Selling Process Improvements

If you follow college football, you were treated to a thrilling championship game this week in which the University of Alabama came back in the second half to win coach Nick Saban’s fifth national title in nine years. The subtext to that incredible run is that Saban does not focus on winning per se; instead he pays close attention to what’s known as “The Process”, and the wins take care of themselves.

What does this have to do with selling? In B2B selling, your fundamental task is to improve your customers’ business performance. Just as a football team’s chances of winning rest on the collection of individual processes they follow before and during the game, your customer’s business success depends on how well—how effectively and efficiently—they execute their collected processes. Improve the process, and you improve the business.

Every business is an agglomeration of processes (production processes, selling and marketing processes, accounting processes, IT processes, and the list goes on), and all these processes are structured in the same way: they apply work to inputs to produce outputs that someone values. Like cogs in the cash flow engine, a firm’s overall profitability and cash flow depend on the cumulative and interacting effectiveness and efficiency of all the individual processes that it undertakes to produce value for its customers.

All the various sales philosophies or methodologies, including consultative selling, solution selling, challenger selling, or insert-catchy-name-here selling, fundamentally rest on the seller’s ability to improve at least one of their customers’ processes for producing value. You can’t solve problems, produce profits, or even generate useful insights unless you have a deep and complete understanding of the processes you affect.

When you do have that deep and complete understanding of how your customers do things, you command immediate respect from all the relevant levels in the buying process, from technical buyers all the way up to the C-Level. You can also find many more points of impact where you can connect your solution, and as a result you can generate and quantify higher value for your customers. You may even be able to add value by being an ambassador between your buyers’ problem-owners and process-owners.

Analyzing the process

So, what’s the process of business process improvement selling? It begins with peeling back the layers to expose the anatomy of any process. Every process consists of five things: inputs, work, outputs, constraints, and value.

  • Can you reduce inputs, such as labor, money, and time?
  • Can you eliminate or reduce steps and activities of the work necessary in the process? Can you identity and address problems, opportunities, changes and risks that the process-owner faces?
  • Can you improve the quality or quantity of the outputs? What process/operational measurements does the customer pay attention to?
  • Can you remove, get around or mitigate constraints, such as physical, technological or regulatory limits?
  • What is the financial and/or personal value of your answers to the above questions? What financial measures does the customer pay attention to?


You can’t outsource process knowledge

If you work for a large company, it’s tempting to think that a lot of this work will—or should—be done for you by your marketing or sales enablement functions, but there is no substitute for your personal mastery of the appropriate process knowledge. It’s the only way you will be able to be in control of credible and meaningful sales conversations, and especially to spot opportunities for improvement that they buyer may not be aware of.

You need to read all the relevant material you can find about the specific process, spend a lot of time questioning and listening to process owners, and most importantly, “going to the gemba”, which is lean-speak for actually visiting where the work is done to get a first-hand understanding of the work itself.

Everybody wants to create value for customers, but not everybody digs into the details of how their customers create value for their customers. Selling process improvements is not a substitute for whichever insert-catchy-name-here sales methodology you’re using, it’s an added process that will help you do it right. It may mean more work on your part, but just as in football, if you pay attention to the process, the wins will take care of themselves.

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1 Comment
  • Scott Carey

    Excellent article, Jack. I like the emphasis on the conversation. Times are changing, and sales professionals need to ramp up their business acumen or risk being replaced by AI. I love this quote, “Everybody wants to create value for customers, but not everybody digs into the details of how their customers create value for their customers.”

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