Early on in my consulting practice I would take almost any job. Back then, if the Sheriff of Nottingham had asked me to improve tax collection processes in Sherwood Forest, I would have been tempted. So the first time a client asked me to look at a sales process, I did not hesitate. Now, of course, I am a little bit wiser. I know that sales processes are different.
The client, the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, was a steely-eyed, take no prisoners kind of guy. He was really unhappy with the performance of his sales team. He was convinced, with a few exceptions, that they were useless or lazy or both. Fortunately, the HR department persuaded him that firing 80% of his salespeople was not a smart move. And maybe he should consider looking at the sales process.
The VP of sales was understandably defensive. One giveaway was that he responded with one-word answers to all of my questions. That’s never a good sign.
I begin most engagements with a one-day process audit. At the end of the day, I met with them both again. I proposed that the sales team take a half-day and map out the current sales process. Then we would spend some time coming up with ideas to fix it. That was pretty much what they were expecting, and so I dived in.
We did the whole thing. I conducted interviews. I reviewed process documentation. We had whiteboard sessions. We mapped out the “As Is” state. And then we got down to problem identification. Finally, we came up with some solutions.
As is very often the case, the people doing the job knew exactly what was wrong. The sales staff was able to articulate very clearly the issues and propose good solutions. Until these process sessions, they just didn’t have a way of expressing their concerns. At least, not in a way that did not make them appear as whining malcontents.
So what was wrong? The thing about a sales B2B process is that it is often very long. In this case, the sales process looked something like this:
- Lead generation and qualification
- Initial approach
- Needs analysis
- Designing solutions
- Presenting solutions
- Overcoming objections
- Negotiation & Closing
- Account Management
For B2B, all that can take months. And each stage requires a different skill.
I don’t know why people expect salespeople to be outstanding at every single part of the process. But they do. The VIP bristled at the idea that his folks could not do everything brilliantly. The CEO did not accept that the sales people could not attend to each stage in a timely manner.
I had to point out that they were running from one end of the process to other spinning all these plates. A plate, in this case, being an opportunity. Plus the VIP of sales expected them to file detailed reports on a regular basis. The sales staff found themselves stretched over too long a process. They didn’t have time to do everything properly. Nor did they have the skills to do every part of the process effectively.
On the last day of the engagement, we gave the CEO and the VP a final presentation. We showed them the “As Is”. We identified the problems. We proposed sales process solutions and asked for resources to implement them.
When I say “we”, I mean the sales staff. It always works better when the participants give a presentation to the sponsor of the engagement. It’s not just the buy in. People always put more into it when they know they are going to be presenting to the boss. And the boss is always more receptive when people make the effort to bare their souls.
To give the VP of sales, and the CEO their due, they listened carefully. They asked good questions. When it came to the solutions, the sales team wanted to break the process up. They made a good case for dividing themselves into “hunters” and “farmers”. The hunters wanted to work the opportunities with new clients. The farmers were happy to manage the long-term client relationships. They also wanted some sales support. This was to reduce the time they spent creating proposals.
The CEO did not have a sales background so he was stunned at how convoluted the process was. For the first time, it dawned on him that the sale force was not necessarily being lazy. It was just that a B2B sales process was longer than he had thought.
The VIP of sales learned a different lesson. For him, it was the notion that it is not really smart to expect sales people to be experts at every stage of the process.
Now, you can shorten internal processes. But with a sales process, you have much less control. So you have to look at what you can do. Sometimes that means adding better sales support. Sometimes, it can be forcing a higher degree of specialization. This is exactly what the team came up with.
From time to time, your sales team will disappoint you. When it does, before you fire the lot of them, take a look at the length of the sales process. Is your team specializing enough? Do they have enough support? Because that might be all you can control. A B2B sales process is long and not entirely under your control but chances are, your sales team staff has some pretty keen insight into where the roadblocks are.