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Wishful Thinking

by David Brock on May 3rd, 2016

Over the past weeks, I’ve been participating in a number of quarterly reviews–sales people presenting to their managers, regional vice presidents reporting to the CSO, EVP’s and GM’s presenting to the CEO.  A part of each of these reviews is the outlook for this quarter and the rest of the year.  Most are OK, maybe not great, but you can see a way for them to get to the goals they are trying to achieve.  But every once in a while, there are some beautiful works of science fiction or wishful thinking.

It’s usually from a person who has badly missed the past quarter’s goals.  They don’t linger on that performance–it’s too uncomfortable.  Instead, they talk about a glowing outlook—“Don’t worry, we’re going to blow away our numbers!  Q1 was just the warm up.”

The statement is usually backed up by a PowerPoint deck.  Now here’s where I see divergent strategies for convincing us they will make their number.  Some have 257 slides, each in fonts from 9-14, all filled with data.  I think the approach is to so confuse us with data and analysis (usually proving math works), that we just throw in the towel and say “Stop!”  Others are minimalists.  A few inspiring pictures, poignant words, or stick figures with arrows.  Not a lot of content, but a lot of hand waving, saying they have it under control. (I’ve noticed, the more they wave their hands, the more they are making it up.)

Usually, I start getting impatient in the pipeline review.  I usually ask something uncomfortable, like, “Your current pipeline is only 20% of what you need to make your numbers.  What are you doing to fix that?”

Flustered, the presenter usually starts waving his arms a lot, “Don’t worry, everything in this pipeline is a done deal, I’m certain we’ll get it all!”  But then I respond, “But last quarter/year/etc your win rate was only 23%, so if I take 23% of your current pipeline, you’ll only make 20% of the goal you committed to.”

The presenter usually sighs at this point, “But you don’t understand, we’ve got that all fixed, we have enough deals to make our number!  We’re going to close them.”  So, I ask, “OK, what are you doing to improve your close rate?  What’s changed to improve your outlook?”  More heavy sighs, some hand wringing, sometimes a I can see, “But you’re just a consultant, you don’t know my business,” in their eyes.

So I shift my questioning, “What prospecting and demand gen programs are you conducting to find more opportunities?”  The presenter perks up, seeing a little out.  He responds, “We’ve got some great programs going.  We’re sure to find enough opportunities to make our number.”  Or, “Marketing’s got that covered, we’re counting on them to deliver the leads!”   So I ask, “So what are some of the programs?” The response is, “We’ve got a bunch going on.”  And I ask, “Can we review some of them?”

Usually, at this time, there’s some squirming around the room, it creates an excuse for a short break, then we reconvene.

The presenter then says, “We’ve got some email marketing programs, and a trade show.”  I ask, “How have these performed in the past?”  The presenter says, “Don’t worry, our programs are great, I’m certain we’ll get 100% opens and click throughs……”

I’ll stop here, you get the idea–too many of these go through a death spiral and the review ends in a whimper.

Too often, I think people believe if they have all the right numbers on the presentation, it will happen.  What they forget to consider is, “What are the things you are going to do to make them happen?”

Sometimes, the presenter gets this far, but the things they are going to do, don’t match their past execution of similar things.  If your trailing 12 month win rate was 23%, why am I to believe your win rate in the next quarter will be 45%?  If your average win in the trailing 12 months was $12K, why am I to believe that your average win is now going to shift to $125K?  If your demand gen programs generate only 10% qualified opportunities, why am I to believe your new one’s will be double that?

You may very well be able to do any of these things, but tell me what you are changing from your past performance, and what you are doing to make those things happen.

None of this stuff happens because of our willpower, our conviction, our passion, or our commitment to make the numbers.  It happens because we have a plan that has a great chance to achieve these outcomes, and we are executing that plan.

The plan has to be reality based.  It has to acknowledge the challenges we’ve had in the past and address what we are changing to produce the desired outcomes.  If we are claiming we are going to increase our win rates, we’ve got to focus on what we are doing differently to improve the win rate, why we believe we can be successful, the risks we will face, how we will deal with them.  If we are going to get more out of our prospecting programs, we have to address what we’re changing and why we believe we will be more successful.

If we are to improve and achieve our goals, we have to face reality.  We have to understand and analyze our past performance—what’s worked/why, what’s not worked/why.  We have to look at what we are doing differently, we have to test the ideas, we have to assess why they will be more successful, what the risks are, how we will address them.

Wishful thinking never gets us where we need to be.  Facing the facts, doing our homework, being pragmatic and realistic is critical to our success.

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  1. Bang on the money. The bottom 80% of salespeople are likely to hate this article which is why every sales manager should read it. Managers who aren’t asking these questions are not managing; they’re rescuing, listening with happy ears and using hope as their main strategy.

    You can only control behaviour and this article points you in the right direction by focussing your mind on the changes in behaviour that are leading indicators.

    Loved it. Thanks

  2. As Blackadder would say, “Baldrick, I have a cunning plan”

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