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How to Build a Sales Process: The Complete Guide

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Creating a structured sales process is one of the most effective ways to boost your sales teams’ efficiency and results.

With a formal sales process in place, your sales team has a framework to follow, and it’s much easier to stay on the same page, track results, and onboard new team members.

Even if your sales team is already driving good results, establishing a sales process or improving your existing one can take your business to the next level of growth.

In this guide to sales processes, we’ll discuss the most common sales process stages, how to develop and improve your process, how to overcome common challenges, and more.

Just keep reading to get started with creating a winning sales process.

What is a sales process?

A sales process is a set of repeatable steps that your sales team takes to convert prospects into customers. Building a sales process is absolutely necessary for your company’s success, and is perhaps the most important thing you can do as a sales manager to impact your team’s ability to sell.

Why is it important to have a structured sales process?

A structured sales process is the backbone of any successful sales operation, providing a clear roadmap for sales teams to follow. This structured approach isn’t just a guideline. It’s a strategic framework designed to optimize efficiency, consistency, and results. Here’s why having a structured sales process is so important:

Consistency leads to confidence

A well-defined sales process keeps your entire sales team on the same page. Consistency in approach and messaging instills confidence in your team, as they know what to expect with each potential deal.

Increased efficiency

By breaking down the sales journey into well-defined stages, a structured process empowers sales professionals to navigate the process more efficiently. Each stage has its purpose and a set of actions, reducing ambiguity and the likelihood of missed opportunities.

Enhanced data-driven insights

A structured sales process allows for accurate tracking and analysis of each stage’s performance. This data-driven approach helps you identify bottlenecks, refine strategies, and make informed decisions that create continuous improvement.

Having a formalized sales process ensures that your team focuses its efforts on the activities that generate the most revenue. Without a process in place, deals are simply won or lost, and it’s hard to know which specific actions are working or failing.

Predictability of sales and revenue

A repeatable sales process gives sales teams much more consistency in winning deals. Having a more accurate sense of your win rate allows you to dependably forecast how many sales you’ll close from a given number of leads, and helps sales managers set realistic quotas.

More qualified leads, increased lifetime value

With a well-honed sales process in place, your sales team will be more effective at filtering out low-potential leads and identifying prospects who are most likely to purchase your product and become longtime customers.

Generating higher-quality leads shortens your sales cycle, reduces the effort wasted on opportunities that are unlikely to close, and increases lifetime customer value by focusing your sales efforts on the best prospects.

Improved communication between company teams

If your sales team is speaking a language only they can understand, it can make collaboration between departments difficult. Using the common steps and language of a standardized sales process simplifies company communication, reduces inter-departmental confusion, and enables your customer service, account management, fulfillments, and marketing teams to offer the right assistance at the right time.

A better overall customer experience

When a sales rep rushes a prospect into a sales stage they’re not anticipating, it can create distrust, which can kill the sale and damage the relationship with the buyer. A standardized sales process ensures that sellers don’t advance the sale until the buyer is ready to move forward.

By tailoring the sales process to reflect how a company’s target customers move through the buying process, and making sure each step is designed to generate trust and offer value, sales teams can lay the foundation for a positive customer experience before the deal is even closed.

Effective training and onboarding

A clearly defined process simplifies the training and onboarding of new sales team members. It provides a framework that enables new hires to quickly understand your sales approach and start contributing to your organization’s success.

Want to learn more about what a sales process is and why it’s important? Read this first. If you already have a sales process built, you can skip ahead to the next guide in our series, How to Implement a Sales Process.

the stages of the sales process

The stages of the sales process

A sales process consists of a series of stages—usually three to seven, depending on the sale’s complexity—which cover the major milestones of a sale. Each stage consists of tasks, which are the key activities your team must perform in order to advance the sale from stage to stage.

Your steps may vary based on your industry and how thorough your process needs to be to secure leads, but in general, you’ll want to have strategies for each of these moments in the sales funnel:

  • Prospecting
  • Qualifying
  • Developing rapport
  • Presenting solutions
  • Handling objections
  • Closing the sale
  • Following up

1. Prospecting

Also known as lead generation, prospecting involves identifying potential buyers to add to the top of your sales funnel. These potential buyers can be people who have expressed interest in the product or service that you’re selling, or who might reasonably have interest based on their demographics, industry, or other factors.

