Once, questioning the sales process would have been the equivalent of suggesting the Earth was flat. Sales leaders believed every salesperson could win the deals they needed by following a linear process. This process comprised a set of best practices divided into sales opportunity stages. Sales leaders hoped and prayed that a consistent set of steps would reduce the variability of results and ensure they could reach their net new revenue goals.
Some of us in sales recognized the linear sales process conflicted with the needs of certain contacts. To move forward, many prospective clients needed to have certain conversations according to their own sequence and processes. The stakeholders would sometimes engage in a conversation, only to go dark for a period before re-engaging with the salesperson. It was not uncommon for some contacts to join one meeting and miss others. None of the set opportunity stages matched the nonlinear, dynamic conversation that unfolded over many meetings.
At one point, it became clear the real-life conversation ignored the turn-by-turn directions of the sales process, and it lacked the certainty of documented goals for each stage. The sales conversation is more nonlinear than ever, but a huge swath of salespeople still pretend a path starts with a target and ends with a won deal, with no interruptions, detours, or obstacles. When a process is no longer accurate, it raises questions about whether it’s worth keeping.
The Case for Retaining Sales Opportunity Stages
As an early observer of the nonlinearity in sales, I recognized the need to be agile in pursuing deals, straying from the path outlined in the process’s opportunity stages. It seemed better to answer questions that allowed my contacts to move forward, even if the topics should have come much later in the linear process. Once contacts were satisfied with some important conversation, I'd try to move them back to the part of the conversation they had skipped past.
The Lost Art of Closing: Winning the Ten Commitments That Drive Sales is a guide to understanding and dealing effectively with the nonlinearity by focusing on achieving the outcomes of each of the 10 commitments. The two major strategies in the book are controlling the process and the trading value rule. (The trading value rule refers to trading the value of the meeting for the client’s commitment to engage in the conversation.) While you can't directly control the process, you can influence your contacts to have the conversations that let them reach their goals and help you win their business. The simplest way to do this is to explain the value of each conversation.
Even though the sales conversation is mostly nonlinear, it's still important to track an opportunity's progress. Without a conceptual map of the sales conversation, be it the sales process or the buyer's journey, or some Frankenstein map that tries to combine both, it's difficult to recognize where you are in the conversation. While sales stages can’t provide you with turn-by-turn directions, they give you a map of the terrain. Even if this lacks detail, it’s better than no process at all.
The Value of Sales Opportunity Stages in a Nonlinear World
To make sales opportunity stages work in the new reality of B2B sales, we must look at different factors to determine what stage the opportunity is in at a given time. We can skip targeting, which doesn’t yet address an opportunity. We can also ignore qualifying here for the same reason. These are more like opportunity stages that act as a container for future opportunities.
Once we get to discovery, we either have an opportunity or we don't. It makes no sense to drop every discovery call into the pipeline with nothing more than a single conversation. Lots of contacts will explore change with no commitment to changing now. In order to create a true opportunity, the salesperson must be able to explain why the client will change and when their next meeting will take place. (The proof is the client's acceptance of the calendar invite.)
In the legacy sales process approach, the next stage would be called solution design. This stage would indicate a conversation about what will work for the client who needs better results. Let's assume the salesperson has this conversation with their two contacts. This tells us little about our chances of winning the deal. At this point, the salesperson may not know whether all stakeholders who needed to be part of that conversation were present, or whether they agree that your approach will help them with the outcomes they need.
To be able to see the bigger picture, we might also ask whether the two contacts’ effort is evidence of progress or a lack of it. If we know that other people were not present for a conversation that may affect them, we have evidence that this stage is not yet complete. By contrast, contacts who hustle their peers into the conversation prove they are motivated to move forward, even if they introduce some messiness into the process.
The Changing Nature of Opportunity Reviews
When a sales leader allows deals to progress without inspecting their actual progress, the opportunity pipeline will lack integrity. Sales leaders must evaluate potential deals with a list of questions that help determine the current stage and the salesperson's chances of winning the client's business. There is no harm in moving a deal out of the opportunity pipeline and back to an earlier stage. Questioning the opportunity stage improves the salesperson's chance of success by having them go back over the ground they missed, whether it was accidental or due to the messy, political process of helping a contact make change inside their company. There is nothing wrong with keeping your legacy stages if you are doing the work to check your opportunities often enough.
Those who are worried about the quality of their pipeline should start an integrity project by removing all the deals they've allowed to live in an opportunity stage without evidence of progress. Moving deals back to earlier stages does not change anything that is happening with a particular client. It simply gives the salesperson the chance to fill in any gaps that will make it harder to move the deal forward.