Sales process fundamentals: The ultimate guide to closing more deals
Build a reliable and repeatable way for your team to consistently win deals.
By Stella Inabo, Contributing Writer
Last updated January 31, 2023
Before smartphones, people would use maps to find the best route to their destination. Likewise, on the sales journey, your sales process acts as your roadmap. Your final destination? Converting a prospect into a customer.
An effective sales process offers a reliable and repeatable way to consistently close deals. The set of steps keeps your team focused and aligned on achieving common goals.
Get your team on the right track by building a clear, easy-to-adopt sales process. This framework will empower your sales agents to deliver results reliably. We’ll show you how.
In our comprehensive guide to the sales process, you’ll find:
- What is a sales process?
- Sales process vs. sales methodology
- Why a sales process is important
- Sales process steps
- How to create your own sales process
- Ways to improve your sales process flow
- Common sales process mistakes to avoid
What is a sales process?
A sales process is a series of steps a salesperson takes to build a business relationship with a prospective customer that ends in a sale. Every time a sales agent takes replicable, consistent action toward making a sale, they’re following a sales process.
Managers reinforce sales processes through training and coaching. They can also use digital sales tools to power lead generation, opportunity-tracking, pipeline management, and customer communication.
Once a sales process is in place, managers can gauge whether the steps are moving smoothly and identify areas for improvement.
Sales process vs. sales methodology
Although a sales process and a sales methodology are closely related, they’re two distinct concepts. As stated above, a sales process is a set of repeatable actions a sales rep takes to close a deal. A sales methodology is a philosophy salespeople follow as they move prospective buyers through the sales process until they become paying customers.
Another way to think about it? The sales process covers what reps need to do, while the sales methodology specifies how they approach each of those steps.
Your sales team might know they need to provide information to qualified and problem-aware buyers as a part of their process. But they might not know exactly how to handle that—the methodology you choose will dictate the “how” for sales agents. If you adopt the Challenger sales methodology, for example, then your sales agents will know to follow a three-step approach: teach, tailor, take control. They teach the buyer, customize the product offering to the buyer’s needs, and solve the buyer’s problems in hopes of moving them to the next stage.
Why a sales process is important
A clear sales process enables sales agents to focus on the right prospects and provides a framework for consistently closing deals. When supported by a CRM, a sales process also helps leadership track performance and progress towards company goals.
It makes selling more efficient
Sales agents often have many tasks on their to-do list. With a tried-and-true sales process, there’s a guide agents can use to decide which activities are worth focusing on and which are unnecessary. They can clearly see the techniques that work best for nurturing leads at different stages in the sales funnel, too.
“When you find a formula that works and your approach is uniform, you can usually successfully repeat the same process with future clients,” notes Doug C. Brown, CEO of Business Success Factors, in his Forbes article.
By directing agents’ efforts, sales processes reduce errors and increase productivity. The framework provides proven tactics on how to overcome obstacles on the sales journey.
It helps leaders identify performance gaps
Without a sales process in place, a sales manager may have trouble spotting gaps in agents’ performance and tracking team goals. The reverse becomes the case with a sales process.
“An optimal sales process gives you the data to analyze the parts of the process that have been successful and the parts that could be adapted, which is beneficial for the growth of your business,” says Brown.
A sales process means everyone is taking the same actions—this makes evaluating performance more meaningful. You can look at trends to see which steps, on average, cause reps the most trouble. From there, you can investigate the issue further and work to resolve it.
For instance, a manager might look at the quotation stage and monitor the number of agents sending quotes and the number of missed quote opportunities. After evaluating sales tactics, the manager can offer constructive feedback, and when the agent takes action to improve their sales techniques, they can sell faster and win more deals.
What are the sales process steps?
There may be some variation in sales processes across companies. One business might find that qualified leads can move to closing without a quote, while another may require the quotation phase.
That being said, several sales process stages are almost always present. Familiarize yourself with these steps so you have a framework for customizing your own sales process.
Prospecting involves finding potential customers and exposing them to your product or service. This first step is critical for creating a consistent supply of leads—without it, the sales pipeline will run dry.
By using customer-centric lead generation strategies, you can find the right prospects.
- Offer answers to specific problems on Quora or Reddit. Quora or Reddit queries can help you identify companies or individuals with pain points your product or service can solve.
- Interact with potential customers in LinkedIn Groups. Similar to Quora and Reddit, LinkedIn Groups make it easy to contact ideal customers who are experiencing problems common to your target market.
- Create videos with a built-in lead generation form. Video content helps attract potential leads. Include a lead gen form at the end of your video to capture prospects with a baseline level of engagement.
- Offer a helpful email course. Educational email courses are a great way to nurture interested top-of-funnel leads until they become qualified enough to move on to the second step of the sales process.
