Sales Process Problems: Turn by Turn Guidance is Unavailable

David Brock, Provocateur

David Brock at Partners in Excellence writes one of my favorite blogs. Last week he wrote a piece titled But We Have a Sales Process where he outlines the fact that most organizations he works with have a sales process in place, be it one that has not been “updated to fit the current market realities and priorities,” and one that “the managers and salespeople just aren’t using . . .”

It is David’s second paragraph, however, that drives me deeper and deeper into my sales process agnosticism. David writes:

It’s actually pretty easy to see this.  Just sit in a pipeline review and listen to the conversations managers and sales people have in reviewing their deals.  As they discuss the deal, look at the activities they have defined in their sales process.  Ask a few questions about the deal, using the activities as a guideline for your questioning.  See if the responses are aligned with the sales process.  For example, the other day I was sitting through a review with a new client.  They had two key activities in the discovery phase of their sales process:  Understand the customer decision making process and who is involved.  Also, Understand the criteria by which the customer will evaluate the investment in the solutions and justify it internally.  Great criteria!  However, we were reviewing a number of deals that were in either the proposing or closing stages of their sales process.  I started asking some questions, “How does our solution look based on their justification criteria?”  “Who is involved in the decision making process, who’s the real decision maker?”

If these deals were truly in the proposal and closing phases of the sales process, the sales people would have had very clear responses to those questions.  They didn’t–they mouthed some nominal responses, but really didn’t answer the questions—–then they went on to talk about what they were doing to win their deals.

The questions that David asks here are great questions. And there is no doubt the information the salespeople were supposed to know is critical to winning deals. But David believes their weak answers indicate that the sales reps weren’t using the sales process and I believe it means that they were using their sales process. They believe their sales process is a list of activities.

This is why the salespeople believe that they were in the closing stage of their process? I don’t have any evidence to back up my guess here, but I speculate that somewhere within this organization is a chart that describes what is supposed to be done on each sales call, the sales reps checked the boxes, filled out the forms, and updated their CRM to reflect the deals progress according to the process. The process may prevent an active engagement that selling requires by focusing salespeople on activities and not on outcomes. This is why salespeople have so many stalled deals in their pipelines, despite following a process. These salespeople completed sales call one, checked the box. They did not achieve the outcomes, which both began with the word “Understand.”

My speculation is that they were following the activities prescribed without the outcomes necessary to effectively win deals.

Enter, Dave Stein

Dave Stein from ES Research weighed in on his blog with a post titled More Excuses For Not Doing The Right Thing About Sales Effectiveness. Dave rightly points out:

There is enough research out there—from ESR, from other research firms, and a there is a wheelbarrow full of studies and surveys from vendors like HR Chally, Miller Heiman, and many more—that proves that employment of a pragmatic, widely complied-with sales methodology (and its associated processes) results in more sales, often at higher contract values, with shorter times to close.  It’s a fact.

Any sales trainer or consultant who takes a strategic approach to sales effectiveness will tell you that when they build a methodology with their client, they have a full understanding of where creativity, and adaptability, and accountability, and any other “-ilities” are required and how flexibility for those capabilities (two more “-ilities”) get built in.  Personally, I’ve been involved in methodology-building dozens of times across many industries.  Not only do we allow for the “art” component of selling—in fact we encourage it.  We encourage creativity.  We build in room, guidance, and support for the relationship building and other non-scientific aspects of effective selling.  But we don’t allow every salesperson to follow their own path, in their own way.

What Makes Process Better

Here I have to humbly disagree with Dave (Stein). I have yet to encounter a sales process or methodology that encourages creativity, adaptability or flexibility. The fact that he does so when working out a methodology makes him the exception to what I would argue is the rule, as well as someone worth knowing (and I suspect he would agree in the rarity). To sell the process, most organizations sell the linear progression from stage to stage (this is, in my estimation, why David Brock’s example salespeople believed their deals were in the closing stage, despite there being little possibility of winning).

Process Plus

NOTE: While I would never defend a sales organization’s criminal decision to have no process, I would add as much (or more) emphasis in the areas of teaching the creativity, the adaptability, and the flexibility that selling now requires. Let’s call it “Process Plus.”

Here are the questions I believe must be asked at the end of every stage or step of the sales methodology.

  1. Did taking this step (or completing the stage) create value for the prospect in a meaningful way in which they would now feel confident in moving to the next stage?
  2. Do they agree that taking the next step is beneficial for them and why?
  3. Did I acquire all of the information I need in order to be completely confident in advancing this sale to the next stage? (This is the question I believe David Brock was really asking his client’s sales reps)
  4. Is there another activity, one not found on the sales methodology roadmap, that we should take with the prospect before we advance to the next stage?
  5. Is there another step or action that would create more value for this particular prospect at this time? How would that step benefit the prospect? Would it in fact move us closer to a deal?

