“I have my own style of selling.”

That is a remark I have heard a number of times, usually from relatively inexperienced salespeople.

What they usually mean is something like this:  “I don’t have any real system to what I do, I don’t want any scrutiny, and I probably am not going to learn anything from you.”

How valid is this position?  Does every salesperson have a unique style of selling?  Are they just trying to hide from accountability under the cover of individual “style”?  Or is there some other explanation?

More importantly, should your company allow every salesperson to have their own style, or should you have a system for selling to which everyone adheres?

I will let you answer that question yourself in a moment.  For now, let’s consider the concept of a “sales system.”

Can Sales be Systematic?

Almost any work can be systematic.  “Systems” are how good work gets done.  McDonald’s, for example, did not grow its business by hiring people and challenging them to figure out how to do the job.  Instead, McDonald’s works on the basis that there is a best way to take an order, greet a customer, fry potatoes, and assemble a cheeseburger.  Figure out the best way, get the necessary tools, document the most effective processes, and train everyone in doing it that way.  As a result, people work the system – and the system works.

Because of the system, McDonald’s can make almost anyone, regardless of their capabilities, into productive, effective employees.

This truth – those good systems make people effective – operates in every area of work.  Even highly-skilled, highly educated professionals apply this concept.  There are, for example, better ways to try a case, to perform a surgery, to fly an airliner, and to counsel a mentally disturbed patient.  Talk to effective professionals in any of these areas, and they will verify that they use effective principles, processes, and tools to complete these complex tasks.  They use a system.

In fact, the more important and complex the task, the more likely that the effective principles and processes for successfully completing that task have been defined and codified.  How would you feel if you buckled the seat belt on an airliner and listened as the captain announced that he has his own way of flying this plane?

This is not to say that there is no room for individual differences, continuous process improvement, and for variations based on specific intricacies of the situation.  But those are more embellishments than structure – like the icing on a cake.  Without the cake underneath, the icing is meaningless.  The system provides the structure on which the individual can spread personal embellishments.

You probably apply this principle in every other aspect of your business.  Don’t you have a system for almost every important process in your business?  Don’t your accountants follow a well-defined set of principles and procedures?  Aren’t your customer service reps expected to input order in a certain way, and respond to a customer in a certain fashion?  Don’t your purchasing people follow certain procedures and aren’t they guided by certain principles and criteria to ensure that they make the best decisions?  Don’t your warehouse employees ship, receive, stock, and pick orders in a certain well-organized, duplicable fashion?

Why should sales be different?

It shouldn’t.

What’s a system?

Let’s apply this concept of systems to the task every company faces – to create sales for its products or services.  First, let’s define a system.  A dictionary defines it as “a regular, orderly way of doing something.”  I like to think of a system as having goals, inputs, outputs, principles, processes, tools, and measurements.

Back to McDonald’s producing hamburgers and french fries.  The goal of their system, like ours, is to create profitable sales.  The inputs in their operating system are the raw materials coming in the back door.  The inputs in your sales system are the prospects that you identify.  The outputs in their system are finished sandwiches and fries, in bags, handed over the counter.  The outputs in your system are customers, partners, and sales.

Principles refer to the basic truths on which the system is built.  For example, one principle for McDonald’s might be that “Raw sliced potatoes must reach an inner temperature of X in order to be edible.”  A portion of their system is built upon that basic truth.  The slicer slices potatoes to a certain thickness, the oil is heated to a certain temperature, timers are set to sound when these potatoes have been immersed in that oil for a certain period of time.  All built on that principle.

Your system should develop and codify certain principles you discover along the way.  For example, one principle may be “Prospects with less than four machines can generally not afford our product.”  On the basis of that truth, you acquire lists of prospects, create selling tools, and train your salespeople.

If principles are the skeleton on which a system is built, processes are the muscles that activate the system and bring it into motion.  Processes are step-by-step sequences of action that put principles into action.  If you’re going to implement the potato principle, for example, you must scoop a certain amount of raw sliced potatoes into a basket, place the basket into a vat of oil, activate the timer, retrieve the basket at a certain time, spill the cooked potatoes into a certain area, salt them, and then scoop them into the appropriate package.

The inputs (potatoes), based on the principles, activated by the processes, resulting in the output (bags of french fries).

So there are certain processes in your sales system, or at least there should be.  There should be defined and duplicable processes for identifying a prospect, collecting information, presenting a product, following up on a sale, etc.  These processes are the muscles that move everything in your system.

Tools refer to everything used to work the processes.  The vat of hot oil, the basket, the timer, salt shaker, scoop, etc. are all tools.  Tools in a sales system include sales literature, samples, account profile forms, laptop computers, etc.

Finally, every system has some measurements.  I suspect that the management of every McDonald’s restaurant knows how many pounds of potatoes went into the oil, how much oil was used, how many fries were sold, and how much its labor costs were to accomplish all of that.  Notice that all of these measure processes are integral to the system.  Of course, there is a net bottom line measurement – How much did we sell, and how much did we make?  But the measurements I’m talking about measure pieces of the system – the processes.

Sales systems measurements don’t just rest on the measurements of results to which you have been accustomed.  Of course, you should know how much was sold, and at what profit margins.  But there are far more sophisticated measurements that should also be a part of your sales system.  These measure key activities and key processes along the way.  How many prospects were identified this week?  How many opportunities uncovered for your product or service?  What is the total dollar value of those opportunities?  How many presentations of your solutions were made this week?  Those are the kinds of measurements you find in effective sales systems.

