The Deceptive Appeal of CRM Stage Creep

Most CRM software systems on the market today include a field for “Stages of a Sale”. The number of stages in a sale can vary according to the industry and the sales methodology utilized. Whether the number is 12 or 5, it is critical that the sales team clearly understands the criteria for each stage, as well as what qualifies for the stage.

Salespeople in firms that use CRM tend to feel pressure to have their pipelines reflect movement from stage to stage. This pressure creates an open door for “stage creep”, where salespeople try to fit their situation into the stage by the weakest standards. “Stage creep” is an easy way to have their pipeline show activity, which keeps management happy.

Unfortunately, every time a salesperson falls for the deceptive appeal of “stage creep”, the odds of landing this opportunity decrease substantially because minimum qualification standards were used to move it to the next stage.

Let’s look at a typical stage called “Visited Account”. The field’s name appears self-explanatory, but without a clear definition of this stage, the door is wide open for interpretation.

A salesperson with difficulty breaking into new accounts might believe that getting into the lobby and speaking to the receptionist counts as a “Visited Account”. A different salesperson might believe that talking to an engineer from the lobby phone counts as a “Visited Account”. A third salesperson that stopped by the account and found out that no one was available could also believe that they had met the criteria for a “Visited Account”.

The ideal explanation for “Visited Account” might be “the salesperson has visited the account, has identified and met with the economic buyer who will approve the purchase. It’s important to remember that there are other types of buyers to meet with down the road, like the technical buyer who can veto your product based on the specifications not meeting the standard.

In the ideal example above, any or all of the types of influencers can affect the outcome of the opportunity. It is critical that none of these influencers are overlooked because there exists a chance that the competition is working with all the influencers.

A salesperson that takes a shortcut and applies a minimal standard to the definition of this first stage, “Visited Account”, in order to reflect “pipeline movement,” has actually damaged his chances of landing the opportunity. Shortcuts in the first stage have a negative ripple effect, and it becomes increasingly difficult to move the opportunity through further stages.

A different type of “stage creep” can occur with a commonly used stage called “Qualification”. This stage is actually one of the most critical stages of a sale. Many salespeople rush through this stage or, even worse, skip the stage. This stage is where the salesperson establishes whether or not there is an identifiable reason or need for the customer to purchase his/her product.

A clear definition of this stage can vary, but all definitions have something in common – a situation exists at the account, creating the “need” for the product. One example could be a situation where a customer is experiencing quality problems with the current vendor’s product. Another example could be that the customer is experiencing delivery issues and long lead times with the current vendor, impacting production schedules. A slightly different example could be that the customer is designing a new product and they are looking to purchase a component that the salesperson represents.

The main reason why salespeople tend to rush through this stage or skip it altogether is that it is not easy to identify if the customer has a true need. It takes skill as well as the effective use of open-ended questions. If the salesperson is not properly trained to solicit responses from a customer, they are limited in their ability to identify needs.

“Stage creep” at the “Qualification” stage can really damage a salesperson’s pipeline and prevent a salesperson from hitting forecast or budget. Opportunities that never had any real identified need by the customer might move to another stage, but they usually never are won. What is even worse, these opportunities never advance far enough to show them as a loss, and that creates false metrics in regard to the total dollar of opportunities that the salesperson is targeting. These opportunities that will never be won inflate the value of the salesperson’s pipeline. Because of that, the salesperson will not have enough potential business in the pipeline to attain quota. The deceptive appeal of “stage creep” once again negatively impacts the salesperson’s performance.

Sales managers who coach their salespeople on CRM should make it a practice to continually ask salespeople to explain the specific need/s of the accounts they have in their pipeline. A salesperson who is well versed about the “issues” or “needs” at the account is always better equipped to provide a solution that best solves the customer’s issues.

“Stage creep” can happen with both new and seasoned salespeople. That is why it is critical that sales managers consistently reinforce the criteria for each stage in the CRM software. Speak frankly about the pressure that salespeople feel in this area, and also remind them that “stage creep” only serves to sabotage their new business opportunities and their ability to hit quota.