Attack the Maybes

A reader writes, "Between vacations, long weekends, and other downtime, I find it difficult to consistently manage and motivate my sales team during the summer. Any suggestions for keeping salespeople engaged?"

I've always been a big advocate of starting September strong. Here's a suggestion for a great late summer project: how about scrubbing the rep's pipelines and sales forecasts of all the "maybes."

Define "Maybes"

"Maybes" originally showed promise as potential new clients, progressed through the pipeline at a good pace and then just stopped moving forward. No matter where they're stuck, something has gone wrong.

Profile of a "Maybe"

Prospects landing in "Maybeville":

  • Don't return calls or emails
  • Return calls days or weeks later
  • Continually ask for more information
  • Avoiding committing to specific dates
  • Repeat excuses like:  "The president is still reviewing the pricing you sent," or "The committee needs more time to review the proposal."

Ironically, if reps make contact, "maybes" go overboard to convince the salesperson they're still interested. For different reasons, including company politics or budget cuts, "maybes" avoid being candid with reps.

The Damage "Maybes" Do

Nothing stings like losing a sale. It's hard to make that customer visit or phone call right after hearing the news.  But reps eventually call the prospect, ask which vendor was chosen, and uncover the reasons why. Hopefully, both the rep and the company learn from the loss. Everyone moves on. 

Not so with the "maybes." These potential deals stay in the pipeline and on the forecast for months. Reps try to contact the "maybes" week after week. The lack of responsiveness drains their energy.  

Decide for Yourself

Go through each rep's recent sales reports. Based on the length of your company's average sales cycle and other metrics, assemble a list of deals you feel meet the criteria for being a "maybe."

Meet with the Rep

Review the list you've compiled with each salesperson.  Explain your reasoning, and then hear the rep out on each potential deal. Where they make a strong case, let them keep a company in their pipeline or on their forecast. But let those be the exception to the rule. 

Remember, reps never voluntarily give up on "maybes." It shrinks the size of their pipeline and forecast. In some instances, it showcases how few closable deals they really have.  


The rep needs to contact the "maybes" and determine where they stand in terms of purchasing your product or service.  I suggest using a script like this:

"On (date), (I sent / you participated in) ___.  At that time, you expressed a lot of interest in ___ (product). We agreed the next step was ___ (proposal / second presentation / in-person visit). Since that time I haven't been able to reach you. Could you please give me a call and let me know where you are in the process?"

Select several of their "maybes" and role play with each rep until they feel confident making the calls.

Get Ready

Prepare yourself for push back. Rep's comments will run the gamut from "That's rude and pushy" to "I would never speak to my customer's like that." Really, they're afraid to make the call because they might find out the truth. 

Stress the positive. Surprisingly, many (but not all) "maybes" respond to a message like this and speak candidly about where the deal stands. Sometimes this information allows the rep to take action and get the deal moving again. A "no" means they've saved the company time and resources by moving on from a sale that was never going to materialize.

Indirect Impacts

By going through this pruning exercise you accomplish three things:

  • Cleaning-up pipelines and forecasts
  • Prepping for September
  • Engaging reps productively during a slow period

As an added benefit, reps with noticeably reduced pipelines and forecasts will see the need to start prospecting sooner rather than later.

Final Thoughts

Sales leadership responsibilities include turning in forecasts to upper management that represent deals with a high probability of closing. Culling out the "maybes" shows strong sales leadership ability.

Diagnose Selling Challenges Using Pipeline Report

When I look at my rep's pipeline reports I see that ... most prospects drop off after the product demonstration ... the reps send out a lot of proposals but few lead to closed deals ... the reps speak to a lot of decision makers but few agree to schedule a sales presentation.

Once my clients create and regularly read a pipeline report, the volume of insightful and actionable information provided surprises them. Unfortunately, some of what they learn disappoints them as well.

The Pipeline Report

By definition a pipeline report consists of all of the prospects being actively pursued by a sales representative, and separates them by their appropriate phase in the sales cycle. This information allows a manager to keep track of the total number of prospects the salesperson is working with at any given time.

The Sales Funnel

Ideally, a pipeline report should look like a funnel, with a larger number of prospects at the top and a smaller number of closeable deals at the bottom. Organizations need to understand how many prospects they need at each stage of the pipeline (with some percentage of prospects dropping off along the way) to be able to close enough deals to achieve quota.

