Things are so much easier when they are black or white, when there is a “right answer” to every question or issue we face. Unfortunately, in the real world of buying and selling, there are no right answers, there is no clear direction–either for us in selling or for our customers.
One of the most important skills of high performing sales people is the ability to deal with ambiguity–both in how they work and in engaging customers, facilitating their buying process.
I get calls and emails every day; I sit in meetings where people are looking for help and direction, “Dave, what’s the right way……” or “What’s the best way to ……?”
My response is always, “It depends.” It frustrates a many people. They want answers, too many sales people want to be told what to do and how to do it. They devour “how-to” books and articles. They do what is recommended, struggling when the advice inevitably doesn’t work out the way they expected. Usually, they go looking for another answer–it spares them the time and complexity of figuring it out themselves.
Perhaps, some feel asking for the answers or the right way of doing something absolves them of responsibility when what they do doesn’t work. “I did exactly what you told me to do! It’s not my fault!”
Perhaps, being busy or being pressed for time is an excuse. We don’t have the time to figure out what will be most effective, so we want to be told exactly what to do.
Perhaps it’s a management issue. Management prescribes the approach–”Do it this way, don’t vary from the process.”
Perhaps management does this because they don’t trust people to think for themselves, doing the right thing–or because they haven’t taken the time to coach, developing critical thinking and problem solving skills.
Our customers struggle with ambiguity, as well. With ambiguity there’s uncertainty and risk. It’s difficult for our customers to make a decision, they don’t want to make the wrong decision. Their jobs may be at risk, the performance of their organizations or companies may be threatened.
High performing sales people, while ambiguity may be discomforting, deal with ambiguity–both for themselves and with their customers. They know there isn’t a “standard answer.” They know they have to figure it out themselves. They have sharply developed critical thinking and problem solving skills. They aren’t constantly in react or respond mode, but they take the time to analyze, reflect, get advice from others, collaborate. They develop the answers for themselves, executing their plan, adjusting it as necessary. They know things won’t be perfect, but they are confident in their ability to figure it out.
High performing sales people understand how customers struggle with ambiguity. They struggle with the risks of change, they struggle with understanding what the best course of action is, they struggle with the questions they should be asking to find the answers they need. High performing sales people know the greatest value they can create is helping customers deal with these issues, becoming comfortable with the absence of “right answers.”
Are you looking to be told the answers? Are you comfortable with figuring it out for yourself?
Do you recognize the challenges your customers face?
Are you comfortable with ambiguity, critical thinking, and problem solving?
As sales professionals, we’re obsessed with the “numbers.” Where are we year to date, what’s the forecast, what’s the pipeline look like, what are the activity levels, how many qualified leads do we have, and on and on and on.
We’re constantly measuring, tweaking, analyzing, measuring. We look at numbers from all type of views–increasingly we leverage analytics to give us different perspectives and insights to the numbers.
There’s no doubt, numbers are important.
But all they are is numbers. The numbers help us identify issues, opportunities and problems. They are yardsticks to measure performance. Numbers don’t solve problems or improve performance. They make us aware of potential problems, but nothing happens until we do something about the problems we want to solve.
As crazy as it seems, too many organizations spend too much time focusing on the numbers and doing to little about fixing them. That is, identifying what needs to be done, developing a plan to achieve the goal, and execution!
Sometimes, organizations take comfort in hiding behind discussions about performance and the numbers. It’s much easier to talk about them than to do something about them.
When your number indicate you have a performance problem, how quickly do you identify the central issues and corrective actions?
Once you’ve done this, how quickly do you actually start executing your plan?
Do you monitor the performance, correcting course to achieve results (Hmmm–we’re back to the numbers again.).
What percent of your time (and the organization’s time) do you spend monitoring and talking about the numbers versus doing something about them?
Numbers are important, but they aren’t what enables us to achieve our numbers. They’re the signposts on the way, but it’s what we do that counts.
