Managing the Sprint to the Finish

Even with solid sales planning, sometimes hitting your company’s quarterly sales quota can be a sprint to the finish. Navigate through these urgent times in a way that not only brings in revenue today, but paves a smoother road for the future, too.

Every sales leader has had a conversation with senior management that goes something like this:

“Of course I have a plan to bring in the last 10% of revenue. Show it to you? Ah, sure! Can I have a few minutes to get prepared?”

“Get prepared” here tends to mean “pull a plan together.” Scrambling and panic ensue, and not-so-well-thought-out plans are produced.

Bottom line results rule in sales, but the subtext honored by the wise is that the journey is as important as the destination.

A sprint to the finish taxes the entire organization in unhealthy ways. Sales’ demands of accounting and admin spike as they hurry to push orders through the system. Procurement, production, and shipping are stressed to max capacity to fulfill those orders, and customer service braces for the aftermath.

Some classic ­— and bad — strategies to deal with a sales sprint to the finish are…

  • Discounting to incent immediate purchase. This kills margin and puts your business at risk. Business won on price will ultimately be lost on price
  • Asking good customers to accept “beefed-up” orders. This results in excess inventory to be managed, and credits follow. Not good.
  • Asking good customers to place regular orders early as a “favor.” See the previous item to learn why this is risky. Also, aren’t we the ones who should be doling out favors, not our buyers?

Managing the sprint to the finish requires forethought. Healthy ways to handle the sprint to the finish are…

  • Take the pressure off your team to produce rosy 30-day sales forecasts. Allow them to get real. Get a true picture of your funnel by asking to see only business with a 90%+ chance of closing within the month. This one action will identify much of what is working or not in your sales process overall.
  • Measure sales results against quota as frequently as is prudent. Track transactional sales results daily. Track key account sales weekly. Compare actual results to the 30-day forecast. Linking these will make both better.
  • Share the results. Let everyone know how they and their colleagues are doing. Done appropriately this builds a culture of achievement. It also promotes observance of trends, which will supplant waiting for alarms to sound.
  • Act early. Create strategies to address projected shortfalls by increasing sales velocity where it can be done. Implement immediately.
  • Meet often to check on tactical implementation. How is the sales situation unfolding? Poor implementation of good sales plans is a classic pitfall that can easily be avoided.
  • Set your marketing calendar appropriately. Marketing pushes at quarter end promote a sprint to the finish. Customers also get trained to curtail purchasing until the end of the quarter since that is when the deals hit.

Even with great planning and execution you may still be in a sprint to the finish. A good place to look for stray revenue is in your reps’ pending order files. Are there orders there waiting to get entered? Get them processed.

And what about your customers’ pending order files? Call your online or phone-in orderers to ensure they get the on-time service they, and you, require.

How about your shipping room? Are there any backorders or “on hold” orders that can be unstuck and shipped?

When all these avenues are exhausted take the remaining revenue shortfall and spread it among all your reps. Give each person a small hill to climb rather than having a few folks scale a mountain.

In the short term, leading your team like this will provide a good chance of hitting quota. For the long term, you will identify the root causes of your sprint to the finish cycle and create strategies to avoid it in future.

Telling Isn’t Selling

Knowing your product catalogue verbatim is not enough to make you a top producer. Knowing the buyer pains your products resolve and the gains they facilitate will get you there. This is needs-based selling.

Espousing your products’ features and benefits is educational and sounds impressive, but it is not selling. This approach is severely limited in its ability to get a yes. Brochures, web sites, and catalogues can do the education. The seller’s role is that of Helper.

Buyers need help in two specific areas. First is working through the logical exercise of “shopping” — that is, narrowing down the list of options to the best two or three.

Second, and most importantly, they need assistance navigating the actual purchase. The moment of saying yes to one provider over the others can be a turbulent time. The best sellers hop in the navigator’s seat and help the buyer find their way.

Fear of making a mistake (“Is this the best option?”), loss (“Am I overpaying?”), and impacts (“Will others in the organization like my choice?”) all weigh on your buyer’s mind. A poor decision can cost a small business thousands, a corporate buyer her job.

