When I work with B2B sales teams struggling with profitable revenue growth, there’s always one person seemingly outside the biz dev process who wants in on the conversation: the CFO. Inevitably I get asked for a few minutes in private, and when the door is closed, s/he’ll plead, “what can you do to get me a forecast I can trust?”
Great question, particularly for companies with complex products / services and long sales cycles. In small to mid-size B2B companies, so much gets done on an ad hoc basis within the sales organization that forecasting deal closure is way less about reality and way more about emotion, ego, politics and culture. For example, in some companies it’s better for a sales rep to project they’ll close a deal than to admit its improbability; in others, it’s better to sandbag and then have pleasant surprises. Under either scenario, missed forecasts wreak havoc on a company’s health and future.
There is a simple way to creating a forecast you can trust. Follow these four key steps:
1) Identify each stage of your sales process and the milestones completing each stage that tell you when you’ve moved to the next
2) Estimate the average length (in days) of each stage of the process
3) Approximate the average percent of deals that close at each stage of your process (i.e, deals that make it to Stage 3 have a 60% likelihood of closure)
4) Hang every deal in your pipeline on a weighted forecast spreadsheet that maps the dollar value of the opportunity to its stage, and therefore to its probability of, and date until, close.
The results will be eye-popping. And that’s a good thing, even if what you learn about your pipeline isn’t. Because that’s when the fixing can begin.
Many resist the exercise because they lack data to tackle these steps with precision. Many resist for fear of what they’ll learn. Don’t let either stop you. Yes, I’d prefer you have a CRM. Yes, I’d prefer you have hard, accurate data. Yes, I understand you haven’t yet created a culture of accountability around these metrics. Like many things in life, it can be hard to pick a place to start. But, the truth is, there is plenty of anecdotal, historical information in the organization that will get you close enough to create your first forecast based on reality vs. a crystal ball. I’m not suggesting there isn’t both art and science to sales, but the more we avoid the science, the harder it is to do good art.
Ultimately, the true value is in identifying the underlying problems in your revenue engine. You’ll begin figuring out answers to the thorny problems like:
- Where in the process do we fail most often? (Failing early vs. failing late helps diagnose what we need to repair.)
- Where are the opportunities to increase our sales velocity?
- What accountability metrics directly impact accomplishing our goals?
- How might we better qualify opportunities throughout the sales cycle to increase close ratios?
Tackling those questions leads to refining your process which leads to a tightened forecast. Your best sales reps will be elated; they’ll see clearly where / how they should spend their time, and they’ll get straight to the fix. Your mediocre reps will squirm, a solid indicator that it’s time for them to seek other employment. Your head of sales can shift from task management to coaching. And, your CFO will actually crack a smile.
If you need some help thinking about how to apply this to your business, please ping me at email@example.com. As always, I appreciate any additions to this conversation with your comments, insights, suggestions.
Here’s to a forecast you can trust.