At the heart of every high-growth predictable revenue machine is a strong sales process. It’s the backbone that supports organizational scale. It enables accurate forecasting and lets sales and marketing work together constructively. And it facilitates fast root-cause analysis when quarterly sales go sideways.
Over the past few years, I’ve personally built, advised, or consulted with over 500 sales organizations. In each case, sales process is a focal point.
What I've learned is there’s no single "right" sales process for every team. Leaders need to understand their market and internal dynamics to reach the best decision for that moment in the company's evolution. I’ve also learned when you’re building a world-class sales process you need to crawl before you run.
While the outcome will be different for every team, here are the evolutionary steps to achieving sales process greatness.
How New Sales Managers Can Build a Sales Process
1) Crawl: Consistent action and documentation
At this stage, it's less about whether you have the "right" processes and more about whether the team can act against them without deviating. Put simply, there is no sales process worse than having no process.
It matters less which rule you pick and much more that you pick one and begin to form muscle memory. For example, try making a quick decision on re-opening lost opportunities versus creating new opportunities in the CRM, and decide whether you’ll call or email leads first.
Next, religiously enter data into the CRM. Log key steps in the sales process, and don't give reps a pass on poor data quality. My rule here is: Structured Data > Unstructured Data > No Data.
When possible, use a pick list in your CRM to keep things clean (structured). If that isn't possible, neatly organize your text (unstructured) into fields by topic. And avoid the "no data entered” scenario.
2) Walk: Objective selling stages and activities
With key rules in place and a lot of data entered into a CRM, it’s time to create selling stages and key activities.
Follow these three rules when creating sales process stages at this step in the journey:
Ensure each stage is self-explanatory and easy to understand. Share your selling stages with a new hire or colleague in a different department. If they don’t understand the difference between stage one and two, the stages fail this criteria and you need to work on further clarifying them.
There are identifiable differences between each stage. It should also be clear what moves an opportunity from one stage to the next. For example, you should know when to upgrade a lead to an opportunity. Reps must know what makes the stages different and what needs to be done to get a deal to the next stage. If this doesn’t pass your new hire/colleague test, work on differentiating your stages. Are prospects automatically enrolled in a demo of your product or do they need to speak with a salesperson first? These are the kinds of questions you should answer to ensure that each stage is clearly defined.
As the stages advance, meaningful progress is made toward a purchase decision. While this may be an overly linear way of thinking about the sale, it should be "roughly right" most of the time and illustrate positive progress toward ringing the sales gong.
These rules help you avoid a comically bad sales process where the stages are "Might," "Could," "Would," and "Should.” To create a better process, use stages like "Demo Scheduled," "Demo Complete," "Trial," and "Contract Sent" instead.”
In the later example, each stage is self-explanatory, it's clear how each is different and how to move from one to the next. It’s also easy to tell when an opportunity moves to the next stage and if progress is being made toward a sale.
For sales activities, keep the list manageable and focus on the most important steps. Consider where reps spend their time and where the organization spends its money. Keep the list to five sales activities, and avoid unnecessary minutia, like "Lunch meeting" or "Out of office meeting."
3) Run: Assisting the buyer's journey
With the CRM running and a sales process in place, it’s time to take the next evolutionary step. Shift away from an internal selling process and move toward the customer’s buying journey.
This is a challenging stage, and the right answer will be different for every company. Stay focused by leaning into these core tenants:
Stages are the buyer's process, not the seller's steps. It's no longer about how a rep sells, but rather how a customer buys. Identify key stages and replace "Demo Completed" and "Trial" with "Evaluating Solutions" and "Technical Fit Assessment."
Establish buyer and seller exit criteria for each stage. Have reps progress to the next stage by proving certain criteria have been met. Buyer exit criteria is something the buyer's must do to show their journey is progressing. This might mean prospects need to confirm the statement of needs or introduce the rep to their boss. Seller exit criteria is action a rep must take before leaving the stage, like mapping out an org chart or sending a "champion letter." In both cases, the exit criteria must be objective (there is a clear-cut answer as to whether it's been met) and auditable (the manager can prove it happened).
Allow buyers to follow their own path. Step away from linear thinking and acknowledge customers make decisions differently. For example, in some cases it might be beneficial to allow a prospect to conduct a technical fit assessment before a demo. Think less about the order in which things need to be done and more about the list of activities that needs to happen to win.
This sales process utopia gives low-performing reps enough guidance to move opportunities in the right direction, while enabling all-star reps to help buyers along their journey.
While every team wants to implement best practices, not all are ready. Start by understanding how mature your organization is today, and remember every team needs to crawl before it runs.
Originally published Jan 5, 2018 9:00:00 PM, updated June 15 2021