I don’t like process, it’s inhuman!
If you are ever in a single engine Cesna airplane take a look at the checklist for dealing with catastrophic engine failure. The first step in bold letters, is -
1. Fly the Airplane!
We often fear that process leads to rigidity, blind adherence to protocol or human programming for mindless drones... but good process does exactly the opposite.
When it is done right, process frees skilled professionals from the the mundane and repetitive and lets them focus on what really makes them a professional.
For the pilot of a single engine Cesna, that means flying the airplane. In that moment of extreme stress when the engine has failed, a disciplined and process driven pilot will first be in control of their plane and then work through a short troubleshooting list to get the engine running again.
If our pilot lands that plane I guarantee no one will call him a “process-driven drone,” in fact “hero” is far more likely. Pilots have come to understand that process is about discipline, and performing at your best. It is not inhuman and it does not make you a drone.
Sales has gotten so complex...
The modern sales professional faces a similar challenge to our Cesna pilot. It has become humanly impossible to manage-
multiple leads… with multiple personas… through multiple touch-points… on multiple channels… at multiple coordinated times… from multiple team-members… using multiple pieces of content… for multiple products.
There is well known research that the human mind can only hold about 7 things in working memory at any given time. Guess what, that was recently disproven and the new research says we can hold only 3 or 4 things in our head at once.
The new complexity of sales means salespeople are losing more and more of their limited selling-time to pipeline management tasks. They are like a Cesna pilot that scrambles around the cockpit trying to ad hoc their way to restarting their plane’s engine all while the plane enters an uncontrolled dive to the ground.
Pilots leave the simple static steps to restart an engine to process and checklists, this lets them focus more of their attention on flying. Salespeople need to leave the simple static steps of a sales pipeline to process and focus more of their attention on selling.
Do you have a good sales process? Really?
There is a lot of confusion out there about process in sales. Some people believe that just because they have named their pipeline reporting stages in the CRM they have a process. Others will tell you their process is something like, “I call this list of people, try to set up a meeting and then at the meeting I try to close the deal.”
Pipeline reporting stages are NOT good process.
A vague understanding of how you usually do things is NOT good process.
Less frequently things can go bad in the other direction, with TOO much process. Have you ever called the customer support line for your Cable Provider? After a minute or two you feel like saying, “Just send me the sheet you’re reading off of.” The poor service rep’s every word and every action is being forced by a rigid instruction manual.
An instruction manual is not good process.
Instruction manuals work great for static things like building an Ikea chair but they have an unacceptably high failure rate in dynamic situations like working with other human beings (even Ikea chairs are too dynamic for some people!). There are just far too many paths a sale can take, just like getting control of a plane without power. Sales and flying need to let the professionals be professionals.
Example of great process in action
There is a well known and successful Hedge Fund manager named Mohnish Pabrai. His returns have been phenomenal and he gives some of the credit to a structured process he uses for evaluating every company that crosses his desk.
You might be thinking, “how do I get my hands on that process?” but if you did manage to steal it away from Pabrai you would be very disappointed.
There is no magic in Pabrai’s process.
It does not give any insight into deciding which companies to invest in. If you could figure out how to code his process into a machine you would be no closer to having a successful investment strategy than when you started. Without Pabrai, the professional, the process is useless.
Pabrai’s process is a long list of boring research items. One of the steps just says, “read the footnotes on the cash flow statements” another is to confirm he has “reviewed the statement of key management risks.”
“It is a lot of basic, basic stuff.” -Pabrai
It is not the how to choose the right investment, it is the what. Reducing the tacit knowledge and instinct required to decide if and how to invest is impossible, but making sure Pabrai does what he needs to take full advantage of his knowledge and instinct is the perfect job for process.
Great process is about the what, not the how.
Augmented sales professional
A talented sales professional, augmented by a great sales process is a lot like Pabrai. They don’t skip a single action that could increase their likelihood of success when it comes time to do what they do best, sell.
Here are some simple examples of sales process augmenting a sales professional...
Imagine we have a demo scheduled for tomorrow. At our company we know that-
- A reminder email the day before a meeting increases the rate that prospects show for our demos by 35%.
- Anecdotally we know that updating the “current customer’s slide” with logos relevant to our prospect improves the reception of the demo.
- When we read a prospects LinkedIn profile before the meeting we build a deeper and more meaningful rapport.