Too Many / Too Few

At most companies however, pipelines do not resemble funnels but rather gluts and shortages -- too many prospects in some stages and a lack of prospects in others. Though frustrating, these lopsided funnels show salespeople as individuals who both excel in some areas and need help in others.

Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, this data enables managers to direct coaching and training efforts where they're most needed.

Typical Pipeline

Every product or service has a sales cycle. In general the steps include:

Introduction or prospecting call
Conversation with decision maker
Product demonstration or sales presentation
Closed Sale

Speaking with Decision Makers

If sales representatives experience difficulty getting through to or having a conversation with a decision maker they may:

  • Know little or nothing about the company prior to the call
  • Lack an introduction tailored to the specific prospect
  • Be unable to provide a relatable example of a potential customer benefit
  • To keep them on the phone, salespeople need to specifically explain why their product will benefit the decision maker.

Moving the Sale Along

Some reps find reaching and talking to decision makers relatively easy. They may struggle with moving a prospect from discussing a product or service to convincing them to take action in the form of a product demo or a proposal. These sales reps might be:

  • Assuming a level of interest that isn't there yet
  • Asking for the product demo or proposal too quickly
  • Failing to understand the prospects needs and concerns
  • Pushing features and benefits of no interest to the prospect

Product demos or proposals require a level of commitment. Most decision makers avoid going in that direction unless they are serious about a potential future purchase. They value their time.

Solving the Problem

Address the clogged pipeline situation initially by looking at your sales staff. Determine who excels at introducing themselves or conducting product demonstrations. Find out how they do what they do. As a starting point, share their best practices with the rest of the sales staff.

Ask reps struggling with those same sales skills to do some research on sites like Amazon. Have them look for books / tapes / workbooks that address the specific areas they need assistance in. At least skim the books they choose. Start a discussion about any revelations / new ideas they're discovering as they read. Begin to think about what further training / coaching they may need going forward.

The good news about a clogged pipeline report is that it can be unclogged. Sales reps need the right skills and support to enable as many of their prospects as possible to move from one phase to the next. Once the report begins to look like a funnel, revenues and productivity will increase.

Vary Reports to Unearth Trends (Part 2)

Last month I answered a question from a manager who found reviewing the same sales reports over and over again boring, and who thought the salespeople felt the same way. I agreed that reports can feel monotonous sometimes, and suggested that the manager introduce a few new and interesting ones. My suggestions focused on product and industry reporting. This month I would like to focus on time and territory management.

Quality sales reports capture events that take place over a period of time and use the data to tell a story. That's why it's critical to switch the information around and tell the story from a different perspective now and again.

Closed Sales

Using a closed sales report from the previous year, divide those companies who purchased a product or service from your organization into 4 groups: referrals, leads, repeat business and prospecting (or whatever categories apply at your company). If salespeople are expected to close between 3 and 5 sales per month, the report for a year might look something like this:

RepReferralsLeadsRepeat BusinessProspectingTotal
Rep A20129748
Rep B54131436
Rep C18634260

As a manager, you might not have a problem with any of the results, given the various reps' territories and strengths. On the other hand, you might have some questions or concerns. Is Rep B asking enough of his current accounts for referrals? If several of Rep C's accounts stop doing business with her for any reason, will she be able to make up the difference through prospecting? Does Rep A have a strong enough relationship with his current accounts? 

The same report can be run using lost sales instead of closed sales. Discovering which category accounts for the most lost sales should make for an interesting discussion.

Territory Coverage 

Theoretically, salespeople should spend 80% of their time on the accounts that bring in 80% of their business. Is that true in your organization? How does such a thing get measured? Find out which accounts bring in the majority of the sales revenue in a reps' territory. Next, run a report showing how many in-person visits, phone calls or CRM notes appear for a given month or quarter.

J. Jones Q1% of BusinessSales CallsCRM NotesPhone Calls
Account A36386
Account B2911521
Account C1521013

Joe Jones sees Account A once a month and Account C every 6 weeks. A CRM report indicates that some type of notation is made every other week on average for Account C. Account C (15% of business) receives more phone calls than Account A (36% of business). Interestingly, Account B (29% of business) was seen only once during the quarter but received more phone calls than Accounts A and C combined. 

