A Framework to Achieve the Right Level of Tension in the Sales Process

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As we covered in our last article, managing the tension between consistency and flexibility is key to a sales team’s success. Get this right and you’ll have sales conversations that close significantly more deals.

For most sales teams, this isn’t easy to manage. If you control too much of the sales process by scripting every possible move, you turn your sales professionals into robots. And that creates a bad experience for the buyer and seller. But if you give your team too much flexibility, you end up with inconsistent results.

As a sales leader, it’s your job to constantly assess your team’s performance and make changes to your messaging and process and to improve the way your team performs. This means that you must adjust your approach to reflect these market-driven changes on at least a quarterly basis, if not more frequently depending on how quickly you’re learning.

By now, you know that managing that tension is critical, but putting the mechanics in place can be tricky without the right framework. How can you know what the right level of tension between consistency and flexibility actually is? How do external (buyer and industry) factors play a role? And how can you measure if it’s actually working? Below, we’ll answer all of these questions by providing a simple framework that will help you visualize the different components of the sales process and help you determine which factors should be consistent and which should be flexible.

The What, How, and When Framework:

What how and when sales framework

Managing the tension between consistency and flexibility depends on how reps manage 3 execution components of a call. The 3 components include:

  • The “What” includes the key content of a sales conversation – questions, value props, customer stories, responses to objections – that you want your sales professionals to deliver in order to drive the outcomes you want to achieve.
  • The “How” takes into account the sales professional’s tone, style, and personality and how they’re used effectively during a conversation. It’s often referred to as the “art” of selling.
  • Finally, the “When” involves managing the order of important parts of the sales conversation, exercising judgment to spend more time on certain topics and less on others, and making sure time is set aside to set next steps at the end of call.

When you get the “what” right, then all you have to do is spend time helping your team get better at the “how.” Unsuccessful sales leaders spend their time coaching “what” instead of “how.” Here’s what that sounds like. You find yourself continually asking questions like this:

  • What are the potential customer’s goals? (aka: Why would they buy from us?)
  • Did you ask them if IT needs to be in the evaluation process?
  • Do we know who can sign the contract?
  • Did we schedule the next step?

When thinking about these 3 components and how they relate to your sales approach, it can be helpful to think of the “What” as outcomes, which is on the “consistent” end of the spectrum; the “How” as style, which tends to be more “flexible”; and the “When” as timing, which typically lands between consistency and flexibility.

Applying “What, How, When” to Your Sales Conversations

Our goal is to apply this to different types of sales conversations to determine where sales reps should have more – or less – freedom within your sales framework.

To make this framework actionable, we need to do two things:

  1. Assign key parts of a particular sales conversation to each area of the diagram
  2. Map each area to the tension spectrum, moving from Consistency to Flexibility

For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll apply the “What, How, When” framework to a typical Discovery process. The different Venn diagram areas are intentionally ordered from Most Consistent and move toward Flexibility as we scroll to the right.

The “What”

The “what” boils down to two things that never change: 1) the reasons—both rational and emotional—why a prospect wants to buy from you, and 2) the comprehensive set of steps required to vet your product and sign a contract. In short, think of these two things as the outcomes a rep is driving towards. Regardless of the sales methodology used, reps need to consistently gather relevant information pertaining to the business case questions and deal mechanics.

Repeatedly coaching “what” items is very frustrating for sales managers. It’s the foundational stuff that never changes and doesn’t require advanced sales skill. Great performers are masters of the “how” and “when,” but you can’t become great if you can’t consistently execute the fundamentals.

The “What” and “When”

Most of the important parts of a sales call are in this section. It’s easy to see why that’s the case. You’ll find most of the fundamentals that should be in any sales process in this section. Let’s look at each bullet point to see why this is the case:

