I often come across two key challenges, when consulting enterprise b2b sales teams:

  1. Several deals in the pipeline keep on getting pushed out, after which they finally get closed to the dreadful “No Decision” stage. Then, everyone seems to agree these deals should not have been qualified-in in the first place. But, the next quarter, the same things happens again.
  2. After closing a deal to the even more dreadful “Lost to Competition”, post-loss analysis reveals that prospects believe the product differentiators are not that aligned with their needs or budget. Yet, no one picked up on that before the decision.

Such problems are nearly always the result of weak execution of the early stages of the sales process. And typically, this weak execution is a result of a poor design of the sales process. The Sales Process simply does not align with the Buying Process.

The Sales Process

For most B2B sales teams, the Sales Process invariably looks like this. The first stage is “Prospecting” – finding a prospect that potentially has a need for your product or service. “Qualification” then follows, with validation steps around BANT (Budget, Authority, Needs, Timing). When that gets cleared (or, more likely, when the rep thinks it does), the whole sales train comes in motion with numerous activities focused at linking your solution to the prospect’s needs: “Discovery”, “Demonstration”, “Proposal”, “Negotiation”, etc.

The Buying Process

In reality, the Buying Process (all that happens at the prospect’s side) begins much earlier than the Sales Process (that what happens at your side). At the prospect’s side, a company typically goes through three phases, before they start looking for a solution. These phases roughly go like this: 1) Something Changes, which then 2) causes or aggravates Pain or friction, which then 3) gives rise to Needs. Which triggers the search for a Solution. For instance, that Change that gets the whole Buying Process in motion, could be the prospect’s competitor creating price pressure, or new government regulation, or margin erosion, or a current vendor not performing. Or – the Big Change – the prospect’s customer (often the Consumer) is changing. They want things faster, easier, in a self-serve fashion, or cheaper (because that’s the expectation set by companies like Netflix, Amazon, Uber, or other companies that don’t even play in the prospect’s industry). This Change creates Pain because the prospect’s current processes and infrastructure were created before this Change occurred. People at the prospect then realise something needs to be done (or not), they define their needs, and then look for a solution to meet those needs.

In those three phases where Change leads to Pain, and then to Needs, some crucial decisions get made on the prospect’s side. And not all of them are made explicitly, some just ‘happen’. The internal owner of the problem is assigned or arises, the priority over other business problems is determined, an initial business case gets established to determine whether to indeed move forward, needs get defined, a rough view of the solution gets formed, expectations around timelines are set, and resources and budget get earmarked. Once that’s established, the search for a solution starts. The main stage in the Sales Process that covers those first three important phases of the Buying Process, is that “Prospecting” stage. Sure, it’s not always all that linear, but key factors that determine the potential fit of your solution really get shaped in these very early stages.

What’s Wrong

In other words, fundamental decisions that impact your ability to win the deal are made in the “Prospecting” stage – before the evaluation really starts. The reality is that once an opportunity clears that BANT qualification hurdle, your ability to influence is greatly reduced. The train has left the station, and if you weren’t steering it, there’s no point jumping on board.

And that’s where the Sales Process design often is wrong. Sales emphasis actually increases as the ability to influence reduces. Sales management tends to only get involved once opportunities are well progressed – post Qualification. Solution Consulting and Processional Services assign domain experts once it gets to “Discovery” or “Proposal” stage. Management start scrutinising things once an opportunity is in “Decision” stage. In other words – when the reps or sales manager’s ability to influence the outcome is minimal. CEOs get introduced at the tail end, when the processes set in motion typically don’t allow prospects to change tack, even if they’d wanted to. Yet, that super important “Prospecting” stage – where the ability to influence is at its highest – hardly gets any scrutiny.

How to fix it

Determine your Perfect Prospect Profile and ensure you Get in Early. Focus; selling change in enterprise is about quality, not quantity. Agree on the importance of the “Prospecting” stage, and rearrange your weekly sales meeting to ensure the agenda also addresses the top of the funnel. Have Marketing and Sales Development present, to share their Lead Generation activities to start conversations early. In your CRM, consider breaking up “Prospecting” into “Reaching out”, “Initial Meetings”, “Selling Vision”, and “Vision Match”, before moving on to “Qualification”. In the 1:1s with the sales reps, scrutinise opportunities in qualification stages and don’t be afraid to slow things down. If you don’t already have one, create a process around qualification; have multiple people constructively review such opportunities to avoid eagerly qualified opportunities lead to “No Decision”. Review those “No Decision” opportunities in more detail to find the cause. I often come across reps that qualify too eagerly simply because they want Solution Consultants involved, and the Sales Process dictates that SCs only get assigned to opportunities past Qualification stage! If that’s the case, train reps to have better business conversations to avoid they rush into showing what your solution looks like. Consider changing your Sales Process to involve SCs before “Qualification” with key accounts. Whatever you do, develop an understanding how your prospects buy, and what you really can still influence at what stage. A simple first step is to stop calling it a Sales Process; it’s a Buying Process.