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January 14, 2016 // 12:00 PM

How to Define Your Sales Process Stages

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I sat staring at the Dun & Bradstreet printout. It listed information for all the prospects in my California territory including the company name, revenue figures, address, telephone number and, of course, the decision maker’s name and title. After all, that’s what they beat into our heads during the intensive five-week training program I’d just completed: Go for the decision maker.

The training program, called Professional Selling Skills, took a then-new consultative approach to sales. The seminar instructed us on all things related to the “sales process” and its associated stages -- such as qualifying prospects, defining needs, understanding buying patterns, overcoming objectives, presentations, developing listening skills (which my wife will say I’ve never really mastered), establishing value-added quantification in relationship to ROI, effective follow up ... the list goes on.

A lot has changed since then -- or has it? It’s much easier now to find out what you need to know about a prospect or a client. But although sales terminology might have changed, the basic principles of the selling process haven’t changed that much.

While every business is different, most follow a progression with comparable sales stages. I think of it as a continuum that starts with business development and ends with revenue generation. And it’s true for new business acquisition as well as expansion of existing business.

The typical sales process in the simplest terms goes something like this:

  1. Do target audience research
  2. Create awareness and generate leads
  3. Make contact, arrange a meeting, and/or conduct a presentation
  4. Submit a proposal and win the business
  5. Repeat

A successful sales process hinges on two things: establishing credibility and building trust. Once those two things are running smoothly, revenue gets generated. Keep one important thing in mind. It’s all about the buyer -- what they want and when they want it. The key is making sure your selling efforts are in sync with their buying signals and stages.

While there are only two fundamentals to this sales process, there are far more interrelated and supporting components that need to work in order for a successful end result to occur.

Here they are.

The 7 Stages of a Successful Sales Process

1) Qualification

This is the stage where qualitative, quantitative, demographic, and psychographic research are analyzed to gain insight into prospect behavior and buying patterns. It’s where prospect identification, confirmation, and lead generation come in. Inbound marketing, social media, and content marketing efforts help generate qualified leads, greatly reduce cold calling, and shorten the sales cycle considerably.

2) Preparation

This sales process stage encompasses a variety of diverse sales skills, such as meeting preparation, creating interest, anticipating and overcoming objections, presenting, consulting, audience engagement techniques, closing gestures, follow-up ... and more. A lot more.

And preparation isn't just a one-time thing -- it’s ongoing. Some of the other preparation components encompass understanding the competitive landscape and challenges faced by your prospects, confirming that your products and services will address those challenges and do it in a cost-effective, needs-based manner, and establishing quantifiable value. If you can't do all of these things, you're not truly prepared.

3) Presentation

Assuming you’ve done all your homework in the first two stages of the process, you may be fortunate enough to book a meeting. The stage following the meeting and/or presentation will be determined by how well you have nailed down the prior two steps and how well you perform your demo (and yes, it is a performance). So you better know what you’re talking about and rehearse it to the point that you could do it in your sleep while still seeming “spontaneous.” It’s an art form. It’s also an important part of building credibility and establishing trust.

4) Realization

Once you’ve made it past the first three stages successfully, you might have earned the opportunity to present a proposal. This is where your agreed upon client needs-based analysis and quantified value benefits need to be clearly laid out and justified. If they are not ... don’t even bother submitting a proposal.

5) Performication

Okay, so I made that one up to keep with the “-ation” motif. Really, this sales process stage is about obligation. If you’re lucky enough to be awarded the business (and a lot of times, hard work and preparation aside, sales comes down to timing and luck), it becomes your obligation to make certain you’ll deliver on what you proposed, and what the client agreed to.

6) Communication

An integral part of the process is keeping both internal and external contacts involved and in the loop. Use your CRM system -- that’s what it’s for. But above all, make sure you keep the client updated and do it on a regular basis. If you did well, tell them. If you encountered an issue, tell them about it and explain how it was corrected. They’ll respect you in both instances.

7) Continuation

This is an often-overlooked and underutilized stage of the process -- despite containing hidden revenue-generating opportunities. How do I know? Because I’ve seen it happen ... and not happen. My company recently completed a preliminary benchmark study in which participants indicated they did a poor job reinforcing value with their customers in a regular, ongoing manner. By neglecting to reinforce value, organizations miss opportunities to justify the client's decision, and lose out on referrals and upsell business. (You can get a copy of the summary here.)

Many years have passed since I sat staring at that D&B printout, and it took me a while to define, understand, and fully appreciate the stages in my sales process. You need to figure yours out based on your sales style and training experience.

The names you give to the stages might be different. But more than likely, the steps and supporting components will be similar.

And while I may not know what your specific stages are, I do know this: Once you understand and do the things necessary to establish credibility and earn trust, you’ll increase the odds of achieving your primary objective -- generating revenue.

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