When organizations fall short of their profitable growth goals, they habitually look to the sales organization to drive more productivity and wonder what should change to improve performance: Sales roles and behavior? Incentives and compensation? Quotas and performance expectations?

Yet too often a core factor that causes poor sales performance is overlooked. Too many companies fail to analyze and uncover gaps in the sales process. Until a company’s sales process, i.e., its sales roles and sales activities, aligns with how their customers want to buy, the best pay plan and the tightest quotas won’t drive revenue growth.

Macro Factors to Consider in the Sales Process

Today’s buyer differs significantly from the customer of just three to five years ago. Organizations are more complex, more collaborative, and often matrixed. There’s less command and control than in the past, and there are likely to be numerous stakeholders with input into the buying decision.

According to research from ChallengerInc.com, customers are 60 percent of the way through the buying process, from a preferences standpoint, before they even reach out to potential solution providers. Given the ubiquity of information on the internet, buyers can peruse sellers’ websites, marketing material, customer critiques or complaints and industry reports like Gartner. By the time companies are invited in to bid, the buyer has already narrowed it down to a few preferred sellers—and likely has a favorite among them.

Complicating the sales process further, salespeople must influence and convince a hierarchy of stakeholders on the buying team, particularly if they are selling service-based products. For example, if the customer is purchasing a sales force CRM system, the project manager and technical team might seem to be the key decision makers, but Procurement, the COO, CFO, and heads of Sales, IT and HR may also need to weigh in and “bless” the proposed solution. That gets tricky because each will have separate interests and decision criteria that must be satisfied.

In other words, a sales team must be prepared to sell across the buyer’s organization as well as up and down it. In addition, the sales team needs to coordinate with all these buyers at different levels, so team selling is ever more critical.

The Right Approach to Sales Process Mapping

The traditional sales relationship-oriented role is less valuable as the point of influence than in the past. Instead, companies must consider the breadth of their sales roles and align them appropriately within their sales process. And when a buyer has a few favored vendors, there is increased onus on the seller to utilize its sales team effectively to manage each buyer-stakeholder and meet their requirements at every level of sales process.

The breadth of the buyer’s decision-making team indicates the need to examine and update the sales process. Doing so will often shift their deployment model (i.e., who does what in the sales process).

We frequently encounter big gaps in the amount of detail that sales forces employ in building their sales processes. The more successful they are, the more they will tailor their sales process to buyer demands and idiosyncrasies.

If you understand the buyer’s decision-making process, the sales process can be designed to increase win rates. Building a sales process that conforms to how a buyer wants to buy typically involves five steps.

1. Philosophy

Adopt a philosophy that envisions the ”end in mind.” This helps clarify the exact objective you intend to achieve at each step in the sales process. For example, agreement on business requirements or technical specifications. This approach ensures that each step in the sales process is methodical and well planned and that the members of the sales team are working towards very defined goals.

2. Stakeholder Map

Define who will likely get involved in the sales process and when.

3. Personas

Develop a distinct persona for each customer type or role. Understand what the CFO cares most about and how and why that may be different than what the CIO deems critical to making a decision.

4. Sales Process Stages

Map out the stages in the sales process and the key accountabilities of the sales team members (see Illustration below from Axiom Consulting Partners). Identify the three to four core activities that fall within each of the stages. For example, Lead Generation may comprise: a) attending trade shows; b) conducting webinars and attending events; and c) writing/distributing content and intellectual property (IP) to send potential customers. Then consider how the roles interrelate, particularly when there are multiple buying paths and touchpoints.

It is also critical to perform a “gap analysis” to understand where sales resources are over- and under-weighted. For example, if price is often a factor in the buyer’s decisions, the team should identify approaches for getting the buyer’s CFO lined up earlier in the process. 

5. Sales Strategy Alignment

Use the sales process to validate the sales strategy. For example, how important are the various sales roles and where can they best be deployed? Although the sales force may have qualified players, if a sales force is over- or under- resourced in any one of the steps, it can cause a big productivity drain. For example, you want to avoid a situation where you lose a deal and the salesperson believes, after the fact, that he or she should have brought a Sales Engineer into the process earlier.

