One of the biggest problems sales reps have to consistently face is forecasting an accurate close date and making sure that the deal actually closes on or around that exact date. It’s not easy and requires in-depth planning and project management skills to consistently deliver closed/won opportunities on time. When you break it down into a process though, it’s a combination of art and science (mostly science) and anyone can do it.
The Science (90%)
Closing deals on time is nothing more than sales project management, in my opinion. So, I did some research about what foundational skills a project manager should have and came across another post that I think accurately describes the 15 skills that project managers need. They are as follows:
- Cost Control
- Risk Management
- Contract Management
- Critical Thinking
- Project Recovery
- Task Management
- Quality Management
- Meetings Management
- Business Case Writing
- Sense of Humor
When you have the time, you should read the post above and think about how it applies to every single sales situation, consistently. The only skill that I didn’t find an equal match for was “Cost Control” as that’s not traditionally a factor in most sales cycles. As I go through the strategy around crafting a close plan, I’ll try to call out the skills above that are leveraged throughout the process.
What’s the Purpose of a Close Plan?
Let me start out by saying that at Forecastable, we like to call these “Evaluation Plans” as opposed to “Close Plans”. It’s an accurate description of the purpose of the exercise and is a label that is safe to share with a prospect (nobody likes being “closed”). However, I’ve seen some people call them “Mutual Action Plans” or “Mutual Success Plans”, etc. I don’t see anything wrong with those labels, but still prefer “Evaluation Plan”.
The purpose of the evaluation plan is to clearly collaborate on and define what steps need to happen between now (today) and the kick-off of a project (assuming I win).
How and When Should I Introduce an Evaluation Plan?
When I meet with a prospective customer, one of the questions I always ask is, “Ideally, when would you like to have the solution up and running?”
Let’s say they come back with November 30th. I then start working backwards from that date on the fly with the prospect. In my case, I know it’ll take one month to get someone up and running with the Forecastable platform, from the time we kick off the project, so we’ll need to kick off by October 31st.
“I then know that once someone signs a contract with us, it’ll take 7-10 days to get a kick-off call scheduled, so let me go ahead and bake in ten days for that, which means we will need to have contracts executed by September 21st.”
***note that I used “we” in the above statement. Try to act as a true partner. You want them to feel like they’re truly a part of this and that you’re in this together.***
I’ll run that timeline by my prospect in the call and speak aloud while I do all of that basic timing math. I’ll then say something like, “Based on your timing requirements, it looks like we’ll need to have agreements executed by September 21st. Is that achievable from your perspective?” (Project Mgmt. Skills: Scheduling & Critical Thinking)
Seven times out of ten, a prospect agrees that it’s achievable. Voila! You now have your first timing buy-in and can begin forecasting a close date of September 21st. For those customers that don’t think the date is achievable, you need to dig deeper by asking them why and asking them what date they think “is” achievable and go from there.
Once you receive that first date commitment, that’s when the real work begins. Before you hang up the phone on that first call, you should always set the expectation that a much deeper plan is coming their way. By doing this, you’re also subtly letting them know that you expect them to participate in this process.
I usually say something along the lines of, “Now that I know the timeline you’re looking to achieve, I’ll go ahead and draft a list of milestones we’ll need to accomplish, between now and the project kick-off, as part of your evaluation plan. I’ll then schedule time with you for feedback just to make sure we’re all on the same page. Does that seem reasonable?”
Again, I’d say that seven times out of ten, the prospect agrees that this is a reasonable approach. A common objection though is, “I haven’t selected you as a vendor. Why would I go through this with YOU at this stage?” Response: “This plan isn’t for ME. It’s YOUR plan and anything we build together, I’ll make sure it’s something you’re able to share with the other vendors as well so it’s fair all around. We’ve found that 74% of prospects that don’t have a plan, never end up making a purchase, which is costly on both sides. That’s why my leadership won’t let me move forward with any prospects that aren’t willing to put together SOME semblance of an evaluation plan. I’ll do most of the work and make it easy on you, so no worries there, but does that answer help at all and are you okay with me drafting that plan for you?” (Project Mgmt. Skills: Leadership & Coaching)
Two thirds of the time, they then agree to it and you’re now back in the driver’s seat of the deal. For the person that refuses…just walk away and never look back. It’s the hardest thing to do, but I promise you that your time will be better spent on other deals where the prospects are more serious. Now it’s time to build the first draft of your evaluation plan.
What Data Should be Captured in an Evaluation Plan?
Everything you capture should serve a purpose. We recommend the following data as a best practice:
- Customer Owner
- Vendor Owner
- Target Date
- Actual Date
Here’s a screenshot of our platform and how it looks partially filled in:
It’s important to give this all true thought. Think through how long you think these tasks will take based on what you know about your own internal processes as well as how easy/difficult you think the prospect will be throughout the process. Once you’ve drafted the plan for the prospect, book 30 minutes with him/her to review.
In the meeting, do a screenshare, show the plan, and make adjustments on the spot based on their feedback. Once you’ve agreed on the timeline, tell them, “I’m going to send to you for acceptance. Once accepted, we can move forward with the evaluation and I’ll let you know as time goes on if I identify anything that puts “our” timeline at risk.”
In the Forecastable platform, I click on “Send for Acceptance” (while still sharing my screen), enter their information, and click send. I’ll then say, “I’ll go ahead and stay on to make sure you receive it and are able to accept everything.” This forces them to look at the email NOW, as opposed to getting distracted with other things while I sit around wondering why they haven’t accepted yet. Here’s what they see:
If the prospect doesn’t feel comfortable accepting. It’s not a “walk away” type of situation. While this could be a red flag, situationally, It’s understandable and often times acceptable. The more important thing is that you have a mutually agreed upon timeline of activities. (Project Mgmt. Skills: Task Management & Communication)
From here on out, it’s important to continuously check in on all of your evaluation plans to make sure dates haven’t slipped. If someone is starting to fall out of communication, I tend to use the evaluation plan as a reference by writing them with an email subject line of “Timeline Risk Identified”. I then say something along the lines of, “We’re now 10 days past due on our “Vendor of Choice” milestone. Do you feel like we can make up lost time by moving faster on some of the other future milestones or should we think about adjusting our project kick-off date? This conversation can go in a lot of different directions, which is way outside of the scope of this post, but will encompass additional project management skills such as meetings management, contract management, negotiation, humor, and project recovery (recovering from a fumble of some sort).
The Art (10%)
We just went through the science of closing a deal (It works…I promise). The art is much harder to describe, but is primarily centered on relationship management. You’ll have to spend time getting to know people, understanding what landmines not to step on, figuring out internal social influence, and just simply being good on your feet when something goes wrong, because you will absolutely be judged on how you handle mishaps.