I've been in various sales and sales management roles for about 15 years. During this time, I’ve been involved in the creation of over 20 different sales processes.
- We’ve written and revised HubSpot’s sales process at least five times since our founding in 2006.
- We’ve created internal sales processes tailored to the different personas we sell to, such as small and large B2B companies, marketing agencies, media companies, non profit organizations, schools and ecommerce businesses.
- We’ve created and published several iterations of a sales process for HubSpot’s partners -- marketing agencies who want to sell marketing retainers.
- Lately, I’ve been advising a handful of startup companies and helping them document their first sales processes.
- Just this month, HubSpot launched a free sales training course which includes mock sales process examples that I helped author.
Each of these processes presented its own unique challenges and takeaways, though there were more commonalities than differences. Here are the nine most important lessons I learned from creating and iterating on these sales processes over the years.
9 Lessons Learned From Defining 20+ Sales Processes
1) Always start by defining one primary persona.
When businesses are small, it feels risky to commit to a specific buyer. The fear of alienating buyers who could be an okay fit often delays the decision to focus on the ideal fit. In HubSpot's early years, we split our focus between very small businesses (VSBs) as well as small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). We later chose to focus on the higher end of SMBs even though some savvier VSBs still buy HubSpot today.
In a recent Medium article, HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan explained that this split focus was a mistake. Developing a simple sales process that is flexible enough for multiple types of buyers is almost impossible. Our process attempted to speak to the needs of both a VSB owner (Owner Ollie) and a marketer (Marketer Mary) at a mid-sized, growing firm. However, this lack of focus prevented us from creating a great sales process for either persona. Several years ago, when we finally picked Marketer Mary as our primary persona for our direct sales team, we were able to finally agree on a sales process.
It's really powerful when a company commits to focusing on one persona. Focus brought amazing results for us. When we finally named, studied and focused on our primary "Marketer Mary" persona, sales and retention results improved drastically. This focus drove growth that allowed us to build sales processes for more personas down the line. Today, we have different teams that focus on other personas, and a process to match each.
Small businesses should pick one buyer and build a process around that persona. Once you do so, your entire company can align their projects and processes around it. When everyone is rowing the boat in one direction, it goes a lot faster.
2) Include your team when creating the process.
We never defined a sales process at HubSpot without input from our sales team. Salespeople are on the phone with prospects all day, every day, and provide a necessary reality check for any talk track or question sequence.
Be careful to not let them run wild, though. There’s a difference between seeking input and ceding control. Your job as a leader is to bridge the gap between what is and what should be, so make sure you filter out bad sales habits your team might try to write into the process.
To ensure you are using sales best practices, use a proven sales methodology as the basis for your sales process. (Check out this blog post if you're not sure what the difference between a sales process and a sales methodology is?) Have your team take some training as they are creating the process. For example, have your team watch the first two classes in HubSpot's free inbound sales training course, then have them create process that helps them better identify and connect with prospects. They'll have creative ideas that have worked previously for them, but they can use the methodology as a guardrail to make sure they're not making obvious mistakes, like starting every sentence with "I wanted to" in their sales email templates.
Need to convince the team that a sales process will benefit them? Focus on how it'll help them learn best practices and approaches that work for their peers. Michael Webb of Sales Performance Consultants, Inc explains how a sales process helps individuals learn from each other:
"People need explicit, motivating, practical ways of improving their performance. They need an agreed-upon means of learning and improving together. So, the real purpose of a sales process is to give salespeople, their managers, and the business a means of learning and improving. A real process enables participants to connect their own activities to outcomes. It enables all to see what works, what doesn’t work, and why.”
If that quote doesn’t convince you and your team to document your sales process, I’m afraid the rest of this article isn’t for you. Skipping feedback-gathering from your team is a sales shortcut you should never take.
3) Start documenting the problem area.
Nine times out of 10, companies just don't have enough opportunities entering their funnel. Even if that’s not you, it’s hard to argue with the fact that more qualified opportunities in the top of the funnel will help increase the quantity and quality of opportunities that reach the bottom. So most companies start by creating and documenting their prospecting processes.
I've also advised a few companies with plenty of inbound leads. Their biggest problem was figuring out which prospects to call and spend time with. In these cases, devising and documenting the exploratory process with a strong qualification framework was their first move. If your sale is transactional in nature and you have strong demand, it might even make sense for you to document your presentation and closing process first.
Also, there’s no hard and fast rule about how many separate steps should be in your sales process -- your process just needs to include the necessary components that lead to a successful sale. Different companies define these necessary components differently, but they are generally:
- Identifying companies and contacts
- Connecting with these contacts
- Exploring mutual fit to identify qualified sales opportunities
- Advising prospects on how to effectively leverage your services to their benefit
- Ensuring customer success.
As an example, here’s a schematic of HubSpot’s Inbound Sales Methodology:
These first four components could take as little as one call to complete or much longer. Defining a typical call cadence for each of these components -- whether your reps execute them as separate calls every time or not -- helps your reps pinpoint whether they’re spending their time with qualified prospects.
I’m also a fan of having optional steps in your sales process. For example, HubSpot has an as-needed “plan development” step in our sales process that we can use to help a prospect define their post-purchase implementation steps. When our prospect leaves our qualification call hesitant to make changes to their marketing and sales strategy, it’s usually because they can’t visualize how or who will implement the changes we’re suggesting. In this case, the reps can leverage this extra step to give the prospect confidence to make a change and an investment. This extra step also allows our rep to influence the timeline and sequence of their plan, giving them more insight into the likelihood of closing the deal.
