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Best Practices for B2B Sales - Always Know the Next Step

Authored by Ric Ratkowski on August 11, 2020

The most important step in any sales process is the NEXT step.   It is a hurdle that must be cleared to give you the right to move to the “NEXT, NEXT” step.  The next step is not granted, but earned by successful completion of the current step.  The next step has to be set up with the buyer as you finish out the current step. 

Unfortunately, companies and many systems aren’t successful at recording and tracking the next step.  

Why the Next Step is the Most Important

The truth is you need all of the steps in the sales process, and individually no one step has more importance than any other step (except maybe signing the contract).  If a step in the process wasn’t as important or wasn't needed we would remove it from the process.  The next step is the most important because it earns you the right to continue the sales process.  If you fail, the deal is “closed-loss” and you move on to other sales opportunities. 

Just like in project management, it is important to always focus on the next step because it increases process efficiency. For sales it is vital to maximize revenue production with finite sales resources, while accommodating the buyers’ information needs and decision making steps.  When you take classes on project management they stress always having a clear vision to the next step.

Secrets to Achieving the “NEXT” Step

The first secret to achieving the next step is to record it for everyone to see and make it visible on both summary and detail reports and lists.  It should always be at the top-of-mind.  It should be recorded somewhere you view often so it is always clear what the next step is for this opportunity.  Also make sure it appears on your activity list/alert tracker and as part of current status on the opportunity.  If possible make sure it is part of a system that alerts you when the time is getting close.

The second secret is to ask the prospect to do something on their end.  That way you’ve instantly involved them in the next steps.  This vests the buyers in the sales process. It also fosters the feeling of joint accountability and a joint project. 

The third secret is to end each step, with the next call, meeting or action item scheduled.  Doing this measures the prospect’s interest to moving forward.  You can also judge their interest by how far in advance they wish to work.  Is the next step scheduled next week (they are excited), or is it scheduled late next month (this may take longer than anticipated, and you need to get them energized again).  In many cases of B2B sales, the prospects excitement is the highest when you are meeting.  The more time between meetings, the more the buyer’s excitement wanes.

The fourth secret is to follow the lead of the buyer.  The opportunity can progress only as quickly as the buyer is willing to go.  You can follow the lead of the buyer by first understanding the different buyer’s roles, the information they need to solve their pain and size up activities you believe will resolve their issues.  Then review it with the buyer(s) and develop an approach and steps that will align with those activities.

The fifth secret is the “Next Step” or “Next Best Step” is part of guided selling (reviewed in our previous blog).  Artificial Intelligence[AI] can help recommend next best action, but it is a recommendation, the sales rep/sales manager along with the prospects are in the best position to decide how to move forward.

General Challenges with CRM/SFA Systems and “Next Step”

At the beginning of this blog we mention the first secret to achieving the next step is to record it and make it visible on both summary and detail reports. This is to make sure it doesn’t slip through the cracks.  The challenge is most CRM/SFA systems don’t treat “next steps” correctly.  The “next step” is both an annotation/attribute on the sales opportunity and it is also a task/activity that you want to record with a time schedule and be alerted when it comes due.  

You want the “next step” as an attribute on the opportunity so when you look at the opportunity you immediately see where it stands and what the “next step” is.  You want to be able to run a report on all opportunities with the “next step” field blank, so you can ask reps to update it. 

You also want the “next step” as a task/activity so it is date dependent.  “Next Steps” expire, you need a way to understand if the “next step” on the opportunity is active, or expired.  Running a report that looks for blanks in the next step column on the opportunity report is a weak solution because it doesn’t consider the expiration date.

The solution for treating "next step" as both an attribute and a task/activity in many CRM/SFA solutions is fragile and not implemented often.  The solution is either  to:

  • Create a trigger on the opportunity such that when the user updates the “next step” on the opportunity, it triggers a new task assigned to the opportunity
  • Create a trigger on the task/activity when a next step is created to update the opportunity attribute

That handles getting the data initially right, but you also need to create triggers if the task/activity is updated from either direction and it needs to understand date sensitivity on the task and blank out the attribute if the next step has expired.

This is where purpose built functionality needs to be created for handling all the complexities of managing the “next step”, as both an attribute on the opportunity and an activity/task with alerts.

What Happens if You Don’t Focus on the “Next Step”

When sales reps don’t focus on “next step” for each opportunity there are a lot of implications:

  • Opportunities take longer to close, cycle times increase
  • Opportunities feel like they are floundering
  • More “close-lost” deals
  • It is harder to predict sales

Best Practice

Always Know The Next Step

Background

A key to a predictable and consistent sales process is always knowing your “next step” in the sales cycle.  The most important step in any sales process is always the NEXT step.  It earns the sales rep the right to move the opportunity forward.

