Every business goes through a similar process and series of steps to make a sale. Understanding how the sales process works will help you maintain a consistent approach to turning leads into customers.
What is a sales process?
The sales process – also known as a sales cycle – is the method your company follows to sell your product or service to customers. It involves a series of steps, from initial contact with a lead to the final sale.
The sales process is similar to developing a relationship with someone new. When you first meet, you get to know each other, learn what they like, and determine their goals. Along the way, you decide if you can work together and whether you are a match. If this is the case, the relationship can proceed and grow.
Importance of building a sales process
These are some benefits of building a sales process for your business:
- You can optimize the structure of your sales team to support the sales process and identify the main challenges in the sales cycle.
- It will be easier to onboard new sales personnel.
- It helps you identify short-term and long-term goals and how each step in the sales process supports the next one.
- It highlights where time and resources are being wasted, so you can remove activities with low return on investment and focus your efforts on activities with more positive returns.
- It identifies the steps that need to be improved. This allows you to invest in training, education, and practice to get better in areas of weakness, which will help match your success in other parts of the sales process.
Stages of the sales process
There are seven stages in the sales process:
- Prospect for potential customers.
- Make contact with prospects.
- Qualify prospects.
- Nurture prospects.
- Present your offer.
- Overcome objections.
- Close the deal.
1. Prospect for potential customers.
The first step is to prospect for customers, which requires some research. This stage has three components.
- Create an ideal customer profile (ICP). The goal is to identify and understand your ideal customers. This helps you determine whom to contact and why you are contacting them as potential customers. The ICP uses real data to create a fictional characterization of a client who:
- Can provide your company with value (e.g., revenue, influence)
- Your company can provide value to (e.g., return on investment, better service)
- Identify potential leads. Use the ICP to create a list of potential leads that fit this profile. Use a variety of sources (e.g., online databases, social media) to develop a list of ideal client companies. Then create a list of prospects from these companies that your sales team can contact and qualify.
- Perform initial qualification. First, qualify the company by conducting research to see if it meets the criteria that matter to you (e.g., company size, geography, industry, growth phase). Then qualify the prospects with an interview to determine if they are a good fit as a customer. Determine if the prospect has:
- A need for your product or service
- The budget to purchase your product or service
- The authority to make the purchasing decision
- The timing to make the purchase
2. Make contact with prospects.
After identifying the ideal prospect, reach out to contact them. This step has two parts:
- Determine the best way to contact the prospect (e.g., telephone, email, social media).
- Reach out to the prospect. Make sure you are prepared (e.g., with a script, introduction and questions) before making contact. Introduce yourself and work on building trust, not making a sale.
3. Qualify prospects.
Although you have already done your research to qualify the prospect before making contact, you still need to determine if they would make an ideal customer. This can only happen in a direct conversation with the prospect (either over the phone or in person).
To qualify the prospect, learn more about them. Ask about their goals, budget, challenges and other issues that will help you to make your decision. Make sure that the person you are speaking with has the power to make decisions on doing business with you. When speaking with the prospect, identify opportunities to provide value.
Qualifying the prospect involves confirming whether they meet the criteria of a good customer. If they are not a good fit, tell the prospect why. If they are still interested, determine why.
4. Nurture prospects.
Once you have qualified the prospect, demonstrate the relevance of your solution to them. This typically involves answering questions about your unique offer, the benefits you provide, and the problems you solve.
When answering the prospect's questions and learning about their needs, you have to nurture them along the process of making a decision. This involves:
- Moving the prospect along the stages of awareness
- Unaware: The person does not know they have a problem.
- Problem aware / pain aware: The person knows they have a problem but is not aware of a solution.
- Solution aware: The person knows there is a solution but does not know about your product.
- Product aware: The person knows about your product but does not know if it can solve their problem.
- Most aware: The person knows a lot about your product but needs to know about its benefits.
- Educating the prospect about the product, service or industry
- Personalizing your communications
- Responding to common challenges
- Building your reputation with the prospect as someone who is helpful, responsible and reliable in your area of expertise
Some prospects may be both interested in your offering and qualified, but might not be ready or able to become a customer at this time. To nurture this type of prospect, stay in touch going forward and demonstrate your ability to help. This will help to keep you top of mind when they are ready to buy.
5. Present your offer.
Use the information you have collected to this point to present the prospect with your best possible offer. Make the offer personalized, targeted and relevant to your prospect's needs. Craft the offer to address their challenges, budget and goals.
While the content of your offer is very important, how you present the offer can be the difference between success and failure. Consider your audience and the situation when deciding how to present your offer. Creativity can be very effective, but you should also focus on what works best for you given the experience of previous presentations.
