Sales Lessons from the Operating Theatre

Image courtesy of Steven Depolo CC2.0

It takes a minimum of 15 years to become a consultant surgeon in the UK. These are people at the top of their game, or so you would think.

And yet…

In 2008 the World Health Organisation (WHO) published a Surgical Safety Checklist. This covers the three critical periods during any operation: before the patient is anaesthetised, before the first cut is made and before the patient leaves the operating theatre.

Given the serious nature of surgery, you might think this is a large and complicated list. Think again. It is a single page with 19 points, some of which are as apparently mundane as

Has the patient confirmed their identity, the site of the operation, which procedure they are expecting to be carried out and their consent?”

Have all team members introduced themselves by name and role?”

Remember that these are highly trained professionals. The consultant anaesthetist has been through a similar training regime as the surgeon; the theatre nurse will have taken a 3- or 4-year degree course and then had a number of years experience and so on.

A year-long pilot study looking at major complications and deaths before and after the introduction of the checklist found rather startling results.

Use of the checklist caused the rate of major complications to fall from 11% to 7%, and the rate of inpatient deaths following surgery to fall by more than 40% from 1.5% to 0.8%.

At the time of the study, there were an estimated 234 million operations performed annually. Whilst it is a stretch to assume equal risk across all surgical procedures, this drop in deaths would represent over 1.6 million lives saved if everyone used the checklist. That’s a lot of lives saved!

What’s the Lesson for Sales?

In a sales career spanning 25+ years, I’ve probably spent a total of about 14 days on external sales training courses and probably less than that on internal sales training. Virtually everything I know has been learned through trial and error, through self-education and through informal coaching from peers.

I don’t believe that I am atypical. It’s a sad fact that a large number of sales people are amongst the least professionally-trained people in any company. Despite this, they carry the fate of the company on their shoulders – without orders you have no money to pay staff and suppliers or to develop new products and services.

You don’t agree? Try getting rid of your salespeople and see how well you get on.

In all of those 25+ years, none of my bosses has ever given me a checklist. Actually, hold that thought. None of them has ever offered any advice or insight into how the customers buy and how we sell to them. I’ve been told when things are wrong but rarely what to do to correct the situation. It’s always been a case of

You’re a salesman, get out there and sell!

Whilst I have seen moderate success, I shudder to think how much I haven’t achieved! It certainly runs into millions of pounds worth of orders not won, thousands of hours chasing my tail to no effect and who knows how much frustration!

How could this have been avoided?

Research carried out by the US consultants, Sales Benchmark Index, indicates that companies that have a consistent and effective sales process on average close 42% more business than those that don’t.

It needn’t be complicated. Indeed, it shouldn’t be complicated if you want it to be used. The screenshot below is taken from Daniel Nilsson’s Slideshare presentation: How To Define a Sales Process for B2B Sales

Sample Sales ProcessThis example sales process has 6 stages and each stage contains several requirements needed for classification. Using the stages and requirements, it is possible to understand what has to happen to move the process forward and finally close the deal.

You could argue that 52 requirements is a lot of information to be gathered and you may well be right. Each company should have its own unique process which reflects the way its customers buy. If you are selling into different markets, a different sales process for each market might be more appropriate. (Whilst the stages could be the same in both processes, the requirements could be different.)

Advantages of a Formal Sales Process

A documented sales process (or a checklist, if you prefer) has advantages both for sales management and the individual salespeople.

As a salesperson, you have:

  • a clear view of what needs to happen and when
  • a record of whether or not that has been achieved
  • a clear view of where you need to focus your efforts
  • a roadmap to hit your targets!

As a sales manager, you have:

  • a clear view as to the status of each project for each sales person
  • the ability to focus on key issues at opportunity review as you already have the basic information
  • visibility of weaknesses for any given sales person – identifying coaching requirements
  • ease of onboarding for new hires

Generally, companies are driven by strategic decisions taken by management at the highest level. Most of those companies already have processes in place in other departments – how would your production department work with out clear guidelines? Would you let accounts and purchasing make it up as they go along?

Without a formal sales process in place, you are relying on the creativity, work ethic and luck of your sales people to implement your strategic vision. How do you feel about that?

If someone with decades of education and experience and making life-threatening decisions every day can improve their performance by using a simple checklist, why can’t (or won’t) you?

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