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How and Why you Should Create a Milestone-Based Sales Process

September 17, 2020

7 Min. Read

Everyone loves to work with professionals. Picture a situation when a customer asks at the end of one of your meetings: “So, what happens now?” Knowing the process, this should be an easy answer to an easy question. Sales professionals can explain the next steps off the top of their heads.

Just like a pilot has a checklist of the things that need to be done before takeoff, professional sales representatives have it too. They keep it formalized and stick to it. This might be a new thing for some: a sales professional also explains what needs to happen on the other side (the customer’s side), in order to proceed further. 

Sadly, asking about the sales process is not an easy question for most salespeople, at least in our own experience. They fail to define their sales process, as they don’t realise it’s not just about what they have to do, but also about the steps that need to be taken on the customer’s side, in order to make a deal happen.

Keep reading, to find out why the stages in a sales process shouldn’t just be “Call, Meeting, Presentation, Meeting no.2, POC, …”, how it helps you on your way to closing a deal, and how to create an ideal process.

The benefits of having a sales process:

Sales representatives need a sales process for orientation. Creating one should feel just as natural as planning a trip. You know you’ll have to pass by Dresden, Halle, Magdeburg, Hannover + many smaller cities, as you travel to Hamburg from Prague. By identifying all the towns beforehand, you’ll be able to tell if you got lost and where you made the mistake. Knowing only Prague and Hamburg, you’ll get lost for sure, and who knows where. The same applies to closing deals.

Picture of Mr. Bean in his car

The sales process helps you to navigate and manage both yourself and the client.

Sales process hels you guide potential customers...

Not knowing what is happening and where you are in the process means not controlling your sales. If you’re not in control, then you simply hope, and hope is not a strategy. You will always know your side of the process but it's also essential to understand what is happening on the client's side. It can be your champion (the person you’re talking to in the company) needing to sell it to other stakeholders internally, explaining the ROI and benefits to them, communicating with procurement, and more. Should you be fortunate, the champion knows what to do and will actually do it. 

However, most of the time, you need to guide them and be proactive, asking them a lot of questions. E.g.:

  • “Who else should be involved in this process?”
  • “How do you usually buy solutions?” “Do we need to go to procurement?”
  • “What do we need to do to proceed?”

What isn't a well-defined sales process? 

Very often, companies think that they have a sufficiently formalized sales process. Usually, the stages in their sales pipeline are named:

  • First meeting
  • Second meeting
  • Proposal provided
  • Proposal signed 
  • Won

That doesn’t tell you much about where you got with your client. It is just an overview of activities but not of the milestones. The whole sales process can happen within 10 minutes in one call, or you might need 12 months to win the opportunity.

Moreover, having a second, third meeting, or providing your customer with a proposal doesn't necessarily mean that you are moving forward in your process. You can have 10 meetings with your customer, and it can all be worthless if you don’t ask the right questions and get the right people in the meetings. 

How should a sales process look?

This is a sales process that we apply, and adjust accordingly, to each project in SALESDOCk. It might work for your type of business, as it’s quite general. Give it a try:

A photo of a Ssales Process showed Step by Step

In the picture, you can see defined sales process stages with formalized milestones.

How to move within the stages:

To get from stage 1 (mutual interest) to stage 2 (discover), you need to know the person’s need and the reason they started talking to you. Plus, you need to understand whether they’re allowed to use a solution like yours, as well as being sure you know all the remaining items from the sales methodology BANT, like budget, authorities and time.

Once you know everything, you can move to stage 3 (discover). The same logic applies to the rest of the process. As you can see, we are not talking about providing demo calls or holding meetings with customers. Those are just actions that don’t necessarily mean that you moved forward at all.

When you have all the stages put together and written down, you will have a complete overview of what is going to happen and when. Having this overview, you can easily get from reactivity to proactivity. What do we mean by that?

Scenario 1 - A reactive call

Mark (sales rep): Hi John, I submitted a proposal to you. Did you have a chance to look at it?

John (customer): Yeah, Internally we have decided that we would like to run a POC for 3 months to see the value before the purchase.

Mark: Sure, I will give you a discount price for that of 500€. When can we start?

John: Probably in two months. 

Scenario 2- A proactive call

Mark: Hi John, I have a rough overview of what your use case is. Before we move forward, can you please tell me how you usually buy solutions like ours? 

John: Sure, we always go for a 3 month POC

Mark: I understand this; we have no troubles with a POC. However, before we run it, I would like to get a little more information from your side.

John: Sure, go ahead.

Mark: Ok. First things first, how do you define a successful POC? You told me your perspective already, but what expectations do the remaining stakeholders have?

John: I don’t know.

Mark: Another thing, we are talking here about you buying licenses for 30 000€/y. If the  POC is successful, have you already confirmed an investment of 30.000 into our software?

John: Actually, we haven’t discussed it yet. 

Mark: Well, how about you schedule a meeting with everybody involved and discuss all these topics?

John: We will have to. I’ll send you possible dates from our side. 

Mark: Thank you. 

(Read this "how to" article about cold calling to get the proper hang of it.)

We guess the difference between the two scenarios is obvious. In the first case, Mark is reactive to what the customer is telling him. In the second scenario, Mark controls the process. Since he has everything written down, he can think a few steps ahead and prevent misunderstandings or investing in a POC that, in the end, wouldn’t be converted into a deal.