As shown in the far-right column of the Illustration, all sales roles have a primary accountability for customer support, making the sales process over-weighted in customer support and under-weighted in lead generation. In sales, the buyer often imprints on the seller. So, if the buyer trusts the primary contact, and that contact fails to successfully handoff the sale to the customer success/implementation team, then the buyer keeps coming back to the primary contact with customer support issues, keeping the salesperson out of the market and away from selling.

Over time, make sure the sales process is, in fact, helping to improve the sales approach and secure more deals. Then refine it to make sure each sales team is deployed in an optimal manner.

Common Pitfalls

Even what looks like a well-designed sales process can contain hidden issues that erode productivity. Be on the lookout for five common pitfalls.

1. Over-Reliance on the Sales Representative

As mentioned above, in more complex B-to-B sales, the traditional sales relationship role must change its focus. While still important, it’s now more akin to a quarterback trying to align the sellers’ resources with the buyer’s decision makers – a shift in emphasis from high influence/persuasive to coordination. The role now requires someone who can quarterback how the technical team interacts with the IT buyers, for example.

It’s about anticipating what questions the buyers will have and lining up the sales team contributors who can answer them. If this becomes an issue on a sales team, establish criteria on deal opportunities for the level of support that role can provide.

For example, get Sales Engineers out in the market rather than collaborating on IP content. Make sure handoffs to Account Management or Customer Success happen sufficiently early in the process. Align incentives and further validate the sales process map.

2. Misunderstanding the Architecture of a Sale

This pitfall comes about when the sales process fails to align with how the buyer wants to buy. Sellers can’t make assumptions about how customers want to buy; they truly must understand the nuances of the buyer’s organization and the interests of the stakeholders. Not all companies buy the same way and the sales process must be adjusted to meet their needs. Don’t design for the ideal process but rather the actual process. In developing the sales process, segment customers into groups based on their buying practices, type of organization, size, or complexity. Look for commonalities among buying behaviors and stakeholders.

3. Organization Structural Issues

This may come about when the seller’s reporting relationships are misaligned or when one role owns too many activities in one or more stages. If a salesforce runs into this issue, they should update the deployment model and align the team with the sales process map.

4. Insufficient Tools and Training to Support the Sales Teams

Thought-provoking materials to credential the selling team and provoke customer interest are key tools for every seller. An equally important tool that often gets overlooked is capturing the notes and insights of sales team members about their experiences and impressions of customers and prospects. It’s important to map the steps in the CRM system with those in the sales process.

For example, Sales Engineers who meet with technical buyers should describe the interaction, noting any special requests, interests, apprehensions, etc. This informs the whole team, creates visibility and transparency, and provides helpful guidance for the sales team member who meets with the next buyer stakeholder. The seller can proactively bring these issues up and explain how they will be handled.

5. Double Crediting on Sales

If double crediting is an issue in the sales organization, it’s wise to conduct a Compensation Cost of Sales assessment that looks at total sales cost — salaries, incentives, commissions, etc. — divided by sales. The analysis can be run by segment, channel, etc. to see how it’s changed over time and to ferret out any issues. The outcome may suggest adjusting quotas for overlay positions, adjusting sales incentive plans, or changing the sales process itself to reduce the number of resources involved.

In Summary

Avoid the temptation to see sales compensation as the primary lever in improving sales performance. It’s a good lever, but it must be supplemented with a deep understanding of the sales process and how to manage it tightly. If a sales team is only working a single sales opportunity and mismanages it, that’s a foul. But if a seller is managing 10 sales processes concurrently and a key step is missed in each, e.g., not getting the financial approval from the CFO or not bringing the Sales Engineers in early enough to sign off on technical requirements, it’s an end-of-inning play — and one that will keep occurring until the issue is caught and addressed.

The best way to approach sales process mapping is to seek the Goldilocks effect—not too little, not too much, but just enough focus on each step to bring home even the most challenging sales.

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