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Get a detailed overview of the entire sales process and its key stages, including how to create, implement, and optimize your own killer process.
A sales process is a high-level outline of the sequential steps a sales rep follows — from lead generation to customer nurturing — in order to effectively close deals. Businesses create this process, then they break the steps down into stages of a sales pipeline, which determine the concrete activities that salespeople take at each step. Creating this process and translating it into a detailed pipeline helps businesses define their overarching sales strategy and how to execute it.
The sales process always accounts for the three main phases of a deal: lead generation, lead nurturing, and deal closing. Businesses differ in how they divide these three phases into repeatable steps for their sales team to follow. Typically, sales processes run anywhere from 3–9 steps, increasing in number with the complexity of their average sale. Though slightly broad stroke, the process is a vital first step in creating a more actionable sales pipeline.
The standard sales process is the following:
Businesses then define these steps further by translating them into stages in a sales pipeline using their CRM. To build a sales process that works for you, pick stages that represent the events that must happen for any lead to close. Then, for each stage, choose sales tasks required to advance a lead to the next step, as well as conditions a lead must meet to advance to the next stage.
Sometimes people confuse the sales process with sales pipeline, funnel, and methodology. The sales process is essentially a planning tool businesses use as their foundation for designing a pipeline, which is the virtual, in-depth version that helps track leads, prospects, and opportunities. The sales funnel is the customer’s perspective as they travel through your sales process. Sales methodology refers to the strategy reps use to close deals — such as SPIN, SNAP, or GAP selling.
It’s critical that you create a standardized process for your entire team for three reasons. First, if you create it correctly, it’ll be a guiding roadmap for closing deals. Second, if everyone’s using it, it’s more testable — you’ll receive more data regarding its successes and failures. Third, ramping up new reps will be easy, since you’ll have documented your sales process in a sales pipeline, which can be used to inform all reps on which action to take next on any deal.
Sales processes are broken into up to nine steps depending on the complexity of the sale. We’ll go over the seven steps you’ll most often see in a process: lead generation, lead qualification, lead nurturing, sales pitch, objection handling, deal closing, and post-sale nurturing. Although businesses might use different names, expand a step, or group multiple steps, this process portrays milestones of the average sale, regardless of industry or company type.
Lead generation is the process of attracting leads to your business and qualifying them for fitness to buy. Businesses generally define their ideal lead, use inbound or outbound methods to attract these potential buyers to their business, engage with the lead, then qualify them further to make sure they’re worth the sales team’s time and resources.
From a sales perspective, lead generation activities are when marketers or sales reps attempt to source new leads that match their ideal customer profile. Generally, reps can receive a list of marketing qualified inbound leads and their contact information, or they can use cold outreach methods like cold calling, cold emailing, social selling, and networking to make contact and get an expression of interest in the business from outbound leads.
There are three stages leads can go through in lead qualification: marketing qualified, sales accepted, and sales qualified. If marketers generate leads, they initially qualify them using lead scoring and then pass them to a salesperson, who will typically hold a needs assessment and/or discovery call to learn if they're sales qualified (aka a prospect). On this call, they ask questions about the lead’s budget, authority, needs, timeline, and/or other factors to ensure they’re a fit.
Lead nurturing is the act of engaging with your prospects in an effort to put them into a buyer’s mentality in which they’re warm enough to receive a sales pitch. It’s typically done by salespeople holding meetings, sharing helpful content, and more, but marketers also assist, running email nurturing campaigns in the background. The more valuable touches the prospect receives, the better.
Over meetings, calls, product demos, and even company events, the rep asks the prospect deeper questions about their issue, role, situation, goals, and more, while also providing resources and presentations to answer the prospect’s questions. Through this process, the prospect becomes increasingly comfortable with the seller and interested in the product or service.
The sales pitch is a vital step. It’s the first time you actually ask the prospect to buy the product or service. This final pitch should clearly state why this is a great opportunity for the buyer, and refresh their memory of the many benefits they’ll receive after making the purchase. Make the value obvious. Then, if you get a verbal confirmation, you can begin to close the deal.
Deal closing refers to the actions a salesperson takes to get a purchase commitment from the prospect. It might include meetings to address objections, contract review sessions, and other interactions to make the prospect comfortable with signing.
For the objection handling step, reps field the prospect’s concerns and hesitations about buying the solution. The rep listens, tries to understand the objection, and then offers rebuttals for why this worry is unfounded. Usually, at this point in the process, these concerns will be related to the contract’s terms, although you’ll likely also address objections from your leads and prospects throughout the sales process.
