Sales Methodology vs. Process: Why The Difference Matters

By George Brontén - Oct 19, 2016

George Brontén

In the never-ending search for higher sales performance, many organizations invest in methodologies and process improvements, often without understanding the difference between the two.

It’s an understandable mistake—after all, many methodologies (SPIN and Sandler, for instance) include rudimentary process elements as part of their structure, while many processes require elements of methodology in order to function well.

Sales teams who integrate sales process and methodology into a complete system will gain substantial effectiveness benefits.
George Brontén

However, the difference between methodology and process does matter. Lackluster sales effectiveness can often be traced back to a lack of methodology to support the process—and vice versa. A clear understanding of the difference, and how they support one another, allows sales teams to build systems that drive higher performance.

Here’s what your team needs to know.

Process and methodology defined

  • Sales process is the consistent, step-by-step structure that defines the stages and milestones of a sales team’s activities, from prospecting to closing.
  • Sales methodology defines the methods and tactics used by salespeople to move prospects through the sales process.

Why it matters:

Process – Methodology = Inferior results
Methodology – Process = Inconsisent results
Process + Methodology = Success

To illustrate the point, let’s look at the difference between process and methodology in another context: Building a house.

Process and methodology in building a house

When building a house, the “process” is the stages and steps a general contractor takes to get from plan to completed building, while the “methodology” is the skills and capabilities of the individuals responsible for getting the work done (subcontractors, tradespeople, and laborers).

If the builder has a process but the workers don’t have good skills, the building may get built, but it won’t be done well. The outcome will be an inferior result.

If the workers have great construction skills, but the contractor doesn’t have the stages and steps in the right order, some elements of the building may be wonderful, but the building itself may not get completed or, if it does, it will take longer and be far more expensive to construct than necessary. Chaos.

With both good process and effective methodology, the resulting building is more likely to be done on time, on budget, and to a good standard of quality.

Process and methodology in sales

Which brings us back around to the sales team. In sales, the process is the stages, milestones, and steps that the sales team follows to take a buyer from prospect to customer. In a strong organization, these steps are determined at a strategic level based on the customer’s decision journey and winning best practices.

Methodology, on the other hand, is the conversational and tactical methods and tactics of the salespeople and leaders who engage in the sales process.

As with building a house, a sales team with a process but no methodology may move in the right direction when they move, but they’ll have a harder time of it and the effectiveness of the performance will suffer. The result will be inferior.

On the other hand, a sales team with methodology but no process may move buyers, but without a clear direction they may not move them in the direction they want them. It becomes impossible to predict sales numbers, quantify the sales pipeline, or codify best practices. Chaos.

Together, however, an effective process and methodology can support a sales team’s growth from mediocre to best-in-class. Let’s take a closer look at how sales process and methodology interact in a healthy system.

Sales process and methodology working together

The sales process is different for different organizations, but some elements tend to be similar. The process we use at Membrain consists of seven stages: prospecting, qualifying, motivating, organizing, verifying, executing, and analyzing.

Within each stage are steps that the salesperson must take and verifyable outcomes seen from the buyer's perspective. For instance, inside the “qualifying” stage, a few steps include identifying the decision makers and stakeholders; validating the industry, company size, and revenue; and uncovering the prospect’s motivations and willingness to change.

These are all elements of process. While there can be some overlap between methodology and process—for instance, the Sandler submarine presents buying “stages” that could form the backbone of a process—the essential quality of a process is that it systematizes the stages and steps to move the sale toward its conclusion. Without it, the sales organization will experience chaos. (Also, check out this interesting post for some additional thoughts on methodology.)

Inside each step of the process, the methodology comes to play. Within the qualifying stage discussed above, for instance, many sales methodologies teach questioning techniques that the salesperson can use to gather information about the company’s structure, size, and stakeholders. Without these techniques, the salesperson might know that they need to find out who the stakeholders are, but might fail because their unskilled approach puts the buyer on the defensive. Or they might simply be too afraid to even ask, because they don’t have the skills to do it effectively.

Thus, sales teams that have a process but no methodology will suffer from inferior results, while those that integrate both into a complete system will gain substantial effectiveness benefits.

The specific process and methodology used matter less than the organizational commitment to build a system that incorporates both, but the choice does matter. For organizations considering which methodology is best for them, the white paper, Ten Top Sales Methodologies Compared and Explained provides valuable insight. For more on how to build an effective process, we recommend this white paper and this sales process design tool.

George Brontén
Published October 19, 2016, written by

George Brontén

George is the founder & CEO of Membrain, the world's 1st Sales Effectiveness Software 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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