It seems like everyone is talking about sales stages these days. Triggered learning, content delivery, playbooks, and activities all associated to the opportunity stage. But is that really meaningful? In many cases, the answer is no.

Static Selling Vs. Dynamic Buying

Even in the most thoughtful organizations, sales stages represent a linear progression of an opportunity. Generally this means moving it from the earlier stages of identifying the opportunity to the later stages of proposing, negotiating, and closing. But is that really the way in which buyers are evaluating your solutions? In many cases it is not. In today’s environment, it may be necessary to find a way to deliver meaningful impact even BEFORE you have a chance to begin qualifying.

Similarly, many of us have progressed an opportunity to the negotiating stage only to have another evaluator enter the mix, or some other event force us back to the qualifying stage. Now certainly, most CRM deployments will allow sellers to move an opportunity back and forward among stages. However, this in and of itself may well point to the futility of an overactive focus on sales stages.

Why Have Sales Stages?

Now, it may appear that in writing this I am advocating the complete abandonment of sales stages. However, I am not. There are some clear reasons why sales stages can be important, such as forecasting. For example, in a typical sales organization, prospects won’t buy something that hasn’t even been proposed. That said, looking over a sales person’s committed forecast only to find opportunities projected to close this month that haven’t been proposed yet could set off red flags; assuming of course it isn’t simply an oversight on the part of the seller. In addition, there are certain selling environments where critical documentation must be completed as an opportunity progresses through various stages, and these gates help make certain this information is not forgotten.

An Alternative: Information Equals Opportunity

That being said, stages rarely reflect the likelihood a seller will win a given opportunity, despite the fact that in most CRM implementations EVERY opportunity that progresses through the selling stages automatically gets a higher win probability. In reality, the likelihood we will or will not win a specific opportunity has far more to do with what we know about the customer (including their business issues, alternatives, and buying criteria) than what stage we assign to the opportunity. Given the strong correlation between knowing how to win and winning, why not provide tools, training and tips to aid buyers based on what they do and do not know rather than what stage they select for a given opportunity?

For example, a seller who doesn’t yet demonstrate a clear understanding of a prospect’s buying criteria may need dramatically different coaching and support from a seller who fully understands this, despite the fact that both of their opportunities are at the exact same selling stage.

While it is certainly easy to create triggers, content, and workflows based on sales stages, it may be doing little to help sales people better engage customers and win more business. If you’re not sure, just answer two questions:

1. How often do we lose opportunities because we fail to change the sales stage?

2. How often do we lose opportunities because we fail to properly understand the customer and/or their buying criteria?

If the answer to question #2 is greater than the answer to question #1, it may be time to stop tying triggers, tools, playbooks, etc. to selling stages and start tying them to information.