Closing the deal consists of activities serving the purpose of getting a mutually beneficial contract signed by both parties. These activities vary but often include various closing tactics — sending out a proposal and/or contract, negotiating details, dealing with final concerns, and getting buy-in from all stakeholders. After the deal closes, the rep marks it closed/won in the CRM. If it’s lost, they mark it as closed/lost.
While some salespeople are in charge of managing accounts post-sale, most will assist only in handing the new customer to a customer success manager, who will then onboard them and continue building the relationship. They will also ensure the customer’s satisfaction and recommend other product lines or services that would help them achieve their goals. The salesperson might come back later to upsell or handle renewals.
To create your own sales process, you’ll first familiarize yourself with your customer and any current informal sales processes your sales reps are using. Next, map out the major milestones of a deal and pick impactful tasks to move deals from one milestone to the next. Then document the sales process you’ve created and gather resources that’ll help reps follow the process. From there, create a pipeline and continue optimizing your process over time.
Your ideal customer profile (ICP) is the categorical description of the people or businesses that receive the highest value from your solution. Understanding your average customer, their characteristics, and their needs is a vital first step whenever you’re crafting or changing your sales plan. Your process should make their experience as optimal as possible, providing them all the necessary information and interactions they need to feel comfortable buying.
Your ICP will be the person your process is focused on satisfying and influencing, so it affects its steps and various sales tasks. For example, if you represent a B2B business and your ideal customer usually has multiple decision makers at a company, you might include an “identify all stakeholders” task in a research step.
It’s likely that your reps are already using informal sales processes to manage their personal deals. Learn about these processes so that you can take the best parts of each and form an ultimate process. Schedule a sit-down with each sales rep. Then ask them a series of questions to understand how the average deal is created, nurtured, and closed. If you’re starting a new sales process from scratch, ask peers in the industry about their process.
Ask each rep the following about two of their recent won deals and two recent lost deals:
After comparing reps’ processes for won and lost deals, you should have the raw materials necessary to start defining the major milestones of each sale and the associated effective sales tasks. For instance, if in most of the interviews for closed/won deals, the seller said they spent a few phone calls after the presentation handling objections, then objections will be a step.
Plus, from analyzing some lost deal processes, you’ll see issues with their processes and can account for them in your upgraded version. For example, if a lot of the closed/lost processes had demos during the first call, while the closed/won deals stuck to just a discovery conversation, it’s reasonable to infer that qualification should be the step after lead generation.
Now outline the 3–9 major steps of your sales process. These are the landmark events of the sale. We’ve already listed common ones above — use those as a starting point as well as the most effective steps you found from your interviews with your sales team. These should be simple to grasp and easy to follow. Don’t overcomplicate things, or reps might not follow.
After you have listed the major steps, define the basic conditions required for a lead to move to the next step. These conditions are the commitments reps must influence from a lead throughout the process. For example, a commitment to attend a live demo could be your condition for ending the nurturing step and starting the sales pitch step.
Below are actions leads could take within each step to move to the next:
After you define these major steps and what your lead must do to move from one to the next, you’ll choose what your sales reps will do to influence each action.
Next, select strategies for each sales process step that will move the prospect through each successive step to the next. These should be tasks that came up most in your interviews of peers or current salespeople. They could also be sales strategies that you believe would add value to your sales process based on what you know about your customers.
Below are some common sales strategies within the seven typical process steps:
In step 7 below, we’ll show you how to turn these strategies into more concrete processes within a sales pipeline so your reps know what to do at each step and how to do it. First, though, you need to document this process where it’s easy to find and edit as your sales process adapts.
Record your sales process and keep it in a central online location that can be accessed by every member of your sales team. That way, if they forget what to do next, they can easily find out. You can document your process as a checklist, map, or flowchart, which you can easily turn into a more detailed sales pipeline. Which you pick depends on your preferences and the complexity of your sales process. We’ll discuss each below.
Arrange your sales process into a vertical checklist with the first step on the top and the final step on the bottom of the document. Under each step, list the chronological tasks that must be completed, and put a checkbox next to each so reps can track what they’ve done. This is best for companies with simple, linear sales processes that want something physical to check off. You can easily create a simple sales process checklist in Google Docs.
If a checklist isn’t your cup of tea and you want something more visually appealing, try a sales process map. It has separate columns for each step in your sales process, and under each column are the sales tasks in chronological order. You can also connect each column with arrows or lines.
If your sales process is complicated with multiple paths for various customer decisions and involves multiple sales reps to get the deal over the finish line, you might want to build a flowchart. This can be done using flowchart tools, which are diagramming applications that allow you to build visualizations of your business's processes, including the sales process.
The best way to ensure your sales team uses your standardized sales process rather than sticking with their own is by asking for input and training them on each step and sales action. So involve them in its evaluation before it's rolled out, and ask them if they see any flaws with it or things they might add. This increases their ownership over its development, hence they’ll be more likely to follow it. Later, hold weekly meetings to teach and remind them of the new process.
