management

Shouldn’t Sales Forecasting be Easy? What about Accuracy?

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I’m sure that everyone has read articles that state some “facts” for managing your “sales pipeline” or “sales funnel.” Things like needing 10x-30x of your goal at the start of the process, down to needing 2x-3x coverage at the start of a quarter to help increase your odds of achieving your goal. Now, if it was only that easy…

First, what are you measuring? The answer to this question is something that anyone with a sales quota should be able to succinctly answer. For example, are you measuring?

  • Bookings – Finalized Sales Orders
    • What happens when Sales Operations, Finance or Legal pushback on a deal? You have a PO, but has the deal really been closed?
  • Billings – Invoicing Completed
    • This includes dependencies that have the potential to introduce delays that may be unexpected and/or outside of your control.
  • Revenue – In-depth understanding of Revenue Recognition rules is key.
    • How much revenue is recognized and when it is recognized varies based on a variety of factors, such as:
      • Is revenue Accrued or Deferred? This is especially key for multi-year prepaid deals.
      • Is revenue recognized all at once – such as for the sale of Perpetual Software Licenses? (even this is not always black and white)
      • Is revenue recognized over time – such as with annual subscriptions that are ratable on a monthly basis?
      • Is revenue based on work completed / percentage of completion? This is more common with Services and Construction. Combining contracts, such as selling custom consulting services with a new product license, can complicate this.
      • Are there clauses in a non-standard agreement that will negatively affect revenue recognition? This is an area where your Legal team becomes an invaluable contributor to your success.
    • Cash Flow – Is this really Sales forecasting?
      • The answer is ‘no’ in terms of Accounting rules and guidance.
      • But, if you have a start-up or small business this can be key to “keeping the lights on,” in which case the types of deals and their structure will be biased towards cash flow enhancement and/or goals.

 

My advice is to work closely with your CFO, Finance Team, Sales Operations Team, and Legal team to understand the goals and guidelines, and then take that one step further to create policies that are approved by those stakeholders and are then shared with the Sales team to avoid any ambiguity around process and expectations.

So, now the hard part is over, right?

Diagram showing upward trend over the word Sales.It could be that easy if you only have one product that is well established, has a stable install base, has no real competitive threats, where the rate of growth or decline is on a steady and predictable path, and where pricing and average deal size is consistent. I have not seen a business like that yet but would have to believe that at least a few of them exist.

Next, what are you building into your model to maximize accuracy? Every product or service offered may be driven by independent factors, so a flat model that evenly distributes sales over time (monthly or quarterly) is just begging to be inaccurate. For example:

  • One product line that sells perpetual licenses may be dependent on release cycles ever 18-36 months.
  • A second product line may be driven mainly by renewals and expansion on fairly stable timelines and billings.
  • A third product line may be new with no track record and in a competitive space – meaning that even the best projections will be speculative.
  • And finally, there could be Services associated with each of those product lines and driven by an even greater number of dependent and independent factors (new implementations, upgrades, implementing new features, platform changes and modernization, routine engagements, training, etc.)

 

Historical trends are one important factor to consider, especially because they tend to be the thing that you have the greatest control over. This starts with high-level sales conversion rates and goes down to average sales cycle, seasonal trends, organic growth rates, churn rates, and more. Having accurate data over time that can be accurately correlated is extremely helpful. But, factors such as Product SKU changes, licensing model changes, new product bundles, etc. increase the complexity of that effort and potentially decrease the accuracy of your results.

Correlating those trends to external factors, such as overall growth of the market, relative growth of competitors, economic indicators, corporate indicators (profits, earns per share, distributions, various ratios, ratings, etc.), commodity and futures prices (especially if you install base tends to skew towards something like the Petroleum Industry), specific events, and so forth can be a great sanity check.

The best case is that those correlations increase your forecasting accuracy for the entire year. In all likelihood what they really do is provide valuable inputs that allow you to dynamically adjust sales plans as needed to ensure overall success. But, making those changes should not be done in a vacuum, and communicating the potential need for changes like that should be done at the earliest point where you have a fair degree of confidence that change is needed.

