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How to Sell Anything to Anyone Anytime

Astute Planner

(Excerpted from Chapter Four from Take Your Sales Performance Up-a-Notch)

by Dave Kahle

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.

I recall going to see a well-known speaker and author in a two-hour presentation. The auditorium was filled with several hundred people who had paid to learn from this man's insight and wisdom. Early into his presentation, he remarked that he really didn't know what he was going to say, and had not prepared anything, that he would rely on the dynamics of the immediate situation to select his thoughts and words. I grew angry. What arrogance! What followed was something of a disjointed stream-of-consciousness monologue that prompted most in the audience to go away having learned nothing.

If that speaker had gathered some information about the size and demographics of the audience, if he had organized his presentation in an easily-understood format, if he had prepared handouts to visually support his verbal presentation, if he had searched his memory for examples and illustrations that would have resonated with this audience, if he had spent some time meeting individuals before the presentation, if he had telephone interviewed some of the audience before the meeting -- if he had done any or all of these things, his presentation would have been far more effective.

That's an easy conclusion for us to reach. Of course he would have been far more effective, of course his audience would have gained much more, and of course he would have influenced some people to want to hear him again - if he had taken the time to prepare the presentation.

Of course, it's always more effective to 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? Can you imagine a musician not preparing a piece of music before the recital? Can you imagine a politician not practicing the big speech? Or a doctor not reviewing the x-rays and the procedure prior to a major surgery? Or a lawyer barging into a case without having planned it? 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 sales people. If we think about what we do before we do it, providing we think about it in the right way, we'll significantly improve our performance. Unfortunately, many sales people 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 will 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 with this hat, you'll think about what you do before you do it - you'll think 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. The next section shows you how to do it.

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. For example, you could ask yourself, "What are the three most effective things I could do to improve my sales performance?" That question would prompt you to analyze your performance, develop some possible changes in your behavior, and then select three that appear to be the highest priority. That's a very worthwhile set of thoughts. And they were prompted by the question you asked yourself.

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While this is just one example, the principle is incredibly powerful. Learn to ask yourself good questions, and you'll think more effectively.

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?" Ask that question, and 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. After thinking about that question, 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. Which of those two questions will be the better one for you to ask yourself prior to a sales call?

The answer is obvious. But the point is this - if you're going to adequately prepare and plan for your sales interchanges, you need to ask yourself the right questions. When you ask yourself the right questions, you think in the most effective way.

In order to implement this principle, you'll need to master two basic processes. Each of these processes is really a series of questions, asked in a certain sequence. Master these two processes, and you'll master the first hat, Astute Planner. You'll gain a competency that will serve you well the rest of your working life.

The Processes

To implement this principle and acquire the power of the first hat, you'll need to master two processes: The prioritization process, and the planning process.

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.

Few sales people have been taught exactly how to plan for their sales success. We can help. Review our selection of on-line courses dedicated to helping you plan more effectively. Click here.

The Prioritization Process:

This is a four-step process that you can use over and over from now until you retire.

1. Select the category to be prioritized.

2. Identify the outcome.

3. Create criteria.

4. Apply those criteria.

Let's apply those four steps to an example.

Step One. Select the category to be prioritized. Ask yourself, "Of all of these (whatever you're considering) which is the most important?"

There are a number of areas that you may want to prioritize - each of which are separate aspects of your job. For example, if you sell a wide variety of products, you could prioritize those products in order to select those that have the highest priority for you to pursue. If you have 20 things to do tomorrow, you'd certainly want to prioritize those. As an example, we're going to work with an area that may be the single most important category of your job - your customers.

So, step one is easy and relatively simple - select the category to be prioritized. In our example, we're going to select the category of "customers."

Step Two. Identify the outcome you want. Ask yourself, "What should be the end result of this process?"

In other words, with what do you want to end up? In this case, let's say that you want to end up with a set of three categories of customers - A's, B's, and C's. Let's further say that you want your A's to be the highest potential accounts, representing the top 5 - 20% of your accounts. You want the B category to contain the middle 30 - 50% of all your accounts, and the C's to be the lowest potential 30 - 50 % of your accounts. You've identified where you want to end up.

Step Three. Create criteria. Ask yourself, "On what basis should I make that determination?"

A "criterion" is something by which you judge something else. It's a standard or benchmark by which you measure that thing with which you're working.

