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What sales plan?

If you plan to sell, sell to plan

When talking with small companies (and some not so small ones) It never ceases to amaze me how little concentrated effort goes into Sales. What is even more surprising is the fact that this also occurs in organizations with reasonable earnings. So I have come to soundly believe that mediocrity will indeed ambush excellence nine times out of ten. This, I feel is a factor contributing to the deep… hole many companies have found themselves in during the past four years or so. If you are getting along, why rock the boat. “We’re in the green”, “We’re not out to dominate the market”, “We don’t expect miracles”, are common answers from people asked (pre-downturn) why they are not pushing for more sales.  “What do you expect in these conditions”, “Can’t you see what’s going on out there?”, “There’s no growth left”, are but a few sales reps’ responses to the question “Why aren’t you selling more?”. Put the managers giving the first set of answers in the same company with the sales people giving the second set and you might as well call it a day and go home before the debt becomes unserviceable. Entrepreneurs are those alive go-getters. The when-the-going- gets-tough guys. The “we’re doing OK” guys are simply not entrepreneurs. Like I said, excellence has very slim survival chances in a mediocrity infested environment.

The first thing you notice is the total absence of planning. More specifically there is no sales plan. No matter whether there is one, two, ten or a hundred sales reps in the company you need to have a sales plan. The company’s revenue and profit is built up from the bottom, sales territory by sales territory. It depends on all sales people delivering on target. Admittedly, most companies do have sales targets. They are handed out in a top down fashion without any attention to what are supposed to be the constituent parts. Someone upstairs decides on the figure and then the sales force is expected to miraculously deliver it. Then once a quarter there is some sort of sales review where sales people are chewed out over their results and the target is upped to cover the gap. Come on, guys!

Sales management is a rather complex and specialized discipline. However, you don’t have to be a guru or have thousands in software to be able to put together a serviceable sales plan. For a company already selling something, it’s a matter of going territory by territory and then customer by customer. What is their performance? What is their potential? Are they splitting with your competitors? Are they growing, shrinking, going belly up? Are you selling them everything you can? Do you know everything they need? Once your sales people put your customers under the microscope, then they can make informed decisions about what sort of revenue they can pin on them for the next period. Some will be up, others will be down, a few may be lost. The result should show where you stand in relation to the target (which has been shared across the sales territories depending on their potential. People then know how much new business they need to drum up to make target.

Find a way that works for your company, but get a sales plan in place. Otherwise  you are just taking pot shots in the dark. And more often than not they miss.

 
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Posted by on 01/10/2012 in Managing sales

 

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Forecasting – wishful thinking or solid projection?

Never take growth for granted

It never ceases to amaze me how the simple basics of business get buried under the basic business of… business. OK, running a medium or even small operation is taxing and demands on the owner/manager or resource-starved manager are increasing month on month in this environment of “more with less”. Having said this, would you go ahead and order the catering before you know how many wedding guest there will be? Surprisingly enough many, otherwise competent, managers fall into the trap of running around after the day-to-day and letting the important stuff like planning and forecasting become permanently assigned to the back-burner. Some people like to give the impression of always being on the move, always being active. Chickens, given the appropriate yard space can run circles around any athlete. They are extremely active and energetic. But are they very productive or efficient?

Are you buying into the self projected myth that you are too busy? Too busy to see if you are going to have enough revenue and profit this (or next year) to pay your suppliers and staff?

Any manager worth his or her salary should spend a considerable amount of their time on the numbers. Depending on the time frame of delivery of your offering you should have your forecast and check your actuals against it daily, weekly, monthly etc. Then if you see that the actual is deviating from the forecast you put into action the what-if scenaria which, of course have already been prepared. This process is especially relevant in the current economic reality.

Everybody has their own way of forecasting. There is an unlimited supply of relevant articles and publications. Do spend some time looking into this. There are also tools available that can make the non statistical manager’s life easier. BUT, don’t rely only on the math.

I have seen too many managers take a ball park approach along the lines of “Well, we need to grow around 5%”. Then they turn to the sales director and issue a directive in managerial macho-speak, “Make it happen, Jim”. The problem is compounded if Jim answers in the same lingo, “I’m on it, John”.

There are three components that make for a sound forecasting exercise:

First you need the mathematical bit. This is where you look at historical data and project into the required period (next year, next semester, next quarter whatever).

You can be very detailed and use complex tools or you can use a spreadsheet and somebody who knows how to work it. It depends on what you have available. In a rapidly changing environment, I find that trying to be accurate down to the finest detail is a waste of time. It’s like spending six hours drawing a chalk street-art masterpiece on the sidewalk next to a big puddle.

The second component is the intuitive bit. This is where you look at where the numbers are coming from. Never take anything for granted, especially growth. Remember, the more historical data you have (let’s say three or four years as anything logged before Lehman is probably irrelevant to the reports you are getting today) the easier it is to identify patterns and flukes. If there are flukes (outliers or outright liars) kill them. Disregard them. Unless you can repeat them (that once-off big deal with the ministry or whatever). Do spend some time looking at your ad hoc business. It’s pretty safe to assume that if your sales force is bringing in a relatively constant level of said, one could assume that they will continue to do so. Report ad hoc gains separately and spend some time on them. Some repeat cases simply have a smaller frequency (a company that uses you once every twenty months?).  Segment your customer base by industry, at least. What is going on in their industries? Are they beating the market or following suit? What lies ahead for their industry? Good old PEST analysis. Changes in legislation? Liberalisation? Elections? Change of Administration? War? What countries do they trade with? Then go and look at each customer individually. If you have a sales force, they should sit with you and discuss the validity of the mathematical validity of the forecast in relation to their clients. Then you can factor in the real life input and adjust upwards or downwards.

The third and most important component (possibly the least documented in regression analysis white papers) is realism and the ability to face brutal facts and take, if necessary, brutal steps. Once you taken the pain to arrive at a sound forecast, it is totally useless if you refuse to take into account what it is showing you. If it looks good, fine. Just don’t let the sales force get smug. If it looks bad, then you must make decisions. Is boosting the sales commissions and taking a firmer hand to the sales people enough to bridge the gap? If not, how serious is the short falling? If it is such that it makes your lower intestine feel uncomfortable (sort of a gut feeling) then you need to take a serious look at the other contributor to your profit: cost. But that’s another story.

 

 
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Posted by on 29/08/2012 in Managing numbers

 

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