There will always be unexpected events that negatively impact your plans. Changes to staffing or the competitive landscape, reputational changes, economic changes, etc. can all occur quickly and with “little notice.” That is especially true if you are not actively looking for those subtle indicators (leading and trailing) and nuances that place a spotlight potential problems and give you time to do as much as possible to proactively address them. Be prepared and have a contingency plan!

Forecasting accuracy drives confidence, and that confidence leads to having the ability to do things like getting funding for new campaigns or initiatives. Surprises, even positive ones, are generally disliked simply because the results were different than the expectations and that begins to fuel other doubts and concerns.

Confidence comes from understanding, good planning, helping everyone with a quota and the teams supporting them to do what is needed when it is needed to optimize the process, and then to have an effective approach to determine whether deals really are on-track or not so that you can provide guidance and assistance before it is too late.

It may not be easy, but it is the thing that helps drive companies to that next level on a sustainable growth trajectory. In the end, that is what matters the most to the stakeholders of any business.

 

As an aside, there are myriad of rules, regulations, and guidance statements provided by a variety of sources that apply to each business scenario. I am neither an Accountant nor an Attorney, so be sure to consult with the appropriate people within your organization or industry as part of your routine due diligence.

The Value Created by a Strong Team

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One of the best team-building exercises that I have participated in was as a Board Member for the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Wisconsin. We were going down a path that led to a decision on whether or not to invest $150M in a new addition. The CEO at the time, Jon Vice, wisely determined that strong teams were needed for each committee in order to thoroughly vet the idea from every possible perspective.

Canada Geese flying in a V formation with a brightly colored but dark sky background
Purpose-driven teamwork. An amazing photo by Joe Daniel Price found on TheWallpaper.co

The process started by being given a book to read (“Now, Discover Your Strengths” by Marcus Buckingham & Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D.), and then completing the “Strengthsfinder” assessment using a code provided in the book. The goal was to understand gaps in perception (how you view yourself vs. how others view you) so that you could truly understand your own strengths and weaknesses. Then, teams were created with people having complementary skills to help eliminate weaknesses from the overall team perspective. The results were impressive.

Over my career, I have been involved in many team-building exercises and events – some of which provide useful insights, but most failed to pull the findings together in a way that was concrete, had context, and offered actionable recommendations. Key areas that consistently omitted were around Organizational Culture, Organizational Politics, and Leadership. Those three areas have a significant impact on value creation vis-à-vis team effectiveness and commitment.

When I had my consulting company we had a small core team of business and technology consultants and would leverage subcontractors and an outsourcing company to allow us to take on more concurrent projects as well as larger, more complex projects. This approach worked for three reasons:

  1. We had developed a High-Performance Culture that was based on:
    • Purpose: A common vision of success, and understanding of why that mattered, and an understanding of specifically how that was defined and measured.
    • Ownership: Taking responsibility for something and being accountable for the outcome. This included responsibility for the extended team of contractors. Standardized procedures helped ensure consistency and make it easier for each person to accept responsibility for “their team.”
    • Trust: Everyone understood that they not only needed to trust and support each other but in order to be effective and responsive the others would need to trust their judgment. If there was a concern we would focus on the context and process improvements to understand what happened and implement changes based on lessons learned. Personal attacks were avoided for the good of the entire team.
    • Empowerment: Everyone understood that there was risk associated with decision making, while at the same time realizing that delaying an important decision could be costly and create more risk. Therefore, it was incumbent upon each member to make good decisions as needed and then communicate changes to the rest of the team.
    • Clear and Open Communication: People on the team were very transparent and honest. When there was an issue they would attempt to resolve it first with that person, and then escalating if the two people could not reach an agreement and decided to seek the consensus of the team. Everything was out in the open and done in the spirit of being constructive and collaborating. Divisiveness is the antithesis of this tenet.

People who were not a good fit would quickly wash out, so our core team consisted of trusted experts. There was a friendly competition that helped raise the bar for the entire team, but when needed the other team members became a safety net for each other.

We were all focused on the same goal, and everyone realized that the only way to be successful was to work together for the success of the team. Win or lose, we did it together. The strength of our team created tremendous value – internally and for our customers that we sustained for several years. That value included innovation, higher levels of profitability, and an extremely high success rate.

