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Using Sales Process to Transform Sales: 10 Ideas for Executing the Perfect Sales Process

This article includes practical tips on building a sales process that clarifies and accelerates your sellers’ efforts to advance opportunities through the sales cycle.

As a sales manager and more recently as a sales enablement leader, I’ve designed and implemented sales processes for leading technology companies.  I hope some of the suggestions here can help you refine your current sales process approach or develop a new one.

At the end of this piece, I believe you’ll have some insights on

•       Why sales process really matters in sales execution

•       10 tips, with actual examples, to ensure your process really works

•       Practical suggestions you can use to get it done

What is a sales process?

With as many definitions as there are sales processes, I’ll define a sales process for our purposes here as a sequence of steps that guide sellers through the sales cycle.  These steps are often referred to as selling stages that:

•       Are discreet states in the evolution of a sale that describe its progress

•       Help sellers and management measure and track advancement through the sales cycle

•       Provide guidance on actions to take and tools to use at each step of the sales process

Below is a depiction of a sales process based on a real example (I’ll call it Company A).  While the specific words used in describing each stage can vary, what matters is that the language makes sense to your sales and support teams.

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The terms sales process and sales methodology are often used interchangeably.  My simple way of thinking about them is as follows:  While the sales process defines what sales people do at each step of the sale, a sales methodology describes how they do it.  In other words, the methodology constitutes the way they sell, applying selling strategies and tactics.  This includes selling frameworks like Challenger Selling, SPIN, Miller Heiman, etc.  While the definitions can vary, what is essential is that you clearly define sales process and methodologies in a way that makes sense for your business, is understandable by your sales and marketing teams and that you consistently execute against those definitions.

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Why worry about sales process?

Many companies lack a fully thought out sales process.  They don’t provide sellers with explicit guidance on what to do during each stage of the selling cycle.  Other organizations may have a sales process that over time has become moribund and is only sporadically applied by sales teams.  This can have significant negative consequences, resulting in: 

•       Inconsistent execution by sellers

•       Failure to exploit appropriate tools and resources

•       Lack of visibility on the progress of sales opportunities

•       Inaccurate sales forecasts

10 Ways to Optimize Your Sales Process

Here are ten tips for making sure you’re getting the most out of your sales process:

  1. Align selling stages to the customer buying cycle

  2. Build your sales methodology into your sales process

  3. Define selling activities per sales stage

  4. Align the right tools to use at the right selling step

  5. Build in gates between sales steps

  6. Use customer verifiers to guarantee pipeline progress

  7. Give sellers a home for early stage opportunities

  8. Share your sales process with partners

  9. Link your sales process to your forecast

  10. Make your process ubiquitous (CRM, portal, etc.)

Let’s go through these ideas in some detail.  I’ve tried to illustrate each with real life examples from actual companies.  While the graphics have been altered to hide any proprietary information, they should help illustrate how each concept can be implemented.

1.  Align the Sales Process to the Buying Cycle

This helps ensure your sellers aren’t working in a vacuum and improve their ability to perform actions that help the customer accelerate their own journey through their buying process.

CEB, now Gartner, describes how a “customer-aligned sales process” helps sellers make recommendations to ease the customer’s progress on their buying journey, making them 1.62X more likely to make a high-quality sale.

Source: CEB 2015 Sales Customer Panel Survey.

Just as important, aligning to the customer’s buying process helps ensure that your seller’s activities aren’t just random acts but really relate to what the customer is experiencing.  Below is an example of how sales process stages can be mapped to the customer’s buying cycle (from Company B):

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2.  Integrate Your Sales Methodology into Your Sales Process

It is essential that your selling methodology is woven throughout the sales process, including its terminology and the means to measure its implementation.  This helps reinforce your company’s chosen selling approach and provide reminders of how sellers need to be selling at each stage in the process.

The following is an example of how the language and metrics of the Holden Power Base selling methodology was integrated into the sales process of a $1 billion software company (Company C).  If you’re familiar with Power Base Selling, you’ll recognize some of its terminology below:

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Your sales process should incorporate the approach and tools of your sales methodology so that your sellers are continually reminded about not only what they need to do, but how they should do it.

