Why pre-call planning is critical to sales success

By: Andre Greco

If I had a nickel for every time one of my salespeople told me “I had a great meeting!” Well, let’s just say, over 30+ years in sales leadership, I’d have a lot of nickels. As sales leaders, it is incumbent upon us to challenge our teams and not just accept great as an acceptable meeting outcome. The next time you hear about a great meeting, push back, and ask the rep to explain exactly why the meeting was great. You will be surprised at how your, and the salespersons, definition of the word are markedly different.

Let’s step inside the mind of a salesperson for just a moment and try to ascertain why his or her feeling about a particular meeting outcome is, in some cases, far from the true reality of the situation. In our 21st century world of data, metrics and KPI’s combined with internal meetings, reports, CRM entries, quotes, etc. the typical in-field salesperson is spending less than 20% of their time in customer meetings. Let’s also remember that part of the 20% is “stopped by” or “dropped off” which can also be classified as “meetings” by those with creative data entry skills. If we consider the 20% data point coupled with our knowledge that salespeople truly want to be in front of customers (that’s why they are in sales) and that they can’t stand non-selling activities, it is very easy to see why every meeting that they actually have with a customer is great! They feel excited by simply getting out from behind their computer, getting in their vehicle and travelling to talking with another human being without the need for a web camera.

Now that we get it, let’s discuss the solution and how we can help our teams truly accomplish great meetings. The key is pre-call planning. Let me define exactly what I mean when I write pre-call planning as I have read many different variations from (a)planning the meeting on the walk from the reception area to the customer’s office to the opposite extreme of (b)convening an internal meeting of 10 people to discuss and plan out a 30 – minute customer interaction and (c)multiple alternate definitions in between. I define pre-call planning as the salesperson taking 30 minutes, uninterrupted, to think about the meeting with the customer and actually writing down questions for the customer along with what he or she is trying to accomplish by having the meeting and how the meeting can help to advance the sale in the sales process. There are a lot of great tools out there to help salespeople plan their call (I’m a big fan of the SPIN pre-call planner) but, in all honesty, I do not care if the salesperson uses a sheet of copier paper and a crayon, as long as the plan is written down. I sometimes here a sigh of frustration in the room when I am teaching a class and I stress the need to have a written pre-call plan. But the facts are the facts. Writing things down helps people remember because it forces them to slow down and be more intentional. Dominican University (Calif.) professor, Gail Matthews, tells us that one is 42% more likely to achieve a goal if it is written down versus having a meeting goal and objectives pinballing around in ones over cluttered mind. I have always told my teams that if they do not have a clear written goal for the customer meeting, just stay home. Simple as that.

The thought process to creating a solid executable pre-call plan starts, as should any professional meeting, presentation, or product demonstration, with the end in mind. Meaning, what is the objective of the meeting? The objective needs to meet two key criteria: 1) Advancing a sale forward in the sales process or, 2) uncovering a new selling opportunity. If a salesperson is going into a meeting without one, or both of these objectives, then why are they going at all? A customer meeting that does not get a salesperson closer to obtaining a purchase order or does not uncover