The leaves are turning beautiful shades of red and gold (well, not here in Florida, where the leaves just turn brown and it doesn’t happen until February), so it must be the time of year when thoughts turn to annual sales planning, to making next year markedly better than this year.
(Oh, the leaves don’t make you think about planning? If they trigger thoughts about turkey, click here. If they spark thoughts about skiing, look here. If the leaves prompt thoughts of romance, you must be confusing fall with spring.)
I thought I’d approach the topic of annual sales planning by offering my favorite all-time quotations about planning. Which ones speak loudest to you?
Think before you act.
No fable, this! Planning isn’t just about thinking, but it surely is about thinking first. Acting without thinking is the very opposite of planning. There are times in life when we need to respond rapidly, and in those situations, we rely on our instincts as modified over the years by our experience. But when we have the opportunity to think, to plan, it is irresponsible not to take it—and take it seriously. Perhaps that’s why a pundit coined the famous line Failing to plan is planning to fail. Consider that your bonus sixth quotation!
Informed thinking beats uninformed thinking 10 times out of 10. So prepare for planning by gathering data. In this day and age, you have the possibility of swimming in data! The more you use a consistent sales process, with documentation and handoffs, the more data you have. That data allows you to spot where along the process you’re underperforming, pointing directly to the step(s) where you need to devote the majority of your thinking and planning. In a lone-wolf sales model, you still have data that can help you find weaknesses and rectify them: Which salespeople are consistently under or over budget (both could be issues requiring attention)? Which salespeople have trouble retaining business from quarter to quarter or year to year?
"I will behave as if what I do makes a difference."
Lady Luck visits only now and then, bringing great favor or disappointing loss. If you find she’s visiting you—or one of your people—regularly, that’s not luck. Generally, we reap what we sow; our actions yesterday determined our outcomes today. If you want to enjoy better outcomes tomorrow, believe that what you do today makes a difference.
James’ valuable advice doesn’t mean that we have total control over what happens. Of course, there are external factors. But most of them, such as a booming or flagging economy or rising or falling demand in our sector, affect our colleagues and competitors in much the same way they affect us. No one ends up with a year in which they perfectly matched the performance of the macro-economy or the local market or the competitive set. We finish above or we finish below, and those who finish above are those who believe that the actions they take play a big part in their outcomes. The biggest factor? Look in the mirror.
"Planning is about bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now."
This is the essence of planning. The future may not start arriving until January, but it’s being baked right now. Planning is determining where you want to end up, and then creating the path that will get you there. That route won’t get you to your destination unless it includes every turn and every stop. It isn’t planning unless it includes all the actions you must take and the date by which you must take them.
But just writing those action steps into an annual sales plan you hand your boss or file away on your server won’t do it. Those steps must be entered into whatever system guides your life every day; for most, that means their calendar or perhaps their CRM software. On what date must each step be initiated? By what date must it be completed? I sure couldn’t remember all those actions and all those dates without putting them on my calendar; can you?
"The best way to predict the future is to create it."
For many organizations, the annual sales planning process is less about those action steps and more about putting numbers on a spreadsheet—making predictions and projections. In some sales organizations, management likes to keep those numbers low, so they can beat them; in others, they keep them high, I guess to kick the can of accountability a little further down the road. But sending the numbers up the organization, no matter how carefully they were determined, is not planning.
By focusing so much on the numbers and so little on what has to happen in order for the numbers to be achieved, those organizations do themselves and their people a great disservice. The late Peter Drucker was able to put the loftiest concept into the simplest English. The challenge before us is not to predict where the year will end (though that’s important, too), but to create that outcome.
What on earth did Ike mean by that? Astute planning, driven by good information, prepares the person to deal with the inevitable changes in circumstances that require a change in plans. The planning process makes the person smarter and more aware, and it gives her a baseline set of definitions, assumptions, and expectations that allow her even to know that circumstances have changed in a significant way. Absent the planning, the changes underfoot might go unnoticed and unheeded.
Another military leader noted a century before Eisenhower that no battle plan ever survives the first engagement with the enemy. Reality bites your plan. It starts becoming out of date the day after you write it. So don’t expect to implement all the steps you determined exactly when you thought you would. Use that planning thinking to change the plan: Keep tweaking those entries on your calendar; add, delete, move, modify, so the plan remains viable and valuable.
Here’s to making your 2015 your best year ever!