First, let’s be clear—there is no magic tactic or tool that will ensure success. Real success in sales comes from hard work, dedication and a real desire to help others. Oh, and you need a consistently positive attitude, the ability to separate rejection of your firm’s services from rejection of you as a person and a willingness to be a life-long learner.

Sounds really hard, right? Sometimes it is. But while there are no magic tools to adjust attitude or instill a strong work ethic and helpful outlook, there is a proven process that can help achieve sales success.

The Sales Process

The concept of a sales process is not a secret. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of articles and books on the subject-a Google search produced an overwhelming twenty-one million hits. The following definition is from Wikipedia (

"A sales process is a systematic approach for performing product or service sales. The reasons for having a sales process include seller and buyer risk management, standardized customer interaction in sales, and scalable revenue generation.

Specific steps or stages in a sales process vary from company to company but generally include the following steps:

  1. Sales Lead
  2. Qualified Prospect
  3. Need Identification
  4. Proposal
  5. Closing
  6. Deal Transaction

Seems pretty straightforward. However, before we look deeper into each step of the sales process, the image of the sales funnel might be helpful. The metaphor of a funnel helps visualize and monitor the long sales process. Wide at the top, narrow at the bottom, a funnel illustrates how leads drop away at each stage of the process, finally emerging out the bottom as a sale or project win. Each step in the sales process is like water flowing through a funnel. 

Now, with the image of the funnel in mind, let's look a bit deeper into each step of the process that feeds the funnel.

1. Sales Lead

A lead is a person or company interested in buying a service. A lead is sometimes called a "rumor" of a project. Leads are generated via cold calling, advertising, trade show participation and, according to the best business developers, networking. Finding leads requires an open mind and open ears.

The open ears part is obvious-less talking, more listening. The open mind part may not be. Consider where networking usually takes place: association meetings, conferences, clients, co-workers, etc. Now consider some not so obvious sources of leads. How about charitable events, church and alumni association meetings? Peer professionals are also a key source for leads. Listen to the accountants, lawyers, insurance agents and financiers you know. They know who's planning projects and who's funding them.

The key is to listen for leads wherever you are, all the time. Robert V. Coolidge of Aetna Life says, "Prospecting for leads is like shaving...if you don't do it every day, the first thing you know, you'll be a bum."

Consistent, diligent listening can produce hundreds of leads a year. But keep in mind a lead is often called a rumor of a project. That's where step two comes in and the funnel starts to narrow a bit.

2. Qualified Prospect

Different salespeople have different criteria for qualifying a lead. The really excellent ones do their homework and find answers to questions like:

  • Is my firm qualified for this project?
  • Have we presold this project? If not, is there enough time to presell?
  • Does my firm have an existing relationship with the client? Is it a positive relationship?
  • Does my firm have the staff available for this project?
  • Is the project funded?
  • Is there decent profit potential?
  • Is this a desirable client? (Litigious, slow pay, etc.)
  • Is the project already wired for another firm? (What other firms have worked for this client? Were they successful?)

Good salespeople are like detectives and keep digging for answers. The more that is known about a lead, the easier it is to qualify it as a real prospect.  The key is having enough information to make an informed decision to qualify a lead and move to the next step. Again, the funnel narrows.

3. Need Identification

This is where the "real desire to help others" personality characteristic kicks in and the ability to listen is critical. In step three, the salesperson asks the potential client questions to try to identify what the client really needs and wants. This often takes place over a series of meetings in which the salesperson works to build rapport so the client feels comfortable discussing upcoming projects, past issues and potential hot buttons. 

As the salesperson learns more about the client and the project, they are able to formulate solutions for meeting the client's needs, strategies to address the client's hot buttons, and begin to prepare to propose to the client. Here, the funnel narrows either by the salesperson determining the client's needs can't be met or the client not inviting the salesperson's firm to propose on a project.

