I just took a few minutes to complete an annual survey for one of the most respected sales training organizations in the world. Of course, I haven't seen the results yet, but I'm interested in the implications behind some of the questions. The value of adopting a structured sales process appears to be strongly implicitly recognized—a theme promoted by many established sales methods. But I'm starting to believe this is an outdated approach, especially if taken to extremes. In fact, the word process is unhelpful. It implies a linear and "line" approach to sales - which any observer of complex buying decisions will know is quite different from how a typical buying decision is actually made... Nonlinearity is the real reality As Gartner recently pointed out, important B2B buying decisions are inherently non-linear and at times almost chaotic—you just have to look at the graph above.
Clients often revisit previous assumptions, return to previous stages, and reassess what they are looking for in light of changing circumstances and perspectives, or the introduction of new and opinionated members of the decision-making team. Assuming our customers have a well-defined buying process often turns out to be a serious mistake, assuming our initial qualifications (assuming we actually do some formal qualification measures) remain valid throughout their industry mailing list process. I'm not suggesting that we fight chaos with chaos, or that we ignore opportunities to significantly improve our sales performance by applying effective practices and proven habits of success - just saying that we should consider flexible frameworks rather than rigid ones linear process. Rather than fixed formulas, rigid processes, or rigid methodologies, we should consider helping our salespeople make informed choices based on thoughtful assessments of customer situations and the dynamics of the buying process.
Of course, it turns out that the most successful salespeople tend to sell anyway. They exhibit situational fluency. They avoid relying on untested assumptions. They take steps to fill gaps in their knowledge. They know they should never take anything they are told at face value. Avoid ignorance and incompetence While their strategy and execution may not be perfect, they tend to make fewer mistakes than their less productive colleagues. In his highly influential Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande named the two main causes of knowledge-related failures as errors of ignorance and errors of incompetence. Errors of ignorance relate to information that exists but we fail to discover. This is primarily a function of ineffective talking, questioning, and listening skills, which are and should not be left to random behavior. Successful salespeople make fewer mistakes from ignorance because they prepare more effectively for each sales conversation and have better conversations with their customers. It's not - as you might imagine from some sales methods - all about asking the right questions.