Military leaders have long recognised the importance of planning. But they have also recognised that it is the act of planning, rather than the plan itself, that is most important. The Prussian military commander Helmuth van Moltke concluded that “No plan of operations reaches with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy's main force” - often simplified to “no plan survives first contact with the enemy”.
Neil Rackham, author of SPIN® Selling, acknowledged the importance of planning when he concluded that “a consistent finding about successful sales people is that they put effort into planning. Good selling depends more on good planning than any other single factor.”
And to revert back to another military leader, Dwight D Eisenhower believed that “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”. Now, I believe that in some quarters there has been rampant and inappropriate over-application of military metaphors to the sales process. We are NOT in a battle with our customers, nor should think of ourselves as being at war with our competitors.
But we can at least recognise both the power and the limitations of planning...
In the context of selling, planning is about anticipating future outcomes, whether they be the results of a prospecting call, a customer meeting, a proposal, a potential sales opportunity, an important target account or a key sales territory.
Planning also extends to helping our customers craft a sufficiently compelling internal business case to support the decision to go ahead with the project we have been working with them on, and the conclusion that we represent their best solution option.
In every case, the complexities are such (and the risks of unprepared failure so high) that we cannot afford not to prepare before we proceed. But the complexities are also such that we will never have the perfect knowledge required to come up with a perfect plan.
The best we can expect to do is to prepare for success, and to anticipate and mitigate as many of the potential sources of failure as possible. Atul Gawande, author of the best-selling Checklist Manifesto, identified the two primary sources of failure as errors of ignorance and errors of ineptitude.
Both can be mitigated - if not eliminated - through the proper planning and preparation. Errors of ignorance revolve around a failure to know something we could have known. In military parlance, a good example would be the importance of reconnaissance. In sales environments, we can think of the critical importance of thorough discovery and qualification.
Errors of ineptitude revolve around a failure to apply knowledge that existed elsewhere within the system, but which was not applied in the particular circumstances. These are often related to failures to share important information around an organisation and leaving individuals to learn through expensive and painful trial-and-error.
A classic and all-too-common example of both factors together (ignorant ineptitude) is the use of rigid call scripts that insist that the caller follows the same precise formula regardless of how the recipient is reacting.
The purpose of planning is not to strive for perfection (an impossible goal in a complex B2B sales environment) but to help eliminate as many of the potential errors of ignorance and ineptitude as possible. Over-rigidity doesn't help.
The act of planning - by enabling us to deal more effectively with the expected - frees us up to deal more effectively with the unexpected and the unanticipated, particularly if we have focused as much on what could go wrong as on what we hope will go right.
From the moment we start our interaction with our customer, we must both keep our goal in mind and actively listen to and observe how our customer is reacting. Rather than racing through to complete our agenda, we need to be adapting and responding to what we are learning about our customer’s situation.
Doing the appropriate research upfront is essential. Having clear goals is important. But we need to be prepared to modify our position at any time in response to what we have learned.
These adaptable attitudes and situational selling skills have never been more important in complex B2B sales. Rigid, over-formulaic processes are completely inadequate. We cannot expect our sales people to succeed if they fail to apply their intelligence.
The consequences for the profession of selling are profound: simple transactions that can be automated, will be automated. Sales people that depend on rigidly applied processes will become increasingly redundant, as will sales people that have no process at all nor any ability to plan.
The future lies with intelligent, adaptable sales people who listen well and demonstrate high levels of business acumen, who go into every situation with a plan but who then intelligently adapt that plan to reflect the knowledge they have gathered during the interaction.
And it lies with sales organisations that hire for attitude, aptitude and emotional intelligence over experience, and who establish flexible frameworks that guide and support their sales teams rather than rigid processes that restrict and confine them.
And - needless to say - it lies with CRM systems that encourage sales people to think for themselves rather than traditional sales administration systems that over-simplify reality, force rigid thinking and capture often irrelevant information without ever giving any insights back in return.
Bob Apollo is a Fellow of the Association of Professional Sales, a member of the Sales Enablement Society, a regular contributor to the International Journal of Sales Transformation and the Sales Experts Channel and the founder of Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, the leading UK-based B2B value-selling experts. Following a successful corporate career spanning start-ups, scale-ups and market leaders, Bob is now relishing his role as a pro-active advisor, coach and trainer to high-potential B2B-focused sales organisations, systematically enabling them to transform their sales effectiveness by adopting the proven principles of value-based selling.