The prospecting phase has a significant impact on the success of the rest of your sales strategy. Next, empower agents with clear customer profiles that can help them assess leads and gauge whether or not they’re interested in what you’re selling.
Qualifying entails evaluating how likely a lead is to purchase your product or service.
Lead qualification helps sales agents make the most of their time by focusing on the right leads. It also increases win rates by whittling down the list of prospects to only those who are actually interested and can afford the product or service.
The qualification stage proceeds faster when assisted by lead scoring in a CRM. Leads are assigned points or numerical values based on variables tied to the likelihood of a purchase, such as their status in a company, industry, company type, and website activity.
Presenting is all about showing the value of your offering to qualified prospects. The presentation phase gives you the opportunity to differentiate yourself from the competition and convince the prospect to conduct business with you.
This stage typically involves direct communication between sales agents and prospective customers. Sales and marketing teams must work together to craft the right messaging to earn potential buyers’ trust.
Use the information gathered in the qualification stage to personalize the sales pitch and present a tailored, convincing case for buying your product or service.
Sell the potential customer on what you’re offering by answering these questions:
- How will your product/service provide value to this particular customer? Show exactly how your product or service will save them money or time. Explain how it will help them bring in more revenue. Wherever possible, include specific financial or time measurements to aid with handling objections.
- What features of your product/service match this customer’s needs? Connect each feature to the specific problem it solves for the customer.
- What are you doing better than your competitors? Describe in detail how your product or service is better suited to the customer’s needs than any other option.
- How have other customers solved their problems with your solution? Share relevant stories of how others have succeeded using your product or service. It is best to give examples of businesses in the same industry or vertical as your prospect.
Make your presentation customer-centric, and demonstrate you’ve done your research on company needs. Include a call to action at the end of your presentation; invite the potential customer to sign up for a free trial or offer a discount. These actions encourage your passenger to stay in the car until the next stop.
At the quotation stage, you discuss terms and prices with prospects who are interested in moving forward after the presentation. You should create a mutually beneficial agreement for both you and the buyer.
In your sales calls, clearly outline what offerings the potential customer will receive at what price. Your quote will be based on these discussions and should include the following terms, among other details:
- Contract length: How long will the buyer be locked in to using your product or service?
- Payment terms: How often will the customer pay you, and how much? What payment methods can they use?
- Access: What features, support, and other details will the customer gain access to?
Send a quote to the potential customer, and then wait for a confirmation. Remember, the quote serves as a starting point for negotiations. Nothing is set in stone until you furnish a contract and close the deal.
If the client agrees to the terms of your quote, move on to the next stage: closing and drawing up the contract.
Once a prospective buyer accepts your quote, it’s time to negotiate the final terms and officially close the deal with a contract. Closing a sale often involves addressing last-minute concerns, which may mean adjusting pricing or other contract details.
Sales professionals need to view this step as being as much a part of the sales process as the first four. Until you have a signed agreement in hand, you’re still selling and communicating value to the potential customer.
If the customer does agree to the terms and signs on the dotted line, reflect on what went well and why. What were the specific factors that led to closing this deal? Use these insights to improve future conversion rates.
Ideally, reaching this step of the sales process means you’ve won the deal, and the lead is now a bonafide customer. If that’s the case, this is the time for sales managers and reps to identify what went smoothly during each stage.
For won deals, communicate the terms to customer support so they can seamlessly continue the buyer’s journey. Stay in touch with the customer after the sale so you can maintain a long-term relationship that may lead to an upsell or referrals later on.
For lost deals, you’ll still want to evaluate the sales process to improve your lead nurturing tactics. You can identify gaps and areas for improvement to avoid mistakes in future sales transactions.
And remember, just because a deal may be lost now doesn’t mean you can’t contact the person and their company in the future. Track all your interactions and record them in your sales CRM for follow-up conversations down the road. If you have a good relationship with the prospect, ask for a referral.
Or, maybe you just need to take a detour. If the nature of the project has changed, you may move it back to another phase of the sales process and continue working on winning the deal. Don’t abandon the journey until you’re absolutely certain you can’t make it to the final destination.
How to build your selling process stages
Creating your company’s selling process for the first time might seem like a daunting task. But if you’ve made a sale before, you have a sturdy foundation to build on. By looking inwards, you can craft a unique sales process that consistently helps your team win deals.
Identify your unique selling stages
The first step is identifying how sales are made. It might sound a bit obvious, but it is important to know how salespeople move a lead from the first stage to the last so you can document and replicate the process.
You might discover unique aspects of your selling process. For example, you might find that most of your deals skip the quotation stage and move right from the presenting stage to the closing stage.
Look at the actions of your top-performing sellers. Speak to them about the tactics they use at each stage of the selling process. Determine what they do differently from sales agents who close fewer deals.