Needs-based selling is an effective way to help your buyer work through their purchase decision. When it’s done well, the buyer gets what they want — the best purchase decision for them. And, you also get what you want — a long-term relationship with a buyer who most often chooses you.

Needs-based selling differs from traditional sales approaches in several ways.

Let’s use the example of two Chartered Accountants working to make partner. Successful client acquisition shows their worth. Bill is more traditional when it comes to his selling. Anne takes a needs-based approach.

When asked by a prospective client, “Why should we select your firm?”, Bill responds with a deep dive on the 40 years the firm has been in business, its A list of clients, and its track record of great work. He is clearly passionate about the firm.

Anne is passionate, too, but takes a different path. She says, “I’m not sure why you would choose us. Let’s talk about what your needs are around accounting services. What pains are you facing with your current provider? What gains are you looking to realize by switching to a new firm? Once we know that, we can see if we are the best choice for you.”

Anne is inviting a dialogue, the focus of which is the client and their needs. What is causing them pain? What gains are they after? Anne knows that if she can’t relieve their pains and deliver the desired gains, the firm’s number of years in business and A list of clients are meaningless factoids.

When asked about the firm’s client management, Bill gets excited. He has many examples of above-and-beyond service that show how the firm shines.

Anne gets excited, too, but she doesn’t want to risk sidetracking the needs conversation with a solution conversation. It’s too early for that.

Again, she defaults to a question. “We have an excellent approach to client management which I would happy to tell you all about. First, though, tell me what you are looking for. What client management approach would meet your needs?”

And so it goes. Bill cares deeply about his clients and sincerely wants to help. Ironically, because he is spending so much time talking about the firm he is not being as helpful as he could.

Anne’s approach is helpful because she focuses first on diagnosing her buyer’s needs. Then and only then does she present her prescription (the firm and all it has to offer). She clearly connects each buyer need to the firm’s capability to meet it. This clarity helps her buyers make the best decision for them.

Needs-based selling says “diagnose needs first, prescribe solutions second.” Traditional selling reverses this. Why is needs-based selling superior? Because prescription before diagnosis is malpractice.

Push Softer

Being a revenue-generating sales machine is tough work. After running in high gear for the first 11 months of the year, why not take the last one and enjoy the ride? I know it is year end, every sale counts, and it’s time to push a little harder, right? In fact, when deadlines loom and it’s down to the wire, the strongest finishers pushsofter.  They push softer by getting more strategic.

In the month of December, many businesses slow considerably. Some even shut down completely. Skeleton staffing is the norm. Take cues from your customers. If you have not booked off yourself, take time to create business development plans for the new year by doing what Mike Desjardins of ViRTUS Inc. calls “Mindstorming.” (To read Mike’s full article on this topic, go to

Mindstorming is like brain storming with one distinct difference — you do it on your own. Call it reflecting, ruminating, or good, old-fashioned daydreaming. With work-a-day static and interference eliminated, tune into the needs of your existing customers. They represent the biggest revenue opportunity in your portfolio for next year.

Revenue from existing customers is great! It is the easiest to acquire. They know you and love you already. Your contact base is strong there. You are halfway to a close before you even start selling!

Here are a few thoughts to chase towards identifying where that “10% growth from existing customers” your boss wants will come from:

  • Which departments within your customer’s company are you not selling to that you should be? The key here is to think laterally. For instance, if you are selling transportation services, why might you spend time talking to customer service? Faster transit times and better package tracking lead to fewer inbound customer service calls, that’s why. Each of these calls costs money to handle. Customer service cares about your story and may help you secure more business within that account. Plan to call them.
  • What problems does your buyer face that your products or services do not currently resolve, but would with some tweaking? Be innovative. Think out of the box. Then, talk to your engineering department. You just might create a whole new revenue stream in the process.
  • With which senior-level folks within your client’s organization is your current relationship merely arm’s length? Create a plan to cozy up to them. Senior executives exist to create the vision for the company’s improved future. Help make that future a reality by learning their needs and finding ways to contribute.
  • Find out which division of your customer’s company is below their performance plan this year. Noodle through how you can help them turn this around for next year. In business, anything short of achieving the plan is negative, and your contacts will be highly motivated — read “willing to spend money” to rectify the situation.

