Designing (sales) processes – a quick guide

I have been working with improving the way companies do sales and customer work already for more than 7 years. Many of these projects have involved looking at process improvement and design. What I have noticed in these projects is that the need of having a defined process is most often taken for granted, without really understanding what and why it should be drawn into... PowerPoint slides. People just do it.

It’s not totally wrong. Especially big companies need processes to keep things from falling into chaos. Defined processes are a good tool for execution and communication, if the process itself is designed properly. If your sales people constantly complain about it or don’t follow it, there is a good chance that it is broken. Well-designed processes should make sense. They shouldn’t cause confusion and frustration. Not every day at least.

First, we need look at the concept of processes and designing them. When we look at processes as part of daily work we usually start from step 1 and go forward one step at a time towards our goal. But when we are designing processes we should look at things the other way around. We need to start by defining the desired best possible outcome that we want. And if we turn our heads around a bit more, we need to look it from the customers’ perspective… first. The customers perspective is often the value we create to them by completing a set of tasks, of which the result to the supplier is profit.

By understanding what kind of value we deliver to the customer, we can define what we should do when it comes to things like quality, efficiency, resources, pricing, scope, offering etc. A great sales process is not always one that produces the exact same result every time, even though it can often be the measure of quality in cases where efficiency is the key driver. For example, when selling to small businesses and in many production related processes.

When we know what the process we are designing should do, we can move forward. The next thing you should do is look at the steps your process should involve. These are the arrows in your familiar PowerPoint. Defining the steps gives you an overall picture of what is needed to happen in order for you to complete the process successfully. If you do this in a modern professional way, you look at what the customer is doing from a buying behavioral point of view (buying process or customer journey) and match your steps and actions with that.

Once you have defined the process steps… it is tempting to start looking at the actions needed in every part making it possible and desirable to move on to the next step. My suggestion to you is to first define an objective for each step in a similar fashion like you have defined the goal for the process. This is often very revealing when it comes to what should be done, but it can also be a fast way to find faults in your approach or thinking.

When the process steps and objectives (for each one) are defined it is practical to determine what the outcome of each step should be. These often transform into gate criteria at larger companies and can be divided into soft and hard criteria. The soft things are often harder to measure, yet they are the ones that make it likely for you to be more successful; For example, identifying influencers and competitors involved in the discussion. Hard criteria or outcomes are required to move forward to the next step; For example, approvals and submitted documents. But these are up to you to decide based on understanding of what will produce the best results over time. In less complex processes, the outcomes of each step can be rather obvious. For example, the outcome of a prospecting phase can be confirming a meeting with the customer.

The possibly last step is defining the actions (or key actions) in each process step which will fulfill the objective and produce the desired outcomes. The goal is naturally to create a basis as good as possible for continuing with and completing the next step, which might be done by someone else. It can also be good to define which tools, presentations and documents are used in each step. This depends a lot on the complexity of your offering and the business you are in – just like the process designing in whole. The bigger and more complex things you try to cover the more abstract the process definition tends to become. The more abstract it is, the less practical it can be.

The steps in summary:

  1. Define the desired outcome of the process you are designing.
  2. Seek to understand what and how you create value to the customer. Money is too simple of a goal; It is an outcome, if you do things well.
  3. Define the process steps. If possible, try to understand the customer’s buying behavior and the customer experience path.
  4. Define the objective of each process step. This helps you to understand what you are supposed to achieve and be doing.
  5.  Define the outcomes and results of each process step – the things you need to have before going forward. Soft or hard.
  6. Define the actions or key actions you need to do in each step. These should be strongly connected to achieving the defined objectives and outcomes.
  7. List tools, presentations and documents supporting the process. I would like to point out that this is somewhat optional, and possibly next to impossible if you are dealing with a complex business environment or offering. Still, if you can do, it will make execution easier and more systematic.

If you are a Startup or work with launching new products, think at least twice before you start defining processes. At the beginning of something new, processes are iterative by nature and subject to rapid change.

If you don’t understand well enough how value is created and captured, you cannot define a working process. The same applies to all processes.