Too Good to Plan?

Just a few minutes up front can make a huge difference

Good salespeople are very confident of their skills and treasure their independence, so it’s natural that many of them resist the idea of planning. When I teach sales call planning, I often get these types of familiar objections from one or two participants in the workshop:

  • I don’t need to plan because I’ve been doing this for years and I know what I’m doing.
  • I don’t want to plan because it doesn’t let me be myself.
  • I do plan, but I just don’t write it down.
  • Plans are no good anyway, because the customer is always going to change things up on you.

What these objections boil down to is that salespeople think planning limits their creativity and flexibility. After all, a plan by definition imposes limits on what you can do, and sometimes you need the freedom to be creative and adapt to unplanned circumstances. These are legitimate concerns. Rather than addressing those objections myself, I’m going to bring in two experts—a comedian and a general, no less—who know a thing or two about structure and planning.

Planning can make you more creative

A sales call can often be a form of improv, because the unexpected always seems to pop up and you have to be creative in how you respond to it. That would seem to be a good reason not to have self-imposed limits in the form of a plan. But if you think you can be more creative without limits, let’s see what a truly creative person, comedian John Stewart, said about this:

People say, The Daily Show, you guys probably just sit around and make jokes. We’ve instituted—to be able to sort of weed through all this material and synthesize it, and try and come up with things to do—we have a very, kind of strict day that we have to adhere to. And by doing that, that allows us to process everything, and gives us the freedom to sort of improvise.

I’m a real believer that creativity comes from limits, not freedom. Freedom, I think you don’t know what to do with yourself. But when you have a structure, then you can improvise off it.[1]

I’m not a creativity expert, but I do believe you can’t be at your most creative unless you’re fully in the moment, and that’s what having a plan can do for you. Planning for your sales call frees up your mental resources to truly focus and listen to the customer. For example, I’ve found that writing out my questions beforehand lets me concentrate on what the customer is saying in answer to the one I just asked, and be more creative in my response, because I’m not half-thinking about what my follow-up is going to be.

Planning can make you more flexible

If you are one of those who pride themselves on being able to “wing it”, you should know that planning actually increases your flexibility to deviate when necessary—if you do it properly.

I’ve seen salespeople who take planning too far, using it as a straitjacket. They put so much effort into creating a perfect plan that they’re invested in it, and they stick to their plan or their prepared presentation no matter what the customer says or how they react. When they get a question or objection they haven’t planned for, they don’t know what to do. Or, they are so focused on the question they just asked, that they miss clear hints from the customer that there are other opportunities.

On the other hand, too much flexibility can also cost you. I once accompanied a senior executive from one of my clients on a sales call. Before the call, I asked to see his sales call plan, but the look he gave me made me immediately drop the subject. We met with the customer, the executive launched his “mental plan”, and after a couple of minutes the customer took control, focusing almost exclusively on price. My exec pal had maximum flexibility to respond, and that’s actually what happened. He won the business, but he also flexed himself into a rock-bottom, money-losing deal.

The anti-planners in my classes like to quote the old military dictum that, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” What they don’t realize is that the first person to utter that sentiment, if not the exact words[2] was my next expert: Helmuth von Moltke. Who is von Moltke? Glad you asked. He was the head of the Prussian General Staff who in the 19th century developed a system of planning that contributed mightily to the success of the German army for the next 80 years and forms an important basis of American military thinking today.

Von Moltke was trying to tackle the problem that Clausewitz called friction, which is a precursor and more sophisticated description of Murphy’s Law. Plans which are made in the quiet and distant contemplation of headquarters look great on paper, but they immediately run into difficulties, uncertainties, and unforeseen reactions from the adversary—who of course has a will and a plan of his own.

Recognizing the limits of the general’s knowledge, von Moltke didn’t throw out planning, but he did make it more flexible. He formulated the idea of what’s now called mission planning, or what management expert Stephen Bungay calls directed opportunism. He told his generals not to plan “beyond the circumstances that you can foresee”. What this meant in practice was being very clear about their intent, and leaving the details about what to do to the subordinates on the ground. The plan, as communicated to the person who has to carry it out, spells out what needs to be accomplished and why it’s important, and possibly some clear red lines which should not be crossed. The how is left up to the person on the spot who has a close-up, real-time view of the situation.

Since you plan and execute your own sales calls, what does this have to do with you? It might be useful to think of yourself as two different people[3]. Before the call, you are the commander forming the plan of battle. During the call, you are the subordinate on the spot who is tasked with completing the mission, i.e. achieving the commander’s intent. The general at HQ has some advantages. First, he has time to reflect, pull together additional information, figure out what resources he needs, anticipate how a line of questioning might go, etc. He also has emotional distance because he’s not under immediate pressure from the customer demanding an instant answer to a difficult question. The subordinate has the advantage of up-close and real-time access to information, and so being able to choose a reaction based on what feels right at the moment. Planning allows you to combine the best advantages of both people. It lets you figure out the main lines in advance, set some guidelines so you don’t get thrown off track, and then have the freedom to choose the appropriate response.

The result is not unlimited flexibility for its own sake, but intelligent flexibility, which is freedom within well-thought out limits. It’s intelligent because it gives you a more concrete basis to recognize when something is not going according to plan, and then to choose a response that that still aligns with your original intent, and it lets you find your way back to the main path when you’re forced to take a detour. It’s also intelligent because thinking carefully about the what and why is the surest way to connect your sales call purpose to the customer’s needs.

I began this article by stating the obvious point that many salespeople resist planning because it limits their freedom. If you define freedom as having unlimited options, that’s true, but that’s also a recipe for chaos and indecision. On the other hand, if you define freedom as the capacity to control your own results, it’s obvious that planning can set you free. As someone once said: “Liberty is the luxury of self-discipline.”

[1] From Dan Markovitz blog, 8/10/2015

[2] What he actually said was, “No plan of operations can extend with any degree of certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main body.”

[3] Anyone who has woken up early on a cold morning to start that workout program they planned the night before, knows how common it is to feel like two different people.

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