Over the years I have been guilty of imposing a straight jacket on my sales teams. I admit it, its time to confess. I have gone along with everyone else and believed in 'sales stages'. In my defence, it's not entirely my fault. I was trained that way - most sales people were, and still are today. Just look at this image. This is what you see if your search for 'Sales Stages' in Google. You don't even need to zoom in to see what each of these pages are saying. You know that they are talking about the sales process and the ubiquitous 'sales funnel' and its cr*p!
Now I know that I might offend some people with such a strong assertion, but bear with me.
Consider the funnel (I have even heard it called a sausage machine). The general rule is that the more you throw in at the top, the more comes out the bottom. This is certainly true of a sausage machine; put in piles of low quality material at the top and you end up with poor sausages. But its completely untrue of sales. If you throw in a load of dud leads at the top of sales funnel you won't get poor quality sales, you will just get fewer sales.
Of course the 'sales funnel' is just a model, and in that model its designed to be leaky, with rubbish being ejected as it is 'qualified out'. But if that were true then all great leads would stay in the funnel and turn from prospects to sales right? Wrong. You can place loads of great leads in at the top and not see extra sales. Yes its true. I've been there. I've seen lots of red hot leads fail to convert... it happens all the time. Why? Because sales teams have one finite resource; time. If their time is not focused precisely where its best used, if they are absorbed in chasing bad leads, chasing lost causes, chasing their tails and internal process your sales output goes down.
And if time is so precious how does the sales funnel help; or does slavish belief in the funnel make things worse? Clearly the funnel is large at the top, and small at the bottom. Is there a danger that some might think that's this is a good way to allocate resources and time? Believe me, I have been in companies who dictate that 'every morning is spent prospecting to keep the pipeline full' regardless of what uncovered and yet unclosed opportunities we already had, and what capacity we had to close them.
So the 'sales funnel' is a lie. No that's too strong, it's just a poor mode, far too simplisticl. I feel as if it's how someone, who was never in sales, imagines sales to be. And the sales funnel is a dangerous model in the wrong hands.
And what of the 'sales process'? You know the 'sales process' its the 6/7/8/9 (pick a number) different stages that a lead goes through to end with a sale. There are so many learned papers and thousands of advocates about the sales process that I admit to feeling a little intimidated here; but I can see a problems with the sales process too!
Firstly let me state that I believe that there are stages in sales, I recognise them and any sales professional would. But look at the picture again and you will see the sales process is described with arrows and boxes and flow charts (and the funnel). Its as if the sales process is like a train, calling at stops along the way with some people alighting, as the train travels in one direction and with one destination. The passengers still on board when arriving at the destination are then to be called 'customers'. Its laughable, but some people believe that this is how sales works, not me!
Sales don't follow such a systematic course. They go awry. They go backwards sometimes, or leap forwards. Sometimes (quite often) they don't follow the sales process at all. And what's' more when it comes to large sales there isn't a single 'decision maker' there are many; and many decision cycles - like a doorways in a maze. Or maybe not a maze; its more like snakes and ladders where you can race ahead or drop back - always in competition with others.
Sometimes you find a ladder straight to the top. Years ago we had the occasional sale that would happen in an instant. No lead, no process, no qualification, just a customer wanting what we had, ready to be closed. We used to call these deals 'bluebirds' as they seem to fly in the window. The thing is that these bluebirds happened fairly regularly and were quite high value. As the have years gone by and customers have become generally better informed by the internet, social media and advertising, these bluebirds have increased in number. In fact some businesses only have bluebirds. I know that advocates of the sales process will say that its still happening (the sales process), but that the effect of internet age media has concatenated some of the stages - or even eliminated them. Maybe, maybe not. But what is clear to me is that if the 'sales stage' premise works at all its for simplistic sales scenarios - like an online purchase - but not for large sales, longer sale cycles and account management. This is the province of real sales professionals and I question what sales stages mean for them.
Real sales professions are skilled at navigating the maze, finding the ladders, avoiding the snakes. What sales professionals have in their mind is not the linear sequential model of sales stages lined up in a row, but a fluid playing field filled with characters with mixed ambitions, objectives, issues and impact. The essential skill of the sales professional is to answer the issues, meet the ambitions and objectives and influence the right characters, at the right time. Charting the best route, selecting the best characters and right ways to influence the desired outcome IS professional selling. Trying to ascribe a current 'sales stage' within this fluid map of influence is ... well lets say 'difficult'.
