Your plan will go off-track. It was a German general, von Moltke, who first said that no plan ever survives contact with the enemy. I doubt von Moltke ever carried a bag, but the same idea applies to sales call plans. You can establish a clear purpose, have excellent questions prepared to guide the conversation, anticipate the worst possible objections you could encounter, and the customer will still find a way to say or do something unexpected.
So why even plan? Why not go in and wing it? You’re a pro, after all. You’ve been in sales long enough to have heard everything. You have a quick mind, deep reserves of experience, and the ability to bluff your way out of the odd inconvenient moment.
I’ve noticed an interesting dynamic in my sales training through the years. The attitude towards sales call planning roughly corresponds to the salesperson’s experience level, but the relationship is not linear. Newbies tend to embrace the idea of planning for sales calls. Those with a medium level of experience tend to think they don’t need to plan because they have had some success in sales up to that point, and as a result have enormous self-confidence. But interestingly enough, it’s the ones with the most experience who most embrace the idea of planning, and in fact most of them have devised their own ad-hoc systems for it.
There are two main reasons salespeople give to explain their aversion to planning. The first is that it takes time, and the second is that it limits their flexibility.
Before tackling these two objections, let me first stress that when I refer to sales call planning I don’t mean force-fitting every call into some predetermined sales process that requires you to move systematically through stages in the buying process, or mechanically filling out a sales call plan template. The template helps, of course, but the key is to use it to really think about the upcoming meeting with the customer.
Of course plans take time. So do unsuccessful sales calls, except now you’re not only taking up more of your own time, you’re also taking up the customer’s. How many times have you had to schedule another meeting to answer questions you were unprepared to answer in the first, or have left a meeting only to suddenly remember that you forgot to talk about something very important?
Besides, as you get in the habit of writing sales call plans, you’ll find that it gets easier and faster, since most calls tend to fall into one of several regular patterns.
Plans don’t limit you, they liberate you. Alfred North Whitehead said that “Civilization advances by extending the number of operations which we can perform without thinking about them”, and the same could be said for sales call planning. Your goal, when you enter into a serious sales conversation, is to devote your full attention to the buyer. That’s hard to do when a portion of your working memory is taken up trying to keep track of where you are in the conversation and what you want to ask next. If you’ve planned it, you can ask your first question, and then focus your full attention on the answer. If the customer says something that goes off the intended track, you can follow the new thread without worrying about whether you will forget your other questions. You always know they are there if you want to come back to them.
Plans can also boost your situational awareness, which is the best defense against the unexpected. The big picture that the plan gives you helps you spot quicker when things are going off track and to make sense of them. The map may not be the territory, but when the territory is different than what you expected, it definitely helps to orient you.
Finally, the process of planning forces you to think deeper about the customer, the situation, and the value you bring. Depth of thought results in better analysis and greater creativity, but that’s an idea I will develop in another article.