Make your new business development plans for the coming year when things are quiet in the holiday season. Go ahead, push softer. Happy Holidays!

Selling With One Hand Tied Behind Your Back

The Internet era has revolutionized our communication. It has revolutionized the way many people sell, too, and not for the better. When you sell using email and the like, you are selling with one hand tied behind your back. This is not the position you want to be in for any competitive situation.

The statistics related to communication effectiveness are well known. Ten percent or so of our message is conveyed by the words we use. The remainder is relayed by our tone and body language. Email limits our communication and thus sales effectiveness proportionately.

Email can be a nice solution to large geographic territories, the expectation of instantaneous response, and the navigation of time zones. It can be a handy way to convey data and facts (e.g., “To confirm, we are set to meet next Tuesday morning at nine.”) Beyond that, it has profound limitations, the most dangerous being that it is an unemotional one-way medium.

When an email is sent (e.g., “Attached is our proposal; please let me know what you think”), there is no way to tell how the receiver truly feels about its contents at the moment it is received. This is dangerous because although your customers shop logically, they buy emotionally. Selling by email helps your buyer to shop, but not to buy (your products or services, that is).

When you sell by email you can’t help your buyers in their moments of need. This will result in fewer closes as they go with the company that takes the time to talk to them.

Your job is to make a human connection with buyers and help them navigate the yes/no decision regarding their deal. Selling by email says to the buyer, “You are on your own,” regardless of the actual verbiage contained within the message.

When put in this position, most buyers will commoditize your offering and simply rank it by price and features versus the other “bids.” They may assess the value your offering brings, but they will use their own yardstick, not yours. If they have any misunderstandings, misinformation, or knowledge gaps, those will remain unaddressed.

How your buyer perceives the value of your offering is critical to your success. Price is more elastic when the perception of value is high. Profit is thus similarly affected. Small differences in features (e.g., your model does not come in red) are more easily overlooked by buyers when they are clear on how the value you can bring matches their needs.

Helping a buyer see how your offering will meet their needs and deliver value is an iterative process requiring two-way communication. Sellers who rely on email short circuit this process and lose more deals than they win.

Email is hurting your sales effectiveness if you are…

Emailing out your quotes or proposals: This is a sales killer. Your buyer needs help interpreting your quote. Misinterpretation may make the competition’s quote look much better. Help your buyer choose you by presenting your quote person to person (by phone or face to face).

Responding to buyer objections by email: Even if the buyer communicates an objection by email, phone them back to stop this exchange before it ever gets started. Handling objections requires questions and conversation (“I understand your concerns. Can you tell me what’s behind them?”). Conducted over email, such an exchange will suck the life out of your sale.

Negotiating price over email: If you weren’t commoditized by this point, you surely will be afterward. Pick up the phone or hop in the car for this sensitive conversation.

So, analyze your sales process. Pick the sales junctures at which person-to-person selling is a must and endeavor to make those interactions happen. In so doing you will ensure you can engage in hands-on conversational selling, rather hands-off ‘sales by email’. With both hands freed from behind your back, you will be infinitely more effective.

The 5 O’clock Track Team

Sales is a job with inherent flexibility. Some salespeople exercise their flexibility by working hard all week and cutting out a little early on Fridays—and their sales leaders let such behavior slide. They feel that if a salesperson is above plan they can do whatever they want. But is a short Friday a well-deserved break or a missed sales opportunity?

Consider Mike and Marie. Mike is a top performer. He’s well respected and consistently hits his sales quota. Marie is a top performer too, and also well respected. Unlike Mike, though, she consistently beats her sales quota. What’s the difference between the two? Call either of them on any given Friday at 4:30 p.m. and you’ll figure it out.

Mike cuts out early on Fridays. Marie does not. She looks forward to Friday afternoons, but for a different reason than he does.

Marie knows that her most senior buyers, the ones who make the decisions on her largest deals, work a full Friday. They like the latter part of the week. It’s productive time for them. As the office clears out they can hunker down and get some work done. Their spirits are high as they wrap up the current week and plan for the upcoming one.

Marie sees this as a great time to make connections with these hard-to-reach folks. She has a good chance of reaching and influencing them, as no other salespeople are calling them. She knows they are in a positive frame of mind and more open to considering good ideas. Her ideas. This coupled with a “let’s wrap up this week and plan for the next one” mindset is a good scenario for a sales conversation.