Account B may have told Joe Jones not to call more than once a quarter. They might prefer frequent phone contact instead. Account A may feel that Joe Jones visits often enough and calls an appropriate number of times. Account C may be having a customer service issue and wishes Joe Jones would come to see them in person to try and solve the problem rather than always calling. As a manager, you really can't be sure until the data is in front of both you and the rep, and a dialogue takes place. 

These "out of the box" reports need to be read with a totally open mind. The information contained within them can alert sales reps and managers alike to troublesome problems or patterns. The reports can shake people out of their doldrums. We all get into ruts. The idea is to discuss the findings with the sales representative and use the reports as a reference point for praise (if called for) or improvement (if necessary). When reports promote a lot of discussion, boredom goes by the wayside and insights result.

Vary Reports to Unearth Trends

A reader writes, "A few years ago I started using to create sales reports, which I review with my sales representatives one-on-one and at staff meetings. These reports have significantly increased my effectiveness as a manager and improved the rep's productivity. Lately, I feel bored as I go over the reports and I think the salespeople feel the same way. Should I create new reports?"

This can happen. No matter how effective the sales reports, going over the same information in the same way for a period of time can start to feel stale and uninteresting. Don't give up on your standard reports, though. Anyone managing salespeople needs to have a suite of reports that they review consistently (productivity, sales forecast, etc.). These reports keep the reps focused and accountable and keep you informed. What you can do is mix things up once in a while. Create some new and inventive reports to keep everyone interested and challenged.

Sales by Product

If your company sells many different products, run a report for each sales representative showing them how much they sell of each product. The information always surprises reps and managers alike. Sure, the salespeople might know what their 1 or 2 top-selling products are, but if you dig a little deeper there is a great deal to be learned. 

The first time I ran a report like this for a sales staff, I wasn't sure how they would react. I handed it out and I don't think anyone looked up or spoke for a good 5 minutes. They were completely intrigued with the information. When they finally began speaking I heard a lot of "No way!" "I sell more of this than that!" "I thought that was my #1 seller, not this." Every single one of them took away something from that report that made them a more effective salesperson.

Sales by Product by Rep 

Next, create a report that compares each rep's sales of a particular product to the other sales representatives on staff. Analyze the report to spot trends and inconsistencies.

Product #1    
 Rep ARep BRep CRep D

In this report, reps A, C, and D sell a similar amount of Product #1. But what's going on with Rep B? Her sales of product #1are far behind those of the other salespeople. Why? Is there no market for Product #1 in her territory? Is her product knowledge weak? What is Rep C doing that puts him at the top of the chart? How is that different from what Rep B is doing? Start a dialogue and find out.

Sales by Industry

If your organization sells just one or two products to several different industries, run a report that shows how many sales each salesperson has made by industry.

Sales to Hotels    
 Rep ARep BRep CRep D

This chart tells a different story. Rep C has sales in the Hotel industry that are double those of her nearest co-worker. Are there more hotels in her territory? Does she have better industry contacts? Is it just luck? A more compelling value statement? As a sales manager I would want to know what Rep C rep was doing so that the information could be shared with the entire sales staff. 

Sales by Product or Sales by Industry reports highlight top-performing sales reps. They can also expose weaknesses in the sales organization. More than anything else, though, these reports promote discussion and debate, which can lead to the sharing of best practices and additional sales training. By creating and reviewing these new reports with your staff, the "same old same old" feeling you were experiencing will be a thing of the past. 

In this newsletter I have focused on Product and Industry reports. In next month's issue, I will discuss creating new and different reports that focus on the sales representative's time and territory management.

What’s the Difference Between a Pipeline and a Forecast?

A client asks: “During sales meetings, our sales representatives review their pipelines and sales forecasts. But I think we are all defining these terms differently. Is there a big difference between the pipeline and the sales forecast? Does it matter what word they use?”

Yes there is a difference and yes it does matter. Your sales people may be using these words interchangeably without giving it a lot of thought, or they may have worked for other organizations that had differing definitions of these terms. Regardless, understanding what each means and using them correctly is important for a number of reasons.