This approach can work at a Business Unit or Department level but is most effective when it starts at the top. When employees see the leaders of their company behaving in this manner it provides the model and sets expectations for everyone under them. If there is dysfunction within an organization it often starts at the top – by promoting or accepting behaviors that do not benefit the whole of the organization. But, with a strong and positive organizational culture, the value of strong teams is multiplied and becomes an incredible competitive advantage.

It’s not Rocket Science – What you Measure Defines how People Behave

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A while back I wrote a post titled, “To Measure is to Know.”  

Picture showing an astronaut floating in space above Earth

The other side of the coin is that what you measure defines how people behave. This is an often forgotten aspect of Business Intelligence, Compensation Plans, Performance reviews, and other key areas in business. While many people view this topic as “common sense,” based on the numerous incentive plans that you run across as a consultant, as well as compensation plans that you submit as a Manager, that is not the case.

Is it a bad thing to have people respond by focusing on specific aspects of their job that they are being measured on? That is a tough question. This simple answer is, “sometimes.” This is ultimately the desired outcome of implementing specific KPIs (key performance indicators) and MBOs (Management by Objectives), but it doesn’t always work. Let’s dig into this a bit deeper.

One prime example is something seemingly easy yet often anything but – Compensation Plans. When properly implemented these plans drive organic business growth through increased sales, revenue, and profits (three related items that should be measured). This can also drive steady cash flow by constantly closing within certain periods (usually months or quarters) and focusing on models that create the desired revenue stream (e.g., perpetual license sales versus subscription license sales). What could be better than that?

Successful salespeople focus on the areas of their comp plan where they have the greatest opportunity to make money. Presumably they are selling the products or services that you want them to based on that plan. MBO goals can be incorporated into plans as a way to drive towards positive outcomes that are important to the business, such as bringing-on new reference accounts. Those are forward looking goals that increase future (as opposed to immediate) revenue. In a perfect world, with perfect comp plans, all of these business goals are codified and supported by motivational financial incentives.

Some of the most successful salespeople are the ones that primarily care only about themselves. They are in the game for one reason – to make money. Give them a plan that is well constructed and allows them to win and they will do so in a predictable manner. Paying large commission checks should be a goal for every business because with properly constructed compensation plans that means their own business is prospering. It needs to be a win-win setup.

But, give a salesperson a plan that is poorly constructed and they will likely find the ways to personally win with deals that are inconsistent with company growth goals (e.g., paying commission based on deal size, but not factoring in profitability and discounts). Even worse, give them a plan that doesn’t provide a chance to win and the results will be uncertain at best.

Just as most tasks tend to expand to use all time available, salespeople tend to book most of their deals at the end of whatever period is being used. With quarterly cycles most of the business tends to book in the final week or two of the quarter – something that is not ideal from a cash flow perspective. Using shorter monthly periods may increase business overhead, but the potential to significantly increase business from salespeople working harder for that immediate benefit will likely be a very worthwhile tradeoff.

What about motiving Services teams? What I did with my company was to provide quarterly bonuses based on overall company profitability and each individual’s contribution to our success that quarter. Most of our projects used task oriented billing where we billed 50% up-front and 50% at the time of the final deliverables. You needed to both start and complete a task within a quarter to maximize your personal financial contribution, so there was plenty of incentive to deliver and quickly move to the next task. As long as quality remains high this is a good thing.

We also factored-in salary costs (i.e., if you make more than you should be bringing-in more value to the company), the cost of re-work, and non-financial items that were beneficial to the company. For example, writing a white paper, giving a presentation, helping others, or even providing formal documentation on lessons learned added business value and would be rewarded.  Everyone was motivated to deliver quality work products in a timely manner, help each other, and do things that promoted growth of the company. The company prospered and my team made good money making that happen. Another win-win scenario.

This approach worked very well for me, and was continually validated over the course of several years. It also fostered innovation, because the team was always looking for ways to increase their value and earn more money. Many tools, processes and procedures came out of what would otherwise be routine engagements. Those tools and procedures increased efficiency, consistency, and quality. They also made it easier to on-board new employees and to incorporate an outsourced team for larger projects.

