I remember when my young son got his thick Mr. Magoo glasses for the first time, he sat quietly staring straight ahead repeatedly flipping the glasses up and down on the bridge of his nose so as to switch from seeing through his old eyes and his new eyes. I wondered what must be going through his mind after years of not clearly seeing what was between himself and about 20 feet away. Finally, he tugged on my sleeve and whispered, “Mama, what’s real?” Interesting question isn’t it? I caught myself pondering this very question recently while looking over my forecast. We are so often equally blind when forecasting, getting false positives and negatives as we wend our way through the sales cycle. Today we’ll delve into tips that give us a bit of a forecasting reality check.
Perhaps it doesn’t really matter how well you forecast. Can’t you just roll with the tide and work hard and hope for the best, rather than stress out over the unknowable future? Sorry, but no, you can’t. Forecasts help companies make budgeting decisions that keep the lights on – it’s critical for a sales department to be accurate, impartial and honest with their forecast. Heck even if you are just budgeting your own life around your commissions you need to have a solid forecast. And even though we have all kinds of sales automation tools to help us tally that forecast, the data is input by emotionally charged humans. Our view is always filtered, whether from the viewpoint of an overconfident sales rep, or a sandbagging regional manager or an ambiguous prospect. Those filters, like poor eyesight, warp our vision of reality.
Here are some tips to add a dose of reality to your forecasting:
- Create a checklist of things your buyers do before they buy. Common items on this list will be get budget approval, have the IT Dept. vet your solution, ask for references, ask for your W9, check training date availability, etc. As you move through your pipeline to determine how likely a prospect is to purchase, count off the number of the buying steps they’ve taken and it will help you both accurately measure the opportunity as well as give you a call to action to bug the prospect with.
- Monitor pilot or program usage. A way to identify product usage is one of the most useful data sources your salesforce can have. The higher the usage, the higher the excitement. First time and program renewals are both more likely when teachers and students are engaging with a product.
- Engage more than one person at the account. Data is always more accurate if you have multiple measurements, and getting a read from more than one person is a good way to do that in sales. If you work at the building level, don’t leave after having a great chat with the principal, get the name of his lead teacher or one whose opinion will be important to the decision-making process. At the district, try to connect with an end user they trust to provide feedback.
- Be more blunt. I find this happening with my old age or I suppose it’s just experience. Get over your “feelings” about a meeting. It’s good but meaningless data to have had a nice sales meeting. News flash: All sales meetings are pretty cordial. If you don’t talk turkey at the end of that nice demo, you have absolutely no idea where to forecast that prospect. Many reps are delicate about asking if, when and how a client is going to buy. If you don’t come right out and ask, “Does this work for this year’s budget?” and “When will you be ordering?” the prospect gets off the hook by not needing to determine these things.
- Ask yourself “how you know” what you know? The dialogue:
Rep: This guy is super interested, he’s buying.
Conscience: How do you know?
R: Well he thought it was terrific, totally got it, said his kids needed this.
C: Oh, and then he said, “I’m buying it?”
R: No, but he totally said he liked it and they needed it. He even said they could afford it.
C: And he has no other vendors showing him solutions that he might also like?
R: Not that I know of, but seriously I can just tell he’s in.
C: OK so when is the PO coming?
R: Ummmm…I need to make a phone call.
- Handicapping the climate at this location. Buyers lie without meaning to. They lie with their enthusiasm and their good intentions, but even they don’t control all the factors of a purchase. You can improve your chances when you know you are dealing with the decision maker directly, and also if you have other good handicapping factors going for you:
- The funding source for your category is not currently being negotiated or fluctuating
- The district has made prior purchases from your company
- Someone in the loop has used your product at another school or district
- They have received an ear marked grant naming your product (but even then it ain’t over till you see the order).
- The change management issues are behind them (e.g. ending another provider’s contract, committing to a new philosophy, installing the servers or wireless network needed).
The answer to the question is that what’s real is a purchase order. Everything that comes before that is a mirage, both a good mirage that you sometimes have a busy day at a trade show and think you are closing every business card that got dropped in your fish bowl, and a bad mirage where two people in a row tell you their funding is cut and you start looking through the want ads. It’s never as bad or good as it seems. The best way to put an accurate forecast together is to bring your sales conversations to the point where a purchase decision can be made, and then just ask. Getting the customer to state their intentions out loud is never a bad thing. Moving a not gonna happen sale out of your pipeline streamlines your work, letting you focus on other customers that are better opportunities. It also takes all the guess work out of forecasting so your vision is 20/20!