But why does this matter? Well, just like the sales funnel, in the wrong hands the sales process is destructive.
You will recall how misusing the sales funnel can lead to activities that are counter productive; like adding more and more prospects and not spending enough time converting and closing. Similar misunderstanding of the sales process can lead to even bigger mistakes. Consider CRM systems. (oh now ... now I am biting some big fish!)
I can remember the days before CRM systems were quite so ubiquitous. Customer Relationship Management systems were introduced to manage relationships/interactions with your customers. Of course sales leads and prospects are not customers (yet) but CRM systems wrapped then into the 'customer' fold by the mental leap of describing prospects are just a type of customer who happens to be at the other end of the sales process. Sales Automation systems predate CRM but had the same type of features and both are built around an assumption that the 'sales process' and 'sales stages' are fundamental laws of nature. As we have seen this is not true, particularly for larger and more complex sales.
This screen shot is from SalesForce.com. Its an excellent piece of software, I am a user. But just like all the other CRM and Sales Automation systems I have ever seen it revolves around sales stages (see the drop down list). Its from these sales stages that the reports and analytics are calculated. The whole process is divided up into neat stations (stages) along the one way train service to sales nirvana. These stages drive activities. Resources and processes are applied to move the prospect along. Sometimes entire teams are dedicated to manage certain stages. And targets are set for each stage. Sometimes commissions are paid for progressing along these stages ... that's sales commissions for sales that may not have actually happened (ie: not yet shipped or invoiced). In short, we have built a real world and incentivised activity around sales stages, massaging and coaxing the CRM system to output an answer that is believable but not necessarily real.
As I said, I believe that the idea of definitive sales stages, in a straight line progression, is a myth. Sales people know this but they have to play the game. Sometimes they have to move things along to hit their numbers, or to get extra support. Sometimes they will hold it back to hit other targets. And here is a truth. CRM is beloved of finance and IT departments; it makes their jobs easier and clearer, it makes them think they understand the sales process and it makes reporting a breeze. CRM can work wonders for real Customer Management. But I have never yet spoken to sales team that loves their CRM system, or thinks that it reflects their real selling world, or thinks that it makes them better at selling. Ask your sales staff this. Which one technology is indispensable for them to do their job? Some may say email, many will say they phone, or their car .... how many will say their CRM system? Little wonder that CRM systems struggle to gain user acceptance and adoption*.
*I found this on Wikipeadia - its quite old, but I don't think much has changed.
" Adoption issues Many corporations only use CRM systems on a partial or fragmented basis. In a 2007 survey from the UK, four-fifths of senior executives reported that their biggest challenge is getting their staff to use the systems they had installed. 43 percent of respondents said they use less than half the functionality of their existing system."
OK - So what's the solution. What are you selling? I can hear you ask.
I don't have an easy answer, and I am not selling anything. But I think that we should all look again at whether we have hard wired the 'sales funnel' and 'sales process' ideas into our businesses. Have we built our processes upon these myths, and in doing so have we set people up to fail or 'play the system' rather than sell in the most effective way? Most importantly, are we really reflecting how a customer perceives us and our sales proposition? What are we doing to map the real situations within accounts and prospects and campaigns, or have we become too reliant on the easily created CRM dashboards and their mythical values.
I do wonder, for example, what would happen to sales forecasts and dashboards and management reports were based entirely on how our prospects rated our chances of us winning the order, and when that might be. Just think of it for a moment, is it such a mad idea?
And one last thought. If Sales is about stages at all, its about stages of influence, where your sales arguments will (hopefully) win out and influence your customers into action. I tried all manner of ways to visualise this and finally came up with an innovative idea called an Influence Radar. Its a simple way to visualise your sale progress without resorting to the myth of sales stages. Its an intuitive, easy and quick way to understand what is happening in your sale and where you need to concentrate your efforts. Try creating an Influence Radar for your major sales and see how much more insight you can gain (and share) from an Influence Radar than from your CRM report. (ps: Influence Radar is free!).