The evidence that formalised sales processes improve sales performance is absolutely overwhelming - a raft of studies have shown that companies that have implemented structured sales processes outperform companies that haven’t by anything from 20-45% or more. So why are so many companies still so reticent?
I think that a big part of the problem is the feeling that implementing a defined sales process is the equivalent of applying a straightjacket - and that it will somehow restrict the creativity of the sales team. In fact, the evidence clearly suggests the entirely opposite conclusion.
Far from stifling creativity, well-defined sales processes actually release creativity - as long as the processes are thought of as skeletons that support the sales person’s initiative, and not as cages that restrict their ability to think out-of-the box. Here’s why…
I want to start by drawing some parallels from the field of medicine. This year’s BBC Reith lectures featured Harvard Medical School Professor Atul Gawande. I have to say that I found his lectures inspirational - and I hazard to suggest that you might have the same reaction.
I was particularly struck by the unexpected parallels between medicine and a variety of other fields including aviation, construction and - as I hope to persuade you - selling. In every case, the professions of medicine, architecture and salesmanship are more suited to artisans than to automatons.
Skilled people perform best within systems
In every such situation, skilled people (think of a consultant surgeon with years of training) perform better when they work within a defined system that encapsulates best practice, incorporates the latest learning and systematically eliminates avoidable errors.
Gawande makes the distinction between failures that result from ignorance (lack of knowledge) versus those that are down to ineptitude (failure to use existing knowledge), and I think this distinction is particularly relevant to sales processes.
The importance of eliminating avoidable error
I see one of the primary benefits of establishing a defined sales process as helping to ensure that we systematically share best practice and eliminate the sources of avoidable error (the failure to apply existing knowledge).
The evidence Gawande quotes from the world of medicine is utterly compelling: skilled surgeons that work within environments that have clearly structured systems to ensure best practice before, during and after surgery achieve dramatically better patient outcomes.
They were involved far less often in situations where “the operation was successful but the patient died”. Surgeons are perhaps the ultimate artisans - they must be highly trained, yet capable of reacting to situations as they unfold.
Expecting (and preparing for) the unexpected
The studies show that surgeons working within environments that “expect the unexpected” and are prepared to deal with it are more successful than those in environments where outcomes are primarily dependent on their skill, rather than the systematic anticipation, elimination and mitigation of predictable risk factors.
And it strikes me that the sales profession - particular those that are involved in complex, unpredictable sales environments - can learn a great deal from the successful applications of systems to medicine.
It’s challenging to deal with the unknown - but there are few excuses for failing to eliminate avoidable errors that could be a function of either ignorance or ineptitude. Prepared people working in well-defined systems will always do better than unprepared people in ill-defined environments.
We need to create supportive sales environments
That’s why successful selling - at least as far as I am concerned - is a matter of recruiting the right people, giving them the appropriate training, and immersing them in a supportive environment that continually refines the state of the art.
In this scenario, the sales process - and the training programme that supports it - helps ensure that smart people make intelligent decisions, eliminate avoidable errors, and progressively advance well qualified opportunities to a positive conclusion.
Discipline drives daring
Gawande had a marvellous phrase for this: “discipline drives daring”. Only by being well prepared, and only by working in an environment of best practice, can we hope to fulfil our potential, no matter what our raw talent might be.
It’s only when we are well prepared, well trained and well supported that we, as professional sales people, can fully realise our creative potential. It’s only through appropriate, flexible and supportive sales processes that we can achieve all that we might.
Enable, don't constrain
Sales processes are not - or should not - be designed to constrain. They should be designed to enable. And if your sales people don’t feel this way about your current sales process (or are struggling on without one), it may be time to think again.
So I’m interested in your opinions: what else can we learn from the world of medicine or the other professions? And how these lessons learned be applied to make sure that our talented sales people achieve all that they could?