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Your Sales Process Isn't

By Paul Johnson
Posted Thursday, February 3, 2005

A lot of energy is expended within selling organizations as they try to identify, adopt, and administer a sales process that works for them. The holy grail of selling is to find a foolproof method for creating a customer, the ultimate finished product of the perfect sales process. Prepare to be disappointed. Webster's tells us that a process is "a particular method of doing something, generally involving a number of steps or operations." By performing specific actions in a certain order on allowable inputs, we can produce a finished result that meets a predefined design specification. This works well in manufacturing, and in recurring activities that we find in other areas of our businesses.

We may even have certain processes that we use while we sell. But when we talk about the whole of selling, we need to avoid using the term "sales process" because no such thing exists. That's because there is nothing we can do to reliably produce a customer as a finished result.

Here's why: if we try to apply a process to the way any product or service is sold, an important variable in our sales process would have to be the Buyer. Unfortunately, the Buyer is the last thing that we can control, or should want to control. Therefore, we have to rethink the notion of a selling process and consider if a process applies at all.

Yes, There Really IS a Process The process that the seller needs to pay attention to is the one that the Buyer uses. All Buyers go through a process as they prepare to make a purchase. If we can understand how that process works, we can tune our sales approach to make it easy for the Buyer to make a positive decision that favors us, and do it faster and more frequently than they might otherwise.

We all go through a multi-step process as we prepare to make a purchase. The incremental steps associated with a buying process define distinct Buying Stages. Throughout the buying process, significant psychological shifts occur within a Buyer, causing them to move from one Buying Stage to another.

These shifts in Buying Stages, or Inflection Points, can be influenced by the activities of a salesperson and marketing organization, and the application of tools and tactics that are appropriate to the current Buying Stage. Let's explore the concept of Buying Stages and how they work.

Buying Stages Alerted: The first Stage for a Buyer to move to is typically the Alerted Stage. Here, the Buyer is simply aware that our company and offering exists, and may someday satisfy a need. Most advertising and marketing communications efforts are aimed at moving the Buyer to the Alerted Stage.

When you first see a television ad for a new car model, you are now alerted to the fact that the model exists and which company makes it. However, you may have no current need for a car at all, much less that particular product. While that manufacturer has succeeded in moving you to the Alerted Stage, nothing will happen unless and until you decide to engage with the person or company making the offer.

Engaged: When you decide the timing is right to investigate a product and take steps to contact the supplier, you have reached an Inflection Point and have moved to the Engaged Stage. In the Engaged Stage, you have called the 800- number, sent an e-mail, or walked into the showroom and talked with the seller.

You may have been in the Alerted Stage for days, months, or even decades before deciding that the particular product or service is appropriate for a current need. Your timing – not the seller's – determines when your activity marks an Inflection Point and moves you to the Engaged Stage.

Qualified: Once you engage with the seller, an exchange of information usually takes place where you as the Buyer attempt to get some high-level questions answered. You want to determine whether or not the offering is worth spending even more time later to investigate the specifics of how it will fulfill your need.

You may ask questions like, "How big is it?" or "Exactly what does it do?" and "What is the price range?" If the answers are satisfactory, you've reached another Inflection Point and reached the Qualified Stage.

Qualified implies that you have had your high-level questions answered satisfactorily and are willing to invest more time considering a purchase. Likewise, the seller has often asked a few questions of their own, to determine your suitability as a prospective customer. It's important that both sides believe that a purchase is possible; otherwise no further activities will take place.

Exposed: Assuming both parties choose to move forward, the seller is often invited by the Buyer to present the highlights of the offering and the potential benefits. This could be a brief presentation or demonstration to acquaint the Buyer with the core value proposition and competitive differentiators.

Once the Buyer has seen enough to decide to move forward with their buying process, another Inflection Point is reached and the Buyer moves to the Exposed Stage. At this point, the Buyer may or may not be ready to immediately move forward with pursuing an in-depth investigation, proposal, and so on.

Oftentimes, car purchasers stop into a showroom to look at a new model just to find out how much it is, how it feels to sit in it, and to determine whether the vehicle has potential as a future new car. The Buyer may be months away from being able to do business because of a current lease that will not expire for several months, or other conditions that require delaying the purchase.

The exposed Buyer has enough information to determine whether or not the offering should remain on their list for consideration, either now or in the future.

Selling is All About Buying A Buyer will continue to pursue their buying process, moving from one Buying Stage to another, at their own pace. As sellers, our job is to help these Buyers wherever we can!

Not all buying processes are the same. The actual Buying Stages associated with a buying process will change based on the category of Buyer and the offering. What won't change is that each Buyer will continue to move through distinct psychological stages appropriate for their category and the offering until they decide to reach the Closed Stage and become a customer.

By focusing on the buying process instead of the sales process, the attention stays where it needs to be: on the Buyer. By being alert and recognizing where each Buyer is in their buying process, the salesperson can be most responsive to the Buyer's needs. Now salespeople can readily support the Buyer the way they need to be supported at each Stage to make their buying process move forward smoothly and quickly.

To support the salesperson in their efforts to help the Buyer move past Inflection Points to each successive Buying Stage, we can make sure the salesperson has the proper tool set. Tools may include telesales scripts, needs analysis guides, qualification ranking forms, collateral, and even technology like software.

Additionally, training becomes an important success factor associated with your support of the buying process. Training must go beyond the products; we must make sure that selling skills are appropriate for each Buying Stage, and that the salespeople are properly trained on how to apply each tool to best support the buying process at each Stage.

Sales Communications Focusing on the buying process is what Sales Communications™ is all about. While marketing communications speaks to a general population of Buyers, Sales Communications takes it right down to the individual.

Sales Communications makes the organization's marketing efforts personalized to the specific Buyer, recognizes the unique needs of the Buyer, and equips the salesperson with the complete toolbox to make it easy for the Buyer to come to a positive decision for the benefit of the seller and Buyer.

Sales Communications will allow each salesperson to describe the progress of a selling opportunity in terms of the condition of the Buyer instead of what the seller did. In other words, it doesn't matter whether we've given a demonstration or delivered a proposal. It only matters where the Buyer is in their buying process. Now we can talk about a prospect as Engaged, or Exposed, and everyone in your organization will clearly understand how far along the Buyer is in their buying process.

Identifying the buying process associated with your offering will give you the structure you need to support the Buyer. You'll be able to apply the proper tools and tactics to help each Buyer move through their buying process toward a positive decision. By teaching your salespeople to recognize Buying Stages and their associated Inflection Points, and apply the proper tools and tactics, you'll be able to sell the way your Buyer wants to be sold. You'll be helping them buy the way they like to buy, because they'll be using their process, not yours. Sales processes may not work, but buying processes work every time.

© 2002 Paul Johnson. All rights reserved.

Note: This article is available for reprint at no charge. We only ask that you include our copyright notice in your reprint, along with the About the Author (byline) information we provide at the end of the article.

About the Author
Paul Johnson of Panache and Systems LLC consults and speaks on business strategy for winning against bigger, stronger, better-financed competitors. Check out more free business building tips at ( Call Paul direct in Atlanta, Georgia, USA at (770) 271-7719.


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