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 to 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.
If your sales team is operating without a sales process, you need to do something about it—right now. Fortunately, creating a sales process from scratch isn’t as complicated as it seems. To help give your sales reps a clear and effective path to follow, we’ve created this start-to-finish guide on how to build a sales process from the ground up.
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.
PART 1: How to outline your 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.
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. What is the first thing that your sales reps do to connect with a potential buyer, and what is the last thing they do to finish the sale? With those end-points in mind, you can begin to fill in the blanks.
“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.
Let’s take a closer look at some common stages and tasks you might consider including in your own sales process...
PART 2: How to choose the right sales process stages and tasks
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.
“This equates to your prospecting phase,” Apollo says. “The buyer is apparently unconcerned about any of the issues we have chosen to target.”
“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.”
“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.”
“The decision team is evaluating their shortlisted options—which could still include ‘do nothing’—and deciding upon their preferred solution.”
“The prospect is negotiating the best possible deal and eliminating any remaining risks or reservations.”
“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.”
So what should your reps be doing while the customer is advancing through their buyer’s journey? Here are six sales stages that are frequently used in sales processes, and why they’re important…
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 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.
Prospecting is often done through online research, buying lead lists, or inbound marketing methods. Targeting your prospecting efforts to your ideal buyer persona increases the odds that the leads you generate will eventually become customers.
Examples of tasks for this stage:
- Collect recent customer referrals
- Attend trade show or networking event
- Gather recent leads from content offers on your website
- Search social media for companies/executives in target industry
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
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 presentation
- Conduct further research on company/stakeholders to prepare
- Develop specific recommendations to present
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 prospect after presentation
- Identify remaining concerns
- Demonstrate value above other solution(s) they’re considering
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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
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
- Ask for positive reviews and referrals
Pro tip: Each sales process stage should have an operational definition: What observable activity or action tells you that a customer is in a particular stage?
Five 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.
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.
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.
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 on 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.
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, over what timeline.
The transaction isn’t a success until the customer gets what they’re paying for. Whether it’s physical delivery of a product or 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.
Pro tip: Use the Post-it Note method of laying out your sales process. After choosing your sales stages, write down all of your important sales activities and customer milestones onto sticky notes, then arrange them into 3-7 columns reflecting the stages you have chosen. (Or, just use our handy worksheet!)
To make sure that your sales process is repeatable and measurable, nothing should be left to interpretation.
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.”
PART 3: Putting it all together
Now that you have 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.
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.
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.
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.
Should your sales process be dependent on 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.”
Now 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!