This step of the sales cycle is often done through online research, buying lead lists, referral networking, or inbound marketing methods. It is best practice to target your ideal buyer persona throughout prospecting efforts. This increases the odds that the leads you generate will eventually become closed deals.

Your ideal customer consists of as many target demographics as possible, from job title and income level to age and hobbies. From here, you can begin expanding on the demographics you’re appealing to and begin developing your target market.

Tools that can assist with prospecting include CRMs, marketing tools, and sales intelligence platforms.

Examples of tasks for this stage:

  • Collect recent customer referrals
  • Attend a trade show or networking event
  • Gather recent leads from content offers on your website
  • Search social media for companies/executives in your target industry

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Which tasks should your sales reps be completing at each stage in the sales process?

If you’re unsure, our list of 101 Task Ideas for Any Sales Process will help you get started.

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101 task ideas for any sales Process

2. Qualifying

The qualifying stage marks the first time your reps make direct contact with a lead. Through an initial phone call or email, the rep’s goal is to gather information on the lead and determine if they are a good fit for your product or service.

The most well-known qualifying framework is BANT—budget, authority, need, and timeline. In other words, if your sales team can determine that a lead actually wants what you’re selling, and has the money and decision-making power to buy from you in the near future, then they’re qualified to move on to the next stage.

Examples of tasks for this stage: 

The most important step to take when building a sales process is correctly identifying your target market. First, define the external criteria that will help you identify companies that are likely experiencing the pain points your product or service solves. Then, identify the people within those organizations who are personally suffering from those pain points, and who have the authority to make buying decisions.

Whitney Sales Founder of The Sales Method

3. Developing rapport

Selling in today’s saturated market depends more than ever on developing personal relationships, or at the very least a decent rapport, with your leads. Even if your brand offers unique products or services, the best way to stand out among your competitors is by making an emotional appeal to potential buyers.

People naturally react more strongly when they’re emotionally invested in something, and when you pursue a personal connection with them, you’ll make them feel like more than a number. They’re not your customers or business partners — they’re your friends, and when they feel like your friends, they’ll be there to support you through anything.

Examples of tasks for this stage:

  • Contacting leads personally to tell them about your brand
  • Sending personalized emails with exclusive offers
  • Inviting leads to informal meetings to discuss how your business can help them

4. Presenting

Whether you’re doing an on-site demonstration for a potential client or using video conferencing to present a software solution, presenting is your sales team’s opportunity to lay out a compelling, personalized case for how your product or service will fulfill the prospect’s immediate needs.

Success in the presenting stage depends heavily on research and preparation. Before you make your presentation, you should have gathered as much information as possible about your prospect and their specific needs and concerns so that you can anticipate every follow-up question and have a good answer ready to go. If you can position yourself as a trusted advisor instead of someone who’s just trying to make a sale, you’re doing it right.

Examples of tasks for this stage:

  • Schedule a presentation
  • Conduct further research on the company/stakeholders to prepare
  • Develop specific recommendations to present

Related: 19 ways to nail your next sales presentation

5. Handling objections

There are plenty of reasons why a prospect would be hesitant to commit, even if they’re interested in your product—price, timing, and fear of change are some of the common ones. In the objections stage, a sales rep attempts to address all of the outstanding concerns that a prospect still has after hearing your pitch.

No matter what a prospect’s objection may be, knocking it down generally comes down to two things: Demonstrating the value of your solution and demonstrating the cost or risk that comes from not buying.

Examples of tasks for this stage:

  • Follow-up call with the prospect after the presentation
  • Identify remaining concerns
  • Demonstrate value above other solution(s) they’re considering

Hate your current CRM? Still working off spreadsheets? Register for our “Intro to Nutshell” live demo and see why sales teams love us!

6. Closing

Closing is everything you need to do in the late stages of a sale to get your prospect to sign a contract and become a customer. This could include delivering a proposal based on verbally agreed-upon terms, getting buy-in from all the decision-makers, and making final negotiations on the price. With every roadblock out of the way, you’re ready to ask for their signature—and begin the hard work of retaining them as a customer.