Talk to your customers, too. Learn how they found out about your company and what convinced them to do business with you. The information they share will help you design a more effective sales process. Work with the customer success team to speak with customers who’ve written testimonials or solved problems with the product or service you sell.
Outline specific actions for every step of the sales process
Next, define the actions needed in each stage so you have a clear, repeatable path to follow to help you achieve predictable and consistent results.
For example, you may specify that at the qualifying stage, your sales team has to make initial contact with the prospects to gauge their interest and ability to buy. Otherwise, they won’t be able to use lead scoring to find the most viable leads to focus on.
Or, let’s say you’re trying to identify actions for the prospecting stage. You could tell agents to make cold calls, send warm emails, and answer questions on forums like Quora to generate leads.
Move through the stages of the sales process and record what you find in your sales process flowchart or map.
Align your process with your target audience’s needs
The subsequent step is to tailor your workflows around your target customers’ pain points and buying behaviors.
Begin by building buyer personas if you don’t have any yet. Create profiles for each type of buyer, capturing their pain points, expectations, and buying motivations. Your team can refer to these personas when setting strategies for prospecting and creating relevant messaging.
Then, it’s time to map the customer journey. Use customer interviews and surveys to understand and document how customers indicate they’re ready to move from one stage of the sales process to the next. Coach your team on recognizing those signals in discovery calls so they can move deals along more effectively. You’ll also want to set up automated marketing systems to send communications that push the sale forward when these signs occur.
In addition to providing product-focused marketing materials, equip your sales team with buyer-enablement content such as purchasing guides, product comparisons, and information about financing. These resources can help make the buying process less intimidating or overwhelming for customers.
Communicate your sales process throughout the organization
Having a sales process in place isn’t enough. You’ll need to share this framework with the entire organization so everyone can pitch in to help move leads down the funnel.
If other customer-facing teams like support and marketing know about your sales process, they’ll be informed on how to assist with potential deals. For example, support agents will know exactly when to pass a potential customer to a sales agent for nurturing.
Make it easy to share your sales process by creating a company knowledge base. New hires and existing team members can turn to this central, internal library when they’re unsure about how to follow processes or where to direct a customer inquiry. A knowledge base will also help leadership and teams across the organization understand how they can contribute at crucial stages of the sales journey.
How to improve your sales process flow
Faults in your sales process can cost you leads, so consistently improving and adapting the various stages is a necessity for sales success. Refine your sales process with these tactics.
Identify what’s working and what’s not
The first step in improving your existing process is to take an honest, comprehensive look at what your team is currently doing.
Review the last few months of deals with your team during sales meetings. Discuss how long it took to close the deals and what factors led customers to buy (or not to buy). Note all the actions your sales agents take as they move customers through the sales funnel.
Speaking to your sales agents one-on-one is also crucial, as they each have first-hand knowledge of the process and can see the imperfections. Ask them to suggest ideas on how to improve activities that impede their work.
Likewise, reach out to your customers to learn what impressed them or left them wanting more from your sales team. Send customer surveys or speak directly with buyers to find out if:
- Your sales team presented solutions that fixed their problems
- The sales presentations engaged them and helped them visualize succeeding with your product or service
- Sales agents followed up after the close to ensure the product or service matched their expectations
Based on your conversations with reps and customers, find the points where your team excels or loses momentum and brainstorm how to make improvements.
Optimize your sales process tools
Consider how your current tech stack is helping your team move potential customers through each stage of the sales process. Speak to your sales agents to determine if the tools they’re using make it easy to sell or complicate closing deals. If the tools aren’t serving their purpose, then it might be time to change them.
But before you shop for major technology, talk through your sales process with your IT team. Discuss what goals you want to achieve and what your current infrastructure can support. You may discover that IT employees can solve issues with your sales process using the tools you already have at your disposal.
If you already have a platform in place, your vendor’s customer success team may be able to show you more efficient ways to use your current tech. You might also learn about other products specifically designed to help automate stages where your team is struggling.
If you end up opting for new technology, look for tools designed with the end user in mind. Find a solution that easily integrates with your existing systems, offers an intuitive interface, and automates your sales process steps.
[Related read: Close deals faster with sales process automation]
Measure sales process results
To ensure your sales process remains relevant and useful for your sales team, you should also measure its success using key sales metrics. Having a combination of qualitative and quantitative data makes it easier to determine whether your sales process is working and implement changes accordingly. Rather than relying on assumptions, you’ll have hard numbers to back up your decisions.
