The most common reason is that the managers work from instinct and results, rather than process and activity. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A good activity management program is within the reach of any company, whether you have one salesperson or 1,000—and it can be your best friend in developing sales results.
Activity management is the process of quantifying sales inputs (the various types of activities that go into making a sale for your company) and using those numbers to reliably predict outputs (sales results). Nearly every sale can be broken down into several different activities, and your sales funnel will begin to narrow as the activities are performed. By counting the number of different types of activities performed in a given time period, and then measuring those activities against proven success-generating activity patterns, we can diagnose sales problems and arrest negative work patterns before they become critical. This means we can alter the performance of our salespeople by working ahead with them, rather than simply commenting and criticizing results.
Of all the skill sets that make up a good sales manager, the most valuable (and most rare) is the skill to alter performance by troubleshooting substandard performance. Many managers, frustrated with the difficulty of coaching, prefer to simply hire and fire salespeople. Sometimes management generated turnover is desirable, but turnover typically leads to more turnover.
When generating sales results, you only have two variables with which to work.
Those variables are: quantity of activity (Is the salesperson meeting expectations for calls, presentations, proposals, etc.? If not, why not?) and quality of activity (Is time with customers spent in high-value ways?) By understanding those two variables, you take the mystery out of coaching.
We’ll save coaching for quality of activity for a future issue. For now, let’s discuss quantity.
Developing your target numbers
First, it’s essential that you have a good set of numbers to work with. These numbers should be based on your company’s sales history and will provide a road map for the salesperson to achieve success.
The basic concept of sales activity management is this: Each salesperson has an expected amount of sales he/she needs to generate in a given time period. The average ratio of proposals to sales—from first appointments to proposals, from calls to appointments, etc.—dictates the quantities of each activity needed. For instance, if the salesperson closes 50 percent of his/her proposals and is expected to sell four new customers per month (or close four deals per month), that salesperson will need to have at least eight proposals in the same month.
By understanding your ratios, and managing your sales team’s efforts, you will be in a better position to meet your goals.
First, let’s understand your key ratios (feel free to fill in below):
Proposals to sales: ______%
Appointments to proposals: _____%
Calls to appointments: _____%
My preference is to manage activity on a weekly basis, rather than monthly or quarterly. The reason is that the farther you spread out the management schedule, the less urgency there is to fulfill activity quotas; you’ll end up with “cramming” the last week or two of the month. That’s not helpful. Let’s look at a real-life example. Let’s say that the result you want is one new customer per week. Your ratios above might be:
Proposals to sales: 50%
Appointments to proposals: 33%
Calls to appointments: 20%
In this example, to reliably achieve one new customer sale each week, your salespeople would need to have two proposals per week (because only 50 percent close), six appointments per week (because only one of three appointments yielded a proposal), and 30 calls per week (because one of five calls yields an appointment). With those numbers in place, you’ll have an activity road map. Don’t skip this step! Without some sort of guide, you’ll never be able to reap the benefits of activity management.
Once you have your numbers, they should be shared with salespeople at the point of hire (I like to put expectations in the offer letter and have them sign as having received the letter) and reinforced constantly through sales meetings, one-on-one sessions and evaluations.
The first step in troubleshooting sales performance is to look at the quantity of activity. The reason is simple: If the salesperson just won’t do the work, it doesn’t matter how good the salesperson may or may not be in front of the customer; they’ll never see enough customers to make their goals. You should have a set of sales activity metrics for your salespeople, so begin the troubleshooting process by evaluating the salesperson’s actual activity vs. the expected activity. If the salesperson isn’t meeting activity metrics, it’s time to find out why. The two most common reasons are:
- The salesperson simply isn’t doing the work, or
- The approach used by the salesperson isn’t meeting the expected ratios (for instance, the salesperson is making the appropriate number of telephone calls, but is not getting the necessary appointments). In this case, quantity and quality become intermingled.
