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by David Brock on August 30th, 2010

Sales people are great at “reacting.”  The customer puts a hurdle in front of us, we know how to respond.  The competitor does something, we know what to do.  Our management asks us to do something, we immediately (well OK–almost immediately) jump on it.

Most sales people are proud of their nimbleness and speed in reacting, handling any challenge put to them.

I guess I have the problem with the “re” part of reacting.  If we are reacting, it means someone else is acting–demanding our response.  It means someone else is setting the rules, defining the playing field, possibly defining the outcome.  Reacting always diverts us, it sets us down a different path than the one we were originally on.  Reacting slows us down.

Somehow, that makes me uncomfortable, I want to be driving the strategy, I want to be setting the rules.  I’d much rather have competition be forced to react to what I’ve done than to be forced to respond to them.

How do we get out of reacting?  This is where that ugly four letter word–starting with P—comes in.  It’s the word no sales person likes, it just wastes time. 

To stop reacting, we have to develop a Plan, yes that’s it, a Plan.  In fact before we even act, we need to have a plan in place. 

When I start talking to sales people about planning–whether it is an opportunity plan, an account plan, a territory plan, or a sales call plan, there eyes roll back.  I know what they are thinking, “Here’s a guy that doesn’t understand the time pressure I’m under, he doesn’t understand how hard it is to get things done.  He doesn’t know how nimble I am, how I can handle anything that comes up.  He’s just going to slow me down!”

It gets worse, I ask them to write the plan down — they can barely suppress the groans.

Well, I’m sorry, I’m not very sympathetic.  I get it, I get the pressures everyone is under–I see it every day, I have similar pressures.  But if we want to control our destiny–if we want to manage sales opportunities to have the shortest sales cycles and highest probabilities of winning, if we want to make sure we are maximizing our impact in the territory or account, if we want to make best use of our time and the customer’s, we have to have a plan.

Planning is nothing more than a disciplined way of thinking about how you are going to achieve your goal.  It is simply the process of laying out exactly what you need to do to reach the endpoint as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Planning makes our actions purposeful, not random.  It gets us out of react mode — it causes others to have to react to us.  Good planning accommodates shifts in course.  The plan is living, not just something we do at the beginning of a sales opportunity, or once a year when we are asked for a territory or account plan.  We update our plans, based on changes that occur as we have executed them.  I guess if you are nit picking, you might call this a reaction, but in reality, it isn’t.  When we react, we simply respond to the action of a customer, competitor, or someone else.  In adjusting our plans, we take stock of where we are, what has changed, and what we must do to most effectively achieve our goals.  It is always forward looking and goal oriented.  It keeps us focused on being effective and efficient.

Are you acting purporsefully, with a plan; or are you reacting?  You will more likely get to your goals if you have a plan of how to do it and thoughtfully execute that plan.

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  1. We talk a lot about being proactive at our company rather then being reactive.
    Just like you say, letting someone else set the rules, the standards is dangerous. Being the one setting the rules and keeping everyone else one and two steps behind, that is the recipie for success.

    Making a plan is a great way to know that you are on track, having regular brain stormings to come up with new ideas, solutions and methods is another.

    But being one step ahead is very important.

  2. Anyone, including salespeople, who does not “plan” or prepare for normal situations and especially abnormal situations, is asking for embarrassment at best, and disaster at worst.

    All business situations should be “scripted”, that is, a salesperson should prepare for anything a prospect throws at him by researching and rehearsing in advance of the actual encounter with the prospect. “Winging it” can lead to lost opportunities. A salesperson should never have to say, “I don’t know the answer to that; I’ll get back to you”.

    I actually had a prospect say to me recently, after I said, “That question is out of my area of knowledge”: “If you are the point man for your company, calling prospects like me, you should have that knowledge”. I knew the conversation was over at that moment. I said, “Touche`; thank you for your time”, and quietly hung up the phone.

    The Boy Scouts have had the answer for a hundred years: “Be Prepared”.

    Mark Twain said, “If I had taken more time in preparing my extemporaneous remarks, I could have answered more succinctly”. (He didn’t actually say it this way, of course).

    In the past I trained my phone salespeople with a book of “canned” responses to questions. No winging it. A company should prepare its salespeople with a battery of acceptable responses to every question to avoid misunderstandings with prospects and possibly erroneous answers that could cause trouble.

    Being prepared is the real way to be proactive, not reactive.

    • Boy Scouts always have it right! Be Prepared (as well as trustworthy, brave, loyal, kind……) provides critical lessons for every business professional.

      I do have a small disagreement, I think it is unreasonable for the customer to assume you can answer everything immediately. Any customer responding the way they did to you had actually made up their mind not to buy and was using your response (or inability to respond as an excuse). Customers want and deserve good solid answers, we despite all our preparation may not have the answers and it is perfectly find to get back to the customer with a response when we have committed to deliver it. If you are really probing and engaging the customer in understanding their needs and goals, there will be many things they will not be able to answer and will have to get back to you. At the same time, things that you don’t know will come up and you will have to get back to them. That’s what conversations are about, real meaning and communications, not having pat answers.

      Any customer that expects the sales person to have the answer for everything at the tip of their tongues is setting them selve up to be lied to–I don’t know any customer that wants that.

      Thanks for joining the discussion.

  3. Robert Koehler permalink


    The goal in most any situation is to respond rather than react. Reacting is akin to the ball bouncing off a wall and coming right back at almost equal velocity. Responding is akin to catching the ball, perhaps holding it and throwing it back. Responding implies some level of pause, reflection and weighing of choices before acting.

    In sales this can be relevent in terms of carefully choosing where to invest our time so that we know what we will and will not respond to, being appropriate in responding to a customer and of course planning.

    I do a lot of account/opportunity planning with sales account teams. I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one getting groans. Though I continue to be surprised by a general lack of intentional sales behavior, I hear a lot of groans and see a lot of effort towards getting out of planning, finding shortcuts ahead of time (if the same effort was put into the planning from the get go….).

    Once in planning sessions, I find that most reps and teams appreciate the exercise and opportunity to take half a step back. After locking them in the room, shutting down the email, turning off the Blackberries and removing the laptops (sort of kidding…you get the picture) you start to get focus and they appreciate and realize the value of taking a half a step back. The reps and teams usually have to be led though because on their own without strong leadership it’s hard to see the forest through the trees.


    • Robert, as usual your insight has greater clarity than my post! You make so many great points:

      1. Having a strategy or plan enables us to be more directive when we respond (or even react). The plan gives us the context in which to think and reflect, takiing the course of action that gets us closer to our goal more effectively. Without having this context, our reactions are purely random and undirected. As a side illustration, right now I am consumed by the US Open. Watching these top players, you know they aren’t reacting–each time the return the ball, they have a plan in place—where they are going to place the ball, what kind of spin, what kind of speed. All calculated in a nanosecond as part of their strategy to win point-game-set-match. Those that abandon their plan and chase wildly after the ball, trying to get a racket on it will lose–maybe not the point, but certainly the match.
      2. Your concept of “intentional sales behavior” really resonates with me. I call it purposefulness or thoughtfulness. (I like your term and may borrow it). I’m always amazed by the sales people who claim they do not have the time to do things right–plan, be intentional, but they have all the time in the world to correct their mistakes, re-work, etc. There is plenty of data to prove it, planning reduces sales cycle time, improves win rates, improves average deal value, drives productivity. Selling without intention is just too difficult for me–I always opt for the easy way–the planned way.

      Thanks so much for your continued comments. They add real substance and depth!

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