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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Related: 19 ways to nail your next sales presentation
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.
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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.
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.
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?
Sales teams incorporate these intermediate stages into their sales processes to put additional focus on important activities, rather than milestones.
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!)
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
Many businesses are forced to work with a limited sales team, despite marketing being one of their most vital processes for lead generation. Your team may need to develop creative strategies to continue expanding your reach.
People’s attention spans grow shorter every day, making the challenge of keeping their attention long enough to convert them larger than ever.
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.
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.
Even the most well-rehearsed, beautifully-designed sales processes have room for improvement. As your industry and the economy evolve, carve out time for your marketing team to review and update your sales processes at least a couple of times a year — before and after holidays are excellent times, so you can cater your processes to each season.
During your next review, keep these proven strategies in mind as a starting point to make your next quarter the most profitable one yet.
One of the best things about marketing is that 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. With a few clicks, you can streamline your scheduling processes, track consumer data, and anticipate new trends automatically.
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 and learning what methods work best and implementing them.
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:
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.
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.
Finally, with every improvement you make comes the need for evaluation and edification. 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 their shopping experience that worked well for them and which parts have room for improvement. Combined with your data collection methods, 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 necessary changes can improve customer satisfaction and offer a more enjoyable experience to new leads.
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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