The Pipeline

The sales pipeline consists of all prospects at all stages in the sales cycle, whether the sales person is in the beginning phase of introducing your company, discussing the product or service, qualifying a prospect, conducting a Webinar or product demonstration, or formally presenting a pricing proposal. Though all future sales begin as leads from some source (cold calling, referrals, or trade shows), no unqualified or uncontacted lead should be in the sales pipeline. All unclosed sales, however, belong in the sales pipeline.

The phrase “pipeline management” refers to the salesperson’s ability to juggle all of their prospects in differing points in the sales cycle. “Balancing” the sales pipeline refers to their ability to cold call, follow-up on existing leads and close sales simultaneously so that they have a continuous flow of opportunities and will not have huge period-to-period swings in closed sales.

The Sales Forecast

The sales forecast is the salesperson’s best estimate of which sales will close in a given time frame. Most companies produce 30-60-90 day forecasts: opportunities more than 90 days into the future are considered less reliable and are generally not forecast. The main difference between the pipeline and the sales forecast is that the prospective customer must meet certain pre-defined objective criteria to qualify for the sales forecast in the first place (e.g.: the proposal has been reviewed with the decision maker; the budget process is clearly understood; the prospect has made a verbal commitment to buy). Prospects in the sales forecast are not at various points in the sales cycle; they are nearing the end of it.

Another significant difference between the two is that the sales forecast is used to estimate a company’s short term revenue and cash flow. In other words, sales forecasts help a company determine whether or not they can pay their bills, pipelines do not.

The Long Range Sales Forecast

Prospects in the long range forecast have told the sales representative that they are budgeted for and will be purchasing a product or service at some point in the future. For the prospect, the reason that the purchase is being put off into the future usually involves an expiring contract or a purchase that needs to go through the formal budgeting process. Sales representatives use the long range forecast to keep track of prospects who will be buying anywhere from 4 months to 2 years from the time of their initial contact with them.

Once a prospect is on the long range forecast, the salesperson can put them on the company mailing list and keep them informed about new product developments and promotions. By giving the prospect a call from time to time, the sales representative will be in the know if they change their mind and decide to buy in 7 months instead of 1 year.

A wise sales manager looks out for the following scenarios:

  • Salespeople with a full pipeline can turn in a weak sales forecast because of an inability to close sales.
  • Those with a strong sales forecast can have a weak pipeline because they have put the bulk of their effort into getting sales closed, while neglecting to prospect or conduct enough product demonstrations.
  • Salespeople with a strong pipeline and strong sales forecast may be spending little time with those prospects that might be purchasing many months in the future.

Sales is a balancing act and understanding the difference between a pipeline, a forecast, and a long range forecast as well as making sure that each is strong, is crucial to having consistent success in sales.

Though my clients come from many different industries, the challenges they face are similar. In “Sales Management Tips,” I regularly answer questions that have been posed to me by my clients. I hope the answers will help you to solve some of the sales dilemmas you face in your own sales organizations. If you would like to ask a question, please contact me. The identity and affiliation of those submitting questions will be kept confidential.

Adopting a CRM System

A client asks, "I am in the process of picking out a contact management system for my sales representatives. Peers of mine have told horror stories of investing quite a bit of money in systems that the sales representatives never use. How can I avoid this problem?"

First, you are on the right course. A standardized contact management system, or more generally a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system, is essential for effectively sharing information among you and your team. However, if the system isn't set-up or rolled out correctly, it can wind up being an expensive and worthless undertaking. Remember, salespeople focus on maximizing their income, and the CRM system must be a means to that end rather than an impediment. Here are some tips that can help make the purchase and deployment of a CRM system successful.

Narrow the Field

Research and then select what you feel are the top 2 or 3 CRM choices for your sales organization. Be open to individual sales representatives suggesting programs they may have heard of or used in the past, but don't rely on the sales staff to initiate the search. It will only lead to time delays and charges of favoritism. Announce the finalists at a staff meeting and ask each salesperson to evaluate the systems and give their feedback to a selected sales representative. Make it clear that while you are very interested in their opinions, the final choice of CRM systems will be yours. Then meet with the sales representative, weigh the opinions, and make the selection.

Invest in Training

Sometimes the cost of the CRM system is so great that a company opts out of instructor-led training, leaving salespeople to fend for themselves with manuals and web-based modules. This often results in the more technical sales representatives jumping ahead and developing their own methodology, while the less technically inclined will lag behind or avoid using the system altogether. Formal training will ensure more consistent use of the software.

