Fool’s Gold: Searching for the Most Important Step Will Ruin Your Sales Process

What’s the most important system in your car?

a. Engine
b. Steering
c. Braking
d. Drive train
e. Lubrication

Assuming you want to drive, “all of these” is the right answer. Subtract any choice, and your car won’t go around the block, let alone get out of the driveway.

Segue to sales processes. For reasons I don’t fully understand, people worship the Holy Grail of Most Importance. A question on LinkedIn asks “What is the most important step in the sales process?” Hundreds of people were moved to answer, contributing 508 responses (and counting). I read the comments until they began repeating like billboards on a highway. “Building trust. Establishing credibility. Pre-call planning. Determining need. The close. Collecting payment. Building a long-term relationship. Qualifying. Listen. Building rapport. Understanding requirements. Opening statement.” All are important.

But some, like determining need and building trust, aren’t in fact steps (do they stop or are they ongoing?), and none are “most important”—and never will be. Finding a “most important” step for selling is illusory, and can only lead to poor decisions.

A few people who responded to the LinkedIn question dismissed the most-important step ideal, and suggested that combinations of steps matter. They’re on to something. Like cars, sales processes must synchronously combine supporting processes, systems, and technologies, or they’ll fail to achieve their purpose. Not a new epiphany. One hundred years ago, Joseph Schumpter, an economist, said “to produce means to combine materials and forces within our reach . . . to produce other things, or the same things by a different method, means to combine these materials and forces differently.” In his book, The Nature of Technology, author W. Brian Arthur writes, “Schumpter had come to this idea because he had been asking a seemingly simple question: “how does an economy develop?” In 1910, had he asked “what’s the most important industry?” he would gained a less valuable, and more temporary insight.

Maybe the journey to effective sales processes would be better facilitated by asking “what enables a sales transaction to develop?” The journey begins with finding the right concept, and building processes to achieve it. The concept of a car is to move a person—or people—between two points. That takes more than an engine. The concept of a sales process is to generate revenue from discovered needs. That’s complicated—even for a vendor selling hot dogs from a cart in Manhattan.

According to Arthur, a process or technology “derives from a central principle and has a central assembly—an overall backbone of the device or method that executes this—plus other assemblies hung off this to make this workable and regulate its function. Each of these assemblies is itself a technology and therefore itself has a central backbone and other subassemblies attached to this.”

Although it took me a while to get my head around this explanation, he’s exactly right when it comes to selling. Combinations of technologies and processes are required. But there’s more. Describing how energy efficiency services are provided, technology expert James Newcomb said, “doing it well entails knowledge of literally thousands of individual technologies, together with the capability to assimilate and optimally combine these technologies in particular applications, taking into consideration interactive effects, control systems, process implications . . . it’s the skill of a master chef, not a grocer’s buyer.”

Seeking the “most important step” won’t help companies sell more effectively. According to Arthur, “the beauty in good process design is that of appropriateness, of least effort for what is achieved. It derives from a feeling that all that is in place is properly in place, that not a piece can be rearranged, and that nothing is to excess.”

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