The map is not the territory. Human interactions are complex, and adaptability and resourcefulness are the key components that breed success when everything is changing (especially when the rate of change is also growing exponentially). Brock is correct. One of the primary challenges is ensuring our activities are relevant as we deal with disruptions and change. But the activities are designed to achieve outcomes, outcomes that might be achieved in a whole bunch of different ways, many of which may be new.

A Personal Analogy: Turn by Turn Directions Are Unavailable

My in-laws live in Michigan, just South of the Mackinaw Bridge. They are far enough North in an area so sparsely populated that my GPS does not provide directions. This is okay. I know that when the GPS fails to provide coverage, I still need to travel North, and that is enough to keep me on track. Before I left, I asked them for directions. They told me exactly which roads to take, where to turn, and some major landmarks I would see as I progressed. A map or a GPS is handy. But so is asking the question: “What is the best way to get there from here?”

Why can’t we ask the prospect the same question? Perhaps they have their own idea.

Dave Brock and Dave Stein are correct, you need a process (or methodology). The major roads are well-paved and quite often they are the shortest distance between two points. You don’t need so much creativity so as to start your journey from New York to California by heading East. But do build a sales organization that shares their challenges and their learning and adapts to fit the circumstances they encounter as things change. A process/methodology must include a range of possible commitments that advances the sale for both the sales organization and the prospect.

The challenge for most of us is in training and coaching salespeople is to get them to use the methodology to get close to their destination, and then developing the resourcefulness and adaptability to succeed when turn-by-turn directional guidance is unavailable.



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  • Keith Bossey

    Anthony – You raise a few thorny issues here. BTW, I’m also an sales process agnostic, believing that most work well, the key is having a process. I also agree that it is rare to see “creativity” in a sales process and I believe the reason is that most processes are taught as a series of activities. What you are proposing (and I concur) is that a sales process should be a series of OUTCOMES, that eventually lead to the sale (or disqualification). What makes this difficult is management/measurement. It is much easier to monitor activities (did you check the box? Yes, I checked the box. Good) than it is to measure outcomes (do you understand their selection criteria? Uh, I think so. Good.). Also, not only is it easier to manage and measure activities (How many calls did you make this week?), its human nature to want to be measured as such (But boss, I made my calls!). I think it takes strong leadership to actually guide sales people, and let them be creative in reaching outcomes. I also think you need real professionals in your sales ranks, ones that have no problem taking responsibility. These two have come together a few times in my career (real success!), but unfortunately, not always. Thanks for a starting a great discussion.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Thanks for the comment, Keith. What fun would this be if we didn’t deal with the thorny issues? There is no doubt that this approach calls for strong leadership, and I would argue engaged leadership. It isn’t enough to give marching orders, leaders need muddy boots. There is also no doubt you need real sales professionals; too often the primary reason sales people fail is that they weren’t sales people to begin with (but that is for another post). Thanks again for you comments!

  • Kerry Menegay

    I contend that the more complex the selling cycle, the more flexibility the “sales process” must have. There is also a correlation to how mature the product or service you are selling and the rigidity of the steps/process to sell that product or service. If the product is high growth/high demand, it truly does become a numbers game. You will gain more benefit in keeping the process simple and the activity high. The more people you speak with, the more you will sell. We used to call this the “Honk and Wave” style at Cisco when everyone needed routing. You lose opportunity if you spend too much time when the need is great (because others get there first).

    For products or services that are more mature and where there is more competition, the differentiators become the process and your subsequent level of understanding of the business/customer. The more the “process” uncovers the true business need, the internal politics of the customer environment and the financial prioritization (of your solution), the greater the chance of your proposal being selected. The process should also document all of the key findings so that they can be summarized for the client, with their own proof points (from your relentless discovery), with financial justification. Here is where the science/discipline meets the art. I believe this is where sales management needs to become more aware, test variants and adapt.

    Metrics (quantified discovery info) + Application (how this will help the client) + Style (your personality and flair) will get one to the finish line. Oh yeah . . . and ask for the order throughout the process!

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Hi Kerry. Thanks for the comments. I agree with you that the more complex the sale, the more flexibility is required. There are, in my experience, too many opportunities to advance the sale that aren’t written into the sales methodology because they are client or situation specific. If the outcome at every stage is to achieve some commitment that advances the sale, I believe there are many more possibilities than most sales processes allow.

      I wonder how hard it is change the culture from Honk and Wave to something else when the purchasing department tighten their belts?

      On style, my agnosticism isn’t really to allow for style; I believe you have to be authentic from beginning to end. It is more to your first point; there are a lot of ways to advance the sale, and salespeople need to be engaged in the outcomes enough to advance the sale as situations dictate. This requires an awareness, coupled with creativity and flexibility.


  • Dave Brock

    Anthony, I’ve been waiting in anxious anticipation, since you tweeted that you were contining this discussion. I’m glad you did, and thought I would add my 2 cents.

