Humor me and take a moment to see if your Sales Process is upside-down. Does it accurately describe each of the steps that your sales force must take to convert a prospect to a customer? Is your CRM system able to capture each critical action that your sales team completes? Does it move sequentially through the selling process with logically-named stages like “Identify, Qualify, Present, Close and Implement?” If you feel a churning sensation in your stomach caused by too many deals that are delayed or lost, your process is probably upside-down. Here’s a story that explains it:


In 2002, IBM undertook an enterprise-wide restructuring of their sales organization in order to capture a greater share of wallet. More specifically, they reorganized a conglomeration of small sales organizations that had evolved in separate high-growth businesses over the years. To do this, they invested heavily in developing a unified sales process and deployed it across their combined 40,000-person direct sales force. They had one chance to get it right, and they had the resources to do it. Click here for a case study.


The result was SSM – the “Signature Selling Method.” It was revolutionary because it was the first large-scale effort to directly map the sales process to the way customers buy. It was influenced by the evolution of new buying behaviors caused by the internet. Rather than focus on steps that a salesperson must complete, SSM measures movement through the sales process based upon actions the customer takes. Instead of CRM metrics to track sales rep actions, it tracks “verifiable outcomes” of customer progress through the buying process. The stages of the process have names like “Evaluate Options” and “Resolve Concerns and Decide.” These are not events in the sales process, but steps along the buyer’s journey.


When you look at a diagram of the SSM process, you see that the boxes showing the steps in the Customer Buying Process stretch across the top. At the bottom of the diagram, there is a row of corresponding steps in the sales process that encourage, facilitate or gain agreement on each step of the buyer’s process. Traditional sales process diagrams either ignore the buyer’s process entirely or map it upside-down, as though the selling process dominates the buying process, rather than moving in harmony with it.


RTM resized 600


A successful sales process must recognize that selling methodology is one part of a comprehensive buying-selling process. How could this impact you? And how can you improve the performance of your organization like IBM did?


  1. Know that it can be done. Maybe your organization doesn’t have the resources of an IBM, but we now know that inertia is not an insurmountable obstacle. The two key ingredients for any successful transformation are clear vision and strong will.
  2. You can stand on the shoulders of giants. You don’t need a breakthrough discovery to build a high-performance sales process. Leverage the lessons from Signature Selling and re-tool your sales process to focus on your customer’s buying process.
  3. Your situation is unique. You cannot simply implement SSM. You must tailor your own sales process to your specific circumstances. But you are not alone. Sales effectiveness literature offers a vast body of knowledge about the buying process. Ask your top sales performers about how their customers make decisions. And talk to your best customers and find out the steps they followed in a recent purchase of your product or service. Understand the buying process and map your selling process to support and accelerate it.
  4. Identify the “verifiable outcomes.” Customers generally purchase your products or services in similar ways. There are common actions that they take to move forward (and backward) in their buying process. Identify these outcomes, or find surrogates that indicate they have occurred. Use these to gain agreement with customers throughout the process. If there is some variation by vertical or market, you may discover more than one buying process. You need a selling process to match it, too.
  5. Document it. Train it. Inspect it. Embrace it. Enhance it.


Contrast the new customer-focused sales process with the upside-down approach, and the difference is clear. It is important to note that IBM completed many other strategic initiatives in the past decade, so Signature Selling cannot claim to be the sole force behind the impressive financial results. But taken together, these changes delivered seven consecutive years of double-digit growth and a pre-tax earnings increase of 9 percent. A gigantic organization was able to overcome inertia and actually re-shape itself and leap forward to higher levels of shareholder value and income.


A high-performance sales process will allow you to scale your business, grow revenues and profits, and outperform your competitors. But the correct foundation is critical. Like others who have transformed the way they manage their sales process, you can overcome inertia and lead your organization to higher levels of performance. Be sure to start with a sales process that is right-side up.


Follow @jdkenney

Follow @MakingTheNumber