Dec 12 2007

Sales is a science, not an art

Andy Blackstone had a great comment to my post yesterday on Atul Gawande’s New Yorker article about explicit behavior (in the case of the article, doctors using checklists). I’ve edited the comment slightly for clarity.

An important concept in the article is that the checklists are not aimed at a specific condition but at an overall process in the ICU. One of the objections I often encounter in my consulting practice is “my business is different” – I’d contend that at the process level that’s most often not true. The resistance to adopting these checklists often comes from doctors that think the “art of medicine” is being threatened by the regimen of the checklist. In my practice, I see sales managers and salespeople with the same objection. In fact, as the article states, it is the reduction of the routine aspects of the process to the rigors of the checklists that enables the art to emerge. Finally, I was struck by the feeling of the doctors in the ICU that there was just no time available in the midst of their chaotic day to deal with checklists – a reaction I’ve seen in lots of business managers as well. This is a major barrier to implementing any new business process. The success of checklists in the ICU in not only reducing accidents, deaths, and costs, but in making the doctors time efficient, can be seen as new business processes are implemented as well.

It’s the perfect lead in to some thoughts about what’s wrong with many sales organizations – a topic I’ve been meaning to write about for a while). Sales, in my experience, is significantly more scientific than people typically give it credit for. And because people (sales professionals, CEOs, boards) don’t always see sales that way, they let slide behavior that is counterproductive to the overall goals of the organization (i.e., to sell more and – importantly – to sell with increasing efficiency and predictability). Specifically, the lack of a detailed and well documented process for sales results in:

  • Salespeople wasting huge amounts of time on deals that are hopeless, because there’s no enforced checklist that keeps them from continuing to pursue opportunities where essential events aren’t being checked off
  • Sales cycles that languish while salespeople have “good meetings” instead of checking off the next task on the sales process checklist
  • Executive management, sales management, and BOD members searching for the magician that will improve the “black magic” sales situation instead of incorporating and enforcing process that ensures success independent of superstar performance
  • Turnover in the sales organization but without improved performance
  • A lack of predictability in sales performance (lumpy and generally random sales results)
  • A stagnant pipeline – sales people can’t handle as many deals as they should be because they’re spending too much time on deals they shouldn’t be working on and the deals themselves take longer than they should because they’re not actually being pushed through a real process
  • “Fuzzy” pipeline reviews (where every deal has a story associated with it, but where the basic questions of where the deal stands are never really answered)


High performing sales organizations have real rigor in their process and religiously enforce that rigor from qualifying leads, to initial contacts, to how they move a prospect through their pipeline to an extremely detailed “closing” list that guides an organization through the final stages of each close. They use this rigor to determine which leads to follow up on, what prospects are real, and what steps remain to a sale for each and every potential customer. They quickly put prospects onto a hold list when they don’t meet specific near-term buying criteria and they generally have a good view of what’s possible at the end of each quarter because they know exactly what steps remain for each prospective customer, who needs to sign off on what, and how they will (or will not) be able to make that happen in a timely fashion. Pipeline reviews are focused around where a prospect is in the sales process and are crisp reviews of each account (a few minutes is more than enough time to cover an account at a high level – spending more time than that is either wasting time or a sign that the “story” is covering up the lack of real progress or understanding of that account). Every sales person (not to mention the VP and CEO) can take you through the stages of an account, the “[insert company name] way of selling”, and the closing process. In short, the entire company is on the same page around what it takes to turn a prospect into a customer.

All of this isn’t to suggest that sales as a discipline and sales people as practitioners of that discipline don’t possess skills that range far beyond the ability to check items off a list. To the contrary, skilled sales people are extremely nuanced in their ability to understand the buying patterns of their prospects, navigate the internal landscapes of customers and, of course, effectively convey the value proposition of the product they are selling. But sales people are human and – like doctors in an ICU – benefit from the rigor and oversight that is provided by process.

Thanks to Andy for sharing his thoughts on this subject with me in both his comment and in email (which I borrowed from liberally in writing this post). Head to his site to see more about the sales process work he does at Blackstone Associates.