Problem/Business Need

Next steps are hard to track.  For many companies, the next step is in the sales reps head.  For companies who attempt to document the next step in the CRM/SFA system there is a general problem that “Next Steps” are both a task/activity with date sensitivity and an attribute on the sales opportunity.  No matter how they handle it, without purpose built application management around next steps, it becomes a manual/fragile process.  

“Next Step” is a key component of guided selling.  If the  “next step” isn’t managed it results in:

  • Opportunities take longer to close, cycle times increase
  • Opportunities feel like they are floundering
  • More “close-lost” deals
  • It is harder to predict sales

Requirements:

To effectively manage the “Next Step” requires visibility any time the opportunity is reviewed.

The need is to:

Have visibility to the next step, including:

  • In the sales pipeline view
  • In the detail opportunity view
  • Whenever lists of opportunities are run in a report
  • Drilling down from sales rep coaching screens
  • When any future or historic task activity lists are run by date range or opportunity

The second need is to have “next steps” integrate with guided selling, so dynamic guided selling can recommend the next step.

Baseline

Good

Better

Best

“Next Steps” are not managed.  “Next Steps” are maintained “offline” by the sales rep and discussed with the sales manager. 


"Next Step” is an attribute on the opportunity.  Some sales reps use it, but most don’t.  

“Next Step” is  managed as an attribute on the sales opportunity.  While this is a step in the right direction, it requires the sales rep to keep it up to date.  It is not always visible on all the reports.   

A concerted manual effort is made to manage “next steps” as a critical sales activity.  It is managed as both an attribute and a task/activity and is visible in many key reports and lists.    

“Next Steps” is a critical part of the sales management process.  It is dynamically managed by the system as both an attribute on the opportunity and a task/activity.  It is considered a key piece of information for each sales opportunity.

At the baseline level, “Next Step” for each opportunity is not managed.  Sales Reps informally manage it offline and may discuss it with their sales manager.  There is no unified reporting or alerting system to help make sure “Next Steps” don’t slip through the cracks.

At the good level, “Next Steps” are managed as an attribute on the sales opportunity.  This is a step in the right direction and a stepping stone to get the “better” and “best” levels of “always knowing your next step.”  Attempts are made to report on “next steps” and identify opportunities that don’t have “next steps” but because it is an attribute and there are no alerting or time management around it, old “next steps” can appear on the report and not show up as an opportunity missing a next step.  Next steps appear on limited reports and to keep “Next Steps” accurate, sales managers must work to help the sales rep keep them up to date by reviewing them in each one-on-one session.  

At the better level a concerted amount of effort is made to manage “next step” as a critical sales activity.  It is managed as both an attribute on the opportunity and as a task/activity appearing in an alerting engine.  There are a lot of manual checks and balances to ensure the attribute is consistent with the activity.  It is visible on many key reports.  The risk at this level is the fragile link between the attribute and task/activity is not maintained and deemed by the sales reps as broken and they abandon it.   Although the attribute and activity/task is successfully maintained, it is not yet part of the guided selling process as the tediousness and fragile nature of keeping the two consistent does not allow extending it to the guided selling processes.

At the best level companies have implemented an integrated system for managing the “next step” as both an attribute and a task/activity and it is integrated to their guided selling process.  Alerting helps ensure all next steps are taken and do not slipped through the cracks.  The examples below show how “next step” is managed:

  • On the opportunity tile on the sales pipeline report
  • On the opportunity detail opportunity activity/status
  • How it shows up on alerts

Opportunity Tile on Sales Pipeline Shows Next Step

The screen shot above shows sales pipeline report.  Each tile on the report represents a sales opportunity.  On each tile is a "stair" icon.  When the user clicks on the stairs icon it displays the next step as shown in the screenshot above.

Opportunity Detail Report shows Next Step and date set

The screen shot above shows the opportunity detail screen.  It shows the next meeting date and next step for the opportunity. The system also keeps track of the last time the “next step” was updated.

Next Step Alerts show up if missing on Opportunity Tile

From the sales pipeline report, red icons are highlighted if the opportunity has an alert.  When clicked it will show the alert for the opportunity.  Alternatively, in the upper right corner of the screen there is an alert icon that will show all alerts for opportunities on the pipeline report.  Clicking on the icon show the highlighted alert that reads “Risk Alert: No Next Steps in place, Update or get meeting scheduled”.

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