Step 4.A Proposal

In the architecture/engineering/construction industry, the process of selling can take months to complete. Sometimes there are long discussions between clients and A/E/C service providers before finalizing the specifications. Owners usually issue a Request for Proposal (RFP), Request for Information (RFI), Request for Quotation (RFQ) or an Invitation for Bids (IFB). These requests guide the A/E/C and usually include specifications about the project, and questions regarding the service provider's firm and team qualifications and how they might address issues on the project.

Answering the client's questions in the RFQ/RFP completely and in the order of the RFP is critical. Addressing the specified and unspecified hot buttons and concerns is a major objective in writing a successful proposal. A proposal educates the client about the capabilities of the A/E/C in satisfying their needs, resulting in a successful project. A successful proposal results in either a win or allows the seller to move to the shortlist for presentation.

Step 4.B Presentation

While the preference for A/E/C firms would be for contract negotiations directly from proposal, the reality is most clients shortlist two or three firms to present qualifications to a selection committee first. This is where the best of the best business developers really shine. The ones who have done their homework and identified the decision-makers and their concerns are best able to coach their presentation teams to address those concerns.

The best business developers work with the presenters to demonstrate to the client real benefits of hiring their firm. It isn't about how great is the presenting firm. It is about what is in it for the client. They also stress the importance of "connecting" with members of the selection committee. To do that, presenters must be themselves and be excited and passionate about winning the project.  In her chapter "Winning Presentations" of Marketing Handbook for the Design and Construction Professional, Dr. Janet Sanders of The Clayton Consulting Group counsels, "within the first thirty seconds of a presenter's talk, he or she must establish rapport with the listeners and win their attention."  To do that, presenters must "in real-life language show the client you understand and value the same things they do." 

The only way to understand the client is through upfront work-following the steps in the sales process. Upon "knocking them dead" at the presentation, the ultimate outcome for the service provider is to be selected for the project-a WIN. Now the fun really begins.

Step 5. The Close

One of the most important stages in the sales process is closing the deal or making the sale. This is where all the steps in the sales process come together in the bottom of the funnel. In his book, Secrets of Question Based Selling, Thomas A. Freese's secret #143 states: "Closing isn't something you do to somebody; rather it's a mutual experience you have with them."

Freese also points out that closing is not easy and is filled with risk.  The buyer fears making the commitment and the seller is nervous about asking for the commitment. After all, this is the moment of truth "where the seller finds out whether their efforts will result in a sale or a missed opportunity." This is where the ability to separate rejection of your firm's services from rejection of you as a person comes into play.

The best salespeople understand that they won't win every project.  They understand they'll lose more often then win. In The Sales Bible, Jeffrey Gitomer notes, "in success there are always failures." The key is to be confident enough to ask for the sale. Sometimes the client does say yes and awards the contract. And this is where the water flows out of the funnel. 

Step 6. Deal Transaction 

The deal transaction is the exchange of money for goods or services. Boring? NOT! This is where the rubber meets the road. The really great salespeople understand that follow-up after the sale is equally important as making the sale. Follow-up allows for developing a continuing relationship with the client, which in turn, allows for the customer to develop trust with you and loyalty to your firm.

In Hope Is Not A Strategy, Rick Page explains, "Despite the complexity of selling today's solutions, the secret is simple. It is about building relationships with the right people. Knowing their pain. Solving their problem. Earning their trust." 

If you aren't follow-up after a sale and maintaining the connection that earned you the sale, you are missing the boat. So what? Long-term relationships with clients allow you to shorten the cycle of the sales process. In other words, you don't have to spend as much time generating and qualifying leads, establishing rapport and conducting other pre-sales activities for that particular client. Shortening the cycle with one client allows more time to "fill the funnel" with new leads and the sales process starts again.

An understanding of the sales process is an important element for every successful salesperson. But understanding a theory and turning the theory into a way of life is another. The process is a guide. The key ingredient to success is following the steps in the process time and time again. That equals determination, perseverance and the dedication to succeed.


Construction Business Owner, October 2008