    First, let’s get the process and methodology issues separated. Dave Stein does a great job in defining the difference, so I’ll stick with his definition. I am relatively methodology agnostic, there are a lot of great one’s out there (and to be honest a lot that do more harm than help) I guess the only comment regarding methodology is “buyer beware.”

    Process is critical to mastery of anything, including sales. Much of the discussion here and in the other venues where there has been a discussion of my original article is focused on “mindless checking of boxes,” or of our shared disdain for bad sales processes. (As a side note, I wrote a follow on drilling down a little more: A Great Sales Process–Elegant In Its Simplicity, Natural In Its Execution

    Your analogies of how you get to your in-laws or how you drive from California to New York are great. There are many paths to both. Some people will choose one others will choose another, the choice depends on their objective (e.g. the scenic route, the fastest route).

    Likewise, different organizations will have different sales processes (even selling similar solutions to the same customer). The differing processes will be driven by their goals and objectives. They will be driven by their views of how they want to work with the customer in facilitating their buying processes.

    A well designed sales process should stimulate thought-fullness in the sales person, not blind execution and checking the boxes. Organizations that are trying to achieve the latter are better served by having robots do their selling. A well designed selling process enables tremendous creativity and flexibility. The various steps in the process provide guidance and thinking points based on what the organization has designed as their ideal selling process. Sometimes certain activities are irrelevant. If I am doing a review and a sales person tells me and can defend a certain set of steps and activities being not applicable, that’s fantastic. Again, the process provides a structure in which the sales person can think about their strategy and how they will best serve the customer in their process.

    When the sales person cannot defend their thinking, this is where the manager needs to drill down—not because they have not followed the process, but because this may be an indicator they are going off track and may need some correction.

    Processes are also important because the provide us a framework to establish metrics–both personal and overall organizational. Metrics are important to managing personal effectiveness, performance, and improvement. Having a process and related metrics increase accountability.

    If we don’t have a process, how will we measure ourselves? We can’t measure ourselves just on wins, losses, and quota attainment. by the time we know those, there is little chance for improvement (within the deal) or the cycle for improvement is too long.

    Without a process, it is impossible for a manager to manage their team. Today, too many managers manage tasks and transactions. This leads to failure. Managers must manage the process (they do a lot else, just focused on process here).

    So process is important. I think a lot of the frustration and push back is correctly placed frustration with really bad processe, confusion with methodology, or people who have not internalized the process, so the execution of it is “unnatural.” Some of the resistance may be from those who don’t want to be held accountable.

    It also intrigues me that sales is one of the few functions/disciplines in which people push back so much on process. This discussion does not occur when you talk to R&D, development, manufacturing, finance, etc.

    It also intrigues me that we find process so constraining, limiting creativity and flexibility. Look at any great musician, artist, athlete, or scientist—some of the most creative disciplines around. Ask any great performer in those disciplines, and they have a process that guides their work and performance, but it also facilitates their creativity.

    I sense we are more aligned than not. I think we share a common disdain for bad process or methodology. I think we share a disdain for mindless execution and the loss of thought-fullness in the sales process and in working with customers.

    Thanks for a great post and keeping the discussion going!

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      There is no doubt that we are more aligned than not. There is also no doubt that we both believe that selling today is more difficult than ever, and that it requires the full engagement of the salesforce; simply checking the boxes will no longer suffice.

      I am with you on the drill-down, too. I like to ask two questions: “Did you obtain a commitment to move this deal forward?” and “Are both of us (the salesperson’s company and the prospect) in the position to succeed in moving this deal forward by taking this next step?” Too often, we get weak answers to both questions, there is nothing to indicate a commitment to move forward, and we are either missing information as to be able to confidently progress or haven’t provided the client with enough value to gain commitment.

      The salespeople in your original post are surely more at fault than the process, since the questions you asked were clearly based on well-designed and necessary outcomes. I only blame the process, in part, because process seems to have the tendency to reduce selling to checking boxes. And it ain’t about checking the boxes anymore (if it ever was).

      I like your analogy to other disciplines. I practice Aikido, a Japanese martial art. We spend much time learning the basic techniques. Once the basic techniques are mastered, the practitioner can move freely and respond to attacks at a very different level. But the mastering of the basic techniques (process) is what later enables that creative response. In a real life situation, you almost certainly couldn’t respond with basic technique as practiced, but you could come up with something that works. I think the same is true for sales. Have a process, master the basics, and retain the ability to be creative and adaptable when your success or failure depends on it.

      I’d also point out that in the other disciplines you mention, excellent performance also requires a full and total engagement. Are we all behaving like “great performers?”

      Maybe we need to write a joint column? How about: In Defense of Not Checking the Boxes!

      Thanks for your great thoughts. Your blog is one of my favorites, and I appreciate you responding to me here.


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