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Improving the Process of Selling
How to overcome the barriers to implementing an effective sales process.
Posted Nov 3, 2003
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If there were a "State of Selling" address, it would not be uplifting. In many companies, the sales process is broken--if there ever was one. Although there's widespread acknowledgement of the value of sharing best sales practices, few companies do this as effectively or as consistently as they would like. Although most sales leaders agree that instilling best sales processes is critical to achieving sales revenue goals, few can state that they have consistently used a single set of successful sales processes enterprise-wide. However, there is hope for change in the near future. Increasingly, businesses are putting the backbone into their sales as new, flexible, low-cost applications are emerging to do what the supersize client/server CRM packages have struggled to do: increase sales effectiveness company-wide. Catalysts for Change The good news about the current business downturn is that competitors are facing it, too. It is a good time to gain an edge by revitalizing core business processes. Sales leaders who recognize the value of a consistent sales process would do well to seize the opportunity to build highly competitive sales teams. There are four main benefits to adopting a clearly defined sales process: 1. Substantial revenue gains Most sales organizations have the potential for much higher performance. Sales process improvements are of most help to two segments: "the middle 60 percent," who close the bulk of the business; and "the bottom 20 percent." If the bulk of the middle 60 percent could spend less time on administrative and lead qualification tasks, it is likely that they could boost their potential close rates considerably. The bottom 20 percent includes two groups: new hires and poor performers. A clear sales process will help the latter group self-select out of the organization and it will accelerate the recruits' ramp-up time. With guidance from a straightforward sales process, new hires may be fully productive months ahead of schedule. 2. Smoother value chains The sales forecast controls much more than the revenue projections. Getting forecasts much closer to actuals brings powerful benefits all the way through the value chain--from building sales rep expectations to delivering numbers to the board of directors. Improved forecasting starts with a tight sales process. It will give sales managers tools to respond to forecast variance across territories and product lines, and it will help give the entire sales team a common vocabulary and common metrics for success.
3. Stronger sales talent Talented managers share a knowledge base that can be shared throughout the organization--especially in terms of sales. Best practices, "secrets to sell successfully," and experience breeds successful direction to building effective processes. A well-scripted sales process, backed by tools that are flexible and easy to use, will draw out the data that can feed the sales goals/objectives that are desired. 4. Greater management accountability A sales process is only effective when it is actually used. Accountability for sales management is twofold: Find a "usable" means that will help coach sales reps through the process so that forecasts are measured by the same milestones; then ensure that the tool is easy to use. This will then remove the "gut feel" from forecasting. Sales managers who have accurate data to assess the current status of opportunities will have confidence and can even proactively coach reps in how to qualify prospects. Overcoming Barriers Three barriers loom in implementing a solid sales process: management's fear of disrupting the essential business of selling, sales staff's resistance, and technology fatigue. Senior managers fear that standardizing processes will prove too disruptive, and salespeople continue to be guarded against anything they perceive as Big Brotherish. Both have experienced technology fatigue--tools that were supposed to help have failed. All three barriers must come down before a company can reach its full potential. Below are eight rules to follow when attempting to overcome these barriers. 1. Assign an executive sponsor and champion(s) Without a designated champion, not much will happen; corporate inertia can quickly ground the best-laid plans. It will be that person's job to recruit project team members, to make sure the project has a map, and to ensure that the milestones are met. The sponsor will also be "chief morale officer," converting naysayers when the project hits problems. 2. Make a plan It will then be the job of the champion(s) to recruit project team members, to ensure that proper definition and commitment is dedicated to the new sales process(es). The champion(s) will also ensure that the team maps out the goals of implementing that process and delivers deadlines on time. 3. Ensure buy-in from key participants Having sales reps participate in the design of new processes is key. They can ensure that it accommodates a wide range of work styles, does not detract from selling time, and reflects the company's true selling environment. It is also important to get the vote of the IT staff. They will want to hear that the applications to support the new processes will not burden their budgets or exhaust their time. 4. Capture process dimensions At this point the project team needs to gain a deeper understanding of the sales operation and its needs. The team will capture data on everything from territory-management practices and incentive packages to the detail of reps' activities: how much time they spend prospecting by phone, tracking follow-up actions, what their win/loss ratios look like, whether or not they seek out and emulate best practices, etc. The information is vital; it will determine what type of sales processes will work, and how to best marry these processes with the appropriate technology. 5. Define and pressure-test the process With the process elements assembled, the project team must define the end-to-end process. The trick is to ensure that the process has enough rigidity for users to understand and follow it, but not so much that it cannot flex as new business goals emerge. Once defined, the process has to be tested promptly with a pilot group of users. If the process(es) can't prove its ability to support diverse selling styles, and if it isn't adaptable enough, it needs to go back to the drawing board. 6. Identify solutions tools Find the applications that best suit the company's needs and processes. Online technology tools ease many of the big headaches induced by client/servers. There are no upfront capital costs, and minimal training costs; the applications deploy in a fraction of the time it would take for a large client/server sales app. Returns of more than 15 times the investment are realistic, with payback often in less than six months. 7. Listen to success It's critical to learn from those who have a story to tell. Research shows that high-growth companies most commonly identify scalable, repeatable sales processes as the primary key to success. Talk to companies that have achieved that success. 8. Move to easy and speedy deployment An effective deployment calls for exceptionally good communication--before, during, and after. The earlier communications will use a variety of media, such as internal newsletters and employee Web-site updates, to drive home the consistent message that a sales process will quickly benefit every user. Later, it will be crucial to switch to listening mode to capture and act on feedback from users. Companies that adhere strictly to a rigorous sales process and follow these rules for overcoming barriers may show meaningful increases and experience benefits that extend to many other aspects of an organization's health. Well-planned, well-utilized sales processes strengthen sales-talent pipelines, bolster management's accountability, and sharpen the accuracy of demand forecasts. About the Author Dan Starr is the chief marketing officer at Salesnet, where he directs the planning and execution of the company's integrated marketing and communications programs. He is responsible for Salesnet's corporate, product, and go-to-market strategies to deliver Salesnet's brand promise, customer satisfaction, and tangible value proposition. Starr earned his BS in mechanical engineering from Swansea University, in the United Kingdom.
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