Developing an effective sales process

For a sales team to thrive, it needs a robust framework that represents the way their client buys…not the way they sell.  I’ve seen processes that are “about us”, which ultimately fail because they don’t take into consideration the ebb and flow the client’s needs or behaviors.  It’s often very tempting to create a process that looks something like:

  1. Initial contact
  2. Deliver presentation
  3. Send follow up materials
  4. Schedule follow up calls (this can be replaced with talk to stakeholders)
  5. Close deal

However, when you look at it from the client view point, that process looks more like:

  1. Intial contact: “I have a need”
  2. Deliver presentation: “Received something valuable but most everything else was junk” (I atually just heard this actual phrase the week before last from a client)
  3. Send follow up materials: “About you, not me”
  4. Schedule follow up calls: “About you, not me”
  5. Close deal: “On your time, not mine”

Of course, sales reps can function well within a framework like that when they are intrinsically customer focused, but if we believe that frameworks and incentives drive sales behaviors, then for consistent implementation at a larger level, we need to look at things a bit differently.

When we built our current sales model, it took us a while to uncover what was really going on with the sales lifecycle.  And I don’t mean from a timing standpoint, I mean from a client behavior and trigger perspective.  We really had to mine what our reps were doing and gather intel on how clients responded. And then we had to migrate from “about us” to fully “about them.” And let me tell you, it’s not easy.

For example, we used to think that if we successfully educated them on the nuances of virtual training that we could win their business.  We called this the “Engage” phase.  However, what we discovered was that they really didn’t want to be educated (although some minor education is necessary).

We also thought that we needed to show them the ins-and-outs of the technology and do a bit of a features dump to get them excited.  We called this the “Earn” phase. Again,  we discovered that in most cases (and this is not always the case) the client really doesn’t care what the technology actually is. They will eventually need to know some level of detail, but that’s long after the decision is made.

The fundamental shift we had to make was this:  stop caring about what we think is good or important or what we want the client to buy, and start finding out what business problem they are attempting solve and what business process they are attempting to affect. It seems obvious and many books have been written about that perspective, but from the inside, I have to tell you, it’s incredibly difficult to figure out.

And once you figure it out, then you have to map a series of behaviors and processes to it to get it to scale – and that’s a whole different challenge.

As we worked through our sales process development, one of the things we found was that it really doesn’t lend itself to clearly actionable steps.  So, the “do this, then do that” methodology that I’ve seen many sales organizations impose (since it’s easily trackable) is tough to map out with this model.

What we’re trying to get to is something more like phase-gates (to steal from Project Management parlance) in which a whole bunch of different kinds of stuff happens, and sometimes that stuff is quite different, haphazard and flexible, depending on the client/buyer (which can be due to personality, or need, or organizational restrictions).  Thus we hit on the process below. But note that we assumed that contact already happened – this is a sales process, not an inbound lead management process.

  1. First appointment.  In this phase, all we’re doing it acknowledging there may be an opportunity here and tossing it out if there isn’t. And you have to be ruthless about tossing out opportunities. Why?  Because if there isn’t a real opportunity the client doesn’t really want to be bothered and if you bother them, you’re burning a bridge.  Note I am not talking about cold calling – this is after they have talked to you.  Then, after the first appointment, we assign a dollar value to the deal, knowing that it’s rather meaningless.  We do this to guide the degree of “realness” of it.  We could probably assign a better score, but it’s working for now.
  2. Qualification:  In this phase we find out what the client need is. And, in our case, I don’t mean “we need to do a virtual session”. We look for goals about participation, learning, or business metrics, or change management, or financial constraints.  We look at what kind of implementations they have explored, what they are comfortable with (or not), what kinds of obstacles they have uncovered in their organization. We look at the business process they are currently using and their openness to a new process. And most importantly, what is their measure of success.   We also check to see if they have budget they can access, a timeframe to implement and the courage to do so.
  3. Initial buy-in:  Another way to put this is developing initial approach. In this phase we work with the client to uncover and design an appropriate solution for the business goals we highlighted in Qualification. Interestingly, this often involves finding solutions that we don’t even provide.  And sadly, sometimes we have to opt-out.  But when you put your client first – truly put them first – it’s a risk you have to take. On a personal note, this is also my favorite phase since I find it to be the most creative and fun, but solution development is a topic for another day.
  4. Final approach:  In this phase we’ve mapped a high-level solution to the business need (and hopefully it includes our services) and have developed a fairly robust tactical implementation plan (and ideally even with dates) that ties back to the buy-in phase, and we’ve figured out pricing.  In a lot of cases the outcome from this phase can be used in contracting.  That said, this is generally where the buyer has determined they are ready to purchase.   We’ve found it’s really really hard to know when they have actually made their decision and it seems a bit fluid and variable. Did they make it back at the first appointment (I know one client did)?  Did they make it in Qualification or Initial-buy in (we’ve had those too)?  Did they do in in final approach (sure, that happens too).  We have not been able to uncover a pattern on when that happens yet.
  5. Contracting: This is just the nuts and bolts.  The decision should be made by now.  If we’re writing a contract, then the buyer has said “yes, let’s go”.  If we’re writing a contract before the buyer has said “yes, let’s go” then we have not done our job.
  6. Close:  Yes, we have a close.  It’s a formality so we can say some thing is done. Closing a deal is not a celebration, it’s just moving a phase.  If you celebrate, it’s when the check clears the bank.

Within each phase, there are definite behaviors and activities that strong sales reps do and tend to repeat.  So for me, the most interesting part in all of this is not in the close, or in the dollars (although of course I like dollars), but is in identifying the behaviors and activities successful reps do on a regular basis that lead to sales within this frame work. And, once you know those – moving from incentives based on deals to incentives based on behaviors (and fortified by deals closed).

I believe the most sales organizations continue to incentivize reps based on deals/dollars because they don’t actually know what a good rep does.  And, because it’s easy.  If organizations could replicate what good reps do, and then incentivize others by improving the sales behaviors within a flexible framework, I would be shocked if they didn’t see sales improve.

But incenting reps by behavior is super hard.  And a topic for another day.


Posted on March 29, 2016 in Uncategorized

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