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Become an Astute Planner

Here’s one of the foundational principles for sales success: You’ll always be more effective if you think about what you do before you do it. Can you imagine a football team not creating a game plan or not practicing before the big game?

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Here’s one of the foundational principles for sales success: You’ll always be more effective if you think about what you do before you do it.
Can you imagine a football team not creating a game plan or not practicing before the big game? Or a politician not practicing the big speech? Or a doctor not reviewing the X-rays prior to a major surgery? The answer to all these questions is “Of course not.” In every event of any importance at all, professional, effective human beings plan and prepare beforehand. It’s an essential step toward success.
The same is true for salespeople. If we think about what we do before we do it, provided we think about it in the right way, we’ll significantly improve our performance. Unfortunately, many salespeople are often guilty of the same mindset that provided this speaker an excuse for his lack of concern and preparation. Our intuition and incredible spur-of-the-moment, ad-lib skills will get us by. WRONG!
You have a great treasury of wisdom and insight that you’ve acquired through a rich set of life experiences. Much of that wisdom and insight can be directly applied to your sales job, if you’ll only tap into it and use it. Of course you’ll be able to tap into some of that accumulated expertise on the spur of the moment, but you’ll be far more effective if you take the time to tap into it before you get into the situation.
If you’re going to be effective, you’ll think about what you do before you do it—about every telephone call, every sales call, every customer, every presentation, every interaction with your customers and prospects. Yet it’s not enough to think about what you do before you do it, you must also think about things in the right way.
Good planning is a matter of asking yourself the right questions, and then answering them with detail and precision. An amazing thing happens when you ask yourself questions—you think of the answers! What sounds so elementary is really a powerful key to unlocking your success. When you ask yourself a good question you stimulate your thinking.
It follows, then, that if you want to think well, you need to ask yourself the best questions. For example, you could ask yourself the question, “What are all the things that the customer will not like about me in this upcoming sales call?” Your mind will dredge up all the flaws and faults you’ve filed away in your memory. That’s probably not the most effective way to prepare for a sales call. You’re liable to be depressed and discouraged. Rather, you could ask yourself the question, “What are two or three things I could find out about the customer that would uncover things we have in common?” Think about the answer to that question, and your mind will dwell on your customer, not yourself, and focus on finding common ground in order to build a relationship. When you ask yourself the right questions, you think in the most effective way.
To implement this principle, you’ll need to master two basic processes: the prioritization process, and the planning proces. Each of these processes is really a series of questions, asked in a certain sequence.
The prioritization process is used to help you make good decisions about where to spend your time, about what to plan. There is just not enough time in the day for you to plan everything. So, you must first prioritize those things that are important enough to plan. You then follow that up with the planning processes.  You’ll find that you use the two together.
The planning process is a matter of asking yourself seven questions, in the right sequence, and then answering them in writing. The written answers become your plan. You can use this process to plan anything worth planning—your territory, your approach to key accounts, each sales call, your month, your week, etc.
Here is each step and the questions to ask:
Step One. Start with a goal. Ask, “What’s the objective?”
Always, the first step in the creation of a plan is the identification of the purpose of the plan. If there is no purpose, why have a plan? The purpose of the plan is your objective. Regardless of what aspect of your business you’re working on—planning a sales call, developing a strategy for a key account, organizing your territory, creating a plan for a new product line—you must begin with an answer to this question.
In order to illustrate each of the steps of this process, let’s set a personal, financial goal we can work through step by step. (While sales is a fulfilling, challenging career, most of us wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t get paid.) Let’s say you’re going to select an objective with which to begin the planning process, and that objective is “to make $75,000 in the next calendar year.”
Step Two. Assess the situation. Ask, “What’s the situation?”
This step requires you to describe, as accurately as possible, the current situation as it relates to the area about which you’re thinking.
Let’s consider our objective from above. You’ve decided you want to make $75,000 next year. So, you describe the salient aspects of your current financial situation like this: You have a salary of $50,000. You’re paid a commission of 10% of all sales above your quota. Last year you had a quota of $750,000 and just made it. This year your quota is $850,000. To achieve your goal, you’ll need to do considerably better than last year. You’ve just described your situation.
Step Three. Identify the obstacles. Ask, “What will hinder me from achieving the goal?
Identifying obstacles is a powerful step in the planning process. This step alone will give you incredible confidence to achieve your goal. Your answers to this question form the next step in the planning process. In the example, let’s say that you have identified these obstacles:

  • Only three current accounts are growing.
  • Two new competitors are active in your area.
  • There are a lot of changes going on in your market.

Step Four. Identify your strengths and your resources. Ask, “What do I have available to me that I can use to accomplish my goal?”
Soberly consider your strengths and your resources. What do you have on your side? Do you have some personal skills that you can apply? Has your company provided you some helpful tools, strategies, or competitive advantages? Is there something working in your favor?
In our example, let’s say that you may have a hot new product line, a commitment on the part of your credit department to loosen the rules a bit and speed up the credit-approval process, and you have your boss’s verbal assurances that she’ll do everything in her power to help you penetrate those large accounts.
Step Five. Create an overall plan. Ask, “How am I going to accomplish my objective?”
This is the heart of the process. Now, you must consider the best way to reach your goal, taking into consideration the current state of affairs, the obstacles you must face, and your strengths and assets. In our example, let’s say you write the following plan:

  1. Focus my time on high-potential accounts, expanding the business in “A” accounts by 50%.

(a) Get the boss to negotiate with the corporate office for some favorable terms and concessions.
(b) Push the new product line aggressively.

  1. Acquire five new accounts.

(a) Use the new product line as a door opener.
(b) Get the credit department to approve some formerly marginal customers who may be having a difficult time buying from my competitor.
Step Six. Identify the materials and tools you’ll need. Ask, “What will I need?”
In this step, identify all the tools and materials you’ll need. In our example, for instance, you might say that you need:

  1. Some forms to help identify the highest potential accounts.
  2. A list of high-potential prospects.
  3. All the usual sales aids.
  4. A bunch of new credit apps
  5. Some literature and samples of the new line.

Step Seven. Create a detailed action plan. Ask, “Specifically, what steps should I take?”
This requires you to think very specifically, and to create a to-do list that precisely identifies each of the steps you’ll need to follow, to put them in sequence, and to assign a deadline completion date to each. In our example, we’ve arrived at a skeleton plan for the first half of our overall plan. Although the final plan would be more detailed than this, the example below is designed to simply illustrate the process:

  1. Focus my time on high-potential accounts, expanding the business in “A” accounts by 50%.

(a) Identify who those are.

  • Collect some good information using an account profile form. [Jan.15]
  • Discuss the results with the boss. [Feb. 3]
  • Agree on the top 20%. [Feb. 1]

(b) Get the boss to negotiate with corporate for some favorable terms and concessions. [Feb. 15]
(c) Push the new product line aggressively.

  • Make appointments to collect info on each of them. [Feb. 15]
  • Have initial presentations made on each. [March 15]
  • Push forward on demonstrations/evaluations as appropriate.

When you’ve finished this seven-step planning process, you’ll have created the best plan you’re capable of developing. And you’ll have a specific strategy for reaching your goal, plus a checklist of tasks and dates to measure your progress.