Entrepreneurial Leadership and Management . . . and Other Stuff


Forecasting Sales in 2009

I’ve discussed how critical accurately forecasting sales is to a company’s success before.  In short, I think that companies that have the skill to accurately predict how much they will sell and from where those sales will come have a substantial advantage over those that don’t – they can grow faster and often without consuming as much capital in the process.  In my experience, too few companies value such expertise and of those that do, too many have a difficult time gaining it.

If it was hard before, forecasting in 2009 is significantly more difficult.  If your customer is a business, they are undoubtedly concerned with the stability of their customers and markets.  If your customers are consumers or end users, they are concerned about their paycheck and their savings.  The bottom line here is uncertainty and the conservatism and cautiousness that it results in.  No one knows what’s going to happen and while most people are bullish about the long term, the short term remains scary.

Most companies are struggling with budgets for the coming year and most individuals are stuffing whatever cash they have on hand into T-Bills at 0% interest to be safe.  It’s obvious, of course, that corporate budgets will be conservative and individuals will delay all spending decisions as long as possible.

So what’s a Sales VP and CEO supposed to do?  Ratchet down expectations to an absolute minimum level?  Just discount last year’s sales by some arbitrary percentage?  Come up with a number by gut feel?  Use Q4 2008 or December 2008 as a benchmark for 2009?  No, no, no and buy a lottery ticket instead (it is highly unlikely that Q4 or December numbers will have a strong correlation to 2009 numbers).

Difficult economic times simply require that forecasting be a more rigorous discipline than in good times.  To be accurate, more data is needed and each sales person needs to be closer to their customers.  In really good times, yearly forecasts are sometimes possible, in normal times, it drops to quarterly, in tough times, weekly forecasting with real data from customers is required.  It’s more work, of course, but the payoff can be very big.

So here are some specific ideas about how to develop better sales forecasts for 2009:

  • Find out what’s budgeted and when – does your customer have a budget?  If so, is your product/service category included at this point?  If so, when?  Pretty black and white.  If your product/service isn’t even budgeted, the sales process is all about getting it into the budget.  In the mean time, that customer isn’t on the forecast.
  • Find a champion with power – any sales person worth their salt finds someone on the inside (for business customers) that helps them make the sale.  It is more important than ever that this person also has some power.  Even better if they are the one who actually owns the budget.  The closer you are to the money, the more accurate your forecast can be.  Duh.
  • Build visibility – having a champion is great, but the more you know about the customer, the better.  Individuals are tough in this regard, but businesses are easier.  How is the target company’s market doing?  How well or badly do the service people in the company say that things are going?  Take a random sampling from all your contacts at the customer and ask them how the company is doing and how badly they need your product or service.
  • Talk with your customers and potential customers frequently – just because they told you everything was fine last week doesn’t mean that it remains cool this week.  Even if your champion is the company’s CEO, don’t assume that they have infinite visibility into what’s happening.
  • Be paranoid – deals are likely to be smaller and more competitive than ever.  Your competition is desperate and will be working their hardest to get the sale that you think is your birthright. 
  • Make no assumptions – uncertainty is just that – lack of certainty.  A customer should only make it onto the forecast when you believe you’ve captured as much information as possible and it all points to a sale happening for a certain amount within a certain time frame. 

Interestingly, none of these steps is any different from what a good sales person should be doing in the best of times.  The only difference is the frequency and perhaps, the level, at which they are done.  The more rigorous the process, the more accurate the forecast.

Forecasting is never perfect even in the best of times, but more data can make forecasting a relatively accurate process even in the worst of times.

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 January 15th, 2009  
 Management, Selling  

Just Say No To Weighted Average Sales Forecasting

Any reasonable direct selling process involves establishing a specific set of milestones to help track how far along a prospect is on the path to making a purchase.  These usually include one or more of the following steps:

  • Lead found/created
  • Opportunity qualified
  • Prospect visited/contacted
  • Product demonstrated/Eval in the hands of the prospect
  • Follow-up contact
  • Product selected
  • Prospect has requisite financial approvals
  • Paperwork completed
  • Prospect invoiced
  • PO/cash in hand

Of course, these steps are specific to what is being sold and what process is used, but steps similar to these can be readily mapped to most direct sales processes.  In my view, keeping accurate track of where a prospect is using a tracking process like this, or with milestones that better suit your business, is absolutely critical.  Tracking the process with detail is very important for new companies because gathering data about how the product is sold and adopted is critical to future planning and to adjusting the business moving forward.  As your business matures, using such a process helps you characterise your sales efforts further, ultimately giving you a more accurate means for predicting your bookings, revenue and cash flow.

It’s easy, though, for this data to be misused or overused.  I often see sales organizations map these steps into percentages like this, below, where the right column represents the percentage of completion of the sale.

Lead found/created 5%
Opportunity qualified 15%
Prospect visited/contacted 20%
Product demonstrated/Eval in the hands of the prospect 40%
Follow-up contact 60%
Product selected 70%
Prospect has requisite financial approvals 80%
Paperwork completed 90%
Prospect invoiced 95%
PO/cash in hand 100%

On a superficial level, there’s nothing wrong with this.  It simplifies where the company is in the process of closing a sale by mapping the sales progress to a single number that everyone can understand.  “We’re 80% along the way to closing a deal with customer”  is much easier to understand than, “customer X has his internal financial approvals so we should close soon.”