Mistakes with comp plans can be costly – due to excessive payouts and/or because they are not generating the expected results. Back testing is one form of validation as you build a plan. Short-term incentive programs are another. Remember, without some risk there is usually little reward, so accept the fact that some risk must be taken to find the point where the optimal behavior is fostered and then make plan adjustments accordingly.

It can be challenging and time consuming to identify the right things to measure, the proper number of things (measuring too many or too few will likely fall short of goals), and provide the incentives that will motivate people to do what you want or need. But, if you want your business to grow and be healthy it is something that needs to be done well.

This type of work isn’t rocket science, and therefore is well within everyone’s reach.

Diamonds or just Shiny Rocks?

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During a very candid review years ago, my boss at the time (the CEO of the company) made a surprising comment to me. He said, “Good ideas can be like diamonds – drop them once in a while and they have a lot of value. But, sprinkle the everywhere you go and they just become a bunch of shiny rocks.” This was not the type of feedback that I was expecting, but it turned out to be both insightful and very valuable.

For a long time I have held the belief that there are four types of people at any company: 1) People who want to make things better; 2) People who are interested in improvement, but only in a supporting role; 3) People who are mainly interested in themselves (they can do great things, but often at the expense of others); and 4) People that that are just there and don’t care much about anything.  This opinion is based on a working and consulting at many companies over a few decades.

A recent Gallup Poll stated Worldwide only 13% of Employees are “engaged at work” (the rest are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged”).  This is a sad reflection of employees and work environments if it is true. Since it is a worldwide survey it may be highly skewed by region or industry, and therefore not indicative of what is typical across the board. Those results were not completely aligned with my thinking, but was interesting nonetheless.

So, back to the story…

Prior to working at this company I had run my own business for nearly a decade, and was a consultant for 15 years working at both large corporations and startups. I am used to taking the best practices learned from other companies and engagements, and then incorporating them into our own business practices to improve and foster growth.

I tend to take a systemic view of business and see the importance of having all components of “the business machine” optimized and working in harmony. Improvements in one area ultimately have a positive impact in other areas of the business.

While I was trying to be helpful, I was being insensitive to the fact that my “friendly suggestions based on past success” stepped on other people’s toes, and that was creating frustration for the people that I was intending to help. By providing simple solutions to their problems it reflected poorly on my peers. In hindsight this should have led to increased collaboration among the executive team.

Suggestions and examples that were intended to be helpful had the opposite effect. Even worse, it was probably just as frustrating to me to be ignored as it was to others to have me infringe on their aspect of the business. The resulting friction was very noticeable to my boss.

Had I been an external consultant, those same ideas (“diamonds”) may have been considered. But as part of the leadership team I was coming across as one of those people who were just interested in themselves (leaving “shiny rocks” laying around for people to ignore or possibly trip over).

Perception is reality, and my attempts to help were hurting me. Luckily, I received this honest and helpful feedback early in this position and was able to turn those perceptions around.

What are the morals of this story?

First, people who are engaged have the greatest potential to make a difference. Part of being a business leader is making sure that you have the best possible team, and are creating an environment that challenges, motivates, and fosters growth and accountability. 

Disengaged employees or people who are unwilling or unable to work with/collaborate with others may not be your best choices regardless of how talented they may be. They could actually be detrimental to the overall team dynamics.

Second, doing what you believe to be the right thing isn’t necessarily the best or right way to approach something. Being sensitive of the big picture and testing whether or your input is being viewed as constructive was a big lesson learned for me. If you are not being effective then consider that your execution could be flawed. Self-awareness is very important.

And third, use your own examples as stories to help others understand potential solutions to problems in a non-threatening way. Let them make the connection to their own problems, thereby helping them become more effective and allowing them to save face. It is not a competition. And, if someone else has good ideas, help support them through collaboration. In the end it should be more about effectiveness, growth, and achievement of business goals than who gets the most credit.

While this seems like common sense to me now, my background and personal biases blinded me to that perspective.

My biggest lesson learned was about adaptation. There are many ways to be effective and make a difference. Focus on understanding the situation and its dynamics in order to employ the best techniques, as that is ultimately critical to the success of the team or organization.