Most CRM's are intimidating at first. Decide which features you will use and then introduce the use of them to the sales representatives a few at a time. Make sure the features are fully understood before you move on the next set.

Input Data in Phases

Often salespeople are charged with the task of putting in all of the information for all of their accounts. This can prove to be overwhelming and is often when the first signs of push-back are seen. Break this task into smaller segments by having the sales representatives divide their accounts into groups labeled "A," "B," "C," and "D," with "A" being their best accounts. Tell them that all "A" accounts must be in the system by a certain date and then the "B" accounts, etc. Have the lists spot checked to make sure the accounts have been entered.

Identify Mandatory Fields

Decide which fields are an absolute must for the sales representatives to populate. Then work with the CRM's customer support department to flag the fields so that the sales representatives cannot proceed in the program until they have been filled in. When you start running reports from the system, your data will be much more consistent.

Use the Terminology

Most CRM's have their own unique terms and phrases for such things as sales forecasts or cold calls and it can be difficult for everyone in the organization to make the switch. This is an example of something that needs to start at the top. Once you have selected the system, you must lead by example and start using the terminology.

Use It Yourself

Finally, show the sales representatives that you are serious about the use of the system by using it yourself. For example, if you have one-on-ones with your sales staff, review their pipeline using the CRM before your meetings and/or run a pipeline report to review with them.

Introducing a new CRM can be stressful and intimidating for the sales staff. Some may have a preference for another system they have used in the past while others are satisfied to use something like Excel. It takes time, planning, and patience to make a new system part of the sales organization but it can be done and the benefits are many.

Next month I will write about the sales representative that, despite all your best efforts, will not use the system.

Effective Sales Reporting is Essential

A client asks, "I manage a sales force of six, but don't have a good grasp on what they are doing on a daily and weekly basis. What kind of information should I ask them for? How often should it be turned in? What should I do with it?"

Running a sales organization without effective reporting is like driving with your eyes closed: you won't get where you want to go. The three reports that are essential to any well-run sales organization, no matter what the size, are the daily call report, the productivity report, and the sales forecast.

The Daily Call Report

The daily call report tells you how and how often your sales representatives are calling on the accounts in their assigned territory. The specific data asked for in this report varies by company and industry but most commonly includes what companies the salespeople called on, who they spoke with, whether the calls were in person or by phone, what they talked about, what the next action steps will be and when the next scheduled calls are.

Daily call reports should be turned in (or run, depending on your level of automation), on a daily basis and read carefully at least every other day. Reviewing them every few weeks does not allow you to verify information in the report on a timely basis.

The Productivity Report

The purpose of the productivity report is to keep you informed about the level of activity taking place within the sales organization and to make sure that each salesperson is meeting or exceeding the productivity standards you have established. The data often includes the number of outbound calls, conversations, voice mails, customer meetings, and sales presentations. The report should compare actual results against the benchmarks you have established for each activity.

Productivity reports should be turned in (or run) and reviewed on a weekly basis. Many managers compare the activities on the productivity report to both the phone bill and the daily call report to verify what is being reported.

The Sales Forecast

The sales forecast has multiple purposes including helping to estimate revenue, determining what opportunities need executive attention, and paving the way for post-sale product or service delivery. The accuracy of a sales forecast strongly affects the entire organization and is therefore the most important report generated. This document generally contains prospect names, sales opportunity sizes, indications of where the sales opportunities are in the sales cycle, and what the customers are buying. It is the sales representative's best estimate of which sales will close during the next 30, 60, or 90 days and, in most companies, is due at the beginning of each month with occasional revisions due mid-month if the need arises.

Each sales representative must clearly understand what criteria a potential account must meet before they are allowed to put it on the forecast, otherwise the data will be meaningless. Once an account has been placed on the sales forecast, it must not be removed without the salesperson having discussed it in detail with their manager.

Reviewing these reports is time consuming. But keep on top of them. If the sales staff suspects that you don't review the reports, they will make a token effort at writing them and you will start to lose touch with the sales organization. Remember the old adage "inspect what you expect." By setting goals and letting your salespeople know you are committed to tracking progress toward them, you will vastly increase the performance and predictability of your business.