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.

Filed under: Sales 3.0

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