CRM sales stages - to simplistic for real life!

As I've said before I believe the 'sales funnel' is a poor model, far too simplistic. I feel as if it's how someone, who was never in sales, imagines sales to be.

And what of the 'sales process'? You know the 'sales process' its the 6/7/8/9 (pick a number) different stages that a lead goes through to end with a sale. There are so many learned papers and thousands of advocates about the sales process that I admit to feeling a little intimidated here; but I can see a problems with the sales process too!

Firstly let me state that I believe that there are stages in sales, I recognise them and any sales professional would. But look at the picture again and you will see the sales process is described with arrows and boxes and flow charts (and the funnel). Its as if the sales process is like a train, calling at stops along the way with some people alighting, as the train travels in one direction and with one destination. The passengers still on board when arriving at the destination are then to be called 'customers'. Its laughable, but some people believe that this is how sales works, not me!

Sales don't follow such a systematic course. They go awry. They go backwards sometimes, or leap forwards. Sometimes (quite often) they don't follow the sales process at all. And what's' more when it comes to large sales there isn't a single 'decision maker' there are many; and many decision cycles - like a doorways in a maze. Or maybe not a maze; its more like snakes and ladders where you can race ahead or drop back - always in competition with others.

Sometimes you find a ladder straight to the top. Years ago we had the occasional sale that would happen in an instant. No lead, no process, no qualification, just a customer wanting what we had, ready to be closed. We used to call these deals 'bluebirds'. Now as customers have become generally better informed by the internet, social media and advertising,  these bluebirds might increase. Maybe some sales cycles have been simplified. And I concede that the 'sales stage' premise works for simplistic sales scenarios - like an online purchase. But, I contend, it does not apply for large sales, longer sale cycles and it can't represent complex account management. This is the province of real sales professionals and I question what sales stages mean for them.

Real sales professions are skilled at navigating the maze, finding the ladders, avoiding the snakes. What sales professionals have in their mind is not the linear sequential model of sales stages lined up in a row, but a fluid playing field filled with characters with mixed ambitions, objectives, issues and impact. The essential skill of the sales professional is to answer the issues, meet the ambitions and objectives and influence the right characters, at the right time. Charting the best route, selecting the best characters and right ways to influence the desired outcome IS professional selling. Trying to ascribe a current 'sales stage' within this fluid map of influence is ... well lets say 'difficult'.

But why does this matter? Well, just like the sales funnel, in the wrong hands the sales process is destructive.

You will recall how misusing the sales funnel can lead to activities that are counter productive; like adding more and more prospects and not spending enough time converting and closing. Similar misunderstanding of the sales process can lead to even bigger mistakes. Consider CRM systems. (oh now ... now I am biting some big fish!)

I can remember the days before CRM systems were quite so ubiquitous. Customer Relationship Management systems were introduced to manage relationships/interactions with your customers. Of course sales leads and prospects are not customers (yet) but CRM systems wrapped then into the 'customer' fold by the mental leap of describing prospects are just a type of customer who happens to be at the other end of the sales process. Sales Automation systems predate CRM but had the same type of features and both are built around an assumption that the 'sales process' and 'sales stages' are fundamental laws of nature. As we have seen this is not true, particularly for larger and more complex sales.


This screen shot is from Its an excellent piece of software, I am a user. But just like all the other CRM and Sales Automation systems I have ever seen it revolves around sales stages (see the drop down list). Its from these sales stages that the reports and analytics are calculated. The whole process is divided up into neat stations (stages) along the one way train service to sales nirvana. These stages drive activities. Resources and processes are applied to move the prospect along. Sometimes entire teams are dedicated to manage certain stages. And targets are set for each stage. Sometimes commissions are paid for progressing along these stages ... that's real $$ sales commissions for sales that may not have happened, and might never happen. In short, we have built real world, incentivised activity around these imagined sales stages. And you can bet that considerable ingenuity has been spent massaging and coaxing the CRM system to output answers which are believable, although not necessarily real. What on earth are we doing!

As I said, I believe that the idea of definitive sales stages, in a straight line progression, is a myth. Sales people know this but they have to play the game. Sometimes they have to move things along to hit their numbers, or to get extra support. Sometimes they will hold it back to hit other targets. And here is a truth. CRM is beloved of finance and IT departments; it makes their jobs easier and clearer, it makes them think they understand the sales process and it makes reporting a breeze. CRM can work wonders for real Customer Management. But I have never yet spoken to sales team that loves their CRM system, or thinks that it reflects their real selling world, or thinks that it makes them better at selling. Ask your sales staff this. Which one technology is indispensable for them to  do their job? Some may say email, many will say they phone, or their car .... how many will say their CRM system?

OK - So what's the solution. What are you selling? I can hear you ask.

I don't have an easy answer, and I am not selling anything. But I think that we should all look again at whether we have hard wired the 'sales funnel' and 'sales process' ideas into our businesses. Have we built our processes upon these myths, and in doing so have we set people up to fail or 'play the system' rather than sell in the most effective way? Ask yourself some questions. Does the 'sales process' help you to sell more, sell quicker, sell at lower cost or at higher margin? Most importantly, does the 'funnel' really reflecting how your customers perceives you and your sales proposition? And, what are you doing to map the real situations within accounts and prospects and campaigns, or have you become seduced by easily created CRM dashboards and their mythical values.

I do wonder, for example, what would happen to sales forecasts and dashboards and management reports were based entirely on how our prospects rated our chances of us winning the order, and when that might be. Just think of it for a moment, is it such a mad idea?

And one last thought. If Sales is about stages at all, its about stages of influence, where your sales arguments will (hopefully) win out and influence your customers into action. I tried all manner of ways to visualise this and finally came up with an innovative idea called an Influence Radar. Its a simple way to visualise your sale progress without resorting to the myth of sales stages. Its an intuitive, easy and quick way to understand what is happening in your sale and where you need to concentrate your efforts.




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