We’re well into the second half now. The first half is behind us, many are breathing a sigh of relief.
Did you make your numbers? Did you hit your targets? Have you achieved your Year To Date Quota?
“What are you talking about Dave?” Some of you might be wondering, what point I’m trying to make.
My point is top performers always focus on making the numbers–that is they want to make their goals this month, this quarter, and for the year. Every once in a while, even top performers might miss a monthly goal. As they move forward, they not only focus on making the next month’s goal, but they know they are obligated to make up the difference–they have to close the gap in Year To Date attainment.
Too many sales people don’t think of this. “Last month was last month, we need to focus on this month and the future!” But with that approach, we never make our goals. The first month we miss, sets our fates for the year. If we don’t close the gap in performance, we won’t make our numbers (that’s kind of the way math works).
So how do we do this? Closing the gap doesn’t happen through wishful thinking or luck. We have to have a plan to make up the shortfall in performance.
We know the normal work we have to do to make our numbers every month—we know what we have to have in our funnels/pipelines. We know the number of deals we need to be working, we know the number of prospecting calls we have to make. To close the gap, we have to up those numbers. We have to figure out the increment we have to add—what do our ideal pipeline numbers need to look like to make up for what we missed? How many more deals do we need to be working? How much more prospecting do we have to do?
There’s another thing that’s important in making our numbers and closing the gap. It’s planning for more than our monthly quota or goals. We need to focus on overachieving them.
Top performers do this naturally, their personal goals are always higher than quota–they want to perform at the highest levels, so quota is something they pass on the way to achieving their goals. That’s why they are rarely behind plan. They have a built in buffer to their plan. Things happen, every once in a while a deal we expected to close by a certain date, gets pushed out. A deal we hoped to win, falls through. But having the buffer means that top performers rarely fall below their plan.
Too many sales people look at the plan or quota as their target. So when something doesn’t happen as expected, we are immediately put behind. We are immediately in the situation where we have to play catch up.
Setting our goals at just making the number is a bad strategy. If anything unexpected happens, we are immediately behind.
Hopefully, you are well on the way for making your numbers in the second half. If you are at or over Year To Date plan, congratulations–but keep it up, keep ahead of the game for the rest of the year. If you are behind plan, you still have a lot of runway to make things up. Make sure you have a plan in place to achieve it.
The “Target Close Date” is one of the most important aspects of pipeline, forecast, and deal integrity. Anything else in our deal strategy can change, but the Target Close Date must be kept as sacred!
Now before I get everyone piling on, saying I’m totally unrealistic, that I don’t recognize the realities of sales, or that the customer is the key determinant of the close and it’s out of control; give me a chance to explain my position.
There will always be good reason to change the target close date–but, that’s the point–there has to be good reason, any changes must be done thoughtfully and purposefully. But too often our problem is:
- We don’t set a target close date based on a compelling event/sense of urgency based on the customer’s needs to have a solution in place.
- We set unrealistic target close dates, with no commitment to meet them.
- As things “slip” in the sales/buying process, we have a day for day, week for week slip in the target close date.
Let me dive into these a little further:
We don’t set a target close date based on a compelling event: Most of the time sales people set a target close date based on when they want to close the deal, when they need the PO to make their number. The target close date must be established based on when the customer needs to have a solution in place and operational. Now there’s a lot in that sentence, let me break it down further.
We must understand what’s driving the customer to make a change and when they need to have a solution in place. Sometimes, it’s pretty easy, they have a looming new product launch, they have a new plant, they have a deadline for their customers–all these drive a sense of urgency and hard deadlines by which a customer must make a decision and have a solution in place. Sometimes there isn’t a hard deadline or an event we can leverage. In that case, we must help the customer establish a sense of urgency and a deadline by which they want to start achieving their desired goals. The only reason customers buy is to achieve a desired goal. It’s our job to understand this and to help them establish a timeline by which they must start achieving it. We can help the customer establish that timeline or sense of urgency by focusing on the consequences of not making a decision or changing. Are they losing sales? Are they losing productivity? Are they losing cost savings? Are they losing customers and share?
