“It’s like pulling teeth!” This was how one field sales manager replied to my question about pre-call planning at a recent Sales Effectiveness Workshop.

Then she said, “On one hand, they can see that some organizing before the sales call is valuable—so that they don’t get all mixed up. On the other hand, they seem so risk averse when it comes to committing to an action.” She concluded, “The bottom line is that there’s a correlation between average sales performance and a lack of a plan.”

When I asked the other field sales managers if this kind of thing was common, they chimed in with own experiences with sales representatives (SRs):

  • After opening a visual aid and pointing to various pages when we discussed a plan for a follow-up call. The SR said, “I’ve spoken to him about this, and this, and this. I’m not sure what to talk about now.’”
  • “This is one of my two scheduled appointments for the year. I have to be here. Otherwise, I can’t see this customer for months. So, I’m going to cover as much as possible.”
  • “I’m not sure what difference this one sales call will make. So, I take my lead from the customer.”

The group all agreed that they see this “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” thinking and approach often from their SRs. A majority of their reps seem to decide what they’re going to do and say when sitting in the reception area--or worse, when they are in front of their customer.

If this is something you see in your company, here are three ways coaching can address this hesitancy to pre-call planning.

Decision first

If a SR is committed to quality sales calls (not just quantity), then the decision about what they are going to address (and how) is never made that morning. Hopefully, the decision to try something new or different was made after the last sales call/interaction.

These SRs separate the decision (to act) from the action itself. The decision needs to come before the action. Do not ask the SR: “What are you planning to do with this customer?” Ask: “When did you start thinking about this sales call?”

If the answer isn’t “at the last call” or if you’re seeing glazed eyes, then a simple way to introduce the “decision first” idea is to talk about something like their last holiday. I’ll bet the first aspect they agreed on was the need for the holiday.

Another example could come from discussing the regular exercise they do. For me, I always make the decision to go for my 4km walk the night before. If I don’t, then I’m tempted to stay in my nice warm bed. (It’s the middle of winter here in Australia.) If I’ve made the decision already, then I’m less concerned about the morning’s weather or the actual route. I just get out of bed and off I go.

Next comes action

So, let’s assume that the SR commits, and they make the decision to try something new. Now, introduce and talk about the “two minute rule.” The worst part of trying something new is getting started: the first two minutes. After that, it just isn’t all that bad.

Discuss being comfortable with feeling uncomfortable at the start. If, in that first two minutes, they are not feeling uncomfortable, then I guarantee that they are not doing anything different. It’s just the “same ole, same ole.” (Of course this all needs to be within your company’s and the industry’s ethical behaviour boundaries)

Now is the perfect time to introduce a plan. Determine what will spark some interest and engagement in the sales call with this particular customer, rough out some questions, consider some potential answers, and outline follow-up questions.

Talk about consequences

Finally, it’s time to consider the possible consequences of the new approach—the “what-if?” that’s aligned to the SR’s view of meaningful work and where they feel that they’re contributing to something significant.

Try this: Ask the SR to imagine the kinds of outcomes and feelings they would get with a successful call and with persistent practice of these pre-call planning ideas. Ask them to jot down their thoughts. Then “go backwards” and relate the outcomes with the actions and with the decision to improve the business relationship.

You can also achieve this “what if” effect by asking the SR think back to a terrific sales call they’ve had in the past. Then ask, “Now, what do you remember about the call?” It will most likely be all the things they were hoping to achieve with this customer.

When the SR is alone, these pictures of successful calls remind them of the outcome(s) their decisions and actions are likely to produce—personally and for their clients. A solid “what-if” reinforces the decisions and the actions and create a context for improvement. 

Bottom line

Done correctly, pre-call planning is more than simply adding to the quality of the next sales call. It actually promotes a more long-term strategic view of the customer, their challenges, and problems.

After all, for most of us know that selling is a cumulative process, not simply a series of independent events. And the pre-call plan is an integral part of that process.