  • Call Flow: We all sell to human beings. The fundamental elements of a natural, effective conversation with a human being don’t vary across industries. As a result, discovery calls tend to have a consistent logical flow. In short, conversations have an opening agenda and then move into discovery questions that typically start with easier, high-level questions and progress to more detailed, sensitive questions before closing the conversation with a discussion of next steps.
  • Key Questions: Since the desired outcomes of a call are well-known and unchanging (see the “What” section above), it makes sense that the questions sales reps ask should also be relatively consistent. This is especially true when wording of important questions matters, such as starting pain-related questions with “What” or “How” instead of “Why”.
  • Value Props: Company and product positioning are the most strategic [elements] in sales. C-level, sales, and marketing leaders spend countless hours developing the right messaging to communicate a product’s compelling, differentiated value. So, it’s critical that sales reps accurately deliver this messaging and do so at the right time during a conversation.
  • Customer Stories: Similar to value props, customer stories are crafted to help reps deliver compelling social proof that your company works with customers similar to your prospect and has delivered meaningful outcomes for them. Given their specificity, it’s important that reps deliver them accurately. The timing of when these stories are delivered is also critical, so they have the desired impact. There are two particularly effective times to tell stories. The first is after the potential customer shares their goals. The second is when they share an objection.
  • Next Steps: Before wrapping up a call, it’s critical that reps schedule the next meetings, agree on the goals for that meeting with the prospect, and identify the key action items that both parties need to tackle before that meeting. Most importantly, reps need to make sure they set aside enough time for this part of the conversation; too often, reps let their calls run too long, don’t get next steps, and as a result, the deal goes into a black hole.

The “What”, “How”, and “When”

The most challenging part of a sales call can often be objection-handling. They’re unpredictable in so many ways: they can come up at any time, they can cover several topics, and they are not always well-articulated. This is why they appear at the intersection of What, How, and When—they require a mix of best practice responses (What) along with an artful combination of skill of judgment (How and When).

Getting objections isn’t necessarily a bad sign; they’re often a positive signal that a buyer is seriously considering your solution and wants to make sure that she’s thought through potential blockers before presenting your solution to key internal stakeholders.

Most people think of objections as explicit statements that buyers make during a conversation—things such as “we don’t have budget” or “what we’re doing is good enough”. In these cases, a rep should respond in a way that demonstrates she’s heard and acknowledged what she’s saying and then respond with either a standard best practices follow-up question or a relevant customer story that explains how current customer said something similar but then realized the benefit of your solution.

However, often objections are only hinted at—they’re implicit statements—and require reps to proactively address them before moving on. For example, if a rep hears a buyer ask several questions about how a product impacts workflow, then it’s likely an indication that the buyer has reservations about how it would be adopted by her team. In that situation, it’s important for the rep to say something along the lines of “I’ve noticed you’ve been asking a lot of questions about workflow. Typically, when I hear these types of questions, I find it’s useful to find out more about your current workflow and how you think we might impact it.”

By leaning into this implied objection proactively, the rep has successfully accomplished three things: 1) she’s demonstrated that she’s actively listened to the buyer and understands her potential concerns, 2) in doing so, she’s made it easier for the buyer to discuss her potential concerns, and 3) by addressing a potential blocker directly, this should improve her odds of overcoming the objection and moving the deal forward  instead of not addressing and having the deal fall through.

The “How” and “When”

This is an area that is very dependent on rep judgement and skill. The foundational skills in this area are active listening, mirroring, and labelling. All three can be improved through coaching and training.

Great reps are active listeners. They hear both what is said as well as what’s unsaid. They then use their judgement to employ skills like mirroring and labeling to demonstrate that they understand the buyer, which begins to build trust and leads to a more open conversation. Star performers excel in this area.

The “How”

There’s nothing worse for a sales rep than to be stripped of their autonomy. In fact, personality and style should play a major role in the sales process. Afterall, buyers buy from people they like and can relate to. We believe this is so fundamental to success in sales that we have interviewed over 10 sales professionals to hear how they put people > processes. Without fail, each had their own way of showcasing their personality throughout the sales process. That’s why the “How” is such an important component when striving to achieve the right level of tension in the sales process. Just as there are outcomes-based tactics that shouldn’t be altered (the “What” addressed above), there are certain aspects of the sales playbook that should be up to a rep’s individual discretion. Things like personality, tone, and whether or not they choose to use video calls to create even more transparency falls under this category.

For most sales leaders, the challenge isn’t determining which parts of the sales process fall into the “What”, “How”, and “When” components – the challenge is knowing when to enforce consistency and when to back off and allow for flexibility. As we’ll share in our final article in this 3-part series, rep tenure, ability, and even industry and product can play significant roles.