I was completely floored by the question ‘How do you sell?’. It sounded silly and the answer obvious. Even when the question changed to ‘What is the buying journey for your potential customers?’ I still had no idea.
Too often the answer is “Magic”- being short hand for ‘sales tumble from my relationships because I work hard on them.’ This is often true and it is viable to a certain point. However, businesses which rely on this serendipity are unscalable, cashflow is unpredictable, sales specialists are not being used at the right moment and new sales people are hard to induct. Magic is hard to learn and the magician might leave, with his magic, for another circus!
This blog outlines how to systemise a sales process and the benefits of doing so. The process is well known in bigger companies, although it is often poorly applied. It is less common in SMEs and for some reason it is rarely taught on MBA courses, which is odd.
Systemised sales relies on a so called managed-pipeline of potential customers all moving towards a decision to buy, not buy, or not buy yet. Traditionally, the pipeline of potential customers is divided into 4 categories.
Suspects are all the potential customers who have a confirmed business need for your service. They ‘qualify’ as suspects because you sell to companies like them, they are buying from your competitors and therefore have problems your service has solved. Suspects will be treated as a group and have yet to qualify for individual communication from you. The goal is building your brand in their company and making them aware of your existence and proposition by talking to them at networking events, sending emails or inviting them to talks. If your own marketing team run lead generation then clearly they also do the research that finds Suspects. Given the power of marketing data this has merit.
Suspects under approach. From the pool of Suspects you will have chosen some to receive a specific approach and this makes them Suspects Under Approach. You might send an email, make a phone call, meet at a conference. You approach them. The question is some slightly smoothed version of “Are you interested in a meeting about our services” This should always be accompanied by evidence of why it might be worth it, such as ‘We work with many others in your sector”, or, ‘We see X has just happened to you and we have a solution for X’: polite brief, explicit and unpushy.
Persuasion at this point, or any point, is counter productive since it fills up your pipeline with poorly qualified suspects who are not likely to buy. This is not just a waste of time, annoying, and damaging to your brand, but it distracts effort away from suspects you should be speaking to. It is also very emotionally exhausting and such an approach attracts less client-interested sales people. Such teams are harder to run, have high churn and the high failure rate of the process is expensive. Rigorous qualification of suspects is more efficient.
Prospects are Suspects under Approach who ‘twitched’. They said either directly or indirectly that they were open to a discussion about your services. The first task with a Prospect is discovery. i.e. listening to what they think their problem is so you can work out if you have the solution. It is inefficient and impolite to simply play your sales track and hope it is the solution to their problem. Sales is about listening. Ideally, there is some systemised programme, in part prepared by marketing professionals for a Prospect. This system might include a demo, a meeting, a visit to your office. This is where brand and value is established. Some Prospects might need several meetings.
The Prospect should probably face some small test to move to the next stage and become an Opportunity. A test might be speaking to their boss about the service or arranging for you to meet an end user. The sales person must understand the buyers process i.e. who is actually going to authorise the buying. (Miller Heiman’s sales training system is very good on this aspect). This is a good time to talk about budgets and outline pricing. Potential customers should not hear about pricing at the end. The sales person should avoid being too quick to offer a proposal because the preparation requires effort.
Opportunities are Prospects who have responded positively to the discussion about the service or product and have asked for a formal priced proposal almost certainly in the form of a contract. This is a big step for the seller since it takes effort to prepare and your company will be obligated to supply. This is only a step worth making with a well qualified Prospect.
Opportunities are then closed and become New Clients who should probably be handled differently from existing clients i.e. have training and induction, but at this point they move outside the sales pipeline. There may be some negotiating at the Opportunity stage and much time may be lost to the contracting process after a decision to buy has been made.
Parking Lot. All those who said no should be parked up and placed on some brand awareness maintenance programme. This might include, knowledge rich articles about things that will interest the client invitations to client events, but firmly not marketing material which at this stage looks desperate. Every few months the parking lot should be reviewed for changes eg if a new decision maker has been appointed. A saved Llinkedin search does this well. Some businesses make a point to put a new sales person on the parked up accounts and have considerable success. This might be because the new person starts well briefed and it removes any personality issues that might have impeded the original sales effort.
So What? The benefits.
First, as can be seen, Suspects under Approach get treated very differently from Opportunities. It makes no sense for your top closer to be hunting around researching Suspects. Conversly, lots of new sales people need support closing at the Opportunity stage. A complex product might have demo people who engage at the Prospects stage. So a managed pipeline allows different people with different skills to work on specific parts of the pipeline, even if the person actually in contact with the potential customer remains the same. This will usually be important.
It will quickly become clear what amount of time a potential customer spends at each stage. i.e. how long it will take for a Prospect to become an Opportunity. If the average is 6 weeks, then those Prospects who are stuck i.e. still there after 10 weeks, can be subject to special measures such as a call from the CEO, or an invitation for a visit. etc. Thus, the pipeline can be managed and resources concentrated at the choke points.
Most businesses need a steady supply of deals to survive and thus value accurate forecasts of sales value month-by-month. After running a managed-pipeline system for a short time it will become clear what proportion of each category move forward to the next. Eg 30% of Prospects become Opportunities etc. Armed with that data and knowing that you need say 10 new deals each month, a sales manager can work back and know how many Suspects under Approach there should be to sustain the business. If there are half that number, there is going to be problem later on. CEOs should probably watch Suspect under Approach numbers closely and react quickly to any shortfall.
Great news, all of this can be managed on a CRM system of which Salesforce seems very popular. Or a sole trade can just run a spreadsheet.
Well not having a system at all…. which is, of course, how everyone starts.
The key is accurate criterion for moving potential customers to the next category in the pipeline i.e. qualification. This must be clear and absolutely consistent otherwise the exercise is meaningless. It is much better if these tests are objective. If not, then a dip in the number of Prospects can be covered up by promoting poorly qualified Suspects under Approach to be Prospects. If this happens you are only delaying the discovery of the weakness.
The whole process is invisible to the client who will probably need to develop trust in a person and not be part of a process. It is akin to stock control in a shop: vital but of no value to the potential customer.
Sales people should never be explaining a non-sale by saying “Oh they did not have budget”. First, this should be flushed out early in the process i.e. at least at the Prospects stage. Second, not having budget simply says either that pricing is wrong for the whole market, which is a CEO problem, or that value was not established with this potential customer, which is a sales person problem.
Qualification is all important. An early fail is much better than a late fail. The stereotype of sales person ‘persuading’ customers to buy belongs to a pre-internet age. These days all buyers are greatly empowered by easily acquired knowledge and they need to trust the sales person.
A lot can be learned from Opportunities who do not convert i.e. get to the end and decide not to buy. Ideally, they should get a discovery call from someone, definitely not the original sales person, who respects their decision and emphatically is not a renewed attempt to sell.
Contracting is often a major delay when selling to big companies. Shortening this is the subject of another blog but the sales process should leave the buyer with no surprises which suddenly appear at the contracting stage.
I chat informally to lots of SME and sole traders. I believe in this system and indeed ran it for a while, although those who converted me to it are likely amused to see me write it. Big companies are all trying to run some version of this but probably some of the discipline is watered down. And if Magic is working for now i.e. informal, relationship based sales, then fine of course but to scale and de-risk some version of the above is needed.