Why managing sales inputs leads to sales disaster

‘Selling is a numbers game’ has been said more times than any of us care to remember. And yes, numbers are critical to sales; however, some organisations place far too much emphasis on managing the numbers, especially their obsession with their salespeople’s input activities – i.e. number for prospecting calls, client meetings, numbers in the pipeline, etc.

This “management by numbers” approach is flawed and leads to confusion, distress and worst, poor sales results over both the short and longer term. The approach fails to grasp that up to 80% of the activities of a sale are outside the control of the salesperson. Most of the inputs that lead to sales results are centred on conversations with people and the decisions they make based on their own priorities, which is filled with variables that cannot be tracked by focusing on numbers alone.

We are not suggesting that account planning, sales forecasting and pipeline management are invalid, they are critically important, however, focusing ONLY on the numbers, at the expense of coaching salespeople to be more effective at working with people (clients, prospects, stakeholders, internal support, etc.) as well as proactively managing the decision making process, will result in a flawed and less effective sales force.

For example, if a salesperson is managed against forecast accuracy with a benchmark of 100%, the natural reaction of the salesperson is to make the lowest forecast possible in order to meet the benchmark. Similarly, if the benchmark is “make 50 client calls per week” with consequences if salespeople don’t hit that target, where will the focus of the salesperson be, even if they are $2M behind target? Obviously on meeting the input call rate target.

This linear data-driven approach to selling limits people to being number watchers, obsessed with missing their input measures while failing to look at the bigger prize which is attracting more business and retaining viable clients.

If a salesperson can make five quality client calls a week and win business that meets or exceeds their sales targets because they understood their target market, knew the right people to call on in the value chain, positioned themselves effectively and delivered real value to both the client and the business, would it really matter that they did not make the 50 calls that week?

Knowing what you are doing up front only tells you half the story because it monitors what salespeople are doing, not HOW they are doing it.

From what we can see in a number of businesses here and overseas, there appears to be DATA addiction – tracking everything possible. But to what end, we ask? Just because you can track lots of activities now doesn’t mean you have to.

How much time do you think it takes your salespeople and sales managers to complete these input sales reports? A bloody long time is the answer! Where should your salespeople be? Out seeing their customers and working with people, finding out who the key decision-makers are, getting in front of them to have real quality conversations that can lead to results. Some client relationships and deals take many meetings but are worth pursuing, while some happen more quickly and are equally worth pursuing, and that’s the challenge.

Selling and buying is not a linear process. It is holistic, 3D, where both rational and emotional decisions swirl about and our salespeople are charged with navigating these waters for us. How do you track that? You can’t.

The obsessive focus on input numbers and input activities for the sake of activity measurement that can be logged into a CRM is holding sales teams hostage.

Selling and account planning should be people-focused not numbers-focused. Salespeople should be responsible for proactively managing the decision-making processes in an account; working out who are decision-makers, their profiles, their preferences, their priorities, how they contact prospects and how they position themselves effectively, etc. They should also be working out how to navigate their way to effective client relationships based on real exchange of value.

Sales managers would do well to coach their people around these capabilities, making sure their people are really performing at a quality standard rather than obsessing about the input activity, the numbers.

Just tracking numbers such as prospecting calls, clients visits, proposals/quotes presented does not automatically give you the desired output i.e. profitable sales results. It does not give you information about the growth of the market, competitive intensity, or fragmentation of segments and client trends. It just gives you numbers of activities with no context.

In conclusion

Selling is a ‘doing’ job for sure, but it is a ‘thinking’ job as well that should focus on quality not just quantity. While we know salespeople have to do these sales activities, we suggest you will get better sales results if you coach your salespeople around the quality of what they are doing and how they are thinking and then monitor the output of these actions to get real fix on results.

Remember, everybody lives by selling something.

Sue Barrett is a sales expert, business speaker, adviser, sales facilitator and entrepreneur and founded Barrett Consulting to provide expert sales consulting, sales training, sales coaching and assessments.

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