On the flip side, our HubSpot Sales product allows users to use the product (up to certain limits) for free, has a relatively simple value proposition and is only $50/month/user for the premium version. Having multiple calls doesn’t make as much sense. In this case, it made more sense to qualify and demonstrate our product in one call. And since it’s a free product to start, there is no prospecting process -- free users actually book time on our sales rep’s calendars when they have questions about the more advanced capabilities of the premium product.
Whether you have one call or 10, start by defining the part of the process you need to improve first. Then, work up and down funnel as you define each step.
4) Know your lead sources.
Your process will vary depending on where your leads come from and how “ready to buy” they are. Inbound leads are typically more prepared to talk to you about how you can help them and how your product or service works.
If you don’t have inbound leads, you’ll need to develop a more comprehensive process for identifying and connecting with prospects who don’t yet know you exist and who might not even understand why offerings like yours exist at all.
5) Build a repeatable process for connecting with leads.
While prospecting usually takes up the biggest portion of a salesperson’s time, companies often leave too much discretion to their salespeople in how they'll reach out. Include the team in creating messaging, but don't let brand-new salespeople write their own messages. I guarantee they'll screw it up. They’ll come off as desperate, pushy or just overly self-centered.
6) Choose a prospect-friendly qualification framework.
Too many companies design their qualification framework to expediently vet ready-to-buy prospects from ones that aren’t. They make budget, authority, and timing the focus of the qualification conversation. This is fine if you have loads of demand and the need for your service is clearly understood by your prospects. But there aren’t many companies in that situation, nor many that will stay there forever in this ever-changing, hyper-competitive world.
Instead, build an exploratory framework that helps prospects become aware of improvement opportunities. Focus on how you can improve their plan to overcome their challenges (known and unknown) and achieve their goals. Budget, timing, and decision making processes become a natural part of the conversation after that.
7) Build customizable templates for proposals, demos, and presentations.
Uncustomized canned presentations and proposals are not that effective, but creating presentations and proposals from scratch for each prospect is extremely inefficient. Creating reusable templates that can quickly be customized to each prospect’s situation is a must for efficiency and effectiveness.
Using software like Tinderbox, PandaDoc, or Proposify, the process of assembling, sending, and executing contracts can be even more efficient, not to mention higher quality and more professionally written and designed. Many of these proposal software companies even offer free templates for specific types of services. For example, both PandaDoc (sample here) and Proposify (sample here) have created sample templates for inbound marketing proposals that marketing agencies can use as a basis for their own proposals.
Disclaimer: I’m on PandaDoc’s advisory board.
8) Commit to constant process improvement.
"A process is not a static thing; it lives to create improvement,” Michael Webb writes. “It represents respectful agreement within the team on the best currently known method of accomplishing the goal."
The most important thing about sales processes is that they need to be continuously improved. No single sales process will be effective for every future sale. Products, product features, and competitors change. In addition, buying processes have changed over the last few decades as the internet has empowered buyers, and will continue to empower them even more over time. If your sales process hasn’t changed over the years, it’s likely out of date and irrelevant.
Lastly, technology and data availability about prospects has improved drastically, giving salespeople the ability to connect with in-market prospects as if they were looking over 1,000s of their prospect’s shoulder all at once. Your process needs to change to leverage this technology fully.
9) A process only works if the team can execute it effectively.
Sales and marketing consultant and coach Carole Mahoney recently penned an article titled, “Sales Process vs. Sales Coaching -- Chicken or Egg?”
Like me, Mahoney is a big believer in the importance of sales coaching. Process only takes us so far. Your salespeople's skills (or lack thereof) and weaknesses are ultimately responsible for a deal's success or failure. When those failures accumulate across a sales team, no sales process can fix it.
In her article, Mahoney writes, “If we want to fix sales, we must fix the salespeople first.”
I agree. Every deal and buyer is different. Therefore, a one-size-fits-all sales process will not work all of the time. Salespeople need to react to their buyers and apply their selling skills and process to each situation -- not mindlessly apply a sales process to every deal. This is rarely intuitive for most salespeople. So the best salespeople always seek out help from their managers or external coaches for help on actual deals.
In short, don’t expect a sales process to solve all of your problems. If your salespeople are struggling with the sales process, they need to take the time to learn how to apply it. You might even have the wrong salespeople on the phone or the wrong sales managers managing them. A good sales coach can help you fix these issues -- and reinforce the value and use of a sales process.
A Sales Process Is the Key to Sales Improvement
Several studies over the years have validated the value of a documented, constantly improving sales process. Research conducted by Vantage Point Performance and the Sales Management Association showed that companies with a defined, formal sales process saw 18% higher revenue growth than companies that didn’t. The Sales Management Association also found that “Sales process use” is the activity that has the greatest impact on profit goal achievement.
So what are you waiting for? Pop open a document and start typing what you do now. Dedicate time to learning sales best practices, testing them, and incorporating what works into your process.
Don’t be afraid to empower your team to be creative. As you roll out process training to your existing team and onboard new employees, encourage them to try new things and share what they learn. If you’re not a sales expert yourself, consider hiring an expert to help too. The more collaborative and iterative your 'process creation' process is, the better it will be.
Originally published May 2, 2016 12:00:00 PM, updated October 30 2019