Monday, December 8, 2008

Making Valuable Use of Holiday Downtime

With Thanksgiving in our rear view mirror, and the calendar changed to December, all sales people and sales managers face the impending holiday season with excitement and trepidation. Excitement comes from closing out a strong year, and the joys of the holiday season with friends and family. Trepidation comes from the fear of not making those last sales to secure an above-quota performance, and time constraints that arise from the challenges of being productive during shortened work weeks.

As a native New Englander and life long hockey fan, I’ve always had a special appreciation for the “hockey stick effect” associated with sales performance. This paradigm relates to the fact that a spike of activity and closing of deals will happen (like a hockey stick blade) at the end of a sales quota period. This is pronounced at the end of months and quarters throughout the year, but the impact is the greatest for the intersection of December, Q4, and ending the fiscal year. With top performers striving to maximize commission accelerators and bonuses for a blow out year, middle-of-the-bell-curve performers working to close those last couple of deals to make quota, and low-end performers trying to close a significant deal that could save their job in an under-quota year, everyone on a sales team is working to make valuable use of the limited productive work days of December.

The dust will settle from this last push to secure deals, and from my experience there are always about 5-6 days in December – the couple of days before Christmas and a couple days between Christmas & New Years Day – that end up being lost days. The most productive thing to do might be to take the time off so you can enjoy the fruits of your of labor and recharge your batteries to prepare for the quota reset that will happen on January 1. However, depending on the amount of vacation time you have, or how liberal your management is about taking days off without charging them to personal days, you might be “stuck” going to work and going through the motions.

I have always enjoyed this time of year, and there are a few activities that I would complete during this downtime to prepare for success in the coming year. Without the noise of client requests, internal meetings, pipeline reviews, and the need to travel, I found this time a way for me to focus on some areas of my business that often go overlooked throughout the year. Here are some ways for you to make valuable use of these 5-6 days.

Assess Your Past Year’s Performance: Take a look at your performance for the past year, and break it down like a football coach might break down a game. This means looking past just your top line performance measured in revenue volume and moving deeper into the details. Looking objectively at your performance is a great way to understand what you did well versus what you thought you did well. Some variables that I use:

• Revenue versus number of deals – average and median deal size
• New clients versus existing clients
• Length of sales cycle
• Sources of deals – marketing programs, clients that refer, network referrals, etc.
• Product / service mix – what did people buy
• Industry mix for clients

I will admit that as a technical guy by training, I probably look at this analysis with a bit more intellectual curiosity than most. However, if you don’t know what drove your success or failure during the previous year it will be hard to duplicate the success, or understand what set up your failure.

Ideally, you would like a matrix view of this data so you could draw some conclusions from your analysis. How much of my business came from existing clients versus new clients? Did the sales cycle differ for new versus existing clients (assume what you might but the data could tell a different story)? Did I identify any prospects at networking events that turned into clients? Who were my best 5 clients based on revenue? Did I spend enough time with them? Are they good prospects for other products / services that we are launching next year?

Many SFA / CRM applications make the gathering of the numbers very easy, but the real value comes from setting aside 4-8 hours of undistracted time to develop meaning from the numbers.

Refine Your Client Stories: Over the past 12 months, you have started new business relationships with clients who bought into your value for their business. Now is a great time to evaluate and document all of the things that these new clients found valuable about working with you.

• What were the alternatives?
• Who were the competitors?
• Who had to be involved to approve the purchase – business & financial?
• What departments are impacted positively by the new solution?
• What went well during implementation and what can be improved?
• What internal business, external market, or other factors motivated the client to make a buying decision?

If you don’t know the true answer to these questions, then use this time to try and gather the information from your client. They might be going through similar introspective evaluations of the past year during this time and you can get some quality, un-rushed time on the phone.

Once you have gathered the facts and insights, you can document and highlight the key benefits the client received by using your product, and what other factors came into play during their evaluation. This information can then be woven into your meetings and presentations for the coming year.

On the negative side of the coin, you might also spend some time to evaluate the reasons that some of your clients stopped using your products, or chose an alternative solution over the past 12 months. This information can also be helpful to create account management plans.

Competitive Analysis: Nothing shakes the status quo like a disruptive new product or service. However, in most industries the incremental changes are the ones that can sneak up on you because they are right in front of your eyes and you fail to pay close attention until you are losing deals to a new competitor.

Take a day to dive deep into the web sites and public information of your primary competitors, and your partners. Competitors take two primary forms; first those that offer a product or service that is similar to yours, and second those that compete for the same budgetary resources. The first group are obvious and most usually the primary focus, however, as companies evaluate the level of their budgets and investments for the coming year it is also likely that ancillary products and services to yours could be competing for the same limited budgets.

• What new products / services are being planned for the coming year?
• Who were their big new clients from last year – any of your clients?
• What new partnerships did they announce?
• What are they telling the analysts about their business projections for the coming year?
• Are the new companies planning to enter your territory for the first time?

This is one of the productive activities that you can undertake with your entire sales team. Perhaps you start the day by framing out the information that you want to collect, and then assign 1-2 companies to each of the members of the team. Give everyone a couple of hours to conduct the research and document their findings during the morning, and then gather as a team for a working lunch where everyone presents their findings and you collectively discuss ways to overcome the competitive threats.

Develop Next Year’s Plan: This is probably the most obvious task that you should complete during this downtime. I did, however, hold it out until the fourth item for a reason – specifically, I think understanding your past performance, how your clients bought last year, and what competitive threats are on the horizon, are all critical to develop a strong foundational plan. Too often I see sales managers and sales people developing an annual plan that is founded on very weak assumptions, or unrealistic expectations.

A good plan should include:

• Overall annual objectives
• Quarterly and monthly breakdown of objectives
• Details against all your important metrics – revenue, number of deals, source of deals, number of new clients, etc.
• Details against pipeline and forecasting metrics – size of pipeline, close rates, and new deal flow
• Activity metrics to deliver the result metrics – number of meetings, demos, proposals, etc.
• A game plan for how you will apply yourself and your resources to make plan

Your plan should be based on what you want to achieve, not just on what your company expects from you (quota). Very few successful sales professionals that I know base their expectations solely on their annual quota. The top producers have income and performance objectives that typically supersede the baseline performance metrics set by their managers.

Clean Your Desk: Although this might seem like pure busy work, there is something rejuvenating about cleaning your work area. Over the final months of the year as you worked to shepherd deals through the process, I am sure that many administrative duties took less priority than the activities needed to keep your business deals on track.

Take a day to clean your desk, organize your files, and throw away the things that you don’t need.

• How many of your client folders have 6 versions of the proposal with various notes, negotiations, and concessions in the margins? Clean up the folders and file them away.
• Do you have a stack of industry magazine on the floor by your desk because you haven’t had a chance to read them but think there might be an article of interest or relevance? Become the great destroyer of magazines, thumb through them and rip out the articles that you think might be of interest to you. Throw the magazine carcasses away and put the articles in a folder. Read them on your next flight or just file them, either way the stack of magazines is gone until next year at this time.
• File or toss the trade show brochures, folders, company reports, and all of the other things that you’ve accumulated during the last 12 months. If you need room to file them, throw away your files of product brochures that are 2+ years old.

I could go on and on, but you know there are ways to clean up your work area and make it less distracting, and more productive. Clear the decks so you are not distracted come January.

All of these activities can have a material impact on your success for the coming year, and are great ways to allocate a few hours of your attention while things are “quiet”. If you use some of your downtime through the holiday season to do these activities then you can hit the ground running in January, focused, productive, and insuring a fast start to the New Year.

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