A sales process can improve your ability to create and win new opportunities, by giving you guidance on what conversations you need to have with your prospective client and what you need to accomplish. Typically, these processes advise you to target companies, qualify them, do discovery, develop a solution, present your solution, negotiate a deal, and win their business. All of these things are necessary, but the sales process is a fiction: it is a representational map, not the real territory.
Selling B2B is increasingly complex, marked by nonlinear sales conversations and the fact that, even when buyers have access to good information, they struggle to make buying decisions. Information isn’t the same as insight, and a lack of experience making certain decisions makes it challenging for your clients to know how to proceed. The increasing need for consensus adds another layer of complexity to B2B sales, meaning you need to know both when to use your sales process and when to bypass it.
The Outer Limit of the Sales Process
The sales process represents a set of best practices. Best practices are useful when doing something that works every time, but they’re not as helpful in complex situations like B2B sales. The belief that you should slavishly follow your sales process assumes that every client, every situation, and every challenge or obstacle will require the same approach and the same remedy, something that is not—and cannot—be true.
As a map, a sales process offers a useful overview of the terrain. Maps work because they keep you moving toward your destination without overwhelming you with unnecessary details. But some salespeople view the sales process as a GPS, looking for turn-by-turn directions that will automatically navigate all obstacles. If modern B2B sales had a GPS, though, it would constantly say “turn-by-turn directions are not available.”
At some point in complex sales, you will reach a point where you are on your own, guided mainly by your experience and your intuition. What worked before (for you or others) might provide you with an effective strategy or it might fail, requiring you to improvise.
The Problem Confronting You
Certain problems arise throughout the sales conversation, whether or not you are following your sales process. Some of them occur so frequently that experience can guide your decisions about how to address them, but solving new or unusual challenges requires resourcefulness, not just a good memory. Thankfully, human beings are designed to solve problems.
Here’s an example. A salesperson was close to winning a deal that was important to reaching his goals. Everything went well up until the end of the sales conversation, the part where they should have been negotiating an incredibly valuable deal for the client’s company. The main contact ended the conversation by saying, “We have no budget, and we are going to have to wait until next year to get a budget from our corporate office.”
There is nothing in your sales process that would tell you what to do when this kind of potentially deal-ending problem comes up. In fact, that isn’t what a sales process is designed to do. It’s designed to help ensure that you accomplish all the things you need to do, so you can put yourself in the best possible place to win.
In this case, the salesperson called his counterpart in Paris and asked them to call on the company and see what he could do to help move the deal forward. After one meeting, the company decided to buy the solution for both operations. When you cannot rely on turn-by-turn directions, you have to find a way or make one.
Art, Not Science
Although data is certainly useful in business, selling is more art than science. In science, you do an experiment to discover what is true, then others attempt the same experiment and (ideally) achieve the same result. In sales, you do an experiment that works for you in one scenario but could very well fail in another. One deal follows a familiar path, while the next requires you to find your way without any real guidance—except for your experience, your intuition, and your creativity.
More than ever, success in B2B sales is largely about how effectively you can guide your client through your conversations, helping them commit to do all the things they need to do to improve their results. That process starts by helping them explore change and recognize new potential, and it goes all the way through to executing their solution. When you sell your client an outcome, you are accountable for the result. So, at every point set forth in the sales process, you’re responsible for solving some problem or challenge, from a simple objection to a meeting, to the problem of building consensus, to the total breakdown and failure of execution.
The Need for Agility
At one time, I would have described sales as having a set of iron laws, and would have warned you that you cannot break the laws, you can only break yourself against them. A better description is that certain principles should guide how you sell and how you approach the sales conversation. Principles are more valuable than laws, as they leave room for the increasingly valuable role of problem-solving, creativity, and agility—all those things that comprise the art of selling.
Your ability to observe and orient what you are experiencing, work through the possible solutions, take action, and allow those actions to inform your future decisions is critical for your sales success, especially when you engage in complex sales and use a consultative approach to serving your clients. Treat your sales process as a map, recognize that it is not always representative of the terrain, and remember that it won’t tell you about all the obstacles you are going to run into as your pursue your dream client.
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