Marie has a distinct selling advantage on Fridays. The sales-signal-to-noise ratio is high. All she needs to do is make a connection with her buyer after her competition has packed it in for the week.

On Friday afternoons Marie also has easy access to the admin and operational folks within her own company. She has them all to herself. She uses this time to deepen relationships with them. They are vital to her sales success. They find focusing on her needs much easier during this time, when there are no line-ups at their doors.

Marie enjoys the relative quiet in the sales office too. She wraps up her week and prepares for the upcoming one. She crafts strategies to close her deals and gets ready to show them to her sales manager on Monday. Thus, she starts her next week one step ahead, rather than behind the eight ball.

Marie’s sales success is the result of good sales habits. She reaches out to her contacts when others do not. She works hard while others take slack time.

Shaping the behaviour of the sales team is a core duty of any sales leader. One way to do this is to give team members role models to emulate. Healthy sales behaviors exist within your team already. Make it an obsession to catch your people doing something right. Point out their great sales habits. Celebrate them. Explain to your team why those behaviors are great and how they connect to success. Encourage others to follow suit.

Taking advantage of the relative quiet at the end of any work day can help lead to sales success, but there seems to be some magic to the Friday element. . Being a member of the Friday afternoon track team generally precludes one from being a member of the company’s President’s Club sales team. Make this common knowledge within your team.

Getting Out of Your Own Way

Securing new customers is never easy. The best salespeople increase their revenue by breaking down the self-perpetuated roadblocks and barriers that can make selling tough. In short, they hit their sales plans by getting out of their own way.

Consider these examples of salespeople that are getting in their own way when it comes to increasing sales:

A sales rep at a software company is having a great month. So great, in fact, that finding time to cold call ­— a reality in his business — is tough. Cold calling is no fun, and since he’s busy anyway, he accidentally on purpose forgets to remember to do it. His next month’s sales tank because he let his funnel run dry.

A major account manager at an electrical wholesaler is busy, too. He has five quotes for large orders out in buyers’ hands. He is not a fan of the company’s CRM software, so he doesn’t log them into his dashboard. A few weeks go by and one slips through the cracks — not the largest, but a solid deal from a regular customer. That customer wonders why the account manager did not follow up and places the order with his competitor instead.

In both of these instances, the salespeople got in their own way. They are busy, hardworking and well-meaning folks. But they committed a few easily avoidable sales errors that made their lives unnecessarily difficult.

Getting out of your own way as a salesperson means doing what you are supposed to do, when you are supposed to do it. If you follow this approach, 90% of the challenges related to reaching your sales goals will vanish.

Here are some easy things to do to get out of your own way…

  • Create written plans for sales meetings: Want to hold a sales meeting twice? Don’t do a written agenda for the first go ‘round. You’ll be bound to miss something and have to reconvene. Doubling back like this kills your sales velocity and pushes revenue into the next quarter when you need it in this quarter.
  • Make appointments with yourself to do the tough stuff: Cold calling and the like are tasks that only the heartiest sellers enjoy. Book a meeting in your calendar to do this stuff and keep those meetings. Finding time to do the fun stuff will take care of itself.
  • Stay on top of your administrative duties: What is more depressing than a pile of overdue admin work staring you in the face? Do your expense reports regularly. Hand in your activity reports on time. Doing so saves time and displays your respect for the recipients. 
  • Prepare the big stuff early: You know Last-Minute Larry. He’s the one scrambling around the office, yelling at his computer and cursing the printer. He leaves the prep work for important meetings until the day before. He is stressed. He is not making sales. He is not having fun. Don’t be a Larry.

Sales is a stream that runs downhill. When excess debris piles up, damming and pooling occurs. The flow stops. Getting out of your own way means moving what needs to be moved to allow the flow to be maintained.

The Holiday Contagion

From a November point of view, many salespeople anticipate December as a tough sales month, what with the impending holidays. Why is it, then, that some salespeople are able to make it a great month while these salespeople flounder? Those who succeed know that December is an opportune time to get a “yes” to their deals. They know the secret of contagious Holiday emotions.

