Becoming an Astute Planner
Here’s one of the foundational principles for sales success: You’ll always be more effective if you think about what you do before you do it.
Can you imagine a football team not creating a game plan or not practicing before the big game? Can you imagine a musician not preparing a piece of music before the recital? Can you imagine a politician not practicing the big speech? Or a doctor not reviewing the x-rays and the procedure prior to a major surgery? Or a lawyer barging into a case without having planned it? The answer to all these questions is, “Of course not.” In every event of any importance at all, professional, effective human beings plan and prepare beforehand. It’s an essential step toward success.
The same is true for sales people. If we think about what we do before we do it, providing we think about it in the right way, we’ll significantly improve our performance. Unfortunately, many sales people are often guilty of the same mindset that provided this speaker an excuse for his lack of concern and preparation. Our intuition and incredible spur-of-the-moment, ad-lib skills will get us by. WRONG!
You have a great treasury of wisdom and insight that you’ve acquired through a rich set of life experiences. Much of that wisdom and insight can be directly applied to your sales job, if you will only tap into it and use it. Of course you’ll be able to tap into some of that accumulated expertise on the spur of the moment, but you’ll be far more effective if you take the time to tap into it before you get into the situation.
If you’re going to be effective with this hat, you’ll think about what you do before you do it – you’ll think about every telephone call, every sales call, every customer, every presentation, every interaction with your customers and prospects. Yet it’s not enough to think about what you do before you do it, you must also think about things in the right way.
Good planning is a matter of asking yourself the right questions, and then answering them with detail and precision.
An amazing thing happens when you ask yourself questions – you think of the answers! What sounds so elementary is really a powerful key to unlocking your success. When you ask yourself a good question you stimulate your thinking. For example, you could ask yourself, “What are the three most effective things I could do to improve my sales performance?” That question would prompt you to analyze your performance, develop some possible changes in your behavior, and then select three that appear to be the highest priority. That’s a very worthwhile set of thoughts. And they were prompted by the question you asked yourself.
While this is just one example, the principle is incredibly powerful. Learn to ask yourself good questions, and you’ll think more effectively.
It follows, then, that if you want to think well, you need to ask yourself the best questions. For example, you could ask yourself the question, “What are all the things that the customer will not like about me in this upcoming sales call?” Ask that question, and your mind will dredge up all the flaws and faults you’ve filed away in your memory. That’s probably not the most effective way to prepare for a sales call. After thinking about that question, you’re liable to be depressed and discouraged. Rather, you could ask yourself the question, “What are two or three things I could find out about the customer that would uncover things we have in common?” Think about the answer to that question, and your mind will dwell on your customer, not yourself, and focus on finding common ground in order to build a relationship. Which of those two questions will be the better one for you to ask yourself prior to a sales call?
The answer is obvious. But the point is this – if you’re going to adequately prepare and plan for your sales interchanges, you need to ask yourself the right questions. When you ask yourself the right questions, you think in the most effective way.
In order to implement this principle, you’ll need to master two basic processes. Each of these processes is really a series of questions, asked in a certain sequence. Master these two processes, and you’ll master the first hat, Astute Planner. You’ll gain a competency that will serve you well the rest of your working life.
To implement this principle and acquire the power of the first hat, you’ll need to master two processes: The prioritization process, and the planning process.
The prioritization process is used to help you make good decisions about where to spend your time, about what to plan. There is just not enough time in the day for you to plan everything. So, you must first prioritize those things that are important enough to plan. You then follow that up with the planning processes. You’ll find that you use the two together.
The Planning Process
The planning process is a matter of asking a set of seven questions of yourself, asking them in the right sequence, and then answering them in writing. The resulting written answers become your plan. You can use this process to plan anything worth planning – your territory, your approach to key accounts, each sales call, your month, your week, etc.
Here is each step and the seven questions to ask
Step One. Start with a goal. Ask, “What’s the objective?”
Always, the first step in the creation of a plan is the identification of the purpose of the plan. If there is no purpose, why have a plan? The purpose of the plan is your objective. Regardless of what aspect of your business you’re working on – planning a sales call, developing a strategy for a key account, organizing your territory, creating a plan for a new product line – you must begin with an answer to this question.
In order to illustrate each of the steps of this process, we’ll identify a situation and then work through it step by step. Let’s begin by setting a personal, financial goal. While sales is a fulfilling, challenging career, most of us wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t get paid. To some extent, our sales success is a means to an end, not an end in itself. And that end is our financial rewards. So, let’s focus on your personal financial goals. Let’s say you’re going to select an objective with which to begin the planning process, and that objective is, “To make $75,000 in the next calendar year.”
