Lean Selling: What You Need to Know

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Lean and how lean impacts selling and the sales organization and sales strategy starts with a simple premise: Sell the right product, and sell the product right.

Sales, as a discipline, has always sought out ways to streamline, automate and improve the selling process. The results are numerous sales automation tools, CPQ solutions and CRM packages that offer many valuable benefits to the user often being included in organizational sales strategy. These tools can help a great deal, but, at the heart of any selling effort, there are two critical elements that must be well served: the salesperson and the buyer.

We are going to look at how lean selling serves both the buyer and the seller.

There are numerous lists of “pet peeves” cited by sales professionals online. A large percentage of these issues are related to time and efficiency of the sales strategy. Sales folks hate wasting time, and they despise unnecessary tasks. And therein lies the intersection of selling with lean.

Lean and Selling Are Natural Friends

Lean seeks to make every effort count. In the world of lean, effort should be directed toward customer benefit. That doesn’t mean giving away freebies or pricing the product below cost. Customer benefit means that the customer will derive some good from the process or activity in question. Effort expended that does not achieve this is defined as waste.

The classic example is the cotton in the neck of a bottle of pills. Years ago, pills were simple compressed power. They were fragile and prone to breaking down and returning to their original powder state. Cotton was jammed in the pill bottle to prevent pills from breaking down when they rattled around in the bottle. Today, pills are bound together more strongly, and the cotton is wholly unnecessary. Lean selling eliminates the cotton in your sales process.

For salespeople, this is good news. Sales folks hate wasting time on processes that do not help them achieve their goals. If you want to make Sales miserable, ask them to spend time on activities not related to selling. Lean sets out to facilitate selling processes that eliminate unnecessary effort.

This does not mean that lean will just go down the “sales throat” like 12-year-old Scotch. But lean, positioned properly, will win the hearts and minds of the Sales organization very quickly.

The Intersection of Lean and Selling

Lean impacts the selling process in several places. Each of these are important individually. But selling is a complex activity, and none of these stand alone without impacting or being affected by the others.

Velocity of Selling

Unlike many activities, the metrics of success and failure in sales are easy to identify and evaluate. It generally comes down to how much revenue you have generated over a given period of time. Sales reps that meet or exceed their targets are heroes; those who don’t are unemployed.

Sales organizations have to be relentless about meeting their revenue numbers but more importantly, they have to challenge themselves to sell faster.

There isn’t a sales rep alive who hasn’t expressed frustration with the length of time needed to close business. Time spent closing one sale often comes at the expense of closing another. Eliminating the unnecessary, the valueless and useless activities required during the selling cycles will facilitate a quicker close and ultimately more sales over time.

Sell It Once, Sell It Right

General George Patton once balked at an order requiring him to abandon one front for another. His view was he hated “paying for same real estate twice.” In selling, we see this frequently. A selling cycle moves forward without adequate communication of need or requirement upfront.

Confidence in the proposed solution is based on a lack of information or assumption. Ultimately, the inadequacy comes out, and everything in the selling process resets to day one. The competition comes right back into the picture, and all progress to date has been a waste of time.

Lean makes the selling process more methodical. Step one is achieved and documented, step two builds on step one and facilities step three. Accurate and relevant data drives the selling process.

Proper Qualification

Nothing is more wasteful in Sales than selling something to someone who can’t use it or doesn’t need it. Prospects will engage with Sales for any number of reasons—boredom, curiosity, make-work and self-education. Sales reps, especially those who are desperate, will do anything to keep the flame of hope alive with a prospect that by any measure has zero intention of buying anything.

Lean gets the right prospects in front of your selling organization. It goes beyond BANT by identifying prospects who have self-qualified through their own behaviors. Real prospects have needs they are trying to fulfill. They research and study solutions long before they think of talking to anyone associated with selling. Facilitating that research and providing answers to those inquiries is how sales cycles are started.

Responsiveness to the Voice of the Customer

Not all customer communication comes via personal letters, emails or RFPs. Prospects are always communicating.  What pages do they visit on your website? What data sheets or collateral do they download? How often do they attend your user meetings? What LinkedIn groups do they belong to? What do their social interactions tell you?

Listening to the customer or prospect is critical. Knowing how to listen properly is what lean selling helps to accomplish. A car company recently spent a small fortune improving the drive-away quality of one of their popular car models. This resulted in no increase in sales. If they had spent any time on the owner’s club social pages, they would have discovered that quality was not an issue with their buyers—their buyers wanted more power. The quality was fine; the issue that killed the car was its lack of power.

Lean collects the right market data to support the right marketing decisions. Aligning those decisions with sales drives a successful sales organization.

What Does the Lean Sales Cycle Look Like?

Traditional sales cycles are composed of many two-way streets with sellers and buyers moving back and forth until they hopefully line up and arrive at a sale. The lean sales cycle is more of a one-way street. Prospects and Sales move down that street smoothly with no protracted stops and arrive together at the sale. There is no back and forth, no try again, no hoping for the best.

Five Principles of Lean Selling

Oskar Olofsson, a consultant with World Class Manufacturing, identifies five principles that characterize lean selling.

  1. Identify what constitutes value from the customer perspective.
  2. Understand your sales process by mapping it out step by step.
  3. Identify and mitigate any constraint or choke points in the process.
  4. Embrace a demand flow or demand-driven manufacturing process.
  5. Minimize and eliminate waste wherever possible.

Lean doesn’t replace CRM or CPQ or any specific sales tools that you might be using. Lean makes those tools work more efficiently to better serve your customer and your sales rep.

Lean selling, like all lean processes, starts with eliminating waste. Get rid of the unnecessary, ditch the stuff that serves no purpose and forget about everything that doesn’t enhance the value of what you are providing to the prospect or customer.


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