In this case, we start out by remembering that we're working on our customers, and keeping in mind that we want to end up with three classes of customers. So, we've got to develop some criteria to use to separate those customers into the three categories. I'd suggest we think in terms of "potential."

Normally, when I ask sales people to identify their A, B or C accounts, they'll pull out a sales report, and show me who purchased the most. But that's history, not potential. I'm interested in the future, not the past. So, I suggest that we focus on future potential. That means that we've got to determine which customers have the highest potential, and which have degrees of lesser potential.

What constitutes "high potential?" From a sales person's perspective, high potential is the ratio between the likelihood of sales dollars (or income dollars) being generated in return for time invested. You may have a potentially huge account, for example, but because of some of the philosophy or history at that account, you'd have to invest years to begin to receive any sales dollars in return. That would not be a high potential account, because of the out of balance relationship between potential sales dollars to your investment of time. A more likely prospect could be a customer with smaller volume, but who could be converted relatively easily. In that case, the ratio between sales dollars and time invested would be more in your favor.

When you determine high potential, use two criteria. The first is quantified potential. Quantified potential refers to the total dollars available in that account. In other words, how much of your product can they buy? Obviously each account has a potential to purchase differing amounts of your product. If you can collect that information accurately and with detail, you'll have a good sense of that account's quantified potential. That's the objective criterion.

But that's only half of the issue. The second criterion is subjective. I call it potential partnerability. Partnerability is that subjective feeling you gain about the account's potential to eventually becoming a partner - a loyal, committed, deeply engaged customer who buys everything they can from you, respects you, and looks out for your best interest. This criterion takes into account the chemistry between the two companies and between yourself and your customers, the philosophy of the account, the fit between their needs and your offerings, etc. Is the account just a price buyer, or is it open to creative proposals from you? Is it a progressive, growing organization? Those are the issues that comprise partnerability. You may have one account that has huge quantifiable potential, but because of the philosophy or personalities of the decision-makers, no foreseeable partnerability. That account would not be a high-potential account.

Step Four. Apply the criteria. Ask yourself, "What happens when I apply the criteria?"

You could apply the criteria in our example this way. On a sheet of paper, create three columns. In the first, list all of your customers and prospects. Then, in the second, give each of them a 1 - 100 rating on their "quantified potential." Give a 100 to the account in your territory that could purchase the most of your products or services. Assign a one to the smallest.

After you've rated all of your customers and prospects on "quantified potential," move on to the third column. In this one, use the same 1- 100 rating, but this time rate each customer's "potential partnerability." A 100 in partnerability indicates an account where all the subjective factors are in your favor. A one is a customer in which none of them are favorable.

Now, add the second and third columns. The sum of those two criteria will give you a number which you can use to sort each of your customers into A, B and C categories. Call the top rated 5 to 20 percent of all your prospects and customers A accounts. So, if you have 20 total customers, you should identify 1 to 4 as "A" customers. Remember, these represent the highest potential dollars returned for time invested.

Then, cull out those who appear to offer a minimal return on time invested. Take somewhere between 10 to 60 percent and put them in the "C" column. Those are your lowest priority prospects and customers.

Finally, put all those who are left over in the "B" column. They represent the middle group of prospects and customers.

You've just worked through the prioritization process. In so doing, you've prioritized the most salient aspect of your business - your prospects and customers.

Congratulations! Now, you can use that process to prioritize other aspects of your business. Use it to prioritize your prospects, your products, your sales calls, etc. Remember the first principle, you'll always be more effective if you think about what you do before you do it. Thinking about where to apply your time most effectively by prioritizing the most important aspects of your job is one of the best things you can do. Put on the first hat, and prioritize every important aspect of your job. Then, you'll be ready to master the next discipline of the first hat; you'll be ready to plan effectively.

The Planning Process

The planning process is a matter of asking a set of seven questions of yourself, asking them in the right sequence, and then answering them in writing. The resulting 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 seven 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, we'll identify a situation and then work through it step by step. Let's begin by setting a personal, financial goal. While sales is a fulfilling, challenging career, most of us wouldn't be doing it if we didn't get paid. To some extent, our sales success is a means to an end, not an end in itself. And that end is our financial rewards. So, let's focus on your personal financial goals. 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 ten percent 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 and positive power to achieve your goal. As always, you just think the question in as much detail and precision as possible. The resulting answers to the question form the next step in the planning process.

In the example, let's say that you have identified these obstacles:

- Only three of your current accounts are growing.

- Two new competitors are active in your territory.

