Zen and the art of sales forecasting

The truth knocks on the door and you say, "Go away, I'm looking for the truth," and so it goes away. Puzzling. - Robert M Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance tells the story of a road trip taken by an unnamed author and his son Chris, from Minnesota to Northern California on their motorbikes. 

The book holds the Guinness World Record as the most rejected bestseller in history, racking up astaggering 121 rejections by publishes all over the world. It went on to sell more than 5 million copies.

This book had a profound impact on me when I first read it as a 16-year-old. As the book's main protagonists debated the essence of ‘quality’, the balance between romanticism and rationality, and the pursuit of ‘pure truth', I knew without a shadow of a doubt I was way out of my intellectual depth. But at the same time I was intrigued. The book opened my eyes to concepts that still impact me to this day, like the search for meaning, enlightenment and purpose in our lives and in our work.

Sitting in a weekly sales forecast call, discussing the ‘close potential’ of a long list of deals is about as far away as you can get from the search for truth and enlightenment, which Pirsig so elegantly portrayed in his book … or is it? Once you start to peel the onion a little, some interesting parallels begin to emerge.

  • The practice of Zen Buddhism often takes the form of intensive group meditation: That certainly holds true for most forecast meetings
  • Zen Buddhism requires weekly if not daily dedication from its practitioners: In many B2B sales organisations, forecasting is now a daily ritual as well
  • Zen Buddhism focuses the mind on removing doubt and uncertainty to expose truth: In theory, so does sales forecasting
  • Zen Buddhist meditation usually takes place in a seated position: With one notable exception, every sales forecast meeting I’ve been in I was sitting down.

For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses.
Robert M Pirsig - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

In my experience, and I must stress this is only my experience, these are some of the best and worst sales forecasting practices I have observed over the years:

 

Sales forecasting – The Bad

  • Over or under forecasting (also known as 'bottom drawering') - There are many reasons this behaviour occurs, including inexperienced salespeople, a poor sales culture in the business and the lack of a consistent sales process
  • Lack of lead housekeeping (especially common with in-bound web leads and event follow-ups) – Duplicate data, deals that aren’t updated, lack of notes in relation to a deal, these and many more factors lead to poor lead housekeeping
  • Zombie deals that never die (deals that last longer at a company than you do!) – Lack of forecast accountability by sales managers often lead to deals that hang around for months or years, constantly being pushed out to the next quarter, only to pop up again like the undead
  • Naivety or happy ears (it can be tricky to balance optimism with pragmatism) – Most salespeople are optimists, however a healthy dose of sales paranoia is also required, to avoid falling into the trap of believing everything you hear or want to hear.

 

Sales forecasting – The Good

  • Consistently accurate forecast (usually within a few percent of your commit figure) – Salespeople with an in-depth understanding of their opportunities, who have established strong lines of communication with the customer or prospect and manage expectations on both sides of the fence
  • Attention to detail (many salespeople struggle in this area) – Knowing your deal, the possible road-blocks, the compelling drivers, the sign-off steps, the competitive landscape etc, will invariably be the difference between accurate and inaccurate forecasting
  • Asking the right questions (objection handling is a critical skill-set to master) – Intelligent and ongoing discovery questions throughout the sales cycle, coupled with active listening, objection handling and problem solving skills are key to hitting your forecast
  • A healthy dose of paranoia (the perfect antidote to happy ears) – Optimism is important in sales. However constantly testing, questioning and refining the information at your disposal is absolutely critical. Avoid making assumptions or using out-of-date information to infer outcomes.

 

So how do you fix a broken sales forecasting process?

Step 1 - Start by creating a consistent sales process. Sounds simple doesn’t it? I wonder how many of you reading this post have a written down or visually represented sales process that the whole sales team follows, which you can share with your customers in some instances?

Step 2 is a tricky one because it involves having honest conversations, both internally and with your customer. In order to forecast accurately, you need to understand where they are at in their buying cycle and overlay that onto your sales process to determine the gaps. This single step should lead to a significant reduction in the confusion and misinformation that exists in the average sales forecast.

Step 3 - Once you’ve completed steps 1 and 2, things begin to get a little more interesting. As a sales leader, the onus is on you to create a culture of trust and honesty. Your sales team has to be allowed to provide an honest assessment of an opportunity, rather than feel they are being painted into a corner.

I was a classic ‘bottom drawer’ sales rep during my years carrying a quota. This became my default setting for some years, because I often felt forced to commit a number I was uncomfortable committing to. So I managed expectations downwards, assuming I needed a buffer to protect against a forced uplift on my commit number. This sort of game playing creates a culture of doubt and uncertainty in a sales team and creates forecast inaccuracy.

Step 4 - Make your sales team accountable for the number. It seems like an obvious statement, so let’s drill down on it. The symptoms are easy to spot:

  • Lack of detail or understanding around key opportunities in their pipeline
  • Deals that regularly slip or are constantly pushing out to the next quarter
  • Consistently missing their forecast commits (either over or under).

A good sales manager creates an environment conducive to an accurate sales forecast. They foster a culture of trust and honesty within the team, provide advice and support, whilst ensuring each member of the sales team is held accountable for their own forecast accuracy.

*******

In the world of B2B sales, we spend lots of time talking about vendor selling cycles and customer buying cycles. Given the impact his book has had on me, I think it’s only right that I leave the last word on this subject to Robert M Pirsig, who sums it up perfectly when he says:

The real cycle you're working on is a cycle called yourself.
Robert M Pirsig - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

 

Picture of Cian McLoughlin

Cian McLoughlin is the Amazon #1 bestselling author of Rebirth of the Salesman, a regular keynote speaker at sales kick-off’s around the world and one of the Top 50 Sales bloggers in the world for the past 4 years. He is a passionate proponent of an ethical, honest and authentic approach to sales. His company, Trinity Perspectives, is committed to helping sales organisations unlock the latent potential of their customers’ insights with their Win Loss Analysis and Sales Transformation services.

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