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Do You Really Need a Sales Process?

Many people are attracted to a career in sales because they see it as a job that offers autonomy and is less structured than some types of work. It is true that selling requires flexibility and an ability to “think on your feet.” But there are proven processes and structured activities that make sales people more effective. Those who like to operate without any formal process often fail to advance the sale to a close and/or miss opportunities with established customers. That is why professional sellers follow a sales process.

sales process graphic adv saleWithout a formal sales process, sales people must rely entirely on their own creativity, resourcefulness, instincts and work ethics. Over 88% of sales persons surveyed by Commence Systems reported that they were most effective when they were given the freedom to work on their own and rely on their own talents. However, when put to the test, these same sales persons were unable to identify the cause of stalled sales. Most over-relied on skills for serving established customers or skills for opening new relationships but struggled with skills related to maximizing sales opportunities. Instead of proactively working a process, they reacted to customer demands or internal pressures for sales activities that yielded less than the desired results.

The introduction of a formal sales process helps sales organizations to operate more efficiently and more effectively. With a sales process and the associated skills needed to be proficient in each step of the sales process, professional sellers are able to diagnose the root causes of stalled sales and to improve customer satisfaction.

Virtually every sales training program and selling tool (such as a CRM, or Customer Relationship Manager system) will prescribe a sales process. Professional sellers use the process adopted by their selling organization because using common steps and language simplifies internal communication, performance metrics and resource allocation. It’s important for the professional seller to recognize, however, that the process of selling doesn’t really change. Even though organizations might name the parts of the process differently or break them into component parts in slightly different ways, the essential steps are always the same. In the diagram above, you can see the simple sales process used by People First Productivity Solutions.

With a sales process, the professional seller has a road map to follow. The process specifies what to do first and then what to do next, etc. Understanding what each step of the sales process entails helps the professional seller to understand where they are in the process and when it is time to move into the next step. Sellers who operate without a process lose this advantage. They must rely on instincts and guesswork instead of having a clear path to follow. That is often why sales reps (even strong ones) “lose their way” and miss out on sales opportunities.

A good sales process also tracks closely with the buyer’s process. Moving into a sales activity that the buyer is not ready for derails the sale and can impair the relationship between seller and buyer. In evaluating the merits of a sales process, professional sellers should consider two questions:

  • Do the steps in this sales process follow a logical order?
  • Do the steps in this sales process make sense from a buyer perspective as well as from a selling perspective?

If the answer to either question is “no,” then the seller should consider a different process. The objective of a sales process is to increase sales – but, ultimately, the only way to do that is by using a process that is pleasing to the customer, too.

Understanding the sales process in the context of the buying process is a very important aspect of professional selling. Sellers who do so maintain control of selling activities. Without doing so, sellers find themselves in a reactive mode.  Staying on track with where the buyer is requires knowing if they have moved from Awareness about your product to Interest in your product to Desire for your product so they are compelled to take Action to acquire your product.

There are many different names for sales processes that focus on customer needs. Books and training programs use these terms interchangeably to refer to processes that position the needs of the customer as the primary consideration in the sales process. Some of the names that have been used in describing this type of sales approach include:

  1. Consultative Selling
  2. Needs-Based Selling
  3. Socratic Selling
  4. Open-Question Selling
  5. Integrity Selling
  6. Guided Selling
  7. Customer Satisfaction Selling
  8. Solution Selling
  9. Value Selling
  10. Customer-Centric Selling

What all of these programs have in common is the primary focus on customer needs. Rather than selling what they want to sell, professional sellers sell what the customer wants to buy. Understanding what the customer wants to buy requires that the seller ask questions and look for clues about the needs of the customer.

The word “consultant” comes from the Latin “consultare” which means “to discuss.” A consultant is someone who offers professional advice in their area of expertise. Being a consultant requires a depth of industry knowledge and a desire for ongoing learning about business – both your business and your customer’s business. Customers rely on consultants to educate, inform and solve problems for them. To be a consultant means that there is an interest in doing more than selling and serving the customer. It implies a deeper level partnership between the seller and customer.

The word “sell” comes from the Old English “sellan” which means “to give up something.” A seller, then, is someone who gives up something (in exchange for something else). Being a seller requires a strong desire to provide something to someone. Sellers look for and seize opportunities to “give away” what they have been provided to sell.

Being a consultative seller requires a balance between time spent consulting and time spent selling. Balancing the two is a common challenge for many sales reps. Those who over-focus on selling activities jeopardize their relationship with the customer if they fail to demonstrate a genuine interest in all the business needs of the customer. Those who over-focus on consulting activities miss sales opportunities and may under-serve the customer by not creating the value that comes from those sales. Following a sales process helps sellers maintain the right balance of activities.

Professional sellers balance consulting and selling by viewing sales as solutions for their customers. They do not try to “protect” the customer from higher prices, additional sales, negotiations on quantity, or other business realities. Instead, they look for ways in every situation to meet the needs of their customers. And, when they cannot fully meet those needs, they look for longer-term solutions and ways to add value through the consulting relationship. In other words, they consult by using their expertise to understand the customer’s unique needs and then look for services and products they can “give away” to meet those stated needs.

Consultative selling is something that a seller can learn. But it is possible only when the seller has a true intent to partner with the customer. It is not effective as a slick sales technique. Sellers who lack a genuine desire to serve their customers but attempt to sell in a consultative style anyway are soon exposed. When the promise of consulting is made or implied by a seller’s actions, customer expectations are elevated. Customers feel betrayed if the seller they viewed as a consultant or partner later proves to be focused only on making a “quick sale.” Selling products that do not meet the customer’s needs is the surest way to be viewed as non-consultative.

Having a sales process that aligns with your intentions and objectives is the best practice. Consider finding one that meets your style and the needs of your customers and your organization. You’ll see your own productivity and sales effectiveness grow as a result of adhering to a process.

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