Let’s face it, in almost every b2b sales organisation, there’s far too much valuable selling time going to waste. It’s being wasted on pursuing poorly qualified opportunities that are never likely to buy from you - and even in well-qualified opportunities, it’s all too often wasted on activities which are going to have no impact on your prospect’s buying process - or your chances of winning.
Think for a moment about your sales pipeline. How many opportunities are required at the top of the funnel in order to close one sale? However well your team is performing, the end to end conversion rate is almost certainly at a level that no operations manager could accept in a manufacturing plant. And if they did, they wouldn’t be keeping their job for much longer.
The analogy is a useful one, because although I understand very well that there’s a world of difference between building a standardised product and selling a complex solution, some of the ways in which we measure manufacturing performance have useful parallels in the sales environment.
Manufacturing companies have a real focus on getting things right first time. They go out of their way to engineer scrap and rework out of the process, through measures like rigorous raw material quality standards, templates, standardised machine setups, and so on. And if a component is going to fail, they want it to be rejected early, before a great deal of value has been added to it.
It’s not so different from running a sales pipeline. We want to be working well qualified opportunities and to prevent unwinnable deals from entering the pipeline in the first place. And if we’re going to lose, we want to lose early, before a great deal of wasted effort has been invested. If only we could have the level of visibility of what’s really happening from stage to stage that the leading manufacturers have of the products that are flowing along their production lines...
Then there’s the issue of time. Plant managers watch stage times like a hawk. If work in progress is taking longer than expected to move from one stage to the next, or showing unnaturally high failure rates, they will often stop the line in order to fix the underlying problem. Imagine how much more effectively we could manage sales pipelines if we better were aware of deals that were getting “stuck” at a particular stage without moving forward...
So what can we learn from the manufacturing experience? Firstly, even the sale of complex solutions will benefit from having a well defined sales process that draws upon the winning habits of your top performers, together with the best practices that can be observed in other high-performing sales organisations. CSO Insights concluded that companies with a defined, dynamic sales process outperformed their peers by a third or more in factors like the percentage of reps making quota.
Next, we need to instrument the pipeline so that we can measure deal velocity and stage to stage conversation rates, and see how performance is affected by factors like the product, salesperson and lead source involved. We need to take steps to diagnose and deal with the root causes of poor performance. And we need to trigger an alarm when a deal falls outside desirable performance standards.
And finally, we need to use the information to systematically identify the bottlenecks and constraints that are slowing sales or restricting our win rates, set high standards, and perpetuate winning habits. You might want to start with your CRM system. Does it truly embrace and encourage best practice, and is it providing you (and your sales people) the data you need? And if not, is the problem really with the software, or how it is being used and managed? It might be time to re-engineer your sales production line.