In his seminal book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman talks about the contagious nature of emotions. For the full month of December, your buyer is awash in a Petri dish of positive emotions. Holiday advertising, party planning, and in-office decorations are all around. Astute salespeople use this naturally-occurring phenomenon to help set the stage for a great January. They employ this simple strategy to move their deals forward:

  • Be diligent in mailing out personalized holiday cards (non-denominational ones are best) early, so they land on buyers’ desks for December 1st. Most salespeople send out holiday cards anyway, but doing it early gets you pleasantly top of mind with your buyers.
  • Next, consider the buyer[s] you want to meet with and ask yourself, “Would this person prefer an off-site ‘eggnog’ meeting or holiday lunch, or is December a busy time for them, in which case a 15-minute ‘to-the-point’ meeting would be best?”
  • Then call in the first few days of the month to request a December meeting with each buyer.
  • Position the meeting based on each buyer’s anticipated preference. This sounds like “December is a nice time to get out of the office for an eggnog latte,” or “I know you are swamped in December; I think we can accomplish what we need to in 15 minutes or so.”
  • During the meeting, focus only on securing a “yes” to moving the deal forward to the next logical place in the sales process, and no further.
  • To maintain momentum, book a next meeting for January (for many buyers this is back-to-business time) to iron out the more intricate details around implementing or moving the deal forward.
  • If time allows, settle in and use the rest of the meeting to build your personal relationship with that buyer.

Buyers hesitate to meet, and buy, in December because it is a bad month to implement anything new. Wise salespeople address this hesitation by proposing a limited agenda when requesting buyer meetings. In fact, they break the sale into two parts.

They say, “I know December is a tough time to implement new things. Can we talk about what moving forward might look like in general terms? We can set a follow-up meeting in January to discuss the fine-detail stuff.”

In other words, they suggest dealing with the easy part (the decision to buy) now, and the harder part (implementation details) later. And, they make this request when their buyers are in the splash zone of contagious holiday emotions.

December is a fun time to maintain sales momentum. Remember, a great December sales month looks like a fully booked January!

You Are Your Ideas

It’s a simple fact of your life as a sales professional life that your contacts see several of “you” every day—so many, in fact, that one blends into the next. Only rarely does one sales professional rise to the top and stand out above the rest. This individual wins more deals, sells more, and has stronger relationships with their buyers. What have you done lately to separate yourself from the rest of the crowd?

Your brain, and what is in it, is your key differentiator. You are your ideas. They are singularly unique, powerful, and highly desired by your buyers. Engage your creativity and you will be two steps ahead of other sellers.

Astute buyers recognize that you have a deeper expertise regarding the myriad applications of your products and services than they do. Think of the dental implant salesperson who sits chairside, advising the oral surgeon as she places the implant in a patient’s mouth. Despite their years of training, these surgeons still seek out and value the input of an expert on a specific product. 

You may feel you are not the creative type—many salespeople don’t. But creativity is not limited to artistic expression. Analyzing a problem to remedy buyer Pain or attain desired Gains is creativity in action. If you prepare to have idea-generation conversations with your buyers, creativity will happen quite naturally.

Try this approach…

Clear your desk and think through your customer list. Pick one who you uses your products and services already

Ask yourself, “What Pains exist in this buyer’s world that my company can help them with? What Gains might they desire that I can help them realize?” You will likely find a couple of each.

For each Pain and Gain identified, brainstorm a non-obvious/creative application of your products and services that could help them. Wrack your brains on this one. You will definitely generate some great ideas.

Book a meeting with your buyer, saying “I want to meet to ensure that I am doing all I can to help you. I have some ideas I would like to share with you.”

Conduct the meeting, using questions to guide your buyer through your thought process. Your goal is to learn whether they see their situation as you see it, and if pursuing your problem-solving ideas is worthwhile.

Even if none of your ideas fly, you will have advanced your standing by virtue of having held this meeting. While other salespeople are busy trying to sell something, you are trying to help. Your buyer will know the difference. 

The Path to Mastery

In his book Outliers Malcolm Gladwell proffers that those who achieve mastery in their endeavour of choice do so by investing at least 10,000 hours honing their craft.  How are you doing on your path to sales mastery?