None of these steps tell a sales professional how to close the deal, but they are what she needs to know and do in order to be at her best.
Skipping these or other steps before a demo is crazy if we know they improve our success rate. That is why we put process in place. We augment her ability to sell with a process that articulates all the mundane and forgettable steps that give us the best chance at success.
Next Step: How do we design great process?
About two thirds of sales leaders admit they don’t have a well articulated sales process but they want one.
The next logical question is how exactly do we create a great sales process. We explore sales process in great detail in the 9 lessons of our sales process course. If you are not already signed up, click here to get the first lesson. Before we get into the specifics of a sales process, here are some important guidelines when creating process generally, whether it is for pilots, investors or sales professionals.
Process Does Not Belong in your Head
The first step is to get the ideas out of your head. You can add them to a spreadsheet, a piece of paper, a cocktail napkin or a dedicated software system, just don’t try to hold them all in you head. Remember you can only hold 3 to 4 things in your head at once. The whole point of developing a great process is so we don’t need to remember all these mundane little tasks that on their own are so forgettable, but as a whole are so important.
The What, not the How
Focus on the things that will enable a well trained sales professional to execute their job at the highest level. Don’t try to articulate how to do the job, stick with what is most likely to make them successful. A good step is “research the prospect in X way before the meeting.” This will help a good rep build rapport or identify pain points. A bad step is “build rapport by asking about their kids” or “identify pain points.” Don't micro-manage the how, it is guaranteed to fail.
Developing a process is not just for management and it is not just for individual contributors. It needs to take into account the real world experience of the team and the business impacts and team-level data best understood by management.
Watch it work in the real world
Management and the team need to continue to work together even after an initial draft of the process is finished. The goal is to augment the sales professional, not bog them down. Most initial processes fail in some way and need to be reduced and adjusted after they start being used in the real world. It might be best to roll out with a subset of the team so that this process of trial and error does not demoralize those who can not handle it.
Just because something could conceivably make an impact does not mean it should be part of your process. Reading five years of a prospects tweets might uncover something, but even if it does it probably won’t make much of a difference. If the result of a step very rarely has an impact or it’s impact is very minimal don’t burden the team with it.
Not Enforced In Other Ways
It might be important that a salesperson greet a prospect with a friendly hello, but no one needs to be reminded of this, because it is already enforced by basic human decency. Additionally it might be important that a prospect uses X software, but if you already effectively screened for that earlier in the pipeline there is no reason to have anyone check again.
Steps in a process need to be actionable. Otherwise they can’t drive action and then why even bother. “Convince lead to schedule meeting” is not actionable! There are too many unknowns. “Call the lead” is actionable. A key question to determine actionability is “could anyone accomplish this step?” An untrained person might take action very poorly but it should be immediately actionable for them none-the-less.
Fit the flow of work
There are natural ebbs and flows to the work of a trained professional and the time to interact with a process is during the ebbs. For example a sales professional should be interacting with a process before or after a call, not during it. A caveat to this is that engaging with process should happen when there is still time to have an impact. If you ask a salesperson whether they researched their prospect after their prospect call is over, you are creating accountability without helping the salesperson execute. People hate external accountability for its own sake.
DON’T Set it and forget it
One of the great benefits of getting process out of your head and onto paper is that it becomes much easier to iterate on that articulated process. If you spent years memorizing an effective process, any change to it would be a disaster and come at the huge cost of changing your behavior. But if you don’t burden your mind with memorizing and instead follow what you’ve written down, changes and improvements are no big deal. Your team doesn’t have to change their behavior, they just keep following the process that is written down, even if it what is written has changed.
The huge benefits of a great sales process
The benefits awaiting the sales team that can successfully implement a formal sales process are huge, here are just three.
A great process means less mistakes and your team always executing as well as they know how. This by definition will improve your close rate, and probably more than you’re willing to admit. Process will also make your team more efficient with their time, so they spend less time wondering what to do and more time doing it. More deals that take less time means dramatic improvement to sales efficiency.
A clear and shared process means that every member of the team can contribute to the improvement of the entire system. When one person uncovers an insight that improves the process it doesn't just benefit them, it benefits the entire team.
Sales teams can be remarkably bad at onboarding new salespeople. To scale efficiently you can't just have new reps shadow your top performer for a while and hope something rubs off on them. A well articulated process allows a new rep to apply all their transferable sales skills to a new business case much faster and with a much higher success rate.