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Use Smart Planning

When you have a strong sales team in place, getting everyone on the same page becomes paramount. Most salespeople and their managers are well versed in the goal-setting process, so the following ideas may be a way to refine what you do, especially when you are involved with a more complex project or something out of the ordinary.


I did some work with a group that specialized in software for a certain industry. Their goal was to deliver bug-free software to their customers. When I asked how they defined a bug, they spent at least fifteen minutes debating it. Some people argued that it was a malfunction in the programming, which is what I think most people would say is a bug. Some said the malfunction could be due to a misinterpretation of the client's requirements. Others said it could mean that the documentation for the software was incorrect, misleading, or difficult to follow. What the customers wanted was software that worked right the first time and every time. They probably also wanted it to be easy to use and consistent. So if you widen the scope of the idea of a "bug," you could see how it might look from the customer's point of view.

Regardless of what anyone said, it was clear that there was no commonly agreed-to definition of what a bug was—and if they weren't sure what a bug was, how could they be sure that they were delivering bug-free software?

What seemed self-evident to everyone became uncertain as the discussion progressed. That was actually good because it gave them a chance to reexamine this goal to make sure they knew what it really meant, not just to them but also to their customers.

All too often, the problem with goals is that people think they know what they are supposed to achieve, but their objectives are not specific enough. When asked to describe what result they really are expected to achieve, it becomes apparent that it is ambiguous.

I use an example in some of my workshops where I offer to paint the inside of someone's home. Usually, someone will accept my offer. The person will be interested until I describe how I will paint the interior of their home. They almost always say, "No thanks." What started out to be a simple goal, painting the inside of their home, turns out to be something very different from what they envisioned. The problem is that the goal wasn't specific enough to begin with.

There are two ways to measure success in reaching goals: objectively or subjectively. When you set sales goals, you typically set them based on objective measurements: number of units or revenue, for example. You may also look at objectives for retaining customers or obtaining new customers or certain types of new customers. Counting the number of units tallies objective measurements.

Subjective measurements are a matter of opinion. One of the most important subjective measurements for salespeople is customer satisfaction. Whether the customers are happy about the service they are getting is a matter of individual perception—completely subjective. We run into subjective measurements every day. Someone will say, "On a scale from one to ten, where ten is greatest or best, where would you say you are right now?" Or customers are asked to indicate whether they are highly satisfied, satisfied, neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, dissatisfied, or highly dissatisfied.

Some people prefer to deal in hard numbers, but keep in mind that important decisions that customers make are based on their subjective opinions. They like something or they don't like it. Understanding their opinions becomes crucial to providing the solutions they want in the way they want them and retaining them as customers. To have a balanced picture of your success, look at both objective and subjective measurements of success.

"Stretch" Objectives

I have a quick exercise I ask people to do in my workshops when we talk about setting objectives. The exercise involves stretching beyond where they thought they could stretch. In asking tens of thousands of people to do this exercise, I have rarely found someone who couldn't do a bit more than what they thought they could do. The point with the exercise is that we sometimes place constraints on ourselves that aren't there and that when we think creatively about what we have to do we can find ways to accomplish ten times as much. When we work with others together as a team, there is just about nothing that we can't accomplish given the resources.

If you find yourself too often in a crisis mode trying to meet deadlines, the following discussion is one of the most useful ways of getting out of that way of working. There are three types of time frames inherent in meeting deadlines. The first type is the most common: the deadline, when the objective or project is scheduled to be met or completed. The second type of time frame is the milestones, the intermediate dates that must be met if the deadline is going to be met. The third type of time frame is the start date. The problem with focusing on the due date is that it is far into the future. Today, if I am fighting the crisis of the day, I say to myself, "I know that project is due, but it's not due until next month. I'll start it tomorrow." Of course, when tomorrow rolls around, what happens? I have another crisis. When do I actually start that project? When it's due, because now it's a crisis. What should you do instead? Focus on the start date, when the project or task must be started if it is going to be finished on time. What does that change in focus do? It gives the start date a sense of urgency that helps it compete with the crises and interruptions. They are urgent, but will not necessarily contribute value.