Some metrics to consider for your sales process steps include:
- The average time it takes to move a prospective buyer from one step to another
- The stage where prospects stay the longest
- The percentage of customers who close after the sales presentation or quotation
- The win rate
- The churn rate
Sales analytics will help you see strengths and areas for improvement in your current methods to adapt your sales process. Using a CRM like Zendesk Sell makes it easier to track and analyze your various metrics. Our software can automatically record and create reports for data on the schedule you select, so you can focus on keeping your top and bottom lines strong.
[Related read: 6 proven ways to improve your sales process]
Common sales process mistakes to avoid
Building and implementing a sales process doesn’t mean there won’t be hurdles on the road to sales success. Sales teams sometimes miss the mark due to errors in the selling process. The good news is that you can avoid these mistakes.
Relying on an outdated selling process
Sales processes need to evolve with ever-changing customer behaviors and needs. A process that isn’t routinely reviewed can become a stumbling block for your team. Playing by the old rules won’t work when the buyer journey has shifted.
Playing by the old rules won’t work when the buyer journey has shifted.
To avoid this, you must revisit and update your sales process regularly. Speaking to agents and getting customer feedback about the selling process can help you identify growth areas and fix inefficiencies.
Not using a sales methodology
Some sales teams make the mistake of not using a sales methodology and solely relying on a sales process. While the sales process shows you the path to take a prospective customer from one stage to another, a sales methodology provides you with the knowledge you need to get them there.
You must choose wisely, though—the wrong sales methodology equals lost deals. For example, using the Challenger sales methodology for a prospect who’s already problem aware will not yield results. But it would work very well when selling an innovative product that solves a problem the buyer isn’t mindful of yet. So, how do you find the right sales methodology (or methodologies)?
To choose a methodology that matches your selling process, Jacco van der Kooij, founder of Winning by Design, suggests calculating your average customer acquisition cost and taking note of metrics like average deal size, sales cycle, and number of deals per rep. With these metrics in mind, you can choose a methodology that protects your margins while maintaining healthy close rates.
Not having a customer-centric selling process
A flawed sales process is focused more on the product or service than on the buyer. The sales process is not only made for closing a sale, but also for helping customers get the solutions they need.
Sales teams should prioritize building trust and providing value to prospective buyers.
An aligned sales process will meet the customer where they are. For example, in the early stages when a prospect is searching for options, the aim is to educate them on the various solutions available. The focus would not be on pitching prospective buyers, but rather on giving them the information they need to make the best decisions and solve problems.
Placing the customer at the heart of your sales process is only possible when your sales agents possess customer empathy. Sales teams should prioritize building trust and providing value to prospective buyers instead of convincing them to buy your products or services.
Not documenting the sales process
A sales process is made up of many steps. It’s almost impossible to remember and implement everything as required by the business. With a properly documented sales process, you reduce the risk of sales agents forgetting steps or adopting the wrong approach.
You can either use a sales process flowchart or a sales process map. The document should describe all the steps (no matter how repetitive), outline responsibilities, and answer questions like:
- Who are you selling to?
- How do agents find leads?
- Who is in charge of prospecting?
- What contact information should be collected and entered into the CRM?
- What sales methodology should agents employ at each step of the selling process?
Even if your company is still growing, don’t hold off on documenting your sales process. You can take note of how sales agents close deals and set aside time to review every step as the process evolves and the business scales.
[Related read: Why you need sales process mapping to solve big-picture problems]
Creating selling process stages without involving your team
No one knows more about closing deals than the people who do the selling. So, insights from your sales team are indispensable when you’re building out a sales process.
Your team might be able to point out steps that are unnecessary.
If you only use a sales process template and don’t speak to your sales agents, you might create a process that doesn’t match reality. Your team might be able to point out steps that are unnecessary or stages that are unique to your ideal customers.
Hold meetings with your sales team (and other customer-facing departments involved in the sales process, such as marketing) to get their ideas on how to design a process that matches customer needs.
Not designating roles and responsibilities in the sales process
Clearly define the functions agents are supposed to carry out in the sales process to minimize confusion. Everyone on your team should know precisely what they need to do and when.
Sales development reps (SDRs) are often in charge of prospecting and qualifying leads before passing them on to other sales agents. But if their roles aren’t properly defined, SDRs might just focus on closing, causing the sales pipeline to dry up.
Along with indicating who is responsible for each sales process task, also specify target durations for each activity. These time benchmarks will help reps keep deals moving forward.
Optimize your sales journey with a CRM to close deals faster
Use a sales CRM to streamline tasks at every stage of the sales process. With a tool like Zendesk Sell, you can generate new contacts and automate the qualification process using lead scoring. You can also nudge prospects through the sales process with targeted messaging using the email automation feature. You even have the flexibility to reorder, add, or delete steps. That way, when you review your sales process or roadmap every few months, it’s easy to make changes as needed.
A sales performance management process enables you to analyze and actualize your business’s progress and move you toward success.
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