Is it time to rethink sales process?

For many years sales leaders, consultants and professionals have all extolled the virtues of having a well defined sales process. I’ve been one of them for many years. But my thinking has begun to shift and I’m asking myself if we should even talk about sales process anymore.

But let me back up a bit first.

It’s been said many times, by many experts, that buyer behavior is changing in fundamental ways. And it’s true! Armed with more information, insight and ability to connect with peers, our buyers are more empowered than ever. Some have even determined that the buyer will go through 57% (or more!) of their decision process BEFORE ever engaging with a salesperson. (How do they measure this, I don’t know.)

There’s also a growing cynicism about salespeople, commerce, business, marketing and even the idea of what is fact and what is fabricated. 

The problem with sales process is it increasing feels like something we DO TO our buyers, not WITH THEM or FOR THEM. In this new environment one has to wonder if this is impacting some of the cynicism about the sales profession. As a buyer (yes, occasionally I do spend money) it sometimes feels like the primary agenda is what the salesperson wants, not what I want. Do you ever feel that way? 

And I can’t help but wonder if this is an artifact of too much focus on the sales process, and the goals of the salesperson/team/division/company, instead of the goals of the buyer.

To put it another way, does the emerging and deeply empowered buyer really want to be treated this way? Do they want to be the subject of a process? Do I? Do you?

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not about to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I still believe individuals and businesses need to have sales, revenue and profitability goals, but in today’s world they need to be closely tied to the buyers’ needs. (See my blog entitled “Mission Responsible” where I argued for a buyer-first goal system.) And if you go there, perhaps you should go all the way and adopt a buyer-first selling process.

The good news is we don’t have to create this out of whole cloth. Our marketing brethren have been defining the "Buyer Journey" for years and have developed a very mature model we can use as a basis for a buyer-first process. In its simplest form the Buyer Journey has four distinct phases that a company or individual goes through in order to make a purchase. They are…

Status Quo - the buyer is not aware that they have a problem or has not thought about a new goal or objective worth pursuing. 

Awareness - the buyer has become aware of a problem or has begun thinking about a new goal or objective that may be worth pursuing. 

Consideration - the buyer become convinced that the problem or goal deserves real focus and resource in the near term, and is committed to finding a solution to the problem now. 

Decision - the buyer has determined the method in which they plan to resolve the problem or pursue the goal, and are now considering a short list of companies that can provide the solution.

Let’s dig a bit deeper into this. What are the essential questions the buyer is asking themselves at each of these decision stages? Again, keeping it simple, their questions look like this…

Status Quo            Do I have a problem, or new goal I can attain?

Awareness              Is there a meaningful WHY to make a change?

Consideration         HOW should I make the change?

Decision                 WHO should I choose?

So if we take this model how do we apply a selling strategy around it?

My recommendation is that the first thing every seller needs to do is quickly and accurately determine EXACTLY which stage the buyer is in. It’s not hard to see that if the buyer is only in the Awareness stage and you are answering WHO questions, you are going to be completely out of sync and probably won’t get many, or any, subsequent meetings with the buyer(s).

The second thing to do is to match your activities to the stage and HELP THEM answer the fundamental question they are pondering at the time. The good news is we have tools in our arsenal from traditional sales process that can assist us (and our buyer).

Here is what a buyer-first process could look like if you apply this logic:

Stage              Buyer Question      Seller Behavior

Status Quo        DO I?                    Educate/Challenge

Awareness         WHY?                    Qualify/Quantify        

Consideration     HOW?                   Collaborate/Codify Vision   

Decision             WHO?                   Differentiate/Compete

Of course there will be some overlap in this. For instance, one could very well continue to educate throughout the entire sales process. But the goal of the education will shift as the spotlight moves from essential question to next essential question. 

And that’s the thing about the reality of sales. While we try to turn it into an exact science we can measure, deconstruct, accelerate, repair, etc., it is as much art as science. We are dealing with people after all. People who make decisions, even if the decision is not to move forward at all. 

In my experience, when we turn the focus on the buyer good things happen for all. Perhaps it’s time we recognize this for real, and define processes that follow their journey rather than trying to blindly prescribe steps that match our objectives.