The Three Stages of Sales Process Evolution (Which No One Ever Told You About)

Companies go through three stages of maturity in their sales processes. First they need to get organized. Second, they learn it works only if a customer wants it to. Third, they establish a flow by designing it from the customer’s perspective.

First: Get Organized                        

Sales organizations are famous for everyone doing things in their own way. When the pain of this approach becomes too much, someone ties to fix it. Sometimes the sales leader tries to “define the sales process.” Other times the task is delegated to a team of people, perhaps associated with a CRM (customer relationship management) or sales training initiative.

The resulting sequence of steps may be beautiful to its designers. If it involves sales training, it establishes a more common language around qualification, buying influences, and opportunity development. If it involves CRM it can help communicate customer information to everyone who needs it.

Yet helping people to know customer details and to reason more clearly about their customer relationships shines the same spotlight on people’s successes as it does on their frustrations.

Often, equating “the sales process” with “what salespeople do” excludes important challenges that may have root causes in marketing and servicing activities, diluting its potential effectiveness.

Further, salespeople (like anyone else) will tend to resist a “process” if they did not have a hand in creating it.

The most insidious problem, however, is that the sales process is typically focused on what the company thinks it should be: “Prospect for opportunities,” “Research the needs,” “Conduct a demonstration,” “Propose a solution,” and so forth. Rather than attracting prospects and customers, these activities may tend to repel them instead.

Salespeople can be caught in a storm of conflicts:

  • The new “sales process” means more hoops to jump through
  • The CRM system increases record-keeping chores
  • The Sales training increases preparation time required for prospect meetings
  • Enticing prospects to cooperate with the process is difficult
  • The supply of qualified leads goes from bad to worse
  • Managers increase expectations for activity levels
  • Lack of great opportunities increases pressure to chase ANY potential deal

Despite the best intentions, first phase sales processes often do little to help salespeople sell. This is especially true if the bottleneck is in generating qualified opportunities and the sales process focuses on something else (closing?) instead. Yet if the boss wants the sales process, people must comply. Untenable situations like this are the reason lip service was invented!

Ultimately, people begin realizing this state of affairs leaves a lot to be desired. It takes these experiences for them to become poised to move into stage two of their evolution.

Second: What’s in it for the customer?

Getting beyond the first stage requires a more collaborative approach. Defining the handoffs and bottlenecks requires the perspective of representatives from marketing, customer service, and channels, as well as sales.

In addition to improved collaboration, the point is to challenge the team with a key question: “What value does our sales process create for the customer?

This requires people to think about the problem differently. While they don’t often have specific answers, it helps them prioritize and make things simpler. Usually these maps can be summarized on one page. People more readily understand the larger scheme, what they are producing, how their part fits, and how performance should be measured.

Yet, a collaborative meeting at headquarters rarely solves the problem. Companies need to establish road trips to involve field people in these sessions, giving everyone a chance to “own the problem,” discuss the alternatives, and influence the outcome. Minor variations in these “local” sales processes are far less of a problem than the failure to generate their buy-in and participation.

There are lots of positive aspects to the second phase of sales process development.

  • The new design is more inspirational
  • People understand better how the system works
  • The process helps integrate the role of sales training and CRM systems
  • What needs to be measured becomes clearer
  • Individuals align more readily (within spans of control)

Despite these advantages, second phase sales processes still have challenges:

  • Few companies actually start measuring the process
  • Retains functional views of marketing, sales, and service
  • People aren’t compelled to make changes
  • Support systems remain dysfunctional
  • Decisions are still made without data

As a result, problems can continue to fester. Sensing they still have not tapped the power, a few companies become ready to move to the third stage of sales process maturity. That third stage is possible only when process logic is allowed to challenge the functional mindset.

Third: Helping Customers Act

The third phase of sales process evolution is powerful because it connects your people’s actions to desired results in measurable ways. Only a process approach can drive the questions that uncover value, causes, and effects. Depending on your company, this could be a radical shift. Consider these symptoms caused by traditional, functional thinking:

Companies design their websites around their products instead of around any customer’s problem or purpose. This hinders their understanding of why people visit the various pages of their website. How can the site be improved without this information?

Companies expect their marketers to produce product-focused collateral and newsletters, which don’t happen to help buyers buy, or sellers sell. No wonder no one reads them.

Companies send aggressive (and expensive) salespeople out, like sharks, to attack any potential opportunities moving in the market. This trains buyers to be wary and defensive.

The goal of sales and marketing is to get people to take the actions we want them to take. Yet buyers don’t care about us, unless we give them reasons to feel otherwise. The solution is to learn where your prospects are along their buyer’s journey, and help them get to the next step.

For example, suppose you are a typical business-to-business organization and you shift the purpose of your company newsletter to helping customers solve certain problems. Not only will you get more subscribers, you’ll be able to ask specific questions about what they want to know. Filling their needs for this information in provocative ways is a powerful (and measurable) means of generating qualified sales opportunities.

Key Point: Qualified sales opportunities have a definite, measurable value. This means the newsletter no longer is a marketing expense without a measurable return. Instead, it is an investment to be leveraged and optimized. Put 5 cents in (our newsletter); get 10 cents out (qualified prospects).

Other examples: Suppose decision makers don’t recognize they have problems you can solve.  Would a well-written article placed in their hands clarify it for them? You could actually measure the answer to that question if the article included a call to action that offered a workshop explaining the best work-around to employ: 5 cents in (your article or white paper), 10 cents out (contacts who are interested in learning what you know).

Do they struggle to understand their own business processes? Perhaps they would benefit from the expertise of a process-improvement team to generate the hard data needed. 5 cents in (your six sigma team), 10 cents out (their problems and your solutions laid bare).

Has the senior executive prioritized the problem on his or her radar for this year? Perhaps an expert salesperson should request a meeting to confirm your understanding of their key business challenges and present how your organization could help: 5 cents in (your sales team’s preparation), 10 cents out (a decision maker who respects you).

Getting customers to take the actions we want them to take is a matter of looking at things from the customer’s point of view, and of providing bonafide assistance in solving their problems. It builds relationships and earns trust. It leverages that trust to elevate the customer’s commitment (as well as our own) incrementally, in baby steps the customer is comfortable with.

Third phase sales processes incorporate the nitty gritty details of the value stream that makes things happen (or not). It enables your team to be more precise and purposeful in dealings with prospects and customers. For example, hospital prospects make decisions differently from schools or factories. Your team must separate these and other market segments in order to deal with the “journeys” of these different buyers.

Most important, it enables you to zero in on the appropriate (and measurable) customer actions that make your sales funnel flow faster. Instead of guessing what will get customers to act, your team will ask live questions and get specific answers.

The functional lines between selling, marketing, and servicing dissolve as a production environment emerges. All hands pitch in to make the right things happen, and the sales process itself becomes a competitive advantage. Most important, it becomes a flow where you can measure the stages of sales production more effectively.

Michael Webb
August 29, 2006

Copyright (c) 2006, Sales Performance Consultants, Inc.


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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