- 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.

The quickest way to improved sales performance is to become more effective at planning and time management. Dave's classic book, Eleven Secrets of Time Management for Sales People, teaches you exactly how to master this incredible skill.

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%.
    1. Get the boss to negotiate with the corporate office for some favorable terms and concessions.
    2. Push the new product line aggressively.
  2. Acquire five new accounts.
    1. Use the new product line as a door opener.
    2. Get the credit department to approve some of the 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%.
    1. Identify who those are.
      1. Collect some good information using an account profile form. Jan. 15
      2. Discuss the results with the boss. Feb. 3.
      3. Agree on the top 20% Feb. 1
    2. Get the boss to negotiate with corporate for some favorable terms and concessions. Feb 15
    3. Push the new product line aggressively.
      1. Make appointments to collect info in each of them. Feb 15
      2. Have initial presentations made in each. March 15
      3. Push forward on demonstrations/evaluations as appropriate.

When you've finished this simple seven-step planning process, you will have created the best plan you're capable of developing. You now have in place a specific strategy for accomplishing your goal, along with a checklist of tasks and dates by which to measure your progress. You created that plan by following the seven-step planning process, asking yourself the questions and answering them in writing. The planning process will work for any aspect of your job. Discipline yourself to use this process, and you'll be well on your way to becoming a master of the first hat.

In order to show you how to apply this process to other aspects of your job, we're going to focus on some powerful applications below.

Applying the Planning Process to "A" Accounts.

You can, and should, apply the seven-step strategy development process to every one of your "A" accounts at least once every three months, but preferably, every month. In so doing, you will create a plan for the most effective things you can do.

Here's an illustration of how to apply the smart planning process to create a strategy for an "A" account.

Step One. What's your objective?

I know you want to sell stuff. But that's too general. In the next six months, what specifically would you like to accomplish with this account? Is it to meet two or three of the key decision makers? To successfully introduce a new line? To increase your commodity business by 10 percent? To increase your gross margins by a point or two? Got the idea? Be specific.

Step Two. What's the situation?

This question requires you to outline the big picture of the account. What's happening within the organization? What role does your company play? What is this customer trying to do? What changes have occurred recently? What competitors are active with this account?

Step Three. What are the obstacles?

Specifically, what's stopping you? Is it a well-entrenched competitor? If so, who is it? And to what degree does he have the business? Or is it a less than favorable purchasing agent or department head? Or maybe a philosophy that exists in the organization? The more detailed and specific you can be with your obstacle analysis, the easier it is to create an effective strategy.

Step Four. What strengths/resources do you have to help you accomplish that?

You may have a great relationship with one of the decision makers, or you may have one or two products already in the account, etc. Look at it realistically. Do you have anything going for you?

Step Five. How are you going to achieve your objective?

This question requires you to outline your basic strategy. Are you going to low-bid the next project? Are you going to take the purchasing agent out to a ball game? What is your basic strategy for achieving your goal?

Step Six. What do you need?

This question asks what materials, literature, help and support you need. Do you need a letter, a copy of an article, some samples, the assistance of a product specialist, the boss's help, etc? What are the things you're going to need to use to help you accomplish your action plan?

Step Seven. What specific steps do you need to take to accomplish that?

If you're going to meet the corporate executives, you may want to:

- Get their names from the receptionist.

- Ask Bill, your contact, to call them and set up an appointment.

- Fax a short introductory note to them, then follow up with a phone call asking for an appointment.

- When you get the appointment, collect some information to use to present the "systems" proposal.

- Bring Jack, the sales manager, on the second appointment.

Notice that this is a specific list of exactly what you need to do in order to accomplish the objective you described.

Discipline yourself to ask -- and answer -- these questions, in this order, for each of your "A" accounts. You'll take a giant step forward in working smart.

Planning Your Month, Week, and Day

Let's say that you've taken the couple hours at the beginning of the month to work through plans for each of your high-potential accounts. You've got a stack of twenty pages. What now?

Consolidate all of those decisions into a monthly, weekly and daily plan. Review your lists of "steps to take," and lay them out as to when in the month you want to accomplish each. That's a skeletal monthly plan. Then break that down to weekly plans for each week. Finally, at the end of each day, review what you actually did accomplish, add in any new important issues, and create a plan for the next day.

