Three Common Problems With Sales Processes

I’ve spent over two decades consulting with some of the world’s leading sales organizations on their sales process. From this work, I have found three very common sales process problems each of which lead to unpredictable sales pipelines:

1. Sales process progression is determined by sales activity completion with little thought to the buyer’s decision-making stages.

Let’s suppose you ask a salesperson, her sales manager, and the customer to tell you on a scale of 1 to 10 how close they are to making a decision.  Most of the time, you’ll see three different answers:


A few years ago I asked a sales professional from a large, global medical device manufacturer how they determine where they are in their sales process. He said, “I have a gut feeling on reality but I put all my opportunities at 1% in our CRM until I have an order commitment.” He continued, “I don’t want everyone getting all excited and asking me a bunch of questions about my deals.”

With this kind of subjectivity in a sales process, there’s very little way to accurately or confidently predict the performance of a sales pipeline without an excessive amount of time spent judging, discussing, and calibrating to make your best guess. And it’s still pretty much a guess.

So if there are three opinions on the sales process stage - the salesperson, the sales manager, and the customer - which one really matters?  Of course it’s the customer’s opinion. Sounds pretty obvious but having the customer’s opinion guide your sales progression is easier said than done.

Setting customer-driven criteria to determine sales process progression is a great start but it’s not enough. Everyone in your organization must also agree on how to objectively judge the customer’s progress towards a decision. If you don’t have customer-verifiable evidence to validate where they are in their decision AND the decision on the sales process stage is a subjective call, you’ll always struggle with accurately projecting sales pipeline performance.

2. Your sales process reads like a checklist of complicated activities or tasks that are required by your salespeople to complete.

This is what’s often called putting process in front of purpose. Or in other words, there wasn’t very much thought given to what the customer actually needs so they can move towards the next step in their decision.  Usually task-driven sales processes quickly get over-complicated and predictably result in two types of sales process execution: 1) the type that gets reported to meet the organization’s internal needs and 2) the type that actually gets used. Neither result in being able to provide an accurate picture of a sales pipeline’s performance.

In overly task-driven sales processes I typically see a list of steps that are mostly about minimizing the risk that the salesperson will sell the wrong solution or price it incorrectly. For a salesperson it can feel like a forced march through a series of required actions; some worthwhile, some not, regardless of what the customer needs to move forward.  

While risk management is a good thing and nobody benefits from selling bad business, a little more thought to what the customer needs to determine and select the best alternative is more efficient and effective.  Your sales process activities should be recommended best-practices that your top-performers adhere to so they can help your customers advance to the next stage of their decision process.

3. The last stage of your sales process is closing the deal.  

For anyone who’s been a buyer, how long does it take to figure out if a salesperson is more concerned about getting a sale than they are in providing you with a solution?  One meeting? 10 minutes? 1 minute or less? Whatever your answer, it’s not very long.

Research on the phases buyers go through to make a decision is well established and illustrated in various ways.  There are 5 widely recognized stages all buyers go through when making a purchase decision as illustrated below:


While customers go through varying degrees of formality and pace, they all go through these 5 stages when making a decision:

Stage 1: Planning– customers are content with the status quo until something prompts them to consider a change.

Stage 2: Determining Needs – the customer determines what they need and if they are seeking outside help. They also set their criteria for selecting the best option.

Stage 3: Evaluating Alternatives – the customer compares their alternatives to their criteria and selects their preferred option/solution.

Stage 4: Managing Risk – the customer then asks themselves, or their preferred provider, all the what-if questions about costs, terms, proof of the solution, etc. before making their final decision and making a buying commitment.

Stage 5: Implementing & Measuring – the customer implements the solution and assesses if it met their expectations.

So which of these 5 stages is most important to a customer? Remember what’s most important is different from what’s most difficult.  If you said Stage 5: Implementing & Measuring is the most important to a customer, then you’re absolutely right!

Consider it from the customer’s point of view: no problem has been solved, goal met, or need satisfied until stage 5.  Stages 1-4 were all about getting to stage 5 with the best outcome. If the last stage of your sales process is “Close the Sale” you’re sending your customer a clear message that you’re done when they’ve finished Stage 4: Managing Risk.

If the customer senses your sales process is more about closing the deal than providing them the best solution, you’ll always be out of sync leading to win-lose negotiations and unpredictable decision-timeframes.

Understanding these common problems is the first step to adjusting your sales process to see better results.

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Andy Smith, SVP Sales & Marketing

For 24 years, Andy Smith has been helping some of the world’s leading sales organizations, including Honeywell, MasterCard, ExxonMobil, Microsoft, and others increase their effectiveness through improved sales process execution, better sales coaching, consultative sales skill development, and higher CRM adoption. Andy holds a degree from Baylor University and prior to joining AXIOM he served in senior sales leadership roles for Sales Performance International, AchieveGlobal, and Acclivus Corporation. He started his career in sales with Xerox before joining ExxonMobil where he discovered his passion for the sales performance improvement profession. Andy lives in Denton, Texas. Ask Andy about his very average golf game, radio broadcasting of high school sports, or his three adorable grand babies.

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Topics: Better Selling, Better Account Management, sales operating system

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