Step Two. Assess the situation. Ask, “What’s the situation?”
This step requires you to describe, as accurately as possible, the current situation as it relates to the area about which you’re thinking.
Let’s consider our objective from above. You’ve decided you want to make $75,000 next year. So, you describe the salient aspects of your current financial situation like this:
You have a salary of $50,000. You’re paid a commission of ten percent of all sales above your quota. Last year you had a quota of $750,000 and just made it. This year your quota is $850,000. To achieve your goal, you’ll need to do considerably better than last year.
You’ve just described your situation.
Step Three. Identify the obstacles. Ask, “What will hinder me from achieving the goal?
Identifying obstacles is a powerful step in the planning process. This step alone will give you incredible confidence and positive power to achieve your goal. As always, you just think the question in as much detail and precision as possible. The resulting answers to the question form the next step in the planning process.
In the example, let’s say that you have identified these obstacles:
- Only three of your current accounts are growing.
- Two new competitors are active in your territory.
- There are a lot of changes going on in your market.
Step Four. Identify your strengths and your resources. Ask “What do I have available to me that I can use to accomplish my goal?”
Soberly consider your strengths and your resources. What do you have on your side? Do you have some personal skills that you can apply? Has your company provided you some helpful tools, strategies, or competitive advantages? Is there something working in your favor?
In our example, let’s say that you may have a hot new product line, a commitment on the part of your credit department to loosen the rules a bit and speed up the credit-approval process, and you have your boss’s verbal assurances that she’ll do everything in her power to help you penetrate those large accounts.
Step Five. Create an overall plan. Ask, “How am I going to accomplish my objective?”
This is the heart of the process. Now, you must consider the best way to reach your goal, taking into consideration the current state of affairs, the obstacles you must face, and your strengths and assets.
In our example, let’s say you write the following plan.
- Focus my time on high-potential accounts, expanding the business in “A” accounts by 50%.
- Get the boss to negotiate with the corporate office for some favorable terms and concessions.
- Push the new product line aggressively.
- Acquire five new accounts.
- Use the new product line as a door opener.
- Get the credit department to approve some of the formerly marginal customers who may be having a difficult time buying from my competitor.
Step Six. Identify the materials and tools you’ll need. Ask, “What will I need?”
In this step, identify all the tools and materials you’ll need. In our example, for instance, you might say that you need:
- Some forms to help identify the highest potential accounts.
- A list of high-potential prospects.
- All the usual sales aids.
- A bunch of new credit apps
- Some literature and samples of the new line.
Step Seven. Create a detailed action plan. Ask “Specifically, what steps should I take?”
This requires you to think very specifically, and to create a to-do list that precisely identifies each of the steps you’ll need to follow, to put them in sequence, and to assign a deadline completion date to each.
In our example, we’ve arrived at a skeleton plan for the first half of our overall plan. Although the final plan would be more detailed than this, the example below is designed to simply illustrate the process:
1. Focus my time on high-potential accounts, expanding the business in “A” accounts by 50%.
- Identify who those are.
1) Collect some good information using an account profile form. Jan.15
2) Discuss the results with the boss. Feb. 3.
3) Agree on the top 20% Feb. 1
Get the boss to negotiate with corporate for some favorable terms and concessions. Feb 15
Push the new product line aggressively.
- 1) Make appointments to collect info in each of them. Feb 15
- 2) Have initial presentations made in each. March 15
- 3) Push forward on demonstrations /evaluations as appropriate.
When you’ve finished this simple seven-step planning process, you will have created the best plan you’re capable of developing. You now have in place a specific strategy for accomplishing your goal, along with a checklist of tasks and dates by which to measure your progress. You created that plan by following the seven-step planning process, asking yourself the questions and answering them in writing. The planning process will work for any aspect of your job. Discipline yourself to use this process, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a master of this powerful skill.
Dave Kahle is one of the world’s leading sales authorities. He’s written twelve books, presented in 47 states and eleven countries, and has helped enrich tens of thousands of sales people and transform hundreds of sales organizations. Sign up for his free weekly Ezine. His book, How to Sell Anything to Anyone Anytime, has been recognized by three international entities as “one of the five best English language business books.” Check out his latest book, The Good Book on Business.