Why Your Sales Process Is Bad for Sales

At a holiday party this weekend, I chatted with two friends about life at their companies.

Each has been around long enough to see several generations of approaches to selling. We seemed to notice a few things in common.

1. The term “sales approach” has increasingly come to mean a “sales management process;”

2. Which means selling has come to be seen as a business process, not as a human interaction;

3. The “management” of selling has come to mean box-checking and numbers-tweaking, much like an engineer might summarize the readings from a series of flow-meters;

4. A major objective of these processes seems to be forecasting. Yet forecasts themselves are often ignored on the upside because of the risks of hiring, and on the downside because of the cost to people of short-term firings.

Which begs the obvious question, why are we doing this?

Of course this is just anecdotal party chatter—but it rings true to me.

Sales is one business area (others include HR and purchasing) that has been hit by a case of physics-envy: the belief that quantitative analysis of physical behavior at a micro-scale holds the key to understanding business performance (and the meaning of life to boot).

Google “sales management” and look at all the process models—CRM systems, sales force automation, lead tracking, right-pointing chevron graphics—that pop up.

The message? Selling is nothing more than a simple business process. Identify leads, screen-call-screen-meet-screen them, question them, trial-close them, identify/answer objections, repeat trial-close, repeat as necessary, close. Return to start.

Identify the steps at a sufficiently detailed level, then just collect enough data, and you too can be selling, or better yet, managing the poor slobs who actually have to slap shoe leather. Just follow the steps in the order given. Paint by numbers. Connect the dots. Just do it.

Got a sales problem? It must be a process problem, which means—you must have the wrong sales process—time to switch processes! You need consultative selling, or power-based selling, or buyer decision analysis selling. You need data. Analysis. Tweak the process.

It’s easy to caricature this approach, harder to describe just what’s wrong with it. But here’s a shot.

Selling is not at root, despite what web-searches will tell you, about process. It is about people and relationships and trust. We are in most cases far, far past the point of significant value-add by linking systems. And in getting there, we have run roughshod over the value-add by human connections.

Companies are driven by vision of linking all that data so they know just what to pitch you and me—to decrease time-to-“you-want-fries-with-that?” Most customers would gladly trade some Big Brother capability for less time on-hold and more genuine concern about our wants.

Why this obsession with metrics, behaviors and processes? Like I said, physics-envy. For over a century, many academic disciplines—including business, more recently—have had a case of “physics-envy.”

They believe that only “real” data is meaningful, only particles and precision make for real “science.” Neuro-fill-in-the-blank is just the latest manifestation.  Sociologists have had physics-envy for years, as did MIT’s Business School.  Harvard used to be immune, but caught it as well a few decades back.

Hey—sales is still the fulcrum point of the commercial interaction between a buyer and a seller.  Somewhere in there humans still lurk.  Sales process descriptions leave something out. Sort of like writing about the physics of love.  Neither quite gets at the point.