3.  Define Activities at Each Stage

In his book, The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande talks about a simple concept to improve performance.  He demonstrates that even the most experienced professionals (e.g. surgeons and pilots) benefit from a standard checklist to ensure consistent execution.  Why wouldn’t we provide the same guidance to sales professionals?  Even if your sellers have years of experience, they may come from different companies or cultures and lack a common language regarding what is expected at each selling stage. 

Defining these activities does a lot to improve communications across sellers, their managers and supporting marketing and product groups.  How do you decide on what these activities should be?  Just ask your most experienced high performers and document what they do.

Below is an example of suggested selling activities mapped to sales stages at a $2B networking company (Company D)

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4.  Recommend and Link to Tools to Use at Each Step

Closely related to mapping sales activities is clearly specifying what resources sellers should use at each stage.  Despite the efforts of well-intentioned marketing teams to develop sales collateral, sellers often have no idea where to find them and when to use them.  Forrester calls these misguided attempts “random acts of sales support”.  The solution is to map tools and resources to the appropriate stage in the sales process and provide links to these tools directly in your CRM or sales portal.  Then, sellers can quickly access the right resource at precisely the right moment in the sales cycle.

Below is an example (Company D again), of specific tools mapped to sales stages.  In this case, links to the tools were provided in the CRM.  For example, when sellers advanced an opportunity to the proposal stage, they would be presented with tools appropriate at that point (e.g. proposal template) and be able to access them with a single click.

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5.  Create Gates Between Stages

Another tip is to have clear gates or criteria that must be met before the seller earns the right to advance an opportunity to the next selling stage.  Putting in place a single gate between each sales stage, if they are tangible, removes the guesswork about the status of a deal and will dramatically improve forecasting accuracy.

Below (from Company A) is a simple example from another large technology company that lists objective, measurable gates that sellers must pass through before advancing an opportunity:

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6.  It’s Sunday, 10PM.  Do you know where your customer is?

Customer Verifiers

Related to the idea of selling stage gates is an idea that CEB, now Gartner, and others have written about extensively.  Customer Verifiers are a great way to align your selling process to the buying process.  They ensure this alignment is not just an abstract concept but is supported by concrete, verifiable data.

Customer Verifiers help sellers better qualify opportunities by:

•       Requiring active customer commitment of time, money or other resources

•       Affirming the customer truly intends to move to the next stage in the cycle

•       Ensuring that the customer is aligned on the identified problem, its solution and that you will be providing it

Here (from Company B) is an example of customer verifiers mapped to a sales process:

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7.  The Trouble with “Early Stage” Opportunities

Exploration Stages

For many organizations, their most important selling activity is completely hidden.  Many sellers, engaged early in their customers’ buying cycle, are reluctant to include the opportunity in the pipeline.  These strategic demand creation activities are critical to track, yet sellers are loath to document them in the CRM as they may not yet know their value for forecasting purposes and so don’t want to be pressured by their managers to close them.  These are exactly the kind of activities you want your sellers to perform, engaging strategically with C level executives and discovering business or technical problems to address (see highlighted area in the example below):

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During these early stages, it’s far too early for sellers to predict the revenue number and close date in their pipeline yet it’s essential that management know about these strategic selling activities.

So, what do these strategic sellers do to avoid this undue pressure?  They keep these opportunities in their pocket, and leave them out of the CRM, reducing management’s visibility and support, until such a time as they can confidently commit to products they’ll be selling, their value and close date.

What’s the answer?  Use “Exploration” Stages to allow sellers to highlight strategic activities without the pressure of committing to a number.

