What is a sales process?
“Sales process” most often refers to a repeatable set of steps your sales team takes with a prospect to move them from early stage to a closed customer. A good sales process helps your reps consistently close deals by giving them a framework to follow.
Building a repeatable, scalable sales process is tough. There's no shortage of diagrams, methodologies, or experts with opinions on exactly how you should be doing things. So where should you start? Right here. We’ve pulled together an introduction to all things “sales process” to help you get started down the road toward defining what your company’s ideal sales process should look like.
What are the steps of a sales process?
The common stages of the sales process include:
The process of sourcing new early stage leads to begin a sales process with. Prospecting may involve online research to find net new prospects, or researching into an existing database of contacts.
Initiating contact with those early stage leads to gather information and judge their worthiness for moving forward.
Learning more about a prospect and their company as they progress through the sales process can help sales reps offer a more tailored experience, and improve the likelihood a deal will close.
A typical stage of many sales processes is to run a formal presentation or demonstration of what is being sold. This stage is time-consuming, so it typically comes deeper in the sales process and only for well qualified prospects.
This stage refers to any late stage activities that happen as a deal approaches closing. It varies widely from company to company, and may include things like delivering a quote or proposal, negotiation, achieving the buy-in of decision makers, and other actions.
Sales Process vs. Sales Methodology
If you’ve heard the phrase “sales process,” you’ve probably also heard the phrase “sales methodology.” There is a difference, and it’s important to understand.
- “Sales process” refers to the specific, concrete set of actions that your team follows to close a new customer.
- “Sales methodology” refers to the framework for how different parts of your sales process are actually carried out.
The next natural question -- do you need both? The answer is probably yes. While your sales process is the high level map of steps your team takes, within each step, you’ll want to be aware of the different methodologies that can help guide how the members of your team actually approach the sales process.
Popular Sales Methodologies
It’s worth thinking about some of the finer points of how your team should carry out their day to day selling activities. Choosing a sales methodology sets the foundation for our your sales team approaches their work.
“The Challenger Sale” is a book that rose to popularity after being authored by Matthew Dixon of CEB in late 2011. The book defines five types of sales professionals and the challenger persona was most highly correlated with high perfomance. “Challengers” are characterized by their willingness to learn about a customers’ business, and to push the customer or challenge their preconceptions during the sales process.
First popularized in the late 1970s and early 1980s, solution selling first focuses on the customers’ pain instead of his or her own companies’ products. Products are instead framed as solutions, and emphasis is placed on achieving agreement on what a resolution of the customers’ pain would look like.
An outgrowth of “solution selling,” consultative selling also came into popularity during the 1980s. Consultative selling places the emphasis on the salesperson becoming a “trusted advisor” to the customer, gaining authority and trust over time.
The Inbound Sales Methodology
When we set out to build our marketing platform in 2007, we defined the concept of inbound marketing -- an approach characterized by “attracting” buyers, instead of following a dated playbook of interrupting your prospective customers with irrelevant messages and advertising. The inbound sales methodology matches how people buy.
Now, it’s becoming more and more important for sales teams put the needs of their buyers ahead of their own needs. Think about some of the changes to how we all approach buying goods and services today.
- Buyers can now find most of the information they need about a company's products or services before they ever engage a salesperson.
- Buyers have gotten better and better at blocking out cold and interruptive sales techniques (cold calls and irrelevant sales emails, for example.)
- Buyers have heightened expectations around the experience of buying. They will control the experience, and they will move through the process largely on their own timeline.
These shifts are all examples of how buyers have seized control of the sales process from the sales reps who once held all the power and control in the sales process. With these changes in mind, it's important for sales teams to adopt a more helpful, human approach to selling. We think of this as inbound selling. A few guiding principles we’ve outlined:
Inbound selling is personalized.
Your prospects want content tailored to their goals and challenges and how your product can help them conquer those goals and challenges. Throughout a sales process, you are gathering data through conversations about how to personalize your message.
Inbound selling is buyer-centric.
There’s no longer any question about where the power lies in the salesperson-buyer dynamic: It’s all in the hands of the buyer. For sales professionals to be a part of a buyer's process, they need to demonstrate how they can add value by acting as a partner and trusted advisor.
Inbound selling is advisory.
It used to be that tenacity and dogged pursuit of a lead was the only way to close a sale. Now, it’s easier than ever for buyers to block out annoying and interruptive messages from salespeople. Everyone has a spam folder, and everyone has caller ID. Sales professionals need to build trust and a relationship with buyers to keep the lines of communication open.
How to Build a Sales Process
1) Observe your reps.
Look back at the last five or 10 deals that closed. What were the major steps in the process? Touchpoints with the customer? Roughly how long did the entire process take, and how much time elapsed between each step? The more examples you have (and the more people on your team those examples are coming from), the better.
2) Map your observations to a generic example.
While every sales process is different, chances are the steps you observed align at least somewhat with the common steps outlined above. Your list of steps may be shorter, or may include stages not listed above, but a generic example is often a good starting point.
3) Define the prospect action that moves them to the next stage.
For each of the stages you define, you’ll want to have a crisp explanation of what causes a prospect to move from one stage to the next. Ideally that reason or cause will be based on the actions of the prospect, not the perception of the sales rep. Yes or no questions or questions with quantifiable answers are best.
4) Iterate over time.
Devising your teams’ sales process is a job that never ends. Especially in the weeks and months after your initial research, you’ll want to continue to iterate on your work based on feedback from your team. Over the long run, it’s likely your sales process will evolve as your team finds ways to work more efficiently and move prospects through your pipeline faster.
Measuring Your Sales Process
As you define and evolve your sales process map over time, you’ll want to think about what the key metrics are that you should be measuring at each stage. Some basic examples include:
- How many prospects transitioned into and out of each stage in a given time period? For example, you’ll want to be able to easily draw out conclusions like, “In July, we started with 75 prospects in the ‘awaiting demo’ stage ... at the end of the month, we had moved through 28 prospects, and added 19, leaving us with 66 prospects in the ‘awaiting demo’ stage.”
- How long are your prospects staying in particular stages on average? Are there places where you could “speed up” the time spent at one stage?
These are the very basics that most teams find value in measuring. Give some thought to other metrics that are specific to your business and will help you define success or the need for improvement in a particular stage.
Common Mistakes and Tips for Success
Don’t leave your sales process steps open to interpretation.
It’s important to define specific, concrete actions on the part of the prospect that cause them to be moved from one stage to the next. Leaving it up to your sales team to interpret these triggers will leave you with a less accurate understanding of where things are and aren’t working in your sales process.
Don’t expect any one sales methodology to be the “silver bullet.”
While some teams choose to stick with and follow one methodology closely, others choose to study several popular methodologies and pick bits and pieces they find useful from each. Regardless of which approach you take, it’s a good idea to at least keep abreast of what is new and changing over time. As the needs and desires of buyers change, different approaches, methodologies, and ways of doing things will fall into and out of favor.
Your sales process map will always be a work in progress.
As we mentioned above, this won’t be a one-and-done project -- your sales process will always be a work in progress. It’s good to get in the habit of stepping back to review how you think about your sales process every four to six months with the folks who are in the trenches selling every day. (This should be in addition to watching performance metrics on a daily basis.)