Examples of tasks for this stage:

  • Deliver proposal
  • Final negotiations
  • Acquire signed contracts

7. Following up and nurturing the relationship

This is the sales process stage that you want to last the longest. Nurturing a customer means 1) providing them with the proper post-sale support so that they’re excited to continue buying from you, and 2) finding opportunities to increase the value of the business relationship through upselling. Well-nurtured customers can also provide a significant source of referrals, making them a priceless lead source in themselves.

Examples of tasks for this stage:

  • Follow up with customer immediately after delivery of product/service
  • Subscribe buyer to customer newsletter or sales emails
  • Ask for positive reviews and referrals

Pro tip: Each sales process stage should have a clear definition or goal: What observable activity or action tells you that a customer is in a particular stage of the buyer journey?

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Unsure which sales process stages are right for your company?

Our 16 Sales Process Templates for B2B Pipelines provide top examples of how companies just like yours structure their sales processes.

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5 less common (but still important) sales process stages

Sales teams incorporate these intermediate stages into their sales processes to put additional focus on important activities, rather than milestones.

1. Setting an appointment

It’s the first major commitment you make with a prospective buyer. After a lead is qualified, a rep’s #1 priority should be locking down a time for their presentation.

2. Researching

Gathering information on a prospect should be part of every stage of your sales process, but it’s critically important before the presentation. Through conversations and online research, your goal should be to identify your buyer’s pain points and needs, as well as any other unique characteristics that you can use to create a tailor-made solution.

3. Demonstrating value

Focusing on your product is fine—but ultimately, you have to convince your prospect why they should do business with you. Are you trustworthy? Do you have specialized insight into your industry?

The “demonstrating value” stage means providing targeted content (including customer testimonials and competitive battle-sheets) as well as answering questions to position yourself as a trusted advisor.

4. Issuing a proposal

Here’s where you take all the talking and put it into writing. Based on the solutions you discussed with your prospect, lay out exactly what your company will provide, at what price, and over what timeline.

5. Delivering the product or service

The transaction isn’t a success until the customer gets what they’re paying for. Whether it’s the physical delivery of a product or the onboarding of a cloud software service, make sure you get off on the right foot with your newly closed buyer by executing this step flawlessly.

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Need to create a roadmap that can guide your team toward more sales?

Download our Sales Process Worksheet to learn how to outline the key steps your team needs to take for sales success.

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4 formats for organizing your sales processes

Once you’ve picked out your stages and tasks, it’s time to give your sales process a coherent structure. Here are four sales process formats you can use for inspiration.

1. Sales process map

Arranging your stages into vertical columns might be the most natural way to organize and visualize your sales process—which is why we decided to structure it this way in Nutshell. In a sales process map, the top of each column is labeled with a stage, and the individual steps are listed below it.

While the steps listed in each column reflect the sales activities that your team needs to complete, sales process maps can also include arrows linking each column to denote the stages of the buyer’s journey that the customer is moving through.

sales process example map

2. Sales process checklist

A checklist sales process is arranged chronologically from top to bottom, with steps listed underneath each sales stage. Once you check off each completed step in a given stage, you can move on to the next one. This format is best for simple sales processes that don’t have a lot of moving parts.

sales process checklist

Pro tip: Leads in a sales process are either in an “open” stage, meaning they’re still being worked, or in a “closed” stage, meaning they’ve reached a conclusion—either won or lost.

3. Sales process flowchart

While a checklist or column arrangement can work well for simple sales transactions, more complex sales tracking can’t always be managed with a step-by-step chronological process. If each customer decision can spur different “paths” for your sales rep to take, a flowchart might be a more appropriate method to visualize your sales process.

For example, what do your reps do when a lead doesn’t advance past a certain step? Is the lead abandoned forever, or is it directed to a “winback” path where you try to reconnect with the prospect at a later date to see if they still need help finding a solution? With a sales process flowchart, you can add “Plan B” steps that can eliminate the dead ends that arise in a more straightforward sales process.

sales process schedule

4. Buyer-aligned sales process

Ultimately, each sale represents an alignment of the buyer’s and seller’s interests. Incorporating the steps of the buyer’s journey into your sales process reminds your sales reps to consider what the buyer needs at each step.

After you’ve decided on your own sales process stages, put yourself in your customer’s shoes and add the key commitments and decisions that the buyer has to make along the way. If both sides of your buyer-aligned sales process closely mirror each other, you’re doing it right.

buyer-aligned sales process

10 sales process management strategies for creating and improving your sales process

So, how do you know which stages to include in your sales process and how can you ensure your process is driving optimal results over time?

