By Jay Speilvogel, Venator Sales Group, LLC
“My reps are winging it on sales calls.”
“Our salespeople are acting in an entirely reactive mode when in front of prospects.”
“When I ride-along with my reps, I am surprised at how unprepared they are for each call.”
We were all taught at a young age Napoleon Hill’s famous quote, “plan our work and work our plan.” Many might also be familiar with Ben Franklin’s quote, “if you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” The challenge for most sales managers is that their people, both seasoned and brand new, are ignoring this wisdom when it comes to their sales calls. Regardless of whether it is an inbound lead, referral, or a follow up to a cold call, most reps are engaging without a strategic “pre-game” sales plan.
Staying on Top of the Demand
When asked, the primary reason salespeople will give for the lack of planning is having no time to do so. Although pre-call planning has always been a challenge, the issue has been amplified in recent times by an increase in demand and the lack of supply. The overabundance of pricing and product inquiries and the perceived need to respond quickly is pushing even the most experienced salespeople into a reactive price-quoting and order-taking mode.
Unfortunately, salespeople who have fallen into this transactional “customer service” approach are vulnerable to heavy price competition, as well as pressure to give additional profit-reducing concessions. The problems associated with this mindset are especially evident when salespeople are working on strategic bulk gas opportunities, long-term product supply agreements, and transformative equipment purchases. Many of these deals fail to close due to a lack of alignment with the key decision makers that are above the purchasing and lower-level technical contacts. Even when presented with an opportunity to expand existing accounts, things fall apart in the absence of a strategic plan.
“I Have a Plan…it’s Just Not Written”
Talk with the salespeople, and they’ll say that they are planning every call. From their perspective, a plan should be focused on how best to fulfill the prospect’s request for information and pricing. It is driven by the goal of setting themselves up as a “valued resource” to the prospect. The approach is more of a tactical routine vs. a strategic plan and tends to be a one-size fits all that lacks any critical thinking. Typically, this consists of the following steps:
Prepare all relevant supporting product material, demos, and pricing information.
Pull together any available technical resources to bring to the sales call.
Prepare questions to ask regarding technical needs and usage data to create a quote or proposal.
The missing piece in this plan is a route for qualifying the opportunity, gaining clarity on the decision framework, and securing next steps.
Where is Your Win-Strategy in this Plan?
While the basic plan is there, and managers appreciate the effort, it is misguided. Beyond preparing which solutions and pricing to present, most sales managers would like their salespeople to think much more strategically.
The misalignment with their manager’s expectations stems from the fact that most salespeople pride themselves on relationship building, rather than their process and planning skills. Compounding the issue is that most companies are failing to give their salespeople clarity and ongoing guidance on a process for creating a strategic pre-call plan.
Bridging the Gap with Coaching and Planning Tools
So how do we create better pre-call planning alignment with our sales team?
It starts with management taking responsibility for the misalignment and providing the planning tools and ongoing coaching. This goes far beyond the occasional tactical sales training on prospecting, listening, and closing skills. A solid pre-call planning tool should promote critical thinking regarding what is known so far and what is yet to be uncovered, and should address the following questions:
What are the prospect’s objectives and desired takeaways for the upcoming meeting?
What are our objectives, target outcomes and next step goals for the meeting?
What is the impact of the business and operational issues, concerns, and unrealized vision?
Who will be attending the meeting on the prospect’s side and what are the concerns and questions we need to address with each of them?
What are the steps the prospect will be taking as part of the decision and budgetary process?
Are there any other competitive alternatives they are evaluating, or other priorities that will interfere?
The above questions are meant to help a salesperson organize their thoughts into a well-documented strategic plan. A good pre-call plan should help the salespeople consider all that remains to be uncovered about the account, the opportunity and the stakeholders involved.
How Do we Shift the Sales Culture to Being More Proactive Around Planning?
Change the organizational mindset and action will follow. The mistake we see many companies make implementing planning tools is taking the numbers-game approach. Management simply places a number as a goal for building plans, looking for quantity rather than quality. To drive adoption of a pre-call planning approach, ongoing coaching and mentoring is required. Rather than simply asking if they created pre-call plans for each meeting, it is critical that sales management prioritize reviewing the actual plans with the salespeople.
If we want our salespeople to think more strategically and plan more effectively, then we need to lead by example. Providing tools, training and ongoing guidance is paramount in shifting company sales culture from reactive to proactive.
“Plan for what is difficult while it is easy, do what is great while it is small.” – Sun Tzu.