Why you need to innovate your sales process

Gregory Swanson

June 1, 2020


  • Most "silver-bullet" sales process "best-practices" were designed before customers began using Agile and collaborative decision-making processes.
  • Customer buying processes are less sequential and serial because the customer can go through parallel tasks.
  • Sales and customer process mismatches can cause slower sales cycles and reduce win rates.
  • By harmonizing the sales process with the customer process, you can reduce the sales cycle and increase your win/rate. 
  • Taking each sales stage as an independent part increases the flexibility to adapt to the customer.

You are expecting the go-ahead to close the deal.

You have taken the customer through five exhausting stages and are finishing "Negotiating." 

Then you receive that dreaded phone call. You hear that the customer's CFO has a new requirement, and you need to work through it with them. The CFO is not even familiar with your company.

Your boss makes an issue of you not getting to the right "decision-maker." But your contact person in the buying council assures you that this is normal. No matter what, you thought that you were in Stage 5 of your sales process, but you are going backward to Stage 2 of your sales process.

Sales Processes and the promise of the silver bullet

Proponents of sales methodologies will argue semantics in the sales process. You can have a very long discussion on calling something the Evaluation stage versus the Consideration stage.

There are three, four, five, seven, and even ten stage sales processes that get pushed as silver bullets. 

But many methods were made when the salesperson could control more of the information that customers received. If it happened, it happened through the salesperson. Nothing else played a role. Not anymore. The digital age gave the customer different ways to interact. 

Because many customers prefer to self-service their way through the buying process, salespeople often lose track of what is happening. Customers have the process control. If the customer's process is not compatible with the sales process, there is a control battle (that the customer typically wins). For a salesperson to "own everything" it takes a different type of effort that orients to the customer's actions. The result of having a mismatch between the customer and sales processes is that friction develops, which slows the process. The worst case is that the process mismatch makes you difficult to deal with, which reduces your chances of winning.

Your sales process is a waterfall process, while your customer is using collaborative decision-making.

When a customer cannot design a clear scope, upfront, or desires more openness on the potential solution, the decision-making may look more like an Agile process than a traditional Waterfall process. 

When a customer can accurately scope requirements, upfront, they can take the standard sequential "Waterfall" path. 

In some industries, decision-making using more of an Agile process has gained popularity to the point that Waterfall is the exception. We see the process change in the increased numbers of people involved in customer decision-making.

Previously, companies made decisions as a set process, with scope, requirements, and handovers. Now, they can form a multi-functional team and look at many things at once. Even for customers who do not adopt Agile decision-making, many customer tasks will happen parallel to each other.

Sequential Sales Processes
So, why are sales processes still sequential?

According to research from the Gartner Group, 90% of all customer decisions seem to take backward steps when you look at the sales process's filter. Do you need to give a proposal, upfront, and then modify it over and over? Did the specifications change when you thought that you were at the end of the process? As for the CFO, who seemed like he jumped in at the last minute, could it be that he is signing off on a Sprint?

Although you are focused on how your product or solution will benefit the customer, the customer may also be considering how your solution fits with other factors. If you sell SaaS, how well does your app fit with other related apps? If you sell lab equipment, how does your lab device perform with different types of consumables? Can your pricing rule you out upfront? But negotiation should be at the end of the process, right?

Standard, repeatable, and planned sequential buying processes are quickly becoming a thing of the past. And forecasting, coaching, and your funnel reporting are expecting things to go a certain way and in a specific order. Sales process mismatches are becoming more common to the point that sales reps simply ignore the process. The only time that many sales reps pay attention to the process is to update the CRM and for opportunity reporting.

For low-value sales, it still might be the case that you can wing through a sequential process. But on more significant, more customer strategic decisions, you might find yourself frustrated.

How to innovate your sales process

How to define your stages: Build a story

Build a story of the customer. When we mean customers, we mean the "account." You will be dealing with different personas in the story.

This is a story of HOW the customer:

  1. Finds out about your product or service.
  2. Gains a curiosity of what you do, who you are, and how you do things.
  3. Learns more detail about you and understands your uniqueness and credibility.
  4. Trusts how you work. Finds you uniquely valuable in different perspectives.
  5. Justifies the expense in buying the product or service.
  6. Gets pricing and negotiates conditions.
  7. Onboards with you and starts an operational relationship.
  8. Uses your product and gets support from you.
  9. Decides to renew, buy more, or to help you grow.
  10. Renews the relationship.

Align your actions based on the story. Recognize that the story is not sequential. Do not get into personas because it is too much detail. This is just about your company and the customer's company.

Break down your actions that you need to take in the customer story into bites, sections, parts. Minimize it as much as possible. Use wording that matches your branding.

Now you have your stages. Once you have stages, then you can build in personas, channels of communication, and content. You can build your processes.

Take every sales stage as an independent objective.

Buying processes are less sequential and serial. However, you understand that you need to reach certain milestones to win a deal.

Forcing the sequence in the stages of your pipeline can:

  • Provide a wrong picture of the status of the opportunity
  • Forces a sales rep to select a stage in the CRM artificially. The salesperson may choose "Negotiation," but they are also working on "Presentation."
  • Cause a mismatch between reality and opportunity reporting, which leads to poor forecasting.

However, if you take each stage independently, you can make advances in the sale without needing to complete previous steps. Looking at your processes, you can work on things in parallel, like the customer makes decisions.

Sales stages as independent parts of the sales process

If your customer decision is working sequentially, you will finish one stage and move to the next. But adding this independent stage definition enables you to be more flexible in how your sales process works.

Don't go way overboard with "Qualification" early in the process.

The following might be easy to understand if you have ever been on the receiving end of a salesperson interrogating you with dozens of check-list like qualifying questions. Experiencing this makes you know why customers favor self-service, online buying research over dealing with sales reps. Overzealous qualification, upfront, sets a bad beginning to the relationship, and it may also eliminate you because you are too complicated or the information that you require is impossible to provide. 

If a customer is speaking with you very early in their process, it is a good thing. If they do not have a budget, the decision team is not defined, or the requirement is undetermined, you can influence. As mentioned before, your customers may not know how they want to achieve something or want to buy.

So, why would you disqualify a sale because the customer doesn't know their requirements?

Qualification should be conversational, not a check-list. Ask the customer to tell you about the situation, what they need for information, why, and what are the next steps. The questions that you are trying to answer are

  • Is this serious? Is this interesting to chase?
  • Is there a need?
  • How can you help?

These days, putting a customer through a rigid qualification like B.A.N.T. (Budget, Authority, Need, Timeline), is counter-productive. Yes, these are good things to know. But if you are forcing these answers before you will move to the next stage, it frustrates your customer.

Utilize and track all channels to monitor the stages of your sales.

You do not always need a salesperson interaction to advance the sale. You can progress through stages using your other communication channels, including your website, video, and webinars.

It is vitally important to track all digital communication channels as a part of your opportunity. 

  • Your salesperson needs to use other channels to help guide the customer's decision.
  • Your salesperson needs to see other channels as productivity multipliers. Think of it as using several drones, at once, to see what is happening.
  • Marketing content should be designed in a way to support opportunity stages.

For more information:

Contact Greg Swanson for a "conversation" regarding your sales process objectives.


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