It's beneficial to focus on the start date and milestones. When someone starts to distract you away from the project you are working on, you can explain that you have a deadline to meet, and it's true. You know that if you don't meet the immediate deadline you won't meet the final one. People will usually accept this explanation. This helps you control interruptions and get work done on time.

Quantity answers the question "How much?" or "How many?" This is typically the easiest part to specify. Quality answers the question "How well?" This is often the most difficult part to specify, but it is the most important because it usually makes the biggest impression on the customer, who defines quality. You don't want to be surprised. If you are ever given a choice about delivering a result on time but of questionable quality versus delivering something late of unquestionable quality, opt for delivering the quality product that meets expectations. Earl Nightingale said that people remember the quality of what we deliver long after they've forgotten when we delivered it. Without a doubt, it's best to meet a schedule, but if you can't meet a schedule, keep the customer informed.

The most difficult part of specifying a goal is describing what you want when the job is done. I was working on a project one time and got to a point where I needed direction from the person who had asked me to do the project, something more specific about what he was looking for. I said, "I'm not sure what you're looking for." He said, "I'm not sure either, but I'll know it when I see it." That meant I was going to have to waste a lot of time spinning my wheels to come up with a variety of approaches until he saw one he liked.

Time specifies when the objective must be met. Again, time is usually not a major issue, except as it relates to procrastination.

Have a Plan

Some people are reluctant to plan because circumstances can change so quickly, potentially making well-laid plans obsolete. The problem is that you don't have the time not to plan. You don't have the luxury of wasting time, and that is what you end up doing if you don't plan. A sales professional who goes into a customer meeting without careful planning is going to waste time and opportunity. The sales professional needs at least a clear objective and an agenda for the meeting. He or she also needs to do homework to find out as much as possible ahead of time about the customer, the company, and its preferred ways of working. The sales professional also needs to be prepared to ask or answer questions or to make a convincing presentation.

For example, planning could include doing something as straightforward as making a sales call on the telephone. Do you have an objective for the call? How long do you expect the call to take? How will you proceed with the call? Make sure it is as short as possible while covering everything you need to cover.

Once you hang up, if you've forgotten an important point you wanted to cover, you know how difficult it can be to get the person back on the phone again or how time consuming voice mail is.

One sales manager complained to me about some salespeople who worked for him and didn't plan the rambling messages they left for him. He said he once thought a message was over and started to hang up when he heard, "Oh, by the way . . ." but it was too late. The manager had already hung up. He would have preferred the salespeople to start the call by saying, "I have three things I need to cover," and then go through them quickly.

Many of the salespeople comment after they complete one of my workshops that they realize the importance of planning. It's easy to understand. Salespeople tend to be action oriented, to want to get started and get things done. So when I do a workshop that shows the benefits of planning, from the perspective of being better able to quickly win customers' trust and identify their concerns, they see the payoff in precall planning and other planning activities.

When I have worked with people on developing plans, most of the time they think of their experience with corporate plans—long, involved, and not used. A plan can be as uncomplicated as you would like and can be done on a page. When Jack Welch was an up-and-coming CEO at GE, he said he resented the long plans he had been asked to put together because he didn't think they had value. When he became CEO, he changed the way the divisional plans were presented so that the key elements could be shown on a single page.

The easiest way to think of planning is to think of it as answering the question "How?" Goals and objectives answer the question "What?" What is it you want to achieve? Purpose answers the question "Why?" Why are we doing this? Why are we in business? Why are we having this meeting?

Of these three questions, "Why?" is the most important. People want to understand why they are doing something. If they are only told what to do, they feel there is something missing. When people are not told why they are doing something, they can feel as if they are there to do and not to think. If people have a good enough reason, a compelling "why" to do something, they will figure out the how.

Planning addresses the how. How will we achieve our goals? How will we complete this project on time and with the quality that it is supposed to have? How will we know that we have been successful?