If there is a quantitative issue, begin troubleshooting at the highest point in the sales funnel (i.e., calls). Work downward as activity goals are met. If the salesperson is performing enough calls, are they getting enough appointments? If not, they may not be successfully executing their calls. If they are, move from appointments to proposals, proposals to sales, etc. At some point, you’ll find the problem and then you have something to work from.
Sometimes, your salespeople simply need to work above your pattern. I once had a salesperson who wasn’t capable of substantially improving his quality of activity; however, he improved his quantity so much above basic expectations that he still made President’s Club. Once you understand these two variables and how to make them work for you, anything is possible.
One factor to keep in mind is the size of the prospects or customers pursued. This method is dependent upon your salespeople pursuing customers of whatever size you deemed appropriate. If this is a problem, it’s simple to correct through some list generation and re-targeting.
Putting truth into the system
A key question you might be asking yourself at this point is: Can’t the reps simply lie about their activity? My answer is: Sure they can, but not for long if you’re doing this right. Even when you’re using a system dependent upon reps reporting their own activities, we still have to put truth into the reporting. And there are ways to do that.
The first way is the spot check. This is where you (or your sales manager) call a prospect that has been seen recently by the salesperson and do a quick post-call review. It’s not difficult. Just call the prospect, tell them you’re calling because you know they were seen by a salesperson last week (and you want to verify the experience was a good one) and ask if there’s anything you can do to help them choose to buy from you. Your salespeople may be agitated by this at first, but you have the right to call prospects at any time to help advance the business. You should be spot checking call reports periodically; not only will it identify issues with reporting, but it will also help move your sales forward. If you do this consistently, your reps won’t try to slip fake calls past you. Ultimately, if you don’t trust your reps to report accurately, you shouldn’t employ them anyway.
The second way is by checking the viability of your proposals. A viable proposal is one that has been qualified by the salesperson, generated engagement from the customer and has a better chance of turning into business.
By asking a few simple questions, we can give a proposal a “sniff test” for viability.
Why will the customer buy from us? This question helps us understand whether or not the salesperson has correctly identified a customer need and translated that need into an appropriate product offering. Don’t settle for the old “because we’re the best” stuff here—dig. If the salesperson can’t answer why the customer will buy, you can bet the customer hasn’t the slightest idea why—or if—they will buy.
Who are our competitors? Competitor knowledge shows how thoroughly the salesperson understands the process. .As a coaching tidbit, don’t ever settle for “we don’t have any.” The status quo– doing nothing–is always your toughest competitor.”
When will the customer buy from us? Successful salespeople are able to establish a solid time frame through customer questioning. A good follow-up question is: What is dictating that time frame? Make sure your salesperson understands the customer’s buying process.
What is your confidence level? The “confidence percentage” is a common figure applied in nearly all CRM systems. Don’t just settle for a number—if you can, standardize the criteria for the percentage and hold your salespeople to it.
What factors could keep us from getting the business? Similar to the competitor question, it’s just as important to know why we wouldn’t get the business as why we would. Again, these questions signify whether or not your salesperson has taken the time to understand the customer, the competitive landscape and the buying process before quoting price. If they have done all these things, and if they have issued a specific price for a specific product/ service package, and if they have a confidence rating greater than 60 percent, they have issued a viable proposal.
You’ll find that sales forecasting—usually a black art—is much more accurate with a quality activity management program. If we understand how many activities your reps are doing, and how well they are doing them, and the quantified values of the customers in the proposal phase, predicting new sales achievement becomes a logical conclusion to a process, rather than a hopeful guess performed on a quarterly basis.
If you’re thinking that establishing a program for activity management is going to be a lot of work, you’re right—it will be. However, it will pay dividends. As a business owner, the primary thing you want from your sales force is consistent and profitable growth. Establishing a good activity management program will help you know in advance what your results are likely to be in any time period, and to affect those results by coaching and correcting.