Is the Sales Process overrated, and do we really need it?
Updated: Dec 31, 2021
Well, yes and no.
In b2c or more traditional transactional b2b sales with short sales cycles one can argue that the sales methodology is more important than the sales process itself.
As I describe in my article “The great shift in Power”, the Traditional transactional b2c and b2b sales logic is being automated.
In complex b2b sales, with longer sales cycles, there is a lot of information and strategies to keep track of. In fact, a lot of the sales initiatives become sales projects where several persons from different parts of the organization are involved to analyze an opportunity and agree to a solution, both on the selling and buying side. People have different approaches, needs, agendas, and personalities which we need to keep track of.
Some might argue that a sales process is only needed and used by beginners, and after a while when they are more experienced, they know what steps are needed. In many companies, it is viewed as a process document stored away somewhere, and which is only used during the on-boarding phase of a new salesperson. The problem with this view is that the more experienced we get, the broader the comfort zone, and we tend to lower our guard and start to “wing it” or “shooting from the hip”.
The main purpose of a sales process is to help the individuals involved in the sales process to keep track of relevant information, align strategies, focus on the relevant activities depending on where in the sales process they are, and keep track of where the customer organization is in the buying process.
Customer oriented sales process
The sales process is more than a description of steps. It should be used as a platform for sales coaching, pipeline management, cross-functional opportunity management, stake-holder management, win-loss analysis, and much more. The value and success of the sales process depends on the quality of the customer information, and how it is actually used. In “World class” companies, the sales process is alive, embedded in the everyday activities, and used for strategical, tactical and cross-functional work.
As I mentioned in the beginning, b2c or more transactional and standardized b2b most pre-defined sales processes will do, if needed at all. This is not the case for complex consultative sales with longer sales cycles. For this type of sales logic, I do not believe in “off the shelf” sales processes. I believe that in order to implement a value adding sales process which works and is actually used, some level of customization is necessary and should be based on an analysis of what is going on in the customer organization of a typical customer when they buy. How much time and effort are required from the average customer to buy what you are offering? How many people and decision makers are involved, from what departments, and what are the perceived risks?
This will determine what activities and information needs to be obtained about the customer in each phase of the sales process. In the ideal case, the marketing and sales processes are interlinked and not disconnected as in most cases where the sales and marketing departments are working in silos.
Value oriented sales process
A company only purchases from your company based on 3 fundamental reasons on the highest level. All other reasons are subordinated these three and are more related to soft values and previous experience.
1. If you can help them increase productivity and revenue.
2. If you can help them decrease cost, (opex or capex.)
3. If you can help them to save time and better manage risks.
If you cannot help them with any of the above, you are unfortunately irrelevant for that company. Hence, this must be taken into consideration when creating a sales process and therefore we need to insert qualifying Go – No Go decision points between each phase of the sales process. The risk is otherwise that you invest too much time and resources before you realize that it will not bring you any business. The more we invest and, the harder it is to walk away from an opportunity, and we tend to continue to the end, even if something tells us that it is a lost cause. This does not only tie up valuable resources in our organization that would be better used for sales opportunities that we can and want to win. Qualification points throughout the sales process are key, especially in complex b2b sales where the sales cycles are time consuming.
All the phases in a sales process have distinct focus and its own methodology to follow. There is a lot of information to keep track of and it’s not just about selling. Below is a simplified example of an overall b2b sales process. It is structured on 5 main phases:
Phase 1: Prospect & Lead creation
Referral marketing, targeted digital marketing, and contact development e.g. LinkedIn, as well as networking groups / events, and industry trade shows / conferences. Since we cannot change the amount of time we have, we need to decide where to invest our efforts. This should be done, by segmenting the customers based on potential and buying complexity. Knowing where and when to invest your prospecting time is critical. Don't underestimate customer referrals, most satisfied customers are happy to refer you, if you only ask.
