most critical mistake.


Mistake #3: Use Assumptions to Make Decisions Instead of Data from the Field

I’m sure you’ve heard someone describing the percent “chance of close” for sales opportunities in each of the stage of their CRM sales funnel. Of course, they say these rates are “just estimates.”

In fact such estimates are arbitrary. But that’s not the real problem. The real problem is such assumptions prevent the company from collecting any data on what is actually happening.

This means management is flying blind, literally. The principle is “In God we trust… everyone else must bring data.”

Of course, such data might rock the boat. Especially if it doesn’t match the company president’s expectations. Or perhaps it reveals unwanted problems with the “sales process” you licensed from some sales training or CRM company.

If you think that way, you might be thinking the problem is not your process. It is getting salespeople to follow the process! In other words, you may be a victim of mistake number 4.


Mistake #4: Assume Following the Process is the Goal

In many firms, the CFO has started asking the VP of Sales to start providing at least some kind of process metrics. “You have to start somewhere, you know. Why don’t you start measuring what it takes to create sales proposals, so you can begin optimizing? Isn’t that doable?”

Smelling a rat, a director of sales process improvement asked for my help. I told him “Your CFO has the cart before the horse. Go back and ask him this question: ‘Would you like to optimize the cost of generating sales proposals, or the cost of generating profitable customer orders? Because you cannot have both.’”

The principle is that the purpose of a process is to achieve a goal. In sales and marketing, that goal is getting customers to buy now, and pay more. If you forget what that goal is, you’ll start optimizing the wrong thing.

It happens all the time as people attempt to optimize proposals, or face time with customers, or rigid adherence to a particular sales method. But this is using process for process sake, and not using process as the best method for creating the desired result.

Salespeople can smell process for process sake miles away.

So if your salespeople aren’t following the process, get a clue. Better yet, get some data from people with firsthand experience, in the trenches. Learn whether they have the most trouble in finding, winning, or keeping their deals?

Things need to be working well in all three areas if your company is going to be able to sustain its growth. And too many companies are so focused on this month or this quarter’s result, which is the last critical mistake.


Critical Mistake #5:  Managing for Results Instead of Managing Deal Flow

Sales managers typically take pride in their ability to make their numbers. They’ve learned how to size up their salespeople, their sales funnel, and their customers to figure out what roadblocks must be removed so the business comes in during the right accounting period.

The trouble with this approach is things never get any easier. The sales manager always has to be there to pull the strings and call the shots. Salespeople get to watch their managers in action, perhaps hoping they get a shot at being the big boss someday. But what happens when someday, somehow, the sales manager’s bag of tricks doesn’t work? Do you find a new sales manager? Chalk it up to bad luck? How can you reliably fix this problem?

Managing for results causes managers to develop a team that enables them to achieve results. What they don’t build is a team that can succeed without them. The principle is management by process, instead of results. For the team to be independent of the manager, they need a process – a shared understanding of what everyone must do to keep deals flowing now, as well as in the future. The upper and lower range of what a team will produce can be projected fairly accurately. Instead of sweating each and every deal at the end of each quarter, the manager works to help his team increase the quality of deal flow and expand the most important bottlenecks, like what kind of case studies or self-assessments will improve lead generation, or how salespeople can get more credit for the value they’ve created for their customers.

Leaders who manage by process focus on the process in relation to the results. This elevates the capacity of their team to create a stream of high-quality deals over time. Such managers do not focus on being the closer who saves the day.


How Managing by Process Solves These Problems

Most companies definitely need a new and better way of working together in sales and marketing. However, what they usually mean when they say “ we need a new sales process” is “we need some injection of outside expertise or best practices” in order to improve things.  In fact, any such injection is doomed to fail, because they have not actually defined the problem they are trying to solve.

That problem includes the perceptions and assumptions of everyone involved in doing the work. In most cases, sales and marketing organizations use tribal knowledge instead of operational definitions of their work and measurement terms. This is why most organizations have a “sales process” in name only. They have not established the management framework that enables a process to grow and thrive in the first place. They don’t need a process. What they need is a method for improving.

At the heart of things, that is what a process is – it is a method for improving. It begins by energizing everyone to eliminate and replace assumptions with evidence and data where ever possible, especially in regard to what customers want. It provides a systematic approach for analyzing cause and effect. It requires specific hurdles at specific stages, in order to achieve agreement within the team on the precise nature of the problem they are trying to solve. And it ensures the objectives, methods, and measures of any plan are defined in order to maximize what can be learned.

Managing by process is not a matter of compliance and discipline. It is a matter of striving and thriving. The principle here is respect for people. For people in the process, this means being recognized and respected for good work when that is due.


The principles necessary to manage by process improve sales and marketing performance precisely because they are the principles that enable your people to thrive:

  • Everything you do in sales and marketing must create value for the customer.
  • The process must create value for the participants involved.
  • In God we trust, everyone else must bring data
  • The purpose of a process is to achieve a goal.
  • Respect for people.

There is no question that businesses need a better method of managing marketing and sales. Lets hope more companies will choose to manage by process, instead of continuing with the same tired old approaches they have always used.

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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