Planning is filling in the steps between where you are and where you want to go. It breaks down the process into a series of steps. In project management we call this a work breakdown structure. You might have heard or worked with GANTT charts. GANTT charts show the steps in a project and the timelines for meeting each of them. They are a much easier way to present a schedule than the standard list of tasks and dates. A sample GANTT chart is shown in figure 8.


Figure 8:  GANTT Chart

One of the key things I've learned from working on projects is that not only do you have to back up from the implementation or completion date if you're going to meet customer deadlines, you must communicate with customers about how important it is for them to make timely decisions if you're going to be able to meet their time requirements.

I worked with a client on a customized program for a national sales meeting. The program was scheduled over four months from the time when we first spoke, but by the time they evaluated the proposal, made a decision to go ahead, signed the agreement, and sent the deposit, there was barely a month left for development. We were still able to develop the program content as agreed, but it was too close.

The realization from working with this client was the need in general to inform clients about the timeline and dependencies for meeting their requirements. They probably felt they had plenty of time in which to make a decision, and I didn't think at first that it was going to take so long for them to make it. In the future, on a longer-lead project such as this one I will communicate with the client about what needs to be done by when so they have a clear sense of what we need to do to move ahead and meet their requirements in a quality way. A simple timeline that shows key decision points, starting from the implementation date and working back, is a good way to communicate this. It can be a GANTT chart for more complex projects, or just a single timeline for less involved ones. Either will work.

Some of the main elements that a plan should include are shown in the planning template on the next page.

Ten Reasons People Don't Achieve Their Goals

  • Unclear goals: You can't do what you can't describe.

  • Too many goals at one time: This makes it difficult to concentrate on one long enough to get it done.

  • A lack of priorities: Time is wasted on less important goals first.

  • Conflicting goals: Working on one goal creates problems for another (for example, quantity versus quality).

  • A lack of resources: You don't have enough time, money, people, equipment, or training.

  • A lack of specific action plans: This is design without implementation.

  • A lack of belief in the goal or the ability to achieve it: Failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • A lack of focus: This can cause jumping from one goal to another.

  • A lack of follow-through: Some people start well but give up too soon.

  • Missing accountability: No consequences exist when people do not follow through.

Are any of these obstacles getting in your way? If so, which are most troublesome?

Remember to keep your written goals visible. Out of sight, out of mind.

Set Your Sights High

If you are going to set your sights, why not set them high? If you get what you set your sights on, why not get what you want? If you set them high and don't get what you want, you may be disappointed. But better to be disappointed than to miss an opportunity that you may never have again.

Follow the lead of the people who are leaders higher in the organization and who model the type of behavior you would like to develop—the type of behavior that gets things done through effective communication and relationships. Watch what they get involved with and how they achieve their goals. Emulate their way of working and then adapt it so that it works best for you.

The Next Level

What is your plan for taking your business, your sales, your products or services, and your knowledge and skills to the next level? What is the next level for you? This is a question every sales leader must answer. Growth takes planning. Sustainable growth takes planning for several steps.

When you start to think about what that next level might look like, consider the following:

  • The greatest challenge facing you in sales

  • The most significant change you can anticipate

  • An area in which you could make a quantum improvement

From Mystery to Mastery

If you tend not to move ahead to do something because you aren't sure what to do, it's easy to procrastinate. Instead, remove the mystery. Learn what you need to learn or do what you need to do so that the mystery is gone. When scientists set out to find a cure for a disease, they don't know exactly what they have to do, so they may try many approaches in order to learn what works and what doesn't. As they narrow their search, they learn in depth about a particular strategy. Answers become clear only through action.

When you don't know something, it has an element of mystery about it. If you remove the mystery, your knowledge increases, and with that your confidence. When your confidence increases you will be more likely to move ahead. When you move ahead, you gain invaluable experience, further increasing your knowledge and mastery, further increasing your confidence. When you master a subject or a skill, you know it extremely well. Become a master of your craft.

" If you want to accomplish twice as much as your competition, you must work twice as hard."

—Wayne Huizenga, chairman of Republic Industries, Inc., former chairman of Blockbuster Entertainment, and cofounder of Waste Management Inc.

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