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Clash of the Phantoms vs. the Zombies – Getting your Sales force to say it like it is

April 12, 2010

During the dark days of 2009, we saw sales forecasts padded with, to be polite, questionable sales activities, most likely designed to show high sales energy levels to a jittery Management. Now with increased real activity, it’s time to flush the forecast, starting anew with a vetted, deliverable forecast.  Like a good horror flick (which 2009 was for many companies), the first step in moving forward is to get rid of ghosts and the living dead.

Phantoms

These are accounts where all the ‘get out of my face’ signals are there, but the sales reps still lavish them with time, lunches and promotional items.  They either haven’t spare budget or the power to get things done.  Yet, the sales rep still calls on them rather than going up the food chain to the source of power and funding. Why?  Probably because it’s easier than going around their contact and at least the call activity report shows activity each week.  These situations are harder to diagnose since the prospect does have a real reason to buy from you, but the answer seems to be “not now, call me in 3 months”, and by now it’s been at least 2 “call me in 3 months” cycles.

You, as the CEO have every right to call the prospect’s relevant senior executives and ask the hard question “if you have the issue you self identified, and it’s as major as was described, why are you postponing dealing with it, and is there anything we can provide to make this actionable?” If “call me in 3 months” is their answer, the obvious first thought is this is going nowhere.  Commercial culture in other countries, such as Italy, Latin America and the Far East (and even the UK to some extent) forces you to impute intent from gestures and what is not said or done and that may be the case here. The other aspect may be a misalignment whereby you think Quarterly while they think “years to go before I retire”.  All 3 reasons equal one reality – there never was a deal to forecast so take it off.

Failing or acquired companies also are filled with Phantom sales activity. The reps know the game is over and they are on the losing team, talking among themselves 50% of the time (and cross-praising each other on LinkedIn) and then spending the rest talking to Phantoms, filling Call Reports and Activity Logs. My recommendation –  release most of the sales force as soon as you decide to close down or have been acquired and pick up the major relationships yourself.

Zombies

These are really strange and while they do not occur frequently, they are fascinating.  Most zombie accounts are where the sale is lost but the sales rep does not want to take it of their forecast or activity report for fear of being fired.  We call this ‘kiting forecasts’, where much like kiting checks, the rep tries to survive from one forecast review meeting to the next for as long as it takes to find a new job.  It still baffles us why the executive who has purchased from another vendor still wants to talk to you; perhaps it’s a sense of medieval gallantry and virtue.  The path here is the same as that for Phantoms – call and kill and then fire the rep and their managers for letting this go on.

Closet Zombies

Closet Zombies are the ones who can kill you, i.e. the large account you think is OK but who is actually dissatisfied or being actively courted and in negotiation with your competitor.  They’re dead to you but you haven’t gotten the official email or breach notice.  Closet Zombies are interesting because you killed the customer with product obsolescence, price, delivery or quality issues. There’s only one way to prevent Closet Zombies: as the CEO or COO you have to create, maintain and nurture a direct 1st name relationship with your peer at each key customer, which is generally made of your top 10 net revenue and top 10 net profit producers.  You need the early warning.  We had one instance where a client’s key customer walked away after suffering a series of late and incomplete gift basket deliveries during the holidays. Senior Management was caught completely by surprise after the fact.  We were sure the sales rep knew what was going on, but kept it hidden.  The fault lies, in our opinion, with Senior Management’s not knowing what’s going on with their revenue stream.

The diagnostic tree is easy. If you have not been able to schedule a personal direct face to face meeting with your key customers (and by ‘you’ we mean ‘you’) for more than a Quarter, chances are you have a Closet Zombie. If your VP of Sales and or Regional Sales Managers say “we have it covered”, you can be sure you have at least 1 on your hands.

In General: Sales is a process; don’t forecast based on spot data

Prior to the 1st Phantom/Zombie exorcism forecasting session, we recommend forcing the forecast by associating key levels (i.e.:  50%, 75%, 90%) with a specific trigger such as ‘50% – Proposal submitted, accepted without further changes. We are one of two competitors and the deal will close and sign within 30 days’.

At each sales forecast review session, have 2 forecasts in front of you – current and immediate past.  Ask the sales rep on a line item basis why each item changed and how long it has been in a particular status.  Many reps count on not being questioned in detail comparing current and past forecasts.

2010 is a time for recovery and the first step is dealing from a place of forecast truth.

Rich Eichen is a Managing Principal of Return on Efficiency, LLC, who’s website is http://www.growroe.com and is one of their senior turnaround leaders/CROs, Program and Interim Executives with over 25 years experience reshaping companies, Operations and key initiatives. He can be reached at richard.eichen@growroe.com

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