Let your sellers document early cycle selling activities in the CRM as Exploration.  Stipulate that these deals won’t be included in their sales pipeline until a later stage when they will know enough to enter the specifics - products, quantities and projected close dates - for forecasting purposes.  Here’s an example below:

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The benefits of providing exploration stages include:

•       Ensures that sales management has their eyes on the important early stage demand creation activities that account for most future sales

•       Allows business units and product management to better support early strategic engagements and see emerging high growth opportunities

•       Lets your best sellers document their prospecting and discovery efforts without their managers breathing down their necks

8.  Share Your Sales Process with Partners

Some companies keep their sales process a secret from their indirect channel, even when a large percentage of revenue originates from these same partners. 

The benefits of sharing your process with your resellers and even co-creating your sales process with them are:

•       It helps your partners – chances are they haven’t thought this through

•       It makes it easier to work with you, and not with your competitors

•       You can build a common language around opportunities, improving collaboration and pipeline accuracy

The risk of revealing confidential information is slight.  Your sales process is not a magic formula.  Its value is not in the process itself, but in how well you execute it across your organization and ecosystem.

Below is an example of a major software company’s partner sales portal (created by some smart people at Company E) in which the sales process is aligned with the customer’s buying process:

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9.  Link your sales process to your forecast

Research conducted by Vantage Point Performance and the Sales Management Association showed a 23% increase in forecast accuracy based on clearly defined pipeline terms (e.g. sales stages, definition of a qualified lead, etc.).

As you gain experience and begin to see patterns based on the historical data you collect on your pipeline, you’ll be able to predict the likelihood of a deal closing given its progression through the sales cycle. 

Building close probabilities based on empirical data into your CRM will improve your forecast accuracy by moving away from over-reliance on “judgement” from sellers and their managers. Of course, managers should be able to overrule these default probabilities based on their insights on the particular opportunity and customer.  An example from Company D follows:

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10.  Make your Sales Process Ubiquitous

Don’t put your sales process in a museum.  Your sales process is your sellers’ road map and it should be everywhere sales people are looking for guidance. 

I’ve had success with each of the following:

•       Build your pipeline stages into your CRM, along with guidance (Sales Coach if you use Salesforce.com), live links to tools mapped to appropriate stages, and gates that must be crossed by sellers to advance an opportunity

•       Banners.  Place your sales process where sellers can see it – in local sales offices, training rooms, etc.  I’ve had 6’X12’ (1.8mX3.6m) banners posted in sales offices

•       Laminated job aids.  Old school but a one-page, two-sided printed guide (activities on one side, tools on the other) can reinforce the sales process.  Many sellers like to post these on their office walls.

•       Training.  Build your sales process into your training curriculum.  Consider basing your new sales hire onboarding curriculum on the progression of the stages of your sales process.

Summary:  The Ideal Sales Process

I hope this article has triggered some thinking that will help you better build, install or strengthen your sales process.

Ideally, your comprehensive selling process should provide:

•       A clear definition of selling phases and the objectives for each

•       Alignment of your selling stages with the customer’s buying cycle

•       Description of specific activities performed at each stage based on best practices

•       Easy access to the right sales tool at the right time during the sales cycle

•       Tangible metrics to ensure a deal is advancing through the sales cycle

•       Integration of your selling methodology, including tools and terminology, all through the sales process

•       Probability to close predictions based on empirical data to help in forecasting

•       Full integration of your sales process into your CRM so your selling process becomes habit

Benefits

Jason Jordan, co-author, with Michelle Vazzana, of Cracking the Sales Management Code, told me that, based on research that Vantage Point did with the SMA, they found that the number one influence on the productivity of sales pipelines was the existence of a formal sales process, accounting for an 18% lift in relative year-over-year revenue growth.  Here are some benefits of implementing a comprehensive sales process:

•       Better translation of your Go to Market strategy into sales execution

•       Greater coherence across sales, marketing and sales operations

•       Improved control and visibility across the selling cycle

About the Author

Doug Draper runs the Sales Enablement Edge, a boutique sales training and enablement company.  His career has focused on sales, sales management and sales enablement at leading technology companies, including Apple and SAP.  He thinks a lot about how to best support the performance of sales professionals and their managers through tools, process, methodologies and training.  He has been certified as a Challenger and SPIN facilitator and synchronous training designer and facilitator.

Douglas Draper