The Rear View Mirror Trap

Guest post by John Rounseville

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We’ve all been there.

It’s Friday afternoon after a busy week, or worse, Monday morning after a busy weekend. Your task is to compile a sales report for your manager. You check your notes from the week, look in your “Sent Items” folder, review your schedule from last week, and try to piece together what is happening in your sales territory.  After an hour or two of work, you send out the details: mostly talking about business you closed (put that at the top!), your production numbers versus your budget from last week, where you went and what you talked about. Sometimes, you have to talk about the dreaded lost business (put that at the bottom).

This represents one of the traps sales organizations fall into: only looking at the past week, month, or quarter and managing to that information. With today’s reporting technology, it’s easy to report our numbers; how many sales calls, which gold level clients we visited, etc.  The information is available on our dashboards or on a formatted spreadsheet before we have our first sip of coffee on Monday morning.

It is equally easy for management to fall into this trap. As long as information is flowing to you, there is less of a need harangue your charges for information and you can focus on other management details. The problem is compounded in sales meetings, which follow the same script. Often the sales person will simply recite their “rear view” information, wasting valuable meeting time.  Management not only gives the practice a tacit approval, they often follow suit and report in the same way to their superiors.

This reporting style is akin to driving your car while looking solely in the rear view mirror; you are destined to crash. The organizational perspective must be shifted from looking at past production towards a more forward-looking view. Specifically, what opportunities will I close this week/month/quarter? What help do I need from the pricing, management, or operational teams in order to close what’s in my pipeline? Who do I need to visit, call, or correspond with to close these opportunities? What business do I have that is on the precipice of being lost and what steps should be taken to prevent that? These are the questions that should be the focus of successful sales teams and answered when reporting on or meeting about sales opportunities.

Granted, there are instances where a backward glance is important — catching downward trends, reporting service failures, discussing growing or slowing receivables — but a good sales person will generally see these issues coming if their eyes are out front.  As a manager, I would much rather be aware of business that I am about to lose and understand what needs to be done to prevent that, than hear about business that I have lost and now need to regain.

With this in mind, here are some tips for managing with a forward-looking perspective;

  1. Design your meetings with an eye to the future - As a manager, you are in charge of what the minutes of your sales meeting will look like. Draw up an agenda with specific Terms of Reference (TOR Document) and keep it somewhere (the company Intranet, sales home page, etc.) where everyone has access to it. Keep it solely focused on upcoming opportunities, contracts, important meetings or anything else that is in the future. Most importantly, stick to it. Once the meeting agenda is run through on a weekly basis a few times, it will feel more comfortable. At the end of the meeting, leave 5 minutes or so for the glance in the rear view.
  2. Design reports that are forward-looking - Similar to meeting design, you should dictate what you want your sales people to submit to you. If you use a CRM tool, there are many applications that will pull data into a specific report design. Keep the headings to “Closing Opportunities,” “Help Needed With,” or “Upcoming Contracts.” This will help your sales people to manage their customers in the present and future.
  3. Keep a list of major opportunities – Keep a list of all major opportunities in your pipeline with notes on where they are. Again, if a CRM tool is used, have your dashboard set up with all of your team’s opportunities and move through the highlighted ones as a group. Remove opportunities that are won or lost to keep the pipeline fresh.
  4. Measure the future – Make your key performance indicators (KPIs) future-based; opportunities per salesperson, percentage of Stuck opportunities (haven’t changed status in x days), percentage of opportunities past due (meaning the close date is in the past), and overall opportunity age are usually good indicators of how well your team is managing your pipeline.

John Rounseville is an independent sales consultant and a 15 year veteran of sales and sales management within the logistics industry. Most recently, John was the Director of Sales and Marketing Process Improvement with Horizon Lines, LLC. John has a BA from Georgetown University and received his MBA from the Boston College Carroll School of Management.

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