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.

10 replies
  1. Paul Hebert
    Paul Hebert says:

    Interesting post.  I agree that a big part of sales success isn’t something you can put into a check sheet.  To a large degree sales is an issue of getting people to like and trust you – enough to transfer money from their account to yours in exchange for something of value to the them.  That trust and liking occurs after multiple conversations.

    What happens during those conversations isn’t quantifiable.  Too much personality surrounds the interaction.  Both on the sales person side as well as the client. 

    However, I would summit the focus on the process that is so prevalent today is about the number of conversations – not about what happens within the conversation.

    Companies want more at-bats.  The physics part of the sales process is about targeting and engaging the client/prospect for the initial conversation.  That part can be quanitified – to a point.

    The work that is done up to the point of conversation is quantifiable, measurable and reinforceable.  The conversation itself is where the art meets the science.

    Anyone who can say they can apply the physics stuff to the trust/like part of the sales process doesn’t understand sales.


  2. Ford Harding
    Ford Harding says:


    Admittedly, many of the activity measures used to manage sales are crude cleavers rather than scapels. Still, as a social scientiest by training, I take exception to the idea that selling is an art and therefore so soft and squishy it can’t be measure.

    In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell brought to the attention of the masses findings of social scientist that have been around for some time which demonstrate that we all give off lots of little signals about how we feel. Most of us only take away general information from these tells, but a trained person can do a trully remarkable job of reading others.

    The best rainmakers have probably developed an eye for the signals without really being able to explain how they do it.

    But it ain’t all that soft and fuzzy.

    Ford Harding

  3. David Maister
    David Maister says:

    Add me to the "Yes, but" side of this discussion. I think there’s a danger of going from one extreme to the other here, rather than engaging in a conversation.

    There’s as much risk of error in ignoring (and failing to analyze and understand) the predictable stages in a relationship as there can be in making the analysis too "pseudo-scientific."

    After all, that’s what THE TRUSTED ADVISOR tried to do – bring some logic and order to a fundamentally human process of earning trust. Can’t we do the same in sales?


  4. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:

    I’m with David, squarely in the middle.

    I  take exception, as does Ford, with anyone who supports "the idea that selling is an art and therefore so soft and squishy it can’t be measured."  Which I don’t, by the way.

    You can indeed err in both directions; as David points out, in The Trusted Advisor (authored by Maister, me and Galford) we indeed use a five-step process model as one of three.

    Perhaps I should have been (again) less hyperbolic.  Let me restate it.  It seems to me there’s a happy medium, but at present we lie more to the process side of that divide than to the personal "art" side. 

    It’s hard to know how to quantify that, but let me suggest the average person in a complex services business these days spends more of their share of mind and time on the process side of affairs than on the interpersonal side of affairs.  Here are some guesses and anecdotes:

    -if you’re implementing an Oracle sales system, your definition of "sales" is going to be heavily skewed by process and systems; and Oracle,  Salesforce.com et  al are doing a lot of business these days. 

    -look at the website of courses offered by Miller, Heiman (a major sales trainer).  Strategic Selling ("Comprehensive Deal Strategy for Complex Sales"  has about 90 scheduled sessions for 2008;
    Conceptual Selling ("Practical Call Planning Strategies for Complex Sales") lists about 50.  By contrast, their Executive Impact  program ("Persuasion Strategies to Impact Executive-Level Decision Makers") lists just four (4).   The key buzzwords here are  "planning,"  "strategy,"  and "process."  Not "personal."

    -An officer in  a global consulting firm  once told me regarding personal sales skills, "that’s basic stuff.  No one gets to my level without having learned that."   Funny, then, how many managers and senior associates  I hear say "jeez, I wish you’d get our partners into that program."

    Sorry if I overspoke.  But I do think the teeter is tottering more in the direction of science than art, and the balance could use some redressing. 

  5. Ford Harding
    Ford Harding says:

    Please enter your comment

    I think we are at risk of entagling two things which should both be observed when managings sales.  One is sales technique, which can help anyone sell whether it be professional services, copiers, bananas, the latest cure-all business fad, used cars, illegal drugs, or smuggled kalishikovs.   The other is the ethics of selling which covers honesty, fair dealing, concern for the buyer’s wellbeing and a host of other things that seldom get taught in sales programs.  One of the strengths of David’s, Rob’s your book, Truste Advisor, is its incorporation of ethical issues with sales techniques in a manner that emphasized the practical advantage of good ethics in selling, without seeming overly preachy. 

    Much of what  you refer to as the art of selling seems to mean acting ethically to the  buyer in ways that let the buyer  know you are doing so.   I suspect that this could be measured, too, if Frederick Winslow Taylor were to come back to life and take an interest in it.

    Ford Harding

  6. Tom "Bald Dog" Varjan
    Tom "Bald Dog" Varjan says:

    I believe Ford is right that partially selling is a technique, thus learnable. But David is also right in writing in his books, and I’ve seen that both in clients and myself, that if there are problems in people’s personal lives, sales skills can’t help.
    We subconsciously give out the little signals Ford mentioned in his first comment.

    In my experience, sales managers love managing by numbers because it’s easy. It’s a lot easier to tweak numbers than creating an energised culture in which salespeople are naturally inspired to improve both the quality and the quantity of their relationships that, in time, can lead to high-calibre client relationships.

    To create such a culture is the hard part. A culture that attracts such people while keeping the others out.

    But I believe this also requires the adjustment of the compensation system. Personally I believe that the commission structure is adversarial to the client’s interest. We must be able to enter a discussion with a prospect with a total detachment from “getting the deal”. A well-thought No must be an accepted answer. Sadly, in traditional sales, it’s a sign of failure. It’s even taught at sales programmes: Either you win by selling the prospect or the prospect wins by not buying. It’s a win-lose scenario which is wrong.

    I believe that trust from prospects significantly increases when they realise that we’re not going for the deal but participating in a decision process.

    So, I believe that the largest part of sales education (not merely training) is an internal change in the salesperson’s mind and heart about how to think and feel about relationship development.

  7. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    What good thoughts! Ethics and process from Ford, mind and heart and process from Tom. If you haven’t read both their blogs, it’s recommended reading.

    I like Tom’s idea of the inherent conflict in commission sales.  My own statement of resolution, much like his, is to treat the money as an outcome or byproduct–not as the goal itself.

  8. Jay, writer MemberSpeed.com
    Jay, writer MemberSpeed.com says:

    We have somehow lost the humanity that is part of sales management. When it becomes just a process, we lose sight of the things that really do matter. Customers are not just numbers or data. They are people who we need to build a relationship with.

  9. Arne Huse
    Arne Huse says:

    I completely agree with this article. I was a successful sales rep for many years before being asked to lead the North American implementation of MS CRM for our company. I began to suspect that our sales reps were not being truthful regarding their intention to use CRM. When actual CRM usage proved my hunch to be correct, I began research on what I have termed "The CRM Dilemma." If CRM is to be used for sales rep performance meaures (And when isn’t it?) it requires the sales reps themselves to provide the data by which they are to be measured. There is a quote from Douglas Hartle that I love: "It is a rare dog that will carry the stick with which it is to be beaten". My research has proven that most CRM failures are due to sales reps working effectively together to defeat CRM because they are required to provide their own quantitative performance measures. The result is that regardless of the application, CRM will fail due to "The CRM Dilemma". You may want to have a look at my research on "The CRM Dilemma", which I have posted on my blog of the same name. I also offer a unique solution that uses CRM but removes activity control measures. My research has been getting a lot of attention in the industry and I believe it is time we acknowledged what has been the true killer of many CRM implementations


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