Sales Playbooks: The Key to a Repeatable Sales Process

Tim Matthews

If you ask heads of sales what they desire most in their job, the answer will likely be a repeatable, predictable sales process. The more one deal can look like another, the better a sales manager, director, or vice president can predict the likelihood of a win, and the better his or her forecasting will be.

This objective is difficult to achieve when different salespeople are selling in different ways. Though every customer situation is unique and every sales rep has a distinctive personality and style, more often than not there are common points in a sale as well as common mistakes or pitfalls to be avoided. Making your sales team aware of the critical points in a sale and how to avoid common mistakes will smooth out the process and improve sales efficiency.

This is where sales playbooks come in. A sales playbook is a collection of one or more sales plays—a series of steps to move an opportunity to a closed deal. The concept is analogous to a football team’s playbook that contains a number of plays for different situations (In contrast to a football playbook, however, sales playbooks should be simple and contain only a limited number of plays.) Whether a company should employ multiple plays depends on the number of products they sell and the range of buyers they sell to.[1]

All playbooks should include three critical pieces. The first is the description of the play. This is essentially a quick overview of the play and how it works, including the market, the buyer profile, and key trends. The second piece is comprised of step-by-step play activities. This information typically is presented as a workflow diagram that displays all of the stages involved in the play as well as the activities associated with each step. The final piece describes the tools and assets by step. This is essentially a list of sales tools and customer assets, mapped to a particular step in the sales play, with guidance on how to use them.

A play starts at the point a sales qualified lead has been handed off to sales, or when a salesperson has created a sales generated lead. The steps of a sales play should be aligned with the sales stages that sales management uses to track progress within their pipeline. These stages are not the general stages of awareness, research, consideration, and purchase that are part of the customer journey. Rather, these are specific stages that sales management has defined for a specific organization, its products, and its customers.

Many of the steps in a sales play are sales fundamentals that focus on qualifying opportunities, discovering specific customer problems, obtaining agreement or quid pro quo from prospects, and preparing to close the deal, also known as “the close.” Each step should be completed in sequence and include a corresponding set of tools that will aid a sales rep in getting to the next step.

One play that worked  effectively by a team I worked with at Symantec generated more than $500 million in software sales. The play worked because sales had gathered specific information to qualify the customer, reps obtained certain quid pro quos from the customer in advance, and the security risks discovered by the product were presented back to customers in a compelling format. Sales leaders swore by the play, and they would lower the likelihood of closing a deal if they discovered a rep had skipped a stage.

Sales plays and playbooks are a great tool to align sales and marketing. After each play is defined and agreed to by sales and marketing management, a set of key assets needed to accomplish the sale will emerge. This will quickly net out the needed customer assets and internal sales tools. The assets listed in the sales play stages may be a little different from those included in the awareness and research stages of the customer journey. For example, a sales play would include internal assets, such as checklists for salespeople and pat answers to customer objections, that would never be used as part of a demand generation program. In figure 1, note how the sales tools used in each stage are listed across the bottom.

A caveat on sales plays and playbooks: Without support from sales management, playbooks can involve a lot of work for very little gain. The best sales teams enforce the process, just as a coach would insist on running a play the way it was drawn up on the board. A well-designed sales play will have milestones that, once achieved, increase the probability of a sale and help sales management improve their forecasts.

Tim Matthews is the VP of Marketing at Incapsula and author of The Professional Marketer. His thoughts on marketing can be found in his blog Matthews on Marketing.

[1]A caution on the use of the term “playbook” with international sales teams. American football, despite the NFL’s aspirations, is not yet an international sport. Not all sports have playbooks, so the term may not translate. Be sensitive to this, and use another term if need be. And whatever you do, don’t use the gridiron’s iconic “Xs and Os” play illustration as a graphic on the cover of the “playbook.”


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