There’s a lot to consider when it comes to sales processes, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Remember—your sales process doesn’t have to be perfect right away. In fact, it should evolve and improve over time. Start with the basics and make updates as you learn more about what drives the best results with your audience.

Check out our top tips for creating and improving your sales process below.

1. Base your sales process on the buyers’ journey

Your sales stages should reflect and support your customers’ buying process, and help your reps understand what kind of attention each prospect needs at any given moment.

“For complex B2B sales environments that involve a lengthy buying process and multiple customer stakeholders, the best way of defining your pipeline stages is to align them with the key phases in your customer’s typical decision-making process,” says Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners founder Bob Apollo.

In a typical complex sale, these key decision phases can include the following.

  • Unconcerned: “This equates to your prospecting phase,” Apollo says. “The buyer is apparently unconcerned about any of the issues we have chosen to target.”
  • Investigating: “Something has happened to alert the prospect to a potential issue, and they are researching their options and deciding whether there is a clear reason to act.”
  • Defining: “The prospect has concluded that action is required, and they are defining their decision criteria and process, and identifying who needs to be on the decision team.”
  • Selecting: “The decision team is evaluating their shortlisted options—which could still include ‘do nothing’—and deciding upon their preferred solution.”
  • Negotiating: “The prospect is negotiating the best possible deal and eliminating any remaining risks or reservations.”
  • Approving: “If the decision is of a strategic nature or above a certain value, it will still have to be formally approved before any order can be placed.”
sales process sticky notes

2. Understand what your sales team is currently doing

Even if you’ve never formalized your sales process before, the raw materials are in place. Your reps likely have a general outline of sales activities that they follow for each sale, including commitments that they have to secure along the way from their prospects.

The first step in building a sales process is gaining a full understanding of what your sales team is currently doing to turn leads into customers.

“Too often, sales managers build a sales process that has no relevance or familiarity with what the team is already doing,” says former Nutshell CEO Joe Malcoun. “Not only do you want your reps to recognize what you are asking of them, but you need them bought in from the beginning.”

Malcoun suggests sitting down with each member of your sales team to learn the actual steps that they’re taking to move a lead through your funnel. “Find out how they visualize the process—even in the absence of one—and build yours so that it’s familiar to your team, using their language as much as possible.”

To help with this process, take a handful of your recent leads and go through the following questions with your reps. Their answers will help you understand the specific activities that your team is currently performing during the course of a sale.

  1. How was the lead acquired?
  2. How was the lead distributed or assigned?
  3. How did the sales rep make first contact with the lead (i.e., email or phone)?
  4. How many attempts did the sales rep make to establish contact with each lead?
  5. Did the rep’s contact attempts follow a specific schedule or cadence?
  6. After making contact with a lead, what questions did the sales rep or sales development rep (SDR) ask in the initial conversation?
  7. How were the answers to those questions recorded?
  8. How did the sales rep coordinate follow-up contact?
  9. Which files, documents, or other content were sent to the lead?
  10. At what point were those resources delivered?
  11. How did the sales rep present your company’s solution? (i.e., on-site visit, webinar, phone call)
  12. What did the rep do to prepare for that presentation?
  13. When and how was your company’s proposal delivered?
  14. What were the major sticking points during negotiations?
  15. If the lead was lost, why was it lost?
  16. If the lead was won and the sale was completed, what did your first post-sale contact with the customer look like?

If you don’t have answers to all of the above questions at first, don’t worry. By building a sales process, you’ll define exactly what should happen at each point of the sale, so that all of your reps are following the same game plan.

3. Set clear goals for each stage

Each sales process stage should have clearly defined goals and objectives, including specific criteria required to move a lead from one stage to the next.

“If you accept the principle that your stages should be based on key phases in the customer’s buying decision process, then the obvious way of establishing the criteria required to advance the opportunity from one stage to the next is through verifiable evidence of the customer’s willingness to take the next step,” advises Bob Apollo.

“For example, between the ‘investigating’ and ‘defining’ stages of the customer decision process, the milestone might be that the customer acknowledges there is a compelling business reason to act. Moving from the ‘defining’ stage to the ‘selecting’ stage could mean that the decision criteria and process are agreed and the shortlisted options are identified.”