Gladwell points out that it is not necessarily those most naturally gifted that succeed splendidly.  He argues that the thing that distinguishes top performers is how hard they work.  That’s it.  He states “the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else.  They work much, much harder.”

Here are a few ways from easiest to hardest that you can work smart while working harder to attain mastery in sales;

Easiest:  Before every sales interaction write down [yes, old school pen and paper] what your measurable goals are for that meeting.  Ensure these goals are things that will move your sale forward.  Immediately after the call measure your success.  Did you attain your sales call goal?  If yes, how did you do it.  If not, why not?  This simple action, if done religiously for every sales call, will make you a better sales person. 

Moderate:  Every selling day identify one specific sales skill to focus on and practice.  In every sales interaction that day be mindful of doing that one thing better and better.  For instance, if you want to improve your listening skills make that the focus of the day.  Then in each call bite your tongue, button your lip, or do whatever you have to in order to stay quiet and let the other party do the talking.  Score yourself out of 10 for each sales call to measure your improvement.  This approach to improvement will sharpen your selling skills.

Hardest:  Practice your selling skills with a peer.  Have a big sales meeting coming up?  Sit with a colleague and run your planned approach by them.  Ask them to give you tough love feedback around where your strategy is strong and where it is weak.  Then, role play, [yes, role play!], the call with them.  Sound goofy?  Where would you rather practice, in front of the buyer with a deal at stake or in front of a peer where nothing except your continued improvement is at stake?  Your choice.

Hardest Part II:  Ask a peer or manager you respect to be a sales coach for you.  Meet with them every week to do the above mentioned practice work.  Treat this meeting as sacrosanct.  Make it a point to never miss it.  Tough?  Yes.  Effective?  You bet.

Sales success is predicated on good sales habits.  You don’t develop good sales habits by continually repeating bad ones.  You develop them by identifying your good habits and making them strengths, and identifying bad habits and dumping them.  This takes time and practice, and working smart while working hard.

Be a Top Performer

Top performers want to know how their sales progress is measuring up to their sales goals, and how it compares to that of their colleagues. Poor performers want to hide under a rock. Don’t wait for your boss to tell you how you are doing this month. Be a top performer.

Top performers exercise great initiative to learn exactly where their sales results lie. They regularly perform a few simple analyses that serve as their sales success barometer. In doing so, they position themselves to have more powerful sales coaching conversations with their managers than their teammates. Why is this so?

They don’t burn valuable sales coaching time trying to figure out where their sales results lie. They arrive with the analytical heavy lifting — their “homework” — done, which allows them and their Sales Coach to get right down to business, creating sales strategies and plans to close deals. This is both effective and efficient. Time with your sales sage is golden and hard to come by. This approach makes the most of each available minute.

Sales progress measurement for most salespeople consists of knowing their percent to sales plan and year over year sales. Up your game by performing a few uncommon assessments before your next sales coaching session: 

  • Born-On Date: Use the date you first touched each sales lead to calculate the length of time you have been working on closing it. Express this in days, displayed prominently within your sales tracker. Start your coaching conversation with “this lead is X days old as of today.” Looking at the start date for a lead is common. Expressing it in days and focusing on it acutely is uncommon. It develops a healthy sense of urgency to do something immediately to move it forward to closure.
  • Buyer Commitments To Date: Sales activities do not move deals to closure. Sales activities plus buyer commitments do. Listing what your buyer has committed to so far in a sale — e.g., sharing sensitive data, bringing in other key buying influences and senior executives, etc. — gives you a gauge of their current level of commitment to considering your deal. Low commitment = low likelihood of closure. Recognizing this early allows for strategy creation now, rather than later when the deal is stale or flat-lining.
  • Why This Buyer Might Say No: Confront the brutal reality by listing objections your buyer may be harbouring that will sabotage your deal. Wrack your brains and make this list exhaustive. Then, create strategies to minimize or eliminate each one. Doing this before objections are raised prepares you for any eventuality, and increases your effectiveness in managing them should they arise.

Great sales strategies are best created with more than one mind tackling the challenge. A sales coaching session is an opportune chance to create such synergies. A few minutes of focused planning prior to your sales coaching session will contribute to solid sales results, and inclusion in your company’s ranks of top performers.