The power is in the process

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Here’s a lesson that every salesperson needs to learn early in their career: Sales is not magic. Just the opposite; every selling situation has a very definable, step-by-step process which, when executed with expertise, almost inevitably leads to a sale.

One way to define the job of a salesperson is this: Salespeople manage a sufficient number of customers step-by-step through the selling process. 

It follows, then, that one way to improve your results is to clearly identify the steps in your selling situation’s unique process, and then focus on moving each customer, one step at a time, methodically through that process.

There are a number of advantages to this perspective:

  • You will know where you are in the process with each customer. This saves you time by eliminating much of the uncertainty regarding a project with a customer.
  • It clearly points out the next step in the process, which allows you to be very focused in your sales calls.
  • It provides a way of keeping track of multiple projects in large accounts. (For each project, where are you in the process?)
  • It allows you to hone in on different steps of the process that may be causing you difficulty, and improve in the skills and competencies that will bring you the most bang for the buck.
  • It allows you a fairly accurate way to predict future sales.
  • It provides you a way to think about each account, and to talk about it with your manager.

In spite of that, I rarely come across a company in the B2B world that has taken the time to identify the sales processes that are most effective for its unique combination of markets, products/services and sales resources.

Please note that I am talking about something more sophisticated than the simple formulas promoted by the generic sales gurus.

It really is difficult to apply those simplistic notions to the realities of managing a project through the labyrinth of end-users, managers, engineers, new product committees and purchasing agents that is the reality with which so many B2B sellers contend. One of my clients, a seller of big-ticket production equipment, identified 28 steps in its unique selling process.

Which brings us to the first principle of sales processes: Every unique combination of product category, market segment and sales resources potentially has its own “best” sales process.

For example, if you sell flour to independent grocery stores via inside, telephone salespeople, you’ll have one “best” process. If you sell a new concept in packaging to manufacturers of pharmaceutical products primarily through field salespeople, you’ll have quite a different process.

This can be true for different products to the same customer. There is one sales process for selling a $20,000 industrial scrubber to a maintenance department of a large manufacturer, and a quite different one for selling the detergent that scrubber uses.

Notice that it is the combination of ingredients that determine the best sales process. So, your sales process may be completely different than your competitor’s. You may have more resources devoted to the internet, for example, while your competitor may not have any web-based marketing and instead relies on the traditional field salesperson.

Since your resources are different, your processes are different.

It doesn’t take much reflection to observe that there is incredible power in developing a breakthrough sales process. For example, two of the fastest growing companies today are Walmart and Amazon. Notice that one of the most significant of points of their distinction is not the product they sell. That’s the same as what a lot of other people sell. It is their selling process. Look at it from the customer’s point of view. The experience of buying from Walmart is dramatically different than the alternate process of buying from the local vendors. Likewise for Amazon. It’s not the product, it’s the process!

Just understanding your unique selling situation and then crafting an intentional process can be one of the most powerful initiatives you undertake. It will allow you to focus the power of your sales resources in a laser-sharp way, track every salesperson’s progress and improve the end result — more customers and more customers buying more!

Unfortunately, most sales managers have not thought this way. As a result, most companies have no articulated sales process. Rather, salespeople have been left on their own to determine how to do their job. The reality is that most commonly, every salesperson claims a unique situation, there is no accountability and sales managers are left spending most of their time reacting to crises.

It is time to change that.

Where to begin?

Formulate a strategic approach to using sales processes. Commit to the following sets:

  • Develop some standard processes
  • Train and equip your people in them
  • Develop some tracking tools
  • Review and refine the process and the execution of them regularly

There are two basic selling processes. You should at least address these. First is the process of gaining a new customer. The second is the process of expanding the business with that customer. These two processes are the heart of the salesperson’s job.

One of the most common complaints I hear from sales executives is that their salespeople don’t prospect enough. They just don’t bring in enough new accounts. It’s entirely likely that they have never been taught how to do so.

If that is true for you, then you need to rectify it. What that means is that you must design a step-by-step process that articulates the important events the salesperson must execute to move a “prospect” account to the point that they give you an initial order. What must be done first, and next, etc.

Now that you have identified the key steps to the process, you can focus on each of those steps and help everyone learn how to do it better. Let’s take the first step of the first process: Identify potential prospects.

  • How do you do that?
  • What constitutes a legitimate prospect?
  • How many should each salesperson accomplish each month?
  • What tools do you have available to assist them in this step of the process?

Resolve each of these questions and you will have the basics for a two-hour training session to bring people up to a level of competency on the first step. Now, on to the second step, third step and so forth until every salesperson has been trained and equipped for every step of the process.

Then, you are ready for step three.

Understanding that the power is in the process, your job now is to track the progress of each salesperson, or each part of the system, as your company works the process.

You don’t need to track every step in the process, just those that are essential events. An essential event is a key step in the process that cannot be skipped. The event must happen, or the process will not be complete. These will include meet and engage a decision maker, present a proposal and close the deal.

How can we measure each of these? The last is easy. When we see a purchase order from someone who was not previously a customer, we know the deal is closed. So, we arrange with our IT guy to deliver a weekly report of “purchase orders from new accounts.” That’s easy.

Now, what about the other two? These must be reported by the salesperson. So, you create an email form that asks each salesperson, on Friday, to indicate the name of the individual and company of the prospects they met for the first time that week. Also on the form is a place to indicate the number of times this week they made a proposal to a prospect.

They fill it out and email it in every Friday. Or, if you are using a CRM system, you just run the report from their call reports. Every Monday morning, you review the companywide implementation of your sales process.

Which now brings you to the final step.

At the end of every month, you review your measurements and draw some conclusions. Which steps of the process went smoothly last month? Which didn’t go as predicted? Where do you need to focus your time and efforts?

For example, let’s say you discover that your salesforce of one inside and six field salespeople had only 10 first meetings with decision-makers in prospect accounts. Your goal was 20. Clearly there is a problem implementing that piece of the process. You’ll never acquire the number of new customers that you want if you don’t make enough initial contacts.

So, at this month’s sales meeting, you discuss the issue and discover that your salespeople are having trouble making appointments to see prospects. You now hone in on that issue and brainstorm ways to overcome it. You select one to implement: You are going to deliver, by FedEx, a handwritten request from the salesperson for a meeting.

You implement this refinement and watch the numbers. Next month, you direct your attention to the aspect of the process that most loudly calls for your intervention.

You are now deeply involved in the never-ending process of refining the execution of your sales process. And the power is in the process.

Dave Kahle is an author, consultant and speaker who has presented in 47 states and 11 countries, improved the performance of thousands of B2B salespeople and authored 13 books. Receive his insights on a regular basis here: https://www.davekahle.com/subscribe-daves-e-zines/.

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