Also, provide your team with related sales enablement materials that correspond with sales activities in the process. This includes white papers, blog posts, live videos, and sales deck templates that they can show prospects, as well as material they can consume themselves like a sales script, a list of common objections and rebuttals, a discovery call framework and questions, and more.
A sales pipeline is the visual representation of your sales process that tells salespeople exactly what actions to take to move a lead from step to step. The process steps are translated into stages, each with benchmarks for entry (actions a lead must take to enter the stage) and specific activities a rep must do to get the lead to take that action. Most companies store this pipeline in a CRM, where reps can track which stage each deal is in and move them to the next.
Here’s an example of a sales process translated to a pipeline and its associated sales activities:
Your pipeline stages should look similar to the above, but get as specific as possible here. For example, if cold emailing is included in your prospecting stage, decide how you’ll find leads to cold email, whether you’ll send them yourself or outsource the task, how many you’ll send per day or week, what you’ll include in each email, and other key details. While your sales process may include cold emailing, the pipeline is where you specify what that means to your business.
Once you’ve created a sales pipeline from the process, plan to consistently measure the sales process’s performance and spot its weaknesses. Do this by tracking metrics in your CRM that relate to both the process as a whole, like sales cycle length, and individual steps, like average time in a certain step. This also involves asking questions about the process like “Which step is taking too long?” and running reports to find out.
Here are some metrics to track and explore to uncover weak points in your sales process:
These metrics are good jumping-off points for any investigation into your sales process. But, it’s important to use your own set of metrics that help you measure success and spot bottlenecks in the process.
For detailed information on how to measure and improve your sales pipeline, check out our article on sales pipeline management, where you can follow each of the steps to monitor and bump up its performance. Next, we’ll talk about how to improve your sales process as a whole.
Every sales process is a work in progress. It’s crucial that you continue enhancing yours, bringing your team’s sales numbers up with it. Some impactful methods include automating the process with a CRM, including more follow-ups, testing new sales tasks or steps, and getting your team’s opinion on the process’s shortcomings.
More specifically, below are the ways to improve your current sales process:
This list just scratches the surface of the ways you can improve your sales process. We wrote an article on the best sales techniques with tips from sales experts to add to your process. There you’ll find sales tactics for lead generation, nurturing, and closing, all of which are backed with quotes from sales professionals. Staying up to date on sales statistics related to lead generation, lead nurturing, and deal closing is also a great way to improve your process.
Sales process, pipeline, funnel, and methodology all relate to one another and are vital components of any business’s overall sales plan. Because they’re so interrelated, it can be hard to keep them apart. Below we’ll show you how each differs from the sales process, and, in doing so, how they differ from one another as well.
To enhance your sales vocabulary, also consider perusing our article on popular sales terms sellers need to know.
A sales pipeline is the digital representation of a sales process inside of a CRM. The steps of the process are displayed as stages through which salespeople can manually drag deals. Sometimes steps are broken into smaller stages in the pipeline. For example, the sales process might have lead generation as a step that includes cold emailing, and in the pipeline be listed as the concrete details around how you’ll cold email your leads.
Salespeople use this visual pipeline to track where all their deals are in the sales process, how much money is attached to each deal, and what action they need to take next to move it forward. Managers analyze the pipeline and its various stages to spot ways to improve certain parts of their sales process. Software helps them do all of the above. Check out our article on the best sales pipeline software to learn about the tools available.
A sales funnel is the journey a potential customer takes from awareness of your brand to purchasing your product or service. The funnel is divided into four key stages: awareness, interest, decision, and action (a purchase). It’s essentially the prospect’s point-of-view through the sales process.
A sales methodology is a framework detailing how a salesperson approaches each step of the sales process. There are many different methodologies, including SPIN Selling, Challenger, Soft Selling, The Sandler System, and more. Each has its own strategies for handling different parts of the sale. A salesperson will likely master one methodology and use it throughout the entire sales process.
For example, someone using the Challenger methodology would handle lead nurturing differently than a SPIN seller. Where the challenger disputes the prospect's current way of thinking in a slightly aggressive manner, the SPIN seller smoothly asks questions that make the prospect aware of their current shortcomings and needs. Check out Sales Hacker’s article on the top sales methodologies if you’re interested in learning more about each one.
A standardized and tested sales process gives your sales team sequential steps to follow to close new leads time and time again, without second-guessing their approach. It’s a lot easier to take action when they believe it’ll produce the desired result, a closed deal. Belief is especially important in sales, where failure abounds. So, get started on building a process your team can use, tweak, master, and trust, together.