Many businesses with sales people don’t have a formally defined sales process. Many don’t even have an informally defined sales process. They either survive on organic growth and referrals or they muddle through, intuitively following a series of steps that either works for them or that they’ve always followed.

‘Process, Schmocess,’ they say. ‘We don’t need a process, we all know what we’re doing.’ That may be true, but do you all know what each other is doing? And how does someone manage you if you’re all doing things your own way? How can they plan and grow the business?

Companies design and follow a sales process for a variety of reasons. Times change, and so do industries and companies, so you want to make sure you’re best serving your industry. Every sales organisation has good and less good salespeople, and you want to instil the behaviours of the good people in the less good. If there is an ideal way of selling that closes the most amount of deals to the long term benefit of your customers, everyone should follow it. You can’t possibly sell to customers until you understand how they want to buy, and a sales process is simply the buying stages that your customer wants to go through to buy from you. Your sales process is simply a mirror of that buying process.

You may feel you’re in an industry that is slow to embrace the latest technologies like social media, but all of your customers and prospects have access to the Internet. This has huge ramifications for you as a selling organisation because it means that companies can complete the first stages of the buying process without ever involving you; they do the online the equivalent of asking around, which means looking at your website, industry discussion groups, forums, review portals. Before they would phone you up and ask for a brochure. If they’re not showing and telling in the first stages of their buying process, you’re missing out on the first stages of your selling process, if you even have one. So you need a sales process that acknowledges this and pushes you to get information early that can help you compete.

I was over-simplifying when I said your sales process is a mirror of your customers’ and prospects’ buying process. Your customers may choose to buy in different ways from you, especially if you have a range of products and services. Then you need to group your customers into buying groups that make sense to you and design a sales process for each group. In other words, you need multiple sales processes – yikes!

Here are eight things you need to take into account.

– your customers’ buying process – and therefore your sales process – will reflect the thing that’s being bought. You don’t want a 7-stage process for something that’s bought over a phone call, and you don’t want a 1-stage process when someone is taking 9 months to decide to invest half a million with you

– a sales process is a linear series of steps you take to guide your customer towards buying something that will uniquely or best help them fix their problem. You do the steps in order, you don’t ask for the order before you know if you’re talking to the decision-maker

– a sales stage mirrors a portion of the buying journey that represents a meaningful milestone to your customer. Example buying stages of a sales process might be: define the problem, design the requirements, evaluate the alternatives, select the winner, negotiate, do the deal, implement the project, review the progress

– a sales stage mirrors the buying stage. Example buying stages might be: identify the prospect, qualify the prospect, define the requirements, demonstrate the evidence, acquire the business, get the order, implement it, review the progress

– each sales stage should contain a series of steps that you need to take in order to progress the sale. Ideally, these steps are verified by the customer. For example, has the customer confirmed when the project has to start by? Has the customer confirmed the quote is acceptable?

– get your sales people to feed into and buy into the sales process. You need them all to follow it. When they’re all doing the right things – which are the same things – at the right time, with the right kind of customer, and are recording the information in the right way, you then have objective, scientific activities and data on which to base your forecasts, your planning and your coaching, rather than no data, or subjective data based on people’s estimate of how they’re doing. As you know, some are optimistic, some are sandbaggers, and the rest fall somewhere in between

– find a sales technology that allows you to design and manage a range of different sales processes, so that you can report on and coach according to the specific parts of your business. The technology should guide your sales people through the steps to take, and cause them the minimum amount of keying and effort to keep up to date. It has to give them back much more than they put in. This is so much easier said than done, so choose the technology carefully. If it makes them win more deals, it makes them more successful and wealthier, which makes them smile more, which makes them want to use the system more. Behold, the ‘virtuous circle’

– you’re looking to instil regular, repeatable, ‘best practice’ behaviours. When you bring in this kind of thing, you are doing change management, and most people – and especially sales people – resist change. Small checks early and often, not large infrequent milestones, are the way to go, otherwise the new behaviours will never become the accepted behaviours

Don’t know where to start? Ask a sales consultant, or look online for sample sales processes, then adapt them for your use.

Despite what you might think, you need sales process in your life. It’s the spine for your business. You ain’t going anywhere without it.