Eternal Sunshine of the Sales Pro’s Mind

By Anita Nielsen

Eternal Sunshine of the Sales Pro’s Mind

There are a series of issues that sales managers consistently face and have faced for a long time. In my work, I often help sales leaders who want to leave no stone unturned in the quest for revenue acceleration. Sometimes the challenges they face are complex but low friction in execution, such as implementing a new sales enablement technology.  Other issues have resolutions that are seemingly simple and common sense, yet don’t make it on to the sales leader’s radar screen.

Looking at some of the clients that I have worked with over the years, it never ceases to amaze me that, despite impeccable leadership skills, expertise and deep knowledge of the profession, they easily lose sight of one basic area in sales enablement – arguably one of the most important, at that. I am speaking, as you may have guessed, of the established, formal sales process.

I have seen companies invest in cutting edge sales tools and in top sales talent, yet they haven’t take the time to develop and drive a thorough and formal sales process.  They may have a CRM that is populated with some default placeholder version of a sales process that they know no one is actually using in any way for sales enablement.  Or, worse, they may be using something that was drafted years ago and is no longer valid in the current selling environment.  This means, of course, that the sales people are likely ignoring it in the interest of self-preservation.

In some situations, a sales leader may have made a significant investment in an outside organization in order to implement a formal sales methodology. Examples include: FranklinCovey, Miller-Heiman, Corporate Visions, or any one of countless others.  Yet, they don’t have the sales process which provides the context and direction to execute on the methodology.  It is difficult to understand the rationale behind missing something so foundational and crucial to the success of their sales teams, and for their own career’s sake.

Lacking a sales process creates a myriad of issues for sales reps and managers, alike. Many more than I can cover, here. I can, however, share with you some of the main ways that sales leaders that don’t implement a formal sales process, negatively impact themselves, their reps and the senior leaders that are holding them accountable. Let’s take a look at, I believe, the 3 most troublesome areas of impact.

  1. In not providing sales reps with a process, you can almost guarantee that a sales professional will “wing it” and leave far too much up to chance and “I’ve done it a million times syndrome.”
  2. In the absence of a sales process, the sales leader cannot be in tune with what specific activities the rep is working through within the opportunity lifecycle. This, in turn, limits the sales leader’s ability to take a focused, structured approach to in opportunity coaching.
  3. Forecasting without a formal sales process is nearly impossible to do with any consistent level of accuracy. Sales people are notorious for their sunshine and rainbows view of the opportunity’s status. Sales managers have come to dread forecasting meetings with senior leadership precisely because the “data” is haphazard or inflated due to the overly optimistic assessment of an eager sales professional.

Given the extent of problems the aforementioned situations create for sales leaders and organizations, it is no wonder sales process does not get greater focus or urgency.  I imagine this is due to the fact that sales process doesn’t obviously appear as a culprit in situations of failure.   Rarely are we able to look at a failed opportunity and directly link an inadequate or missing sales process to the failure.  It takes deeper analysis and understanding of sales behavior to recognize that lack of sales process creates lack of revenue.  Let’s take a look at the aforementioned challenges in a bit more detail.

Winging it Won’t Work

As mentioned, when an organization doesn’t adhere to a formal sales process that is aligned with the buyer journey, sales people are left to their own devices in terms of how to navigate the opportunity with the buyer.  Sales methodologies exist to prevent the “winging it” phenomenon through providing the approach around how to sell.  Typically, a well thought out formal sales process will incorporate key components of a sales methodology.  This means that the sales process would indicate what sales methodology related content and collateral would be required at each given stage.

For example, most methodologies require some sort of a pre- meeting planning worksheet. Again, methodologies are sort of an insurance policy against sales professionals “winging it.” For most salespeople, it is like pulling teeth to get them to consistently use a tool/asset such as a meeting plan worksheet. However, when there is a formal sales process that indicates the document is required in a given stage, the chance that the rep will complete it go up significantly.  Especially if the sales manager or other internal resources will be inspecting or using it. Some organizations even have the wisdom to make it a requirement to attach the completed call plan file to the record in the CRM.   The best way to ensure a return on investment in a sales methodology is to have it be incorporated into a formal sales process that is driven through CRM or aligned to a given stage within a content repository.

The Coaching Imperative

It’s no longer a question as to whether coaching should be a priority. Today, coaching is imperative. Sales leaders who regularly conduct opportunity specific coaching are able to significantly impact the performance of sales reps, over time.  Opportunity specific or in-opportunity coaching is no small task.  When a sales team is not using a formal sales process, it is difficult, if not impossible, for a sales leader to offer stage specific coaching.  Sale reps use different skills, knowledge, content and collateral at each stage of an opportunity.  A sales leader who offers “opportunity coaching” can provide general guidance on how to advance the deal.  Sales leaders who are empowered with the knowledge of which stage a sales person is at in an opportunity are able to provide coaching on specific skills and competencies. Qualification skills are different from proposal development skills and the sales leaders who can provide feedback specific to an activity within a sale stage are better able to impact the success of a sales professional.  Additionally, visibility into specific sales stages also gives sales leaders an idea of how long an opportunity is “stuck” within a given stage so that they can reach out to the rep and help “unstick” it.

Forecasting Fiction

It’s never fun to see a sales leader client after a forecast meeting where they had to try to explain to executive leadership why the big deal that was in “commit” didn’t come through, or worse, wasn’t well qualified.  In my mind, this is one of those situations that can be prevented through proactive use of a formal sales process that includes tollgates for advancing through stages.  There will always be sales people who know how to manipulate a system and will let the sunshine in their minds manage their deals.  In general, however, if sales reps are working with a sales process that guides them as to what needs to happen before they can, realistically, advance to the next stage, they will do a much better job of pipeline management which means minimizing or eliminating pipeline fiction that sales leaders have to explain.

A formal sales process should indicate, for each sales stage, a set of key “customer verifiable outcomes” that must be achieved prior to moving the opportunity to the next stage.  These tollgates combined with the list of sales activities help ensure the sales rep is managing their deal based reality and not rosy colored glasses.  The idea is for the rep to know the results, or outcomes, that they must get from the customer, in advance and can utilize the prescribed sales activities in a manner that enables them to achieve the customer verifiable outcomes.

Additionally, progressive sales organizations leverage sales enablement tools and technology to help the sales reps know the activities and verifiable outcomes per stage so they can proactively approach each customer interaction well aware of their objective to advance to the next stage.   Once this sort of a model exists, sales leaders can breathe a sigh of relief because forecasting meetings will no longer feel like a beating. Being able to present accurate forecasts benefits the leader, the rep and the company as a whole.

As you can see, the sales process is linked to success factors across an organization impacting everyone from the senior leadership in forecast meetings, to the sales manager trying to make the most out of precious coaching time to the rep who can more proactively manage their opportunities with customers.   Although sales process often gets overlooked as a root cause for much that ails a sales organization, it very much is one, or at least a major contributor to many of the key challenges facing sales leaders, today.  The best advice I can give to sales leaders is to make the investment in time, resources and dollars to develop a formal sales process that aligns to the buyer’s journey and leverage technology such as a content repository to ensure that sales professionals are proactively using the sales process to increase their success and accelerate revenue for the organization.

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