Phase 2: Opportunity Development
Customer Analysis & opportunity definition. Obtaining facts and understanding of the customer‘s marketplace, strategic goals, priorities and operational needs. Explore possibilities together with different customer stake holders to identify opportunities you can support them with. We also need to identify formal decision makers as well as influencers from different levels and departments. How can we satisfy company and individual needs at our customer? How big is the opportunity and what potential does it represent for the future? Can we satisfy a need, can we win the business? Can we deliver according to the customer expectations and can we create value over time?
Phase 3: Selling Trust
Creating enough trust so that the customer realizes that your solution is a great choice for improving their business or satisfying their needs, and that your company is a great partner and solution provider not only now, but also for the future. Why should they partner with you, why should they act now, and what are the consequences of doing nothing? In this phase it is all about creating value and minimize the customer’s perception of risk and effort. Often the customers will accept known problems that they are currently experiencing, and at the same time they are hesitant towards unknown risks and potential consequential problems, that can occur if they make a change. By highlighting business and operational values, and also highlighting how we will manage potential risks and added initial efforts, we can create trust and becoming a trusted advisor.
Phase 4: Negotiation & Risk mitigation
Although one can argue that negotiation is not part of sales itself, it is usually part of the sales process and deserves its own phase since the focus is different. When it comes close to put down the agreement on paper, people tend to become nervous and want to make sure that risks are eliminated. This phase is about managing the company risk, and the customer’s perception of risk. It is the phase where the Sales has ended, and the negotiation begin. We are basically defending territory in this phase. Our prices, our scope, our legal, and delivery terms. The higher level of perceived risk and effort which is required to benefit from your solution (doesn’t have to be real), the tougher the negotiation, and potentially the penalty terms tied to the delivery. In case the purchasing department is involved which is usually the case in complex sales, this is the phase where the purchasing people are more active, have more power, and in most cases an incentive to negotiate.
Phase 5: Integration Success & Expansion
Securing a successful implementation of whatever you are selling, integrating it in the customer's operation, managing the customer expectations, and defining new sales opportunities during the implementation resulting in up-selling or cross-selling. So, the sales process is actually more circular than linear and if done right will help to develop more business, strengthen trust and position you as a consultative partner for the customer’s business.
All sales do not have the same complexity level and it is important to realize that some of the sales will have more transactional characteristics, especially repeat business, or when selling something with a low buying complexity and low perceived risk. The sales process must therefore be flexible and allow for less and more streamlined activities in all phases.
Necessary Sales Enablement Tool.
Although there are a lot to consider when creating the sales process, the easy part is to design it. It is more challenging to fill each phase with relevant activities and relevant qualification points. The most important is to bring the activities in the sales process to daily practice. We need to transform the theory, into organizational abilities. The sales process must come alive. The salespeople or cross-functional sales teams need to perceive it as a crucial tool to help them win more business. There are many CRM systems and other fragmented sales tools out there. Most are created by people who do not fully understand the complexity of B2B sales and serve more as databases for reporting purposes.
My recommendation is to take the sales process, which is designed for your business, and insert it into a flexible sales enablement tool.
I recommend Membrain, since it is extremely flexible, easy to use, and is perfect as a platform for cross-functional sales resources working together on a deal. You can power it up with your own sales process. And the most important part, it is a perfect tool for sales coaching.
The importance of a well-defined sales process depends on the level of sales complexity of your business. As traditional transactional b2c and b2b sales with low buying complexity are being digitalized and automated, the more complex b2b sales requires even more from the selling organization and the need for a customized sales process increases. High value and customer focused b2b sales requires relevant industry and customer information, cross-functional collaboration, opportunity and stake holder management, and intelligent qualification.
It is not about how many phases the sales process contains, but the activity in each phase as well as the agility and flexibility of the sales process. This is best implemented in a Sales Enablement Platform, and accompanied with a coaching structure, and cross-functional collaboration in the sales process.
If you have any questions about sales process, Sales enablement tool, or maybe just want to chat about this article, feel free to contact me. I would be happy to help you design or improve your sales process, or discuss any other topic related to commercial excellence.
I would once again like to recommend the book “Super Trends” by the research company ProSales Institute, which is a must for any b2b company and will help you to navigate and create effective strategies for this ever rapidly changing and increasingly complex world.
Book reference: ISBN97891512643