The problem is that sometimes this simple number morphs into something that it wasn’t intended to be – the probability that the deal will close.  80% along the path to closing is different than having an 80% chance of closing.  Even worse, the percentage of completion of the sales process is often used to mathematically calculate the likely booking amount for a particular deal.  Say, for example, a prospect has selected your product as the one he/she wants and is getting ready to invest $50K.  With the mapping above, you might say that the prospect is 70% along the path to closing.  Through the magic of weighted average forecasting you would take the percentage of the sales stage, multiply it by the $50K the prospect is willing to spend and come up with a $35K forecast for that prospect ($50K X 70%).

When stated this way, it sounds absurd that anyone would do this, but it’s done all the time.  I frequently sit in board meetings where the Sales VP presents a list of potential customers, their sales stage percentage (from a table similar to that above), the projected bookings from a sale to a particular prospect and a forecast that is the result of multiplying the sales stage percentage by the projected bookings.  These numbers are them summed to come up with the quarterly forecast.

Among the myriad of problems that this process presents is that sales just don’t work this way.  They are far more binary-like events than the stages of the sales process would indicate.  Even at the 80% level, there is fallout.  One deal falling out at the 80% level can invalidate the entire forecast, depending on its size.  Just as likely, a deal at 20% can come in quickly, similarly invalidating the forecast.  Since forecast accuracy is critical, especially in small companies, using a weighted average forecasting methodology is fundamentally flawed.

There are simply too many factors involved to accurately boil down sales forecasting into simple equations.  A good, experienced sales person has a gut feel for where a prospect is and the likelihood that he/she will make a buying decision in a given period of time.  While a sales stage percentage is a reasonable benchmark for where a prospect stands and is an absolutely critical tool for junior sales people, it is not nearly accurate enough to base the progress of a company on. 

Sales people need to be close to their prospects, knowing who the key decision-makers are with a thorough understanding of the purchasing process in the account.  Once they have this, they will be able to estimate what deals will come in for how much during any given period with far more accuracy than a simple weighted averaging forecasting tool does.  As always, good management and loads of wisdom trump virtually any tool that can be created.

 June 30th, 2006  
 Management, Selling  

Forecast Accuracy

Inevitably, after each fiscal quarter, a couple (or few, or many, or most) of the companies I work with inform me that their sales results for the quarter were below expectations. By itself, of course, this is usually not a catastrophe (although it sometimes can be) and leads to some reflection about what went wrong. What drives me completely nuts, though, is when numbers are missed after the company had been forecasting higher numbers during the quarter. I go total berserk when those higher numbers were still being forecast late in the quarter – sometimes until the last day. It’s not only when numbers miss on the low side that makes me upset. Sometimes, even when numbers miss on the high side I find cause for concern.

To me, forecasting accuracy is the single most important measure of the quality of a sales team. And, thus, is a reflection of the CEO’s ability to manage the sales process and sales team.

Being able to accurately predict bookings and, more importantly, collections in a small business is absolutely critical to maximizing a company’s opportunities and growth. The more accurate the prediction of income, the better spending can be aligned and the more efficiently the capital gained from the sale of equity or absorption of debt can be utilized. Why sell more of the company or take on more debt than is needed?

Aside from the financial issues, there are very few things that can hurt morale in a company more than missing a couple of quarters back-to-back. It’s quickly seen as a sign of weakness in the product, company or market and makes employees question what they are doing and how many hours of their lives they are pouring into the enterprise. Doing what you say you’re going to do, and sometimes doing better, makes everyone feel like they’re dedicating their efforts to a worthy cause.

Companies have sales plans, of course, which are generally set up a year ahead of time. A year is a very long time for a small company and accurately establishing sales predictions that far ahead of time is virtually impossible to do correctly. Forecasting, on the other hand, while often done for longer periods, generally is studied for the current or next quarter. This shorter term look at sales should be far more accurate than the longer term sales plan.

Forecasting for small companies without much of a pipeline is difficult. In this case, if a deal drops out of the forecast, it’s not likely to be replaced by another deal that comes in ahead of schedule. When companies are small, closing those all-important first key deals should be the main focus of the sales force. After those initial deals are closed, however, the focus should change to increasing the size of the pipeline in order to create a stable and predictable revenue/bookings/cash stream.

There is no excuse for a company with an established sales team (direct or indirect) to miss the numbers it predicted just a couple of months earlier by any significant amount. This means high or low. If the numbers are high (not including bluebird deals that were never in the pipeline), then spending wasn’t optimized and growth through increased spending could happen sooner. If the miss is low, then the company potentially spent more than it should have and may run into cash problems earlier than planned.

There should be enough visibility into the deals in the pipeline and enough of an understanding of the sales cycle to be able to determine which deals are going to come in during a quarter and which deals aren’t. Certainly, as the company gets further into its quarter, the more accurate the forecast for that quarter should become. With this logic, one should assume that the forecast one week before the end of the quarter should be basically right on. It’s shocking to me how often that it’s not.

The CEO and VP Sales need to be held responsible for the accuracy of the forecast. In my experience, they are often either judged on their sales achievement with respect to their plan only or, even more often, with respect to some abstract level of sales that seems right for the maturity of the company in its particular market. This is not sufficient. Accuracy of forecast is an indication of how close the CEO and Sales VP monitor the pulse of the business. It demonstrates how well the two understand the customer, the sales cycle and the market. Without a detailed understanding of these, there is little chance that the company will be successful. Therefore, it needs to be one of the key and, at certain stages of the company, the primary key factor in judging the success of company management.

The way to make this work, of course, is through compensation plans, making sure the company is tracking the right metrics and always asking good questions. I’ll talk about some of this stuff in the future in a post about compensation plans and unintended consequences.

 April 5th, 2006  
 Management, Selling