Thursday, July 24, 2008

Is your Sales Process Adapted to the Internet Era?

The following quote from the March 2008 Newsletter of IDC's Sales Advisory Practice leaves me with some doubts. Lee Levitt writes: “Buyers have gone through a metamorphosis. They're smarter, more educated, focused on results rather than technology. They complain that vendor's sales engagement antics are costing them time and money, that purchases are taking a full 40% longer than they want”

The first question to ask is what made the customers so much smarter and more educated? We did and continue doing it ourselves by providing them with abundant information on our Web Sites, with our Blogs, Podcasts , e-Newsletters and Webinars all enabled by the Internet . It is not the Net it is what we do with it The second question then is what are sales engagements governed by? - the sales process. I hope you now agree that the title poses a viable question.

You would expect that sales process models conceived before the Internet era might not fit so well anymore today. So I looked at few newer models claiming to help you with selling in the 21st century market place. Well at least those that I found, did not seem to be too well adapted to the Internet era either. What is probably different with these processes is that they are based on an attitude of selling coming from a service and contribution perspective, thus having more focus on the customer. So they usually all start with something that can be labeled with building rapport. There is nothing to say against this. But the following steps have a high potential that the sales person ,in following these processes, derails the customer's buying process. These steps are aimed at helping the customer to identify pain and building a vision how this pain could be solved and probably even helping them to understand the cost of remaining in status quo. Do not get me wrong. There will be situations, especially when you bring a new category to the market where these processes fit perfectly

But think what happens to a customer, who is well aware of the pain, has already researched several alternatives how to solve the pain and has already decided to act because the cost of staying in status quo are higher than making the transition. Well such a customer will probably make statements as in the quote from the newsletter if the seller follows even a sales process adapted to the 21st century market place.

Now the chances that a sales person gets in front of an already well informed buyer are actually increasing. Think of the current hype around lead generation, scoring and nurturing that marketing departments want to put in place to better justify their existence. Eventually, they cause the sales person to get in front of customers probably even later in their buying process.

So how can sales people avoid waisting their customers' time and money? The sales process needs a new generic element after the initial step of building rapport. I call this element the 'Triage' It is a medical term to assess the health status of incoming patients and to determine how urgent they need what kind of treatment. The Triage in the sales process is to find out where exactly the customer is in the buying process and how the sales person can help to move the process forward. We need to know how the customer wants to buy every time we get in front of him or her. This situational context is important, especially if you have a wide portfolio of offerings. The same customer might not always need the same help from the sales person to reach the buying decision.

Through this Triage, we will now effectively have not one, but several sales processes. People having just started to adhere to a leaking funnel concept helping them to get to higher sales productivity and more reasonable forecasts, might not be too enthusiastic of now having to deal essentially with several funnels. Admittedly, forecasting needs an additional consolidation stage of the results coming from the various funnels. But this is a minor implication compared to the advantage for sales managers to understand in what customer context the the sales person has to sell and therefore being able to provide more pertinent coaching. Actually trying to squeeze everything into the same funnel will distort the overall picture and lead to wrong interpretations.


  1. Hi Christian,

    Levitt's comment about sales engagement antics puzzles me. Through all our work with selling companies, I have never observed this--not even once. It's most often the customer that doesn't have a plan to buy, or they don't have all their buying criteria in place, there is no particular rush for them to buy, or...

    Your point about needing to know how the customer wants to buy is precisely right. In general, sellers' sales processes have to built taking into consideration how customers in their markets buy.

    I don't have an issue with multiple sales processes when a company has different product lines to sell to different types of companies when those companies buy differently.

    On the other hand, I'm not so sure I agree with you about taking the several processes approach. My concern is the complexity you are adding.

    Our approach has been consolidating different buying requirements into one process. If a customer wants to skip a step, that's fine so long as the result of that step satisfies your criteria for advancing the deal. An example: A customer knows you, your product and your company very well. A step in your sales process (based upon the buying patterns of most of your customers) is a reference site visit. The customer says they don't need one because the VP of manufacturing used your software in her last company and they trust her opinion. Force the visit anyway? I wouldn't. Skip that step? Makes sense to me.

    When companies want to skip a step or steps--say they're calling you up to join an evaluation in the late stages... I say same process. Just make it flexible enough to acommodate these different buying patterns--and make sure you aren't missing a critical step, task, event, etc.

  2. Hi Dave,
    thank you very much for taking the time to comment this entry.

    I fully understand your concern abbout the added compexity and I feel the same. I have also no issue with skipping some activites in a process as you describe. However I have seen that the skipping of whole sales stages in a one process environment can lead to distortions of the shape of the funnel and therefore lead to wrong conclusions.

    So if there is a high likelihood that customer buying behavior migth lead sales people to skip entire sales stages (especially when the transition rules are based on verifyable customer evidence, then I would recommend to look into having several processes.

  3. In response to Dave's comments -- we talk with CIOs at Fortune 100, Forbes 500 and smaller companies every day. From executives holding multibillion dollar IT budgets to principals of small companies, they describe a consistent set of activities conducted by sellers that get in the way of their buying process:

    - failure to follow up
    - incomplete or inaccurate proposals
    - focus on their own products and company rather than on the customer's problem
    - skirting the truth or outright lying "sure, it will do that!"

    What really surprised me is that global companies report these problems as often as 500 person firms. They report that sellers are so focused on making their monthly or quarterly quota that they completely ignore the buyers' pleas for thinking long term and really building relationships that drive long term customer share, satisfaction and profitability.

    Even Dave, who works with the cream of the crop, has a ticker on his home page counting off the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the end of the quarter.

    I'm not picking on Dave...the ticker is a great reminder of the urgency of sales. I would suggest that the teams that work with Dave have already fixed most of these problems I mentioned earlier, and are working on higher order challenges.

    Even so, vendors must be diligent in policing/coaching their reps to always do the right thing, and not get lost in the focus on making this month's numbers. This singular focus damages relationships, to the point that buyers identified specific vendors (and individual sales people) that they've dumped because of their disinterest in building relationships.

    I would agree with Dave's statement that buyers do share culpability. Buyers' processes aren't perfect and many are disorganized or unfocused. To address this, a few vendors formally manage the sales engagement as they would any other project, actually assigning project managers to large engagements.

    Both sides must work to do better...when both sides do, the selling/buying process will go more smoothly and all involved will derive more value from the engagement.

  4. Hi Lee,

    thank you very much for taking the time to give us the background that let to your statement I quoted.

    I guess we can conclude that your view and Dave's do coexist, it all depends on the sophistication of the buyer and seller you are dealing with.

  5. Actually, this topic is extremely relevant--moreso than most think. Christian, I would suggest that your idea of multiple sales processes are correct.

    Buyers don't always know what they want--even if they believe they have self-diganosed their issue. So getting to the bottom of "where are they in the process?" is key.

    I suggest that if you ahve a prospect who is at the initial/exploration stage of their buying, you have an educational stage--whereby you can educate them as to what they may be in for, how to assess their current landscape etc.,

    We believe in Diagnosis before Prescription--but most sales teams have no way of knowing when / how to diagnose, because everyone they come in contact with seems to be an immediate prospect--and they aren't.

    Thanks for good work.

  6. plan a detailed and accurate business proposal, research, practice or rehearse what you're going to say when the time comes for you to present them to possible clients. Also, you must maintain a calm and optimistic mindset for you to succeed in this business.


I am not a regular blogger you migth want to receive new articles per e-mail

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Most Popular Posts (last 7 days)

Blog Archive