If the customer has deadline–real or self imposed–to start seeing results, then they have no deadline for making a decision. One might question if in this case the opportunity is really qualified.
So it’s critical that we and the customer are aligned around the business reasons and urgency for making a decision and having a solution in place.
Once we and the customer agree to the date they expect a solution to be in place, with the customer, we have to work backwards from that date: How long will it take to implement the solution, how long does it take to ship/install the solution components, what lead times (for instance if we have to build the product like a machine tool) do we have for being able to provide the solution? What is the contracting/procurement process like when they do agree on our decision, how long does that take? All these help us establish a date of when the customer needs to make a decision and provide a PO? We arrive at this collaboratively early in the selling/buying process. These set the cadence/schedule we and the customer must execute in order to meet their goals and objectives.
We set unrealistic target close dates: Sales people are always optimistic. Or they might be driven by pressure from sales management. So target close dates are set unrealistically close. They don’t align with the customer sense of urgency–but are driven by when we wish we could get the PO. In the process, we find the customer doesn’t have the same sense of urgency. Or we’ve been unrealistic about all the things that need to get done to meet the target close date–both those things we have to do, and those things the customer has to do (keeping in mind, they still have to do their day jobs.).
So we almost never meet those dates, and they slip and slip and slip……..
As things slip in the selling/buying process, we have a day for day, week for week slip in target close date: We and the customer establish a target close date with the best of intentions. We understand the deadlines, and sense of urgency. But over the course of time, things happen. Attention gets diverted, things take longer than we or the customer had planned. We lose a day here or a week there. Traditionally, we let the target close/decision date slip. This is particularly prevalent when the customer has no deadline or sense of urgency about having a solution in place.
So we slip the date, updating CRM. Then more stuff happens, more delays–all with good reason, and the date slips further. We re-adjust the target close date again. Managers, rightfully are getting upset. Is this deal real? Are we going to close it? Why is the slippage happening?
Think about it from the customer point of view. They may miss their deadline. I worked with a client that provided manufacturing equipment to Consumer Package Goods companies. In one situation, the project slipped so long, the customer didn’t have the manufacturing line in place in time, which caused them to miss orders for the Christmas season, which represented 80% of their customers’ expected revenue from that product line! Even absent an event driven deadline, every day or week the decision slips means the deferral or loss of business value.
So as activities slip in the selling/buying process, with the customer, we need to rethink the schedule–working backwards from the fixed target close date, adjusting the schedule so we get buying/selling activities complete in that new schedule. It should be an easy process to explain to the customer–it’s simply good project management discipline. Customers should be used to that from their own internal project management processes.
What Does This Mean? Well the most important thing about keeping the Target Close Date fixed is the customer starts achieving the outcomes they expect from the new solution when they need or expect them. So we create great value by enabling the customer to achieve their planned goals on schedule.
From our point of view, it drives far greater integrity in our pipelines, forecasts, and business results. The rest of the company can more effectively plan their work/activities to meet the deadlines we need for the customer. Inventory can be purchased and manufacturing time scheduled more easily and effectively. If we provide services, the availability of skilled resources is always critical, driving greater schedule integrity in our close dates enables the managers of those teams to plan more effectively. In short, it improves our own company’s ability to plan and execute more effectively and efficiently.
Sure things happen, stuff comes up. There are legitimate reasons to slip the Target Close Date. But we are far more impactful, effective, and efficient when we do this purposefully and thoughtfully. We and the customer should have exhausted all alternatives to keep the original date, achieving the goals and outcomes we’ve established. Only then, does it make sense to slip the date.
Look at your performance over the past year. What percent of your deals come in on time? What percent slip? What are you doing to drive integrity in this process–both for you and your customer?