The Bitter Truth About Plans and the Remarkable Value of Planning

Arguments for and against sales planning and creation of sales plans to improve sales pipeline management and forecasting.

Sales Planning and Sales Pipeline Management

Sales pipeline management is another term for sales planning. I have heard many salespeople protest that planning doesn't work. Here are some of the arguments put forward.

Plans are useless. Events never unfold according to the plan so all the work that goes into it is wasted.

If you write down what you plan to do, those who oppose you can use it against you. It’s better to keep it all in your head and only tell people what they need to know.

If you put your best thoughts on paper, someone, somewhere in the process could use your ideas for their own ends or sell your plans to competitors. The fewer people who know the plan, the less likely it will become known to competitors.

When things go wrong, people look for someone to blame. It’s human nature. If you write down what is supposed to happen and things go badly, you get the blame.

After all, it’s what a person can do as an individual that makes him or her valuable to an organisation. If you write it down, anyone can do it.

It takes too long to write everything down and even if you do, noone pays any attention to what you write. Too many other more urgent things have to be done first. There is never enough time to plan properly and a poor plan is worse than no plan at all.

Many plans are full of meaningless padding. Effective plans must deal with the unknowable and therefore presume the unknown. Incorrect assumptions are at the root of most failures so plans can cause failure. John Preston wrote, ‘The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise and is not preceded by a period of worry and depression.’

You might have caught yourself using some of these arguments or excuses for failing to plan. Some of them certainly have value. Plans should answer the difficult questions. Here are some that sales plans should answer.

  1. How many opportunities are necessary to achieve the target? This is a relatively easy question to answer. Do you know the answer for your circumstances? If you are managing salespeople, take a walk around the office or make a few calls and ask the question.
  2. For each perceived opportunity, what is the evidence that the customer will buy anything? Seventy three percent of all apparent opportunities do not result in a purchase from anybody. Almost half of these feature on someone’s sales forecast.
  3. If it is going to happen, do we have a realistic chance of winning? Some salespeople say that they have an instinct for deals they can win. Others work of long shots because they have nothing else in their pipeline. It is a difficult question. To answer it, a salesperson must understand how the customer will decide. He or she must also be able to find out what alternatives are being considered, what the key decision influencers think about the alternatives, and which supplier they favour.
  4. If it is going to happen and we can win it, do we want to? Some sales are more trouble than they are worth. Answering this question involves understanding the amount of resources and time necessary to win, the amount the customer is willing to pay, and the customer’s ability to make good use of what is sold.
  5. How much business will a territory or account produce naturally, if we keep doing what we have been doing? If a salesperson, manager, or director is to achieve any specific target, answering this question reveals the scale of the challenge. Determining the gap between what will probably happen naturally and the desired outcome prompts thought, planning and action to bridge the gap.

Forethought, planning, preparation are necessary only when the answers are unknown, or even considered unknowable. Eisenhower said, ‘in preparing for battle, I have found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable. Gary player put it better when a spectator exclaimed how lucky his shot out of the sand trap had been. His ball had finished 18 inches from the pin (where I play golf, we still talk in yards, feet and inches). On hearing the spectator, Gary said, “I guess you are right, but you know, it’s a funny thing. The more I practice the better I become, and the better I become, the luckier I get.”

If I where to ask Gary what warrants the most practice, I’ll hazard a guess that he would say, “putting”. He might go on to explain that most people use a putter at least twice on every hole. Dragging myself away from discussing golf and getting back to the point, without forethought and planning, how can we know what to practice?

Article by Clive Miller


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