Let’s recap.  A sales system, like any other, consists of:

  • Goals
  • Inputs
  • Outputs
  • Principles
  • Processes
  • Tools
  • Measurements

Levels of Systems

Let’s step back and take a big picture look at how this idea of sales systems might work in a typical business.  Think in terms of levels of systems.

Back to our McDonald’s analogy.  Let’s call the systems that operate within each store, like the frying potatoes system, level one.  That’s where people come in contact with food and change it in some way.  The systems that regulate those, like those which the store managers use to make sure everything in the store is working well – those systems should be called level two.

Level three would be composed of those systems that the regional manager or the multi-store franchisees use to make sure all the stores are operating effectively.  Finally, the systems that corporate headquarters use to monitor everything and build the business on an international basis are level four.

In like manner, a well-designed sales system ought to address four levels.

Level one describes the process the customer goes through to come to a decision to buy.

Level two describes the processes the salesperson uses to ensure he’s working as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Level three is the sales management system – the processes, principles, and tools used by the sales or branch managers to regulate and encourage salespeople.

Level four describes the processes used at the corporate office to design, measure, and refine all the others.

 A Well-designed Sales System

While a detailed description of each level is beyond the scope of this paper, here are some descriptions of typical components of a well-designed and executed sales system at each level.

Level One.  The customer’s decision process.  What are the steps your customer goes through from the first instant he/she first encounters your company or your product, to the point at which he/she has happily purchased and implemented it?

If you could flow-chart that process and describe each decision-point along the way, you would have a good understanding of level one.

With a little reflection, you will conclude that these decision-making processes vary by the size and type of customer, as well as the product or service you are selling.  That’s right.  In a well-designed sales system, you will have flow-charted the typical buying processes for each of your products/services as well as each of your types and sizes of customers.

Then, you will ask the question, “What tools and processes do I need to help move my customer from one step to the other?”  The answer to that question will lead to developing effective tools and processes.

When you have that done, you’ll be well equipped to train and equip your salespeople for their jobs.

Level Two:  Salespeople.  At this level, you will need an up-to-the-minute, operational job description for your salespeople.  They will need a systematic approach to their jobs for which you train and equip them.  For example, they ought to have a system for identifying prospects, qualifying them, collecting information, organizing their customers/prospects into ABC categories, planning their weeks, for reporting to you.  That is a good start, but not an exhaustive list.

At this level – interaction with the customer – you also should have alternate selling methods.  By that, I mean ways other than the outside salesperson to help move prospects through the buying process.  A typical well-designed level two selling system will incorporate:

  • Several mechanisms to identify prospects.
  • Telemarketing to identify and qualify prospects.
  • Inside sales to work low-volume accounts.
  • Customer-service to support the salespeople as well as the customers.
  • A database of customer information.
  • A customer e-mail program to quickly communicate new products/programs.

Level three:  Sales management system.  The primary responsibility of this level is to implement the decisions made by the highest level management and to put in place an effective team of salespeople.  A well-designed sales management systems consist of processes for:

  • Creating goals and expectations with salespeople.
  • Holding them accountable.
  • Coaching and counseling salespeople.
  • Training and equipping them.
  • Continuous development of the sales force.
  • Recruiting new salespeople.
  • Collecting and transmitting the information.

The basic work at the top level, level four, is first to design, and then to constantly measure, monitor, and refine the system.  A few of the pieces the corporate system should include processes for:

  • Creating strategic goals.
  • Translating them into salesforce goals.
  • Measuring key activities and processes.
  • Developing alternative methods.
  • Funding the whole system.
  • Administering the system.

Where to from here?

If your sales efforts are characterized by a hodge-podge of disconnected efforts, then you need to begin to construct an effective sales system.  It is a monumental job in an existing business, often requiring that many of your people change the way they do their jobs.

A good way to start is to build one piece at a time, focusing on those aspects of a good selling system that will have the greatest immediate impact on your sales performance.  Our “sales system audit” can help you identify and prioritize the primary issues.

Here’s one more simple way to start.  Think in terms of this simple criterion for a good sales system:  The quantity of sales contacts.  Good sales systems make a regular number of sales contacts each month.  A sales contact is an encounter by a prospect or customer with a sales communication from you.  For example, let’s say you send a mass fax about a new product to a list of 100 of your customers.  Assume that 20 of them actually read the fax.  You have made 20 sales contacts.  Now, assume one of your salespeople makes seven sales calls and talks to six people.  You have made six sales contacts.

Now, estimate the total quantity of sales contacts made on behalf of your company last month.  Count the number of people to which your salespeople talked.  Add in the number of suggestions for upgrades made by your technical service staff.  Don’t forget to add the number of brochures mailed, mass faxes delivered, or mass e-mails sent.  If you have a web site, measure the number of unique visitors to that site.  Add it all up.

Now, ask yourself this simple question:  “What can we do to double the number of sales contacts made next month?”  Everything else being equal, if you can increase the number of sales contacts made on your behalf, you’ll increase the volume of sales.  The question will force you to think in “systems” terms.  Should you hold a seminar?  If 20 people attend, that will be 20 sales contacts.  Should you send a mass fax to all your customers?  If you send 200, and 20% read it, that will be 40 additional sales contacts.  Should you prevent the salespeople from coming into the office?  That might free up six additional hours of selling time each week, which might equal 10 more sales contacts per week or 40 more this month.

Got the idea?  To begin to gain a feel for a sales system, focus on just one aspect of it, the quantity of sales contacts, and bring all of the company’s resources to bear on increasing that aspect.  As you begin to exercise systems thinking, you’ll gradually evolve a powerful sales system – and that’s what will allow you to excel in the highly competitive environment in which you operate.

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