This article was first published on Sept. 27, 2021 on the Harvard Business Review website.
B2B selling involves a myriad of choices about how to engage with customers. Sales organizations and salespeople spend an enormous amount of time planning which customers and prospects to spend time with and what messages to focus on. Typically, a high-level annual plan anchors more detailed quarterly plans, which get broken down into even more granular periods. Salespeople use the plans to cascade tactics for specific customers into daily sales activities. But this paradigm is changing as a nimbler customer engagement model of “planning while doing” emerges.
Two trends are at the heart of this shift. First, informed and self-sufficient buyers are taking more control of how they buy and from which channels (digital, virtual, in-person). Consequently, sales plans made months in advance routinely become obsolete. Second, continuously expanding data and rapidly advancing analytics can provide salespeople with real-time insights about customers and their needs, preferences, and propensity to buy.
The experiences of a pharmaceutical company we work with illustrate this dynamic. For years, the company provided each salesperson with a quarterly sales plan (which customers to contact, how often, and with what message). Plans were finalized by the start of each quarter. Then it was all about execution — “work the plan.” Now, the same company has replaced quarterly planning with a more continuous process. A system, powered by customer data and AI-driven analytics, gives salespeople recommendations ranging from monthly suggestions about which customers to spend time with, to daily advice about sales tactics and driving routes. Salespeople decide what to do based on these inputs coupled with their own knowledge about customers.
Technology buyers at our consulting company, ZS, have observed a similar phenomenon in dealing with the salespeople who sell our firm’s cloud computing services. Salespeople are losing out when they simply push products, for example, with generic messages such as “buy more capacity and we’ll help you figure out how to use it to grow.” The winners are using real-time data about our actual cloud service usage to engage in more valuable conversations with us — conversations that cannot possibly be planned months in advance. As one ZS buyer put it, “Salespeople who can show us how to save money and improve efficiency, while being in tune with the changing needs of our global user community, are the true business partners.”
So, with data and analytics improving visibility into the immediate and evolving needs of customers, how can organizations respond to this sales planning paradigm shift?
Because customizing sales tactics and adapting sales activity to the needs of each customer are fundamental to every successful sales playbook, salespeople tend to take this makeover of planning in stride, even as they grapple with acclimating to new ways of working in the digital world. The more daunting challenges and disruptions involve the activities of two groups: people who support sales planning and sales managers.
Traditionally, sales and support groups spent months creating annual plans defining customer, product, and activity priorities for the sales organization. These plans guided many annual decisions, including sales force size and deployment, sales goals, and sales incentive plan design. Sales support groups orchestrated and enabled the entire planning process. For such groups, digital is disrupting the output, the operating rhythm, and the types of specialists on the team.
Consider a technology company that implemented an AI-powered system to give inside salespeople real-time suggestions about how to engage more meaningfully with customers. The suggestions reflect what’s valuable to customers (e.g., which products and communication channels) and what’s valuable to the company (e.g., customer potential and likelihood of purchase). Suggestions adapt as new information emerges. For example, if a customer engages via a digital channel (e.g., downloads information from a company website), the salesperson gets a notification to follow up earlier than previously recommended.
The new approach changes the sales support outputs. Instead of generating discrete plans for salespeople, sales support now creates digital assets and resources (e.g., algorithms, decision rules, software tools) to help salespeople “plan on the go.” In addition, the operating rhythm is disrupted. Sales support teams forgo the project mindset, where planning cycles end with a finished plan. Instead, planning becomes an almost nonstop process. In this world, sales support involves creating and continuously improving the underlying assets and processes as the technologies evolve. Activities include enhancing sales force adoption of the system, upgrading the data, improving the algorithms, and refining implementation processes (e.g., change management, training, user feedback loops).
With digital assets playing a central role in the new planning world, sales support teams need to include more specialists such as data scientists, software engineers, and agile process experts to augment business and process/operations expertise. A boundary-spanning team leader who understands both sales and technology is also critical for connecting the specialists’ efforts to broader business needs.
The transition to nimbler planning can be especially difficult for sales managers. Most grew up in an environment where regular sales meetings propagated a top-down transfer of accountability. Sales managers focused on directing activities, improving customer interactions, and ensuring quarterly sales goal achievement. Today, instead of managing against a static tactical plan, sales managers face an almost constantly shifting landscape. Successful managers have digital savvy for helping salespeople use data and technology to adapt tactics to customer needs, while supporting salespeople in embracing change.
The new environment also requires more flexibility when it comes to resource allocation. At a steel company we work with, rapid market change accelerated by the pandemic required managers to frequently redeploy salespeople to work on accounts they didn’t have a history with. In addition to figuring out the best way to implement these reassignments, managers had to support salespeople in interpreting data to anticipate the needs of unfamiliar customers. This was a difficult transition for managers who had to learn to lead their teams in a continuously changing environment.
So, is this the end of sales planning? No. Rather, it’s a blending of sales planning and execution. For sales organizations to make the transition, new capabilities and a fresh mindset are essential. Ultimately, success leads to more effective salespeople, a better customer experience, and superior results.