The promise of the linear sales process was that every salesperson could follow it to win enough deals to hit their targets. Some proponents made the bold claim that following the sales process as documented was enough to allow a salesperson to win the client’s business.
As everyone was talking about the wonders of the linear sales process, some people noticed that quite a lot of salespeople lost deals even after following it. When confronted with this evidence, proponents of the linear process would suggest that the reason a salesperson lost a deal must be that they didn’t follow the process.
I used a linear sales process for years, both as a salesperson and a sales leader. Over time, clients had their own needs that weren’t addressed by the sales process. I started to write posts like, “When there are no turn-by-turn directions.” My heretical view was that the sales conversation is complex and dynamic, making it nonlinear.
Over time, buyers have changed. They now have access to more information than ever, giving them more power in the sales conversation. As a result, larger numbers of buyers are rejecting the legacy approach. In recent surveys, buyers suggest they can buy without the help of a salesperson. However, they are also uncertain when making decisions and they often experience buyer’s remorse. Add to this the need for consensus, which complicates the decision-making process.
A Short Primer on the Linear Sales Process
If you have a linear sales process, it is almost certain to follow a sequence like this: target, qualify, discovery, solution design, presentation, negotiation, win/loss. You may need to pursue these different conversations, but it doesn’t mean this approach is right for your prospective client and their goals.
The linear sales process is a self-oriented approach that is built on the belief that every client should receive the same sales conversation. If you believe that qualifying is something your client finds valuable, you must not spend a lot of time with clients. While a linear process may help the salesperson win the client’s business, it is not designed to ensure that the client can reach their goals.
In a complex, dynamic conversation about change and how to produce better results, there is no linear path.
How to Sell to 14 Stakeholders
You walk into a room, expecting to meet with the contact that scheduled a meeting with you. You sign in at the front desk, and you wait for your contact to invite you into their conference room. Then, you are sitting at the end of the conference table with 14 people staring at you. Do you start by qualifying a prospective client that spends $3 million a year on what you sell?
The 14 stakeholders start peppering you with questions. Many of these questions are technical questions about how your company does things and how you would handle the problems they have been experiencing with their current supplier over the last two years.
It turned out that only 4 of the 14 people in the meeting were necessary to win the business. It required meeting with each of them to understand their business and how best to help them.
How to Sell One Person
You sit across from a decision-maker. As you reach for your laptop and the slide deck about your company, your contact says, “Put the laptop back. You won’t need it.” You protest, suggesting the slides best explain how your company delivers value to companies like your prospective client’s.
Your decision-maker says, “I am going to ask you some questions, and if you give me the right answers, I will sign a contract and give you my business.” Do you qualify the client? Do you start asking the client your discovery questions about their problems or pain points?
You answered the questions correctly, and your contact signs your contract. You start billing his company the following Monday.
A Modern Problem with a Linear Sales Process
In your first meeting, you meet with two stakeholders. You have a productive conversation and schedule a second meeting. When you show up, one of your contacts is missing and two new contacts have replaced them. You do your best to catch them up, but you are not certain it is enough for them to understand based on where you are in the sales conversation.
You want to ask who needs to be included for the company to make a decision, but your contact isn’t any more certain than you are about who will be allowed to weigh in on the change they are pursuing.
A Nonlinear Approach to B2B Sales
In my book titled, The Lost Art of Closing: Winning the 10 Commitments That Drive Sales you will find 10 conversations and commitments. This approach allows you to be flexible enough to address what your client needs when they need it.
There is every reason to use a modern sales approach and the sales methodologies that allow you to create value for your client in the 21st century. This writer believes that the creation of value in the sales conversation is the largest variable in determining who the client chooses as a partner.
Even in a modern approach, you can still use opportunity stages to track the progress of the pursuit with no penalty if you manage your opportunities.
The Increasing Folly of the Linear Sales Process
In the current environment, salespeople should be able to create value and lead the client, instead of leaving them to pursue a path that won’t bring them on the buyer’s journey they need. Without the ability to lead and the flexibility to deal with whatever happens, salespeople will be challenged to succeed in creating value in the sales conversation.
It is better to do what is necessary to win the client’s business than to check boxes that prove you comply with the fiction of the linear sales process.