I just read a fascinating book called “The Checklist” by surgeon Atul Gawande. The advice in the book is 100% applicable for sales leaders who are looking for ways to improve processes that positively impact performance.
Atul makes the case that the volume and complexity of knowledge exceeds the individual’s ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably. With real-world examples, Atul describes how surgeons fail to consistently execute routine tasks, increasing the likelihood of complications that can cause patients to die.
The same is true in sales. A sure way to kill a deal is to miss a step in the sales process.
What I find interesting is that most of us hold the perception that surgeons are highly intelligent and knowledgeable and we trust our lives to them. But surgeons are not immune to missing details and cutting corners. Just as surgeons need guidance, sales leaders and team members do too.
In medicine, nurses have been using checklists for a long time. In aviation, they are standard procedure as in construction. In surgery, checklists have not been frequently used. In one study, when not using checklists, surgeons missed at least one key step in two-thirds of their operations. This is a serious problem because operating complications render at least seven million people disabled and cause one million deaths per year globally. In 2015, as much as 41.9% of sales people did not reach their quotas and I’m convinced that we can improve that number in part by introducing checklists.
When introducing the concept of using checklists to surgeons, Atul and his colleagues were met with skepticism. Using a checklist felt beneath them and almost embarrassing to the surgeons. Their belief system said that the truly great among us – those who we inspire to be – are daring and improvise their way through complexity and don’t have protocols and checklists. I definitely get the same reaction from sales professionals when introducing the concept of using checklists in daily practice.
This “superhero belief “causes death and needs to be killed. A much better approach is using checklists. The results from early adopters using surgery checklists in Michigan’s ICUs were amazing. In the first eighteen months, hospitals saved an estimated $175 million in costs and more than 1500 lives - thanks to a checklist. I think checklists can have the same positive impact on sales effectiveness.
According to Atul, a good checklist does not try to spell out everything – a checklist can’t perform surgery – or close complex deals. What checklists can do is provide reminders of the most critical and important steps in the sales process – the ones that even professionals could miss. They can make priorities clearer and help people to function better as a team by visualizing progress. Another thing to remember is that, by themselves, checklists cannot make anyone follow them. The perception and attitude among of the people that need to use them is the key to success.
As a sales leader, how do you design the optimal sales checklist for your sales team? From my perspective, there are some key components of a sales checklist. First, we’ll have to ask ourselves where we have the most “leakage” in the sales process.
The pre-qualification of leads before they enter the sales funnel is where things fall through cracks. This is where marketing hands off leads to sales. Bring your sales and marketing teams together and have them mutually agree upon a qualification criteria checklist. Once the decision is made to spend valuable sales time with a potential customer– what are the key steps that ensure progress and achieve the maximum win-rate? Steps that come to mind: have we understood the “what & why” - what does the customer want to achieve and why? What is their decision process? Timeline? Are we talking to the right people? Who is the competition? Can we compete and deliver profitably? Do we have the right strategy and a plan to progress the sale? What do we do if the sales opportunity is going south? If we’re facing competition that makes certain claims to hurt us, how do we act?
And what happens after a new client signs the contract with us? How do we deliver to make the customer happy and ensure a long-term relationship? Is the handover to delivery smooth? Maybe a checklist would be handy…
I don’t think that the average sales team would fare better than the surgeons who failed to perform basic tasks on two-thirds of their patients. That leaves a lot of room for improvement.
I am of the belief that there’s magic in checklists because most people, including sales professionals, need assistance to consistently execute according to best practices. This is one reason why I founded Membrain, where checklists are an integral part of the software.
The question is: how much better would your team perform if they had a well-designed checklist? Could you increase sales by 20%? If not, why not? If yes, why haven’t you introduced one yet?
Please share your thoughts by commenting this article below, and if you believe that checklists have merit in sales – our free Excel tool might be helpful in getting your team started.
George is the founder & CEO of Membrain, the Sales Enablement CRM that makes it easy to execute your sales strategy. A life-long entrepreneur with 20 years of experience in the software space and a passion for sales and marketing. With the life motto "Don't settle for mainstream", he is always looking for new ways to achieve improved business results using innovative software, skills and processes.
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