Wouldn’t it be great if you could recite a sales pitch to a stranger and within minutes they become a paying customer? Unfortunately, selling is rarely so simple. As seasoned sales managers know well, courting potential customers takes time and effort. The good news is customer conversions can happen when you follow a proven and standardized sales process.
Here’s an overview of this structured sales process and some of the tactics you and your sales team can use.
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What is a sales process?
A sales process is a sequence of seven stages that convert would-be buyers into paying customers. Understanding these sales stages—which include finding qualified leads, directing them into your sales funnel, closing deals, and following up—provides a road map for your sales reps as they pursue potential customers.
Sales processes hinge on a symbiotic relationship between a seller and a customer. As a seller goes through the sales process, the customer experiences their own buying process, weighing whether they want to purchase a product. The burden, however, is on you, the seller, to gently lead a potential customer through the various stages of the sales process. This means showing knowledge of their needs, addressing their doubts, offering information about your products, and pitching solutions to their problems.
Why do businesses need a sales process?
When you arm your sales team with a clearly defined sales process map, you help them work as efficiently as possible over the course of a sales cycle. They can recognize what a potential customer needs at any given point—whether that’s product information, a price quote, or just a friendly nudge to complete their purchase. Equipping your team with a defined sales methodology can make their work more efficient and potentially speed up your sales cycle.
7 stages of a sales process
In the business world, the sales process is often broken into stages that indicate the flow of the seller-customer relationship. The seven-step sales process is as follows:
- Researching and preparing
- Approaching a prospect
- Handling objections
- Closing the sale
- Following up
A successful sales process begins with prospecting, which involves seeking potential customers (sometimes called leads) for your business’s sales pipeline. Potential sales prospects include the target audience identified in your marketing campaign, people referred to you by existing clients, and people who found your website in an online search.
2. Researching and preparing
Seller preparation starts with examining the potential customers entering the sales pipeline. For maximum customer success, you’re looking for so-called sales-qualified leads (SQL) who seem well-informed about your offerings and are inclined to make a purchase. It’s also worth pursuing marketing-qualified leads (MQL), who may not yet be ready to buy but have some familiarity with your company. Sales reps use this stage, typically identified in a sales process flowchart, to research customers, understand their interests and pain points, and estimate their spending budgets.
3. Approaching a prospect
The approach is where you contact your prospective customer. This can be in person, over the phone, over video chat, or by email. Sales reps at this point tend to use one of three approaches:
- Question approach. Approaching a prospect by asking a question.
- Product approach. Approaching a prospect by offering a small sample of your product, or perhaps a short free trial.
- Premium approach. Approaching a prospect by offering a special incentive, such as reward points good for future purchases or a discount code.
The next stage involves presenting your product to your prospective customer. If you’ve made it this far, the person across from you has enough interest that they’re willing to hear a sales pitch. This is where your research can pay off, helping you tailor your presentation to the client’s known desires and skepticism. Your goal is to present your product as the solution to the prospect’s needs.
5. Handling objections
If you’re lucky, you may have a client who’s ready to buy the moment they hear your presentation. Otherwise, you’ll need to field questions and objections from your potential customer. Sometimes all the client needs is more information about your product or services. In other cases, you may need to negotiate to win a sale. This could mean offering discounts, including freebies, or adjusting the terms of a service or maintenance agreement.
6. Closing the sale
At this point, the entire sales process reaches a critical juncture, when the current sales process results in a deal or in both parties walking away. Your client may ask for a few more concessions before they’re willing to buy, and you’ll need to decide what you can afford to offer. You can also nudge the customer forward, perhaps by suggesting that a price increase is coming or supplies are limited. If you and your customer are on the same page, you’ll end up with a sale.
7. Following up
An effective sales process continues past the moment when money changes hands. As a seller, you’ll follow up with the customer over time, making sure they’re enjoying their purchase, answering further questions, and troubleshooting any problems. This kind of customer service can result in long-term goodwill and the prospect for future business with the client, or with others in their network.
Best practices for sales process management
Use the following best practices to make each stage of the sales process as effective as possible:
- Create buyer personas. You can start off with better odds when you create a buyer persona that profiles the types of customers likely to purchase your product or services. Pursue the customers matching your buyer personas, and move past the others.
- Understand your product inside and out. The most effective sales reps can quickly respond to customer questions about a product. They may also suggest alternative products that better align with a customer’s needs.
- Remain persistent. You may have to work hard to get customers to reply to your messages and phone calls. Don’t mistake slow responses for a lack of interest. Ask directly if the customer is still interested and consider using incentives (such as a discount) or warnings (perhaps a pending price hike) to spur them into action.
- Continue the relationship beyond a sale. Often a business’s best sales leads are existing customers. You already know these individuals fit your target audience and are willing to buy from you. Tend to those relationships, and they may lead to future sales.
Common challenges in the sales process
Some sales cycles go more smoothly than others. Here are some well-known challenges and some common sales process mistakes to avoid:
- A rival picks off your customer. Chances are you aren’t the only one competing for a customer’s business. Work hard to make sure your unique selling proposition (USP) is superior. Whether you’re working to close a specific deal or simply fulfill a sales quota, you can’t assume you’ve made a sale until contracts are signed and money changes hands.
- A lead goes silent. Sometimes a customer stops returning your messages. Or they say they need time to think but don’t offer a firm date for making a decision. Seasoned sales managers stick with these kinds of clients and follow up periodically. At the same time, they pivot to more promising sales leads, nurturing multiple clients simultaneously.
- Bureaucracy gets in the way. In the business-to-business (B2B) market, clients may need to get several levels of approval before they can buy. It helps, whenever it’s feasible and tactful, to ask to deal with someone with purchasing authority. This way, you’re directing your sales presentation toward someone who can actually close a deal if they like your product.
Sales process FAQ
How do you measure the success of a sales process?
You measure the success of a sales process based on two metrics: the number of leads that convert into paying customers and the amount of money generated in a sales cycle. Some companies prioritize getting as many customers as possible, even if many of them don’t spend very much. Others place a higher value on total revenue, even if the money comes from a comparatively small set of clients. Set business goals that clarify which of these to prioritize.
Can businesses customize their sales process to fit their industry?
Yes. It’s always wise to align your sales process with the expectations of customers in your industry. If it’s common for customers to pay less than the sticker price of an item, empower your sales reps to offer discounts. If most customers expect face-to-face meetings, make time for those. You can assume your competitors will be accommodating customers in this way, so you’ll want to keep pace.
How do you qualify a lead?
Businesses qualify leads using criteria such as budget, decision-making power, location, and need. When your lead aligns with all or most of these criteria, they typically count as a sales-qualified lead (SQL) and warrant the effort that goes into the sale process. A prospect may also profile as an SQL if they know the salesperson directly or found your company via a strong personal referral.
How can you use technology to streamline the sales process?
You can organize and streamline the sales process by using client relationship management (CRM) software. CRMs collect and store customer information, activity, and communications in a centralized and accessible database. You can use CRM data to track leads as they progress through your company’s sales funnel.
Does training play a role in the success of a sales process?
Training is critical to a successful sales process. Sales managers train sales reps to learn about the business’s products and services. This lets them tailor their sales pitches and deftly answer questions from clients. Managers also train their sales teams on price negotiations, so they can offer discounts while preserving the company’s profit margins. Finally, but equally important, managers train their teams on the nuances of client interactions, including how to pursue a lead and entice them with carrots (such as discounts) and sticks (an impending price hike).