The End of Sales Process

In today’s world, following a sales process is more trouble than its worth.

For those who know me, that headline may send you reeling. But before you think that I’m abandoning process, read on.

Sales Process comes from the days when selling started to get more complex. It was around the late 1940’s when companies – the likes of NCR, IBM and Burroughs, selling their latest and greatest accounting machines – observed that their sales teams were no longer engaged in the “one-call close”. Selling had become more complex and had entered a new age. There was growing competition, greater communication (you could even talk to suppliers from out of town) and the advent of more than one person involved in buying. The sales person now needed to talk to more folk, orchestrate trials and demos, write formal quotes, and learn to negotiate contracts.

Out of this environment was born the Sales Process; a series of sequential steps that a sales person would follow in which to progress a sale. The sales process was useful as it helped to organize the pipeline, see where prospects were, determine what to do next, and enable all sorts of management reporting. The sales process had the obvious hoped-for result of a purchase order. Over the subsequent decades, the sales process has been elevated to almost a new science. CRM systems can churn out pipeline reports and all sorts of analytics, and many organizations have gone so far as to assign forecast probabilities to the stages of their sales process. However, the accuracy and usefulness of such reporting and forecasting may be amongst our first clues to the fact that all is not well, and that we are now witnessing another disruption in the way individuals and organizations are buying.

The challenge we have today is that customers don’t buy the way they did back in the 20th century. No longer do they have to work through a sales person to gain information; there is an abundance of knowledge available at their fingertips. No longer is there a single decision maker for the sales person to meet with; rather buying decisions are made through a dynamic network of decision influencers.

Perhaps even more disruptive is the simple fact that the world has changed. Each and every organization has become more consumed with simply keeping up and staying the course. They can’t stop to evaluate every new idea that arrives at their doorstep, no matter how compelling. They can’t invest in every offering, no matter how breakthrough and valuable it would be to their organization. As paradoxical as it seems, it is very important to keep in mind that when customers don’t buy, it’s rarely due to a lack of belief in the value of your offering.

It’s a new world and customers no longer behave as we – the sellers – would like them to. They don’t walk in lock step with our sales process. They don’t buy because we have put a great proposal in front of them. They won’t issue a purchase order because we are at “step 5” in our sales process and have forecast them at 90%! Customers do, however, follow a process – their own buying process. They embark on buying journeys where various players come and go at different stages with different concerns. In those journeys are any number of internal issues, friction points and potential roadblocks. Through our own work and research, we have found that, for a given offering across a specific market, these dynamics can be predicted and mapped. And we have also found that these buying processes have nothing to do with any sales process.

So, it is time to let go of the notion of “our sales process” and adopt the new concept of understanding and supporting their buying process. We must define the optimal selling activities for each stage of that buying process.

We must stop categorizing our sales opportunities relative to our sales process – which is subjective and therefore worthless – and start understanding where our customers are in their buying journey. After all, it is a customer successfully navigating that journey that results in a purchase order, not our sales process.

I am therefore advocating a 180° shift in focus. We must turn our attention away from the internal sales process and place it externally on the buying process, an OUTSIDE-IN approach to selling. I guarantee that any organization that adopts such an approach is going to be far more successful in terms of not only sales forecasting and but also in maximizing revenue. So, I’m not giving up on process, but simply saying that the success formula for today’s sales forces is in focusing on the customer’s specific buying process. Because it’s not what they buy, it’s how they buy.

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