Another benefit of having a sales process is transparency in your pipeline, that will come in handy (but not only) in your sales 1on1s. Once you start using it, you know pretty clearly where you stand with your prospect and what the next step should be. Let’s look again at two scenarios and how they are interpreted by your sales representative:

Scenario 1: Without a sales process:

“Yeah, so I met this potential customer, we had a great discussion, they definitely need it and will buy it. They will get back to me in 2 days, and then we will have a second meeting.” 

The only thing you know is that they had a great chat. Sounds familiar?

Tip for managers:

Sure, they had a great chat, but they didn't move anywhere in the sales process by talking. Have them show you where they stand with the client in the milestone-based (rather than activity-based) sales process. Do not be satisfied with a "gut feeling wrap-up"!!

Scenario 2: With a sales process:

“I met Frank, the business analyst in Telco ABC. Currently, their marketing department wants to do reporting on its own, without the business intelligence team. The marketing team has already launched several campaigns that were unsuccessful due to the lack of access to data, which cost them a few hundred euros this year already. They wanted to have everything up and running before the end of August to get ready for the Christmas campaigns. Our tool is compatible with their infrastructure. Frank likes our security and the architecture of our system, which are both top on his list of requirements. However, the decision maker is Andrew, the head of the marketing department. I will meet him next week to talk about his perspective and needs.” 

Here you know exactly where your sales representative stands, and with the help of the sales process, you can design the next steps. 

How to define the sales process?

Creating a sales process will be a little easier for companies that have made some sales already. If you’re one of them, write down all the activities that both sides had to carry out in order to close some business successfully (had to talk to a stakeholder, needed to present a solution, discovered the pain, included the procurement, went through POC, had money allocated, contracts were signed, etc.) and then analyze the activities, putting them into logical clusters. 

Companies starting out might not have their first sales process totally polished but will benefit from having it from the very beginning. First, it will serve as a primary navigation tool and then later, based on analyses and activities needing to be done, it can be adjusted. All businesses are different, but the basis of the sales process is usually the same.

Observe and work on your sales process:

You might know everything from the “discover” stage (stakeholders identified, detailed use case, evaluation process, buying process). Still, you forgot or failed to pass one of the milestones in mutual interest (p.e. what is their motivation beyond their need?). There are two possible actions you have to carry out:

  • Move your opportunity back in the sales process to the “mutual interest” stage until you successfully pass the missing milestone, e.g., you uncover the motivation

 OR

  • By now, you know that some of the milestones aren’t necessary to win opportunities. Sit with your team and discuss whether you should adjust your sales process.

This is what sales process stages usually looks like:

1st Qualification - 1st meeting, initial discovery, mutual interest

2nd Defining use case - need analysis, go deeper in all aspects

3rd Validation - check with stakeholders, ROI calculation

4th Negotiations - your solution is selected, negotiations are starting, SLA

5th Administration - contract signing, purchase orders, invoice paid

Make the sales process relevant to your business but follow some standard rules:

Sales processes have between 3 - 6 stages, each of them having its own title. Remember:

  1. A sales process is not about activities but milestones - the entire sales process can happen in one meeting, or it can take 20 to move up by two stages. That is why a sales process is milestone-based (talked to procurement, having the budget allocated,...). It’s not about 1st call, 1st meeting, 2nd meeting, etc. 
  2. You should include facts only in your interpretations - this means removing personal bias from the deal. Stick to specifics - you either know, and you move forward in the process, or you don’t know and stay where you are. There should be no “I believe the implementation will happen in August.” letting you move your deal to another stage. Instead, wait for information such as “The implementation was arranged on the 22nd of August.” Another bad trigger example could be “Customer is happy.” You can’t rely on your (or your sales rep’s) feelings in the sales process. Until you have the “Yes, we want it.” you stay on the current stage. 
  3. Whatever you put in the sales process HAS TO happen - once you have the final version of your sales process, stick to it. Otherwise, you’ll never reach the ideal phase that helps you navigate. Don’t make the sales process too complicated and don’t go “too idealistic,” like having “talking to the CEO” in the first stage. In some cases, you will manage, but others can get stuck there forever. 
  4. Iterate, iterate, iterate. A sales process is a living organism. Always revalidate whether it is set out correctly or not. 

Final tips: 

If you’re getting stuck at one stage (and that can be only one unfinished milestone among many finished), and at the same time you have several  stages wholly done, the individual milestones are incorrectly distributed, and they mess up your sales pipeline. 

Create your sales process with all of the guys that are “out there” talking to customers. Name the stages, so that everyone uses the same terminology and adjust your CRM/pipeline accordingly. When you hire a new sales representative, give them the materials asap. 

In SALESDOCk, we display the sales process in our office, so everyone sees it every day.

Wrapping up:

Drawing up a sales process is not as hard as it might seem. Start at least with a smaller draft as a means of navigation throughout your sales. Especially if you’re in the initial phase of your business, keep adjusting it according to how you manage to sell in the most efficient way, until you reach the ideal version. Include a qualifying sales methodology (like BANT) - it will help you set up the sales as well as the stages along the way. Make the stages milestone-based and never skip any! And finally, print it out and make it part of your office decor.

By

Jana Michelová - Project Manager

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