Partner at Vantage Point
Sales processes have have had an interesting journey. For decades, sales forces avoided formal sales processes as though they were agents of evil sent to stamp out the magical, artful abilities of enigmatic salespeople. Great salespeople were born, not made, and we hired them based on such less-than-concrete competencies as having "a fire in the belly" and "killer instinct." Even if formal processes did exist in a sales force, there was little expectation that sellers would comply.
Then came the enlightenment of the mid-20th century. Companies such as IBM and Xerox invested heavily in rigorous sales training programs. Consultative selling became a thing, and brilliant researchers like Neil Rackham proved the impact that a formalized sales methodology could have on sales performance. An entire industry developed around a handful of branded sales processes that you can probably recall off the top of your head…because they’re still around today, nearly 40 years later.
But sales processes really took flight with the advent of CRM. When automation finally reached the sales force, teams of consultants scoured the land in search of sales processes to automate -- revealing a shoddy state of affairs in many organizations. Processes have been defined, measured and reported over the past two decades in ways unimaginable before computers and the internet.
Sales processes had finally arrived.
Yet, new research by Florida State University’s Leff Bonney shows that 51 percent of sales executives are disappointed with their sales processes. And the reason is clear: sales processes are not living up to their promise. Our own research shows that only 52 percent of salespeople are achieving their quotas, and the number is trending down, not up. So why is it that in this era of sales process and management rigor, our salespeople still don’t succeed?
According to Dr. Bonney, the problem lies in our current approach to implementing sales processes:
As an industry, we cling to this incorrect notion that there’s a single best way to sell. We select a sales process or methodology that we believe is a ‘best practice,’ and we tell our sellers to repeat that same sales approach with every customer in every circumstance. It’s a fundamentally flawed strategy. Our research shows that the best salespeople don’t adhere to a single sales approach – they use several different approaches, depending on the buying situations they encounter. Meanwhile, average salespeople tend to follow a single sales approach regardless of the situation, which works when the approach fits, but fails when it doesn’t. By enforcing a single sales process in our sales forces, we’re actually mandating that our salespeople fail by design.
Dr. Bonney uses examples from other professions to demonstrate his point:
No doctor believes there’s a single best way to heal people – they assess each patient’s illness and prescribe the appropriate remedy. No football team goes onto the field and runs the same play on every down – they choose the best play based on the circumstances and the opponent. No military leader believes there’s a single way to defeat the enemy – they react to the situation they encounter on the ground. Yet, we send our salespeople into battle with a single sales approach and then wonder why they get slaughtered. It’s madness.
The dawn of a new era for sales process.
Every now and then -- but not too often -- an insight strikes me as so fundamentally true, I can’t believe I ever thought otherwise. This is one of those insights. Of course we shouldn’t expect a single sales process to work in every situation our sellers encounter. Of course our best salespeople adapt their approach to different buyers’ needs. Of course 51 percent of our sellers don’t achieve their quota… Because they’re doing exactly what we asked them to do.
So, going forward, that means that the era of the "best practice" sales process is over. The myth that there’s a single best way to sell is dead. We now know that the strategy of demanding strict adherence to a formal sales process is a loser. Continue to call the same play on every down, and you’ll never move the ball forward -- with no one to blame but yourself.
The new era of sales process will be about agility, not rigidity. We will train our salespeople how to quickly identify the situations they face, then react with the appropriate plays. We’ll teach them to adapt to the situation as they see it, rather than just kicking in every door with guns ablaze. We’ll admit that the last 40 years was a sales process warm-up. Now it’s time to take our game to a higher level.
Will you still have your current sales process? Probably. It surely works, sometimes. But you’ll also have different approaches that work in other situations -- probably no more than three to five approaches in total. Perhaps one to use when buyers need consultation. Perhaps another to employ when buyers simply want to transact. Perhaps another when the buyer’s thinking needs to be challenged or disrupted. Perhaps something unique to your industry or product. Only you and your customers can know.
You know it’s true.
As I mentioned above, this insight immediately struck me as so fundamentally true, I couldn’t believe I ever thought otherwise. Chances are, you know it’s true as well. Looking back at my career in sales and the best salespeople I’ve ever known, this is what they did. They sold differently in different situations. And they won big. For me and my clients, the era of the one-size-fits-all sales process is over. The era of sales agility has begun. Perhaps in 40 years we’ll look back and wonder why we ever thought this was a good idea. But I seriously doubt it.