Planning for sales calls

Here's yet one more, vitally important place to exercise your new competency of the first hat. All of the previous planning exists to bring you to this point - where you are thinking about the most effective things you can do with your customers. Let's call that 'planning a sales call.' The process of planning a sales call is the same as with the other planning. It's just a little less intense - think of it as an abbreviated version of the basic planning process. Ask yourself these questions, and use an index card or computer to capture your bulleted responses.

Step One. What do you want to accomplish?

A plan for a sales call, like any other plan, always begins with an objective. Without it, why make the call? If you set out to accomplish nothing, you'll probably be successful.

Step Two. What's the situation?

Note just a few words summarizing the situation as you best understand it. The process of putting words in writing will help you think with detail and precision. The more precise your thinking, the more accurate and effective your plans.

Step Three. With what agreement do you want to end up?

I believe that every sales call should end in some agreement between you and your customer. If nothing else, you can agree to visit again. The clearer you define the agreement you want to end up with, the more likely it is that you'll actually do so.

Step Four. How are you going to do that?

Here are the action steps. Just what exactly are you going to do, in what sequence?

Step Five. What do you need to do that?

Answer this question by gathering the materials, notes and information you'll need to accomplish your plan.

I've timed this process for myself and thousands of sales people in my seminars. It takes an average of two minutes to plan a sales call, if you've done all the other work. Those two minutes spent thinking about a sales call will dramatically increase the effectiveness of that call.

Do this, and you'll stay focused on the most effective things you can do with your time. You'll become a master of the first hat - Astute Planner.

Trying on the First Hat

OK, so how do you actually fold these principles, processes and tools into your daily routine? First, let's review the three principles we discussed:

1. Good decisions require good information.

2. You'll always be more effective if you think about what you do before you do it.

3. Good planning is a matter of asking yourself the right questions, and then answering them with detail and precision.

We articulated these processes to help you implement the principles:

- information-collecting

- account profile

- competitor information

- prioritization

- planning

So, where to begin? Start with information. If your company has an account profile tool, begin to use it with more detail and diligence. If it doesn't, then immediately begin to develop your own version, or discuss it with your sales manager. You can begin to rough draft your form in an hour or two. So why not do it tonight? And begin to experiment with using it tomorrow. That's a good start.

As long as you're thinking about information, in the next few days, label a manila folder with the word "competitors," and put it on the front seat of your car, where you'll notice it from time to time. That will remind you to be collecting those bits and pieces of information and storing them in the file.

One more thing you can do almost immediately. Start planning every sales call by using the planning process.

Those three activities will get you quickly into this hat, with a minimum of hard work and a great likelihood of seeing immediate results. Spend a couple of weeks ironing out the details, and turning those behaviors into habits.

When you've collected sufficient information, you'll be ready to move to the prioritization and planning processes. You really need to set aside a full day or two in a mini-retreat in order to focus your time and attention on accomplishing those tasks. Once you get on the other side of that project, you'll find yourself working far more effectively. Not harder, smarter.

Which shouldn't surprise you. After all, you're now wearing the first hat, Astute Planner.

Wearing the Hat

When you've fully mastered the principles, processes and tools associated with the first hat, you'll be operating with forethought in all the important aspects of your job.

You'll be systematically and continuously collecting good information about your customers and your competitors. It won't be an isolated event, it will be a regular part of your every day routine. Every sales call you make will be an opportunity to learn more about your customers.

Every year, at least once a year, you'll set aside a day or two for a planning retreat. At that, you'll create goals and plans for the year. You'll review all your accounts and prospects, prioritizing them into ABC categories. You'll develop annual strategic plans for your key accounts.

Every quarter, you'll set aside time to review your progress and make fine-tuning adjustments. You'll think carefully about each of your A accounts, and refine your strategic plans for them. You'll review the information in your competitor file, and garner from that an understanding of your competitor's strategic and tactics.

Every month, you'll create written plans for each of your "A" accounts, and consolidate those action steps into an overall plan for the month.

Every week, you'll create plans for the most effective use of your week.

At the end of each day, you'll plan the next. You'll think about every sales call and every customer contact, and create a plan for each of them.

And, as a result of wearing this hat, you'll become far more effective and rise to the top in your career.

About the Author

Dave Kahle is one of the world's leading sales authorities. He has written ten books, and presented in 47 states and ten countries. He's personally worked with more than 300 companies, and helped thousands of sales people, sales managers and sales executives be more effective. Sign up for his free weekly Ezine, "Thinking about Sales," and contact him to help your team sell better!

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