4. Tailor your sales processes to your industry

“The process should always focus on the customer, and customers can be very different across industries, whether you’re a B2C healthcare organization or a B2B infrastructure company,” says Jacco vanderKooij, founder of Winning by Design and author of Blueprints For A SaaS Sales Organization. “All sales processes contain similar building blocks, but the stages might be in a different order, the key activities could be executed differently, or you might need a few unique stages—a compliance stage in the financial industry, for example.”

“Your industry also affects how your leads are sourced,” adds Joe Malcoun. “At Nutshell we receive thousands of leads online via our website. On the other hand, some of our customers meet three people a year at conferences and that will be all the business they need to be successful.”

5. Leverage technology

In sales, there are constantly new innovations designed to make your job easier. New technologies allow you to automate tasks like sending form emails and scheduling appointments, allowing you to focus your manpower where it needs to be.

Perhaps the best tech for keeping up with your sales process is customer relationship management (CRM) software,  like Nutshell. A CRM enables you to outline your sales process and track leads as they move through it. With Nutshell, you can collaborate with your team, automate elements of your process, assign leads to reps, and much more.

Looking for an easy-to-use CRM with all the features you need to boost sales?

Nutshell has what you’re looking for.

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6. Provide training on your sales process

In any job, an expert completes better work faster than an amateur. But you can turn any amateur into an expert with the proper training. Investing in training your team in the latest sales techniques is an investment in your business as a whole.

When you equip your people with knowledge of various parts of your sales process, you enable them to become experts in those areas. For example, an employee who’s been well-trained in qualifying leads can do so more effectively by streamlining the process, learning what methods work best, and implementing them.

7. Research competition and develop competitive strategies

How can you understand your niche in the industry if you don’t know your competition? Understanding your industry’s competitive landscape can help you develop new ways to set yourself apart from your competitors, increasing your chances of drawing in new customers. 

Start your research by discovering brands offering similar products and services as you. Try to find ones that share your targeted audiences and locations for the best results. Then, analyze what makes them effective. Ask yourself:

  • How do their prices compare to yours? 
  • Do their products or services boast specific advantages over yours?
  • What does their social media presence look like? Is it effective?
  • How appealing is their website? Is it easy to navigate? Does it speak directly to visitors and offer new customer discounts?

Answering these questions will show you where your competition thrives and how you can use similar strategies (or avoid unsavory ones) in your own sales tactics. Identifying areas of differentiation and advantage allows you to better display and utilize what makes you unique.

8. Create clear and consistent documentation

What’s the key to maintaining an effective sales process? Documentation! 

A roadmap lets you display your entire process so you and other people in your department can consistently recreate the perfect strategy every time. It helps you manage everything from starting goals to presentation and publication, letting you identify places where you may need more research or add contact information for support people who can help along the way.

9. Track and measure performance

How will you know when all your hard work starts paying off? Tracking your data, traffic, and other areas of performance is the best way to measure how well your efforts are paying off.

This is another area where automated technology software can change the game. Much of the available software has data collection capabilities to monitor your metrics and provide you with real-time access any time you need it.

10. Collect customer feedback and make necessary changes

Finally, with every improvement you make comes the need for evaluation and improvement. The best way to see how well your sales strategies are working is to ask the people you’re serving — your customers.

Customer surveys and feedback invitations give your buyers space to express the parts of the buying experience that worked well for them and which parts have room for improvement. When you combine this information with your sales data, you should clearly see where you’re thriving and where you need to focus your attention. 

Common areas many brands find themselves adjusting are within their sales pitch, product or service specifications, and the buying process. These changes can improve customer satisfaction and offer a more enjoyable experience to new leads.

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Challenges of a sales process

With every sale comes the possibility of an unexpected complication or challenge. Not every lead will convert, and not every potential buyer ultimately wants to invest in your products or services. Let’s talk about some of the challenges you’ll face when working through your sales process steps and some simple remedies you can employ.

1. Lack of customer awareness or interest

From a lack of effective marketing to a lack of perceived relevance from customers, there are many reasons why your services may not be making the major splash you’d hoped for. Adjusting your advertising strategy is the first way to remedy this.

Our solutions:

  • Increase marketing budgets: A lack of awareness may mean your sales strategy needs a financial boost. A bigger marketing budget means you can afford more advertising space on sites like Google, Facebook, and TikTok, and you can pay more people to research strategies and create ads that work.
  • Explore new advertisement options: If your budget is tight, but you know brand awareness is where you need to focus your efforts, consider trying new platforms to get the word out. You may be using the wrong outlets for your target audience, and a switch is all you need to start raising your ratings again. 
  • Rebrand your features: Uninterested customers only become interested when they discover how a product can improve their personal life. Make sure the features you’re advertising align with your audience’s values, and you’ll see your profits jump.

2. Competition and price wars

Competition is a natural part of running a business, but price wars can leave even the biggest contenders feeling run down by their lack of profit. Even when your competitors put up a fair fight, you have options for other sales tactics.

Our solutions:

  • Create comparison charts: When buyers analyze multiple brands, a comparison chart is exactly what they’re looking for. Be the brand that offers it to them, and you’ll secure their attention. Use it to show why yours is the best option, and you’ll convert them before they can navigate away from you.
  • Highlight standout features: What do you have that your competition doesn’t? Customization options? A better warranty? On-site support? When you’ve done all you can to fight the price war, your best tool is emphasizing what you have that puts you a step ahead.

3. Limited resources for prospecting and lead generation

Many businesses are forced to work with limited lead generation and prospecting resources, despite how important these activities are for growing your pipeline. Your team may need to develop creative strategies to continue expanding your reach.

Our solutions: 

  • Outsource lead generation: If you’ve ever used a referral code while shopping, you’ve participated in a brand’s outsourcing. Referrals are a powerful tool for the small or overworked sales team, as it requires virtually no effort on their part. Still, new leads find encouragement in the form of discounts or exclusive offers, making them more likely to return again.
  • Explore new prospect sources: Similarly, it may be time to adjust your prospecting sources. This can be as easy as attending new networking events or reaching out to different businesses. By discovering new places to generate leads, you’re reaching more new people than ever, naturally expanding your reach.
  • Work with an experienced marketing agency: Generating leads takes time and expertise. If your team is struggling to find the time and resources to generate the leads your business needs, consider working with a marketing agency. Hiring an experienced agency is often the maximum results out of your marketing budget.

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4. Difficulties in sustaining rapport with customers

People’s attention spans grow shorter every day, making the challenge of keeping their attention long enough to convert them larger than ever.

Our solutions:

  • Utilize communication technologies: There are many software options available allowing you to communicate with your customers en masse — Nutshell being one of them. Through these technologies, you can create a number of responses for various situations, then let the software send communications regularly.
  • Prioritize high-value clients: At some point, all brands have to prioritize higher-value clients over others when managing their relationships. Choose as many of your best clients as you can sustainably communicate with, and let your technology assistants take care of the rest.

5. Overcoming objections to close the sale

Even as potential buyers get close to making a purchase, they can have doubts about their decision or questions that need to be answered. One of your sales team’s many jobs is ensuring they have all the information they require to make the best decision for them.

Our solutions:

  • Be prepared for questions: Your sales team needs to be the most knowledgeable people in your entire company about your products, services, and how they work. They should be ready to answer any question or concern a lead raises with them right away to close lead times and secure more sales.
  • Provide discount codes or money-back guarantees: When potential buyers are really on the fence about a purchase, push them over the edge with an exclusive offer. It tells them you’re willing to go the extra mile for them and gives them an additional incentive to choose you over your competitors.

6. Inconsistency in the process across different team members

The longer a lead stays in the buyer’s funnel, the more likely they’ll talk to many of your sales team members and receive varying levels of service. This can lead to confusion and ultimately make a customer think investing in your brand is not worth the hassle.

Our solutions:

  • Standardize sales methods: Create a guide or roadmap detailing your sales process, how to navigate common situations, and frequently asked questions. Ensure your sales team can study and reference it at any time.
  • Train staff regularly: Once you have your guide, review it regularly with your team so that everyone stays on the same page. Furthermore, encourage your team to participate in regular training where they can hone their skills and continue offering the same level of consistency across the entire team.

Now for the fun part…

In order to reap the rewards of a sales process, you’ll need to get your entire team following it consistently. In the next installment of this series, we’ll show you exactly how to implement your new sales process into your organization and automate it within your CRM. Enjoy!

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