“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
– Admiral James Stockdale
As we pondered what many sales managers are going through in the waning days of 2020, it occurred to us that this quote, uttered by Stockdale during the most challenging days of the Vietnam conflict, had some relevance.
The quote continues: “The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart….”
As we find ourselves at the doorstep of the holiday season, we can’t help but ponder what’s to come in 2021. We all want to know if we will get through the pandemic, and all it has wrought; whether an effective vaccine will allow us to resume a more “normal” course of business, and, most importantly, whether the sales numbers our company is projecting for 2021 are being viewed through the lenses of reality, or rose-colored glasses.
Figuring out how to hit next year’s target numbers, therefore, must start with a reality check that even Admiral Stockdale would endorse: We must first land on a number that reflects where the sales landscape stands today, since so much of tomorrow is yet to be determined.
So, as a sales leader, how do you negotiate this number? And how do you build a related action plan for your target accounts that helps you set forth on the right path for 2021?
Here is some advice that we think can be helpful to you in your planning process:
- Broaden Your Net: When seeking input for your reality-based planning, seek out the counsel of other groups, both internally and outside of your organization. Talk to channel partners, distributors, and suppliers to find out what they are seeing; talk to other department heads; and talk to others who may have access to more sophisticated data analytics than you do. Look in the most unexpected places: I can recall a situation with a previous company where, during our annual planning exercise, I stumbled into a conversation with someone in purchasing. They listened to my conundrum and offered that they had developed an entire model to predict demand. It turned out to be exactly what the sales group needed to develop its plan; when we asked why they never shared it previously with the sales management, this individual said, “No one ever asked us!”
- Don’t Confuse Goals with Strategies: Like an airplane, we, too, often have a fixed mission – to get from point A to point B. If that is our goal, we could say that the strategy is the route we choose to complete the journey. So in formulating your strategy, you need to take a similar tact – is your journey calibrated to get you to that goal? Are we doing the right things? One of the things we’ve observed in talking to sales managers is that they are planning on a larger percentage of 2021 revenue to come from existing customers than from new customers, because of the difficulties in conducting usual business development activities. That’s a relevant strategy – but now is the time to consider whether your team is appropriately skilled and prepared for such a strategic shift. There can be significant differences between farmers and hunters; the same can be said for sales pros who rely on landing big new game each year and are less focused on tending their existing fields.
- Fix Something – Today: It seems simplistic, but many sales leaders, in an effort to bite off a large chunk, ignore the low-hanging fruit. Take the list of things that your sales pros often complain about and select one item – right now – to fix. As an example, I once worked with a large company that bounced one of my expense reports because I had exceeded the cap of the dinner policy by $2. That $2 overage caused the report to be routed from accounting, to the controller, then to my boss. So many distractions for just $2! It turned out that on this day, the division president came to visit us. He was sitting in my boss’s office and asked what he could do to help. My boss flipped the expense report at him and just said, “Help me not have to deal with this kind of stuff.” The president picked up the report, approached the comptroller, and told him to use common sense in the future. You likely have some simple things like this which may not be huge fixes, but they loom large in the minds of your people. Eliminating such bureaucracy can go a long way to helping get the most out of your sales professionals in a bid for fiscal superiority.
- Build Your Plan Around Your Customers: Now, it is more important than ever to understand what your customers need to be successful, and how well-positioned your company and its offerings are to meet those needs. By better aligning with our customers’ success, you will find it easier to push upstream.
At the end of the day, your corporate leadership is simply looking for predictability in a time where such prognostication is difficult. But, if you can agree on a realistic sales goal, and the plan you will implement to get there, you will likely find a place to land that will reflect the needs of today, with the desires of tomorrow.