Most of our “sales processes” are failing us. There are a couple of core reasons we’ve found. First, sales people don’t pay attention to them or execute them poorly. This post isn’t for those people.
Second, we have outdated views of the sales process. We design it to be a relatively linear progression of activities we undertake with the customer. Despite knowing the customer buying process is very squishy and wandering, we design our processes to be relatively rigid, rigid to the point of being highly scripted. Overlay on this, the focus is on our activities and the activities we want the customer to do in response to our activities.
Sometimes, when we design our sales processes, we suggest a complementary buying process to align customer activities with the things we want to do. But the reality is very far from this.
Elements of Today's Sales Process
Having said this, a sales process is very important–not just to us, but also to our customers. But today’s sales processes have to be designed very differently. Let’s look at some of the elements:
First: We know our customers struggle to buy. In complex B2B, they are doing something they may have never done before, or haven’t done it in a long time. We know, also, the customer isn’t really on a buying journey, rather they are making a change to their business. They may be solving a problem, they may be addressing a new opportunity. Buying is just a component, often a small component of what they are trying to achieve. Yet, most of the time, if we help, all we help them with is the buying component, our focus is on selling a solution, while leaving the customer with the heavy lifting.
Yet there’s so much we can contribute to their larger change efforts. After all, our solutions are focused on helping customers address these larger problems. We have deep experience with others who have solved these problems. We can share what we’ve learned from working with other customers on these issues.
Second: While the customer has recognized a need to change, often, they are unable to articulate that need to change. They may not have established goals for what they want to achieve, and when they need to achieve it. Or in the task of solving their problems, they lose track of what they were trying to do in the first place. As a result, they get lost. One of the most critical things we can do is help the customer not lose site of their goal. We must continue to help them understand: Why do they need to change, what makes their current method untenable for the future? When do they need to have the change in place? What are the consequences of missing that date?
Being able to articulate this, reinforces what they are trying to achieve and when. As they go through the process, this helps re-center them when they lose their way and wander. It helps them maintain their urgency in doing something.
Often, they may not know this, or may have just a fuzzy idea of what they are trying to achieve. We create huge value by helping them take the time to establish this goal, to align everyone on the team about what they want to achieve and it’s importance.
Third: As we look at any change management/problem solving process, it’s very dynamic, constantly shifting. Just look at some of your internal change management projects. Regardless, how disciplined, it shifts, wanders, starts/stops. People involved changed, corporate priorities change. As much as our customers develop disciplined project plans, with goals, milestones, and so forth, these tend to get displaced by current crises. Studies show over 70% of internal collaborations/projects fail. As sales people, we need to think of the expertise and skills we might bring to reduce this failure rate–helping the customer achieve the goals they hoped to achieve at the beginning of this change management effort. Orchestration and project management will become key for helping the customer successfully navigate their project.
Fourth: The customer problem solving/buying journey is a hybrid process, moving to a digitally led process. Increasingly, customers will leverage a wide variety of digital sources to learn and leverage for what they are trying to achieve. This requires us to rethink our entire engagement process, redesigning the workflow, rethinking the types of interventions we leverage in working with customers. Some will be digital, some will be human. We have to, more effectively, leverage new technologies to help us intervene most appropriately, with the right content, the right experience, the right human intervention.
Fifth: While we traditionally, focus on solution selection, as mentioned before, the customer’s biggest challenge has more to do with change management, understanding the risks, appropriately defining the problem/opportunity. So the best help might less around leveraging product specialists, but leveraging business function/process specialists. We need to provide expertise on the business issues our customers are trying to address, help them understand that which they may not, helping them learn how others have addressed these, helping them learn.
Sixth: Agility/flexibility in engaging the customer will become much more relevant to the customer than our internally focused, highly scripted approaches. Each customer will approach the buying process a little differently. We have to develop selling skills to respond flexibly, meeting the customer where they are at, helping them navigate their process more effectively. Critical skills become, curiosity, creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, the ability to drive collaborative conversations, the ability to help the customer organize themselves to achieve their goals.
Seventh: As an extension of the prior point, many of the challenges our customers face go far beyond the capabilities we and our customers can deploy. We need to develop very agile partnering relationships, leveraging others to help solve the customer problems. These are very different than traditional channel partnerships, but enable us to “swarm” the customer problem, helping them more effectively drive their change initiatives.
Eighth: Simplification and sensemaking become critical. We will never be able to describe either the customer journey or our journey in linear terms (Step 1, step 2, step 3, …… EOJ). As much as both we and the customer want to do this, it just doesn’t work that way. It will wander, it will start and stop. But we can offer a lot of leadership in helping simplify and straighten the process as much as possible. As I’ve mentioned before (and am repeating myself), much of the wandering and uncertainty customers face, is a result of doing something they haven’t done before.
Making the Sales Process Simpler
I’ll stop here. there are undoubtedly more–but since you are agile and skilled problem solvers, you can figure them out.
For complex issues, the buying process, problem solving process, and, consequently, our selling process will never be a simple predictable process. It will change with every situation and every customer. But we can help the customer make it simpler and improve their success in achieving their goals. And through that, more effectively achieve our own.