6. Overcome objections.
You've made the best possible offer – now it's up to the prospect to make the next move. The most common response is some type of objection to your offer, such as:
- Price (e.g., too expensive for the value provided)
- Risk (e.g., too "dangerous" to switch to a new solution)
- Content of offer (e.g., offer does not provide enough detail)
- Contract terms (e.g., term is too long)
Ideally, you addressed the common objections during the nurturing phase or when creating the offer. However, you cannot always address every objection before the prospect makes it.
To overcome or address objections:
- Be patient and measured in your response. Listen to the prospect's concerns objectively. Do not rush or pressure the prospect to move forward.
- Address objections that are related to each other. For example, if the prospect questions the value and price, go over everything you've included in the offer to show how the value you provide exceeds the price.
- When you have explained your reasoning, ask the prospect if you have properly addressed their objection.
- Read between the lines of generic objections (e.g., "We are not interested").
- Ask more questions to determine the real reasons behind each objection. Listen carefully to the answers before responding.
7. Close the deal.
Once you have overcome all objections, you can close the deal to make the sale.
First, work on sealing the deal. The goal is to confirm the prospect's engagement and work toward the next steps. The key is to make it easier for the prospect to say yes to the deal. Prime the prospect by reminding them how they will achieve a specific goal in purchasing your product or service. To close the deal:
- Ask a direct question or make a direct statement (e.g., "Would you like to sign the deal now?").
- Ask an indirect question (e.g., "Are you satisfied with what is included in the offer?").
- Provide an incentive to close the deal (e.g., add a sign-up bonus).
- Offer a free trial period (e.g., "Try it for one week").
- Emphasize the urgency or scarcity of the offer (e.g., "This is a limited-time offer").
- Ask what else the prospect requires to make a decision.
When the prospect has committed to the purchase, answer any additional questions they have and give them details on the next steps. Provide a written agreement and summary of the conversation so that their supervisor or other stakeholders can review it for accuracy.
If the prospect still responds with "not yet" or "not now" for reasons beyond your control (or theirs), then return the prospect to the nurturing stage. Stay in touch and follow up with prospects who are not ready to purchase.
How to implement a sales process
Consider the following approach to implement the sales process in your organization.
Understand the customer.
The sales process begins with the buyer. To implement an effective sales process, you must understand the buyer and then design your sales process to address their goals, motivations, and needs. This requires identifying and then answering their "why" question. For instance, why is the buyer looking for a solution? Why are they looking to you for the solution?
Build a sales process to help your salespeople find the answer to the key question. Conduct interviews with buyers and salespeople and perform industry research to find the answers to include in the process.
Once you've defined the stages of your sales process, establish the key steps and milestones within those stages. A milestone could be identifying where the buyer is in the sales process or engaging with stakeholders within a certain time period. Score each milestone to determine how many resources to invest into that part of the sales process.
When you set a milestone for each stage, train salespeople to meet that milestone at the assigned stage. This will prevent them from skipping steps or taking the wrong approach at the wrong time (such as talking about the price too soon). Instructing salespeople on when and how to do handoffs will also help correct problems in the sales process. This simplifies the process of helping buyers move from one stage to the next.
Apply skills and resources.
Build skills, resources and activities into the sales process to help your salespeople move to the next milestone. Resources could include brochures, case studies and whitepapers for a salesperson to share with customers. Provide your salespeople with specific training for particular milestones or have them engage in activities for other milestones.
Iterate and improve.
A sales process is not static; it should be refined and improved over time. Get feedback from salespeople, measure buyer behavior, and track and analyze sales data to evaluate the effectiveness of your sales process. Use the results to solidify the successful activities and resources within the sales process, implement activities and processes to prevent negative outcomes, and remove activities and resources that do not advance the sales process. This will keep the sales process relevant, actionable and efficient.
By constantly iterating and improving your sales process, you will:
- Reduce the time it takes to onboard new salespeople.
- Increase the percentage of successful sales.
- Minimize costly mistakes.
- Improve sales forecasting.
- Reach sales targets on a more consistent basis.
Align your technology and systems with the sales process.
It's important to equip your salespeople with technology (such as CRM software) that enables them to perform each step of the sales process efficiently. However, software tools alone won't make salespeople more effective or encourage them to follow best practices. You need to combine the technology with supportive systems, guidance and resources.
Provide technology that streamlines the sales process, collects and organizes information on customers, and lists the required activities for salespeople to follow. Create systems and resources to support the sales team's use of the technology during the sales process, such as these:
- Checklists to make sure all steps are performed in order
- Content and video to demonstrate the importance of the stages and milestones
- Buyer-focused content tied to where they are in the sales process
- Reminders to prevent salespeople from skipping steps
- Training content for each step in the sales process