Your Linear Sales Process Is Broken

This post was originally posted on LinkedIn. I posted it here so that I would always be able to point to it on a site that I control. The comments live there, too.

It’s likely that your sales process is broken. It probably isn’t producing the results you need it to, if it ever did. A greater commitment to follow that process isn’t likely to improve results either. The reason is beyond compliance and starts with the fundamental assumption we make when we develop a sales process.

Let me try my very best to set up this conversation in a way that makes what I am about to say less controversial, and that doesn’t have you sideways with this idea right out of the gate. So first, a few disclaimers.

  1. I am not suggesting that you should not have a documented, well-designed sales process.
  2. I am not suggesting that any process you use be abandoned, or that it should immediately be replaced.
  3. I am suggesting that you stop and consider and explore a few ideas.

Let’s start with some assumptions:

  1. We live in an age of constant, accelerating, disruptive change. These changes are impacting the way our clients do business, causing the re-imagining of whole industries, increasing customer expectations and changing their behaviors, and creating a great deal of uncertainty.
  2. What we do in sales is help people and companies change. We change the products and services they use. We change the way they use them. We change the way they do business, and at our very best, we help our clients and the people we serve to transform their business and their results.
  3. The process of change is non-linear, because any process that includes human beings—especially in groups—is nonlinear. That means that the process is very rarely a straight line, and more often a process that doubles back over ground that has already been covered, stops, starts again, and picks up in an unexpected place.
  4. And finally, your sales process is designed and written as if it is linear. It shows up as a series of boxes that start on the left side of a PowerPoint slide with “target” and end with a box called “Won/Lost” at the far right of that slide.

Think about the last few deals you have pursued. Haven’t they gone something like this: You had a good discovery meeting followed by another in which a second stakeholder was added to the meeting. You shared some ideas with your prospective clients, and you put together some ideas of what the right solution might look like. Someone in another department caught wind of the idea you were working on, and instead of presenting a solution, the new stakeholder decided to engage you in what was more discovery—before asking purchasing to join the conversation.

Did you really complete the discovery process? Are you really ready to present when a purchasing agent asks you for a proposal?

I’ll bet you can’t find boxes that match the above scenario anywhere on your sales process. Not to worry, no one else has these boxes on their sales process either; your competitor’s process looks as linear as yours. They weren’t designed to address nonlinearity.

But, Wait. My Process is Different.

Okay, right now, if I were you, I would be saying, “Iannarino, our sales process is a series of outcomes, like ‘I have a clear understanding of the client’s internal buying process,” or “I have a clear understanding of the legal review process,” or ‘I have identified the key stakeholders and understand their personal and business goals and motivations.” How can you have an understanding of the buyer’s process when they don’t? While these are all important outcomes, and while you should be concerned about checking all these boxes, they don’t tend to follow a linear path, do they?

Maybe you like customer verifiable outcomes better, like “The client agrees that these problems or challenges are problems worth solving now,” or “Client agrees that the solution is right and they agree to the timeline,” or “Client agrees to invest the necessary money and resources.” These are all good and important outcomes, and your client’s agreement is certainly worth pursuing. Even milestones that your client agrees to in writing and that you hope to hold them accountable to isn’t enough to change the nonlinearity of the process.

The New Sales Process is Going to Be Agile and Dynamic

In my second book, The Lost Art of Closing: Winning the 10 Commitments That Drive Sales, I have a chapter on Controlling the Process. This chapter is something more than an aspiration; it is an imperative. Many of those who read an early copy of the book recognized that the 10 Commitments were an attempt to control the nonlinearity of the sales process by looking at the sales and buying processes as a series of commitments we make together with our clients.

We might do discovery, review ideas about what the right solution looks like, add additional stakeholders, do more discovery, discuss and agree on investments, add additional stakeholders, collaborate on adjustments to the solution, and then resolve the client’s concerns, which can feel like starting over when you are very close to the finish line.

The future of the sales process is going to address the nonlinear nature of buying and selling, something that will likely be more nonlinear in the future, not less. This will require more commitment-gaining, and more of an effort to control the process, recognizing the nonlinearity, and greater decision-making on how to move things forward.

To serve salespeople and the companies that employ them, the sales process is going to have to do help the salesperson discover what the next best step is for both their customer and their company when there is no box that addresses the nonlinearity of the deals they work.

Sales leaders are going to have to work to test and verify the deals in their forecast using something more than the stages of the sales process if they hope to improve the abysmal record they have of forecasting their deals.

The sales process of the future is going to need to be dynamic, agile, and address the nonlinear, unpredictable nature of human interactions. 

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