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by David Brock on July 8th, 2014

Surprise!!!  It may be fun for a birthday party, but it’s never fun in sales.  It means that somehow our carefully thought out approach has suddenly been thrown into disarray.  The great progress we thought we were making has suddenly been washed away.  We may have to go back to the drawing board, start all over.  In the least we have to regroup and rethink our strategies.

Surprises are a part of life in sales, our ability to manage, deal with, and recover from surprises is what separates top performers from everyone else.

What can we do to avoid or minimize surprises?

The simple answer is, “have a plan.”  But it’s not so simple, really the plan has to be developed collaboratively with the customer.  We have to understand the customer buying process, we have to align our sales process with what the customer is doing, we have to continually engage the customer to make sure we are moving forward together.  Ideally, if we are facilitating the customer buying process, we help drive the direction.

All of this helps to minimize the chance that surprises may occur.  But there are some important things in the previous statements that we sometimes overlook or discount.  Both we and our customer have to have a process!  If we don’t it becomes a random journey—neither of us know where we are going, nor if we’ll ever get to the end goal.  It’s not unusual for the customer not to have a buying process, unless they are buying the stuff we sell every day.  So we create a lot of value in helping the customer establish a buying process.  As to our sales process—it’s simply foolishness not to have a sales process.  I’ll stop with that statement, I’ve written enough about this in other posts.

One of the things every good plan has is contingencies.  Basically, it’s thinking, “What do we do if this happens?  Or that?”  For example, we might help the customer think about, “What do we do if management doesn’t provide the funding we need to implement the solution?”  Basically, we want to think about the things that could derail what we and the customer are trying to achieve, developing strategies for dealing with them, should they occur.  It’s probably not reasonable to think of every possible thing that could come up, but at least sit down with your customer or your own team and think of the 3-4 things that you are most worried about.  Maybe, in a very complex or long cycle, you can only see a few steps ahead, but the Boy Scouts have it right when they say, “Be Prepared.”

In spite of all our best planning, anticipation, development of contingencies, surprises will happen.  Our sales processes provide a framework for us to analyze and assess the situation.  How do we best respond?  Where have we experienced this before?  What’s different, how do we adapt?

Our processes may not cover everything, this is where the underlying principles and values of the company come into play.  They provide us a framework for assessing and analyzing things that just don’t fit anything we’ve done before.  How do we hold the customer?  What’s the right thing to do based on our company operating principles and values?

“Murphy” was very wise, surprises will happen.  The issue is not the surprise, but how we manage and respond to it.  Having solid plans, based on our processes, principles, and values provide the frameworks for being able to achieve the outcomes we desire.

Without a framework for dealing with surprises, you might as well flip a coin.

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  1. Mark B permalink

    As a former Boy Scout, the organization instills within you the motto “Be Prepared”. As I have grown up, their motto rings truer every year.

    • Mark, it does for me as well! Also, trustworthy, brave, kind…… also seems applicable in sales, business, life. Thanks for the comment. Regards, Dave

  2. Brian MacIver (@Palayo) permalink

    What if………….? Is a great Sales Question.
    Thoughtful Blog, Dave, Thanks.

  3. John Sterrett permalink

    Good insights. Every organization should develop a culture that is able to handle the ‘gotchas’ that will surprise you, and perform the appropriate service recovery, or enact the proper contingency plan. Of course you cannot ‘be prepared’ for everything, but you need to stay on top of your key accounts, the ones that will hugely impact your bottom line if they go away or halve their production from one week to the next.

    But I would like to comment that not every SURPRISE is a negative one, and we also need to be able to respond to surprise opportunities in a positive way, even when they present themselves in a way that does not jive with our ‘standard procedures’.
    In February, we were approached by a company we never knew existed, who plays in one of our major markets. They needed help, and NOW. Our standard service model was not close to adequate, so we threw out the rule book, stopped the presses, and jumped through hoops. We had to take their word that the opportunity was viable, as we had no history with them.
    Long story short, we were able to lock out the competition, provide a solution and save the day. This customer will do over $400K with us this year, with great growth potential down the road. Credit to our Operations and Management teams for taking risks and operating outside our comfort zone.

    • John: Great point, not every surprise is a bad one. The problem is, without the fundamental abilities to deal with surprises–good or bad, we may be blind to a lot of opportunity or incapable of dealing with it appropriately. Those who have strong plans/processes, with strong underlying values/principles are those that are best prepared to deal with surprise, positive or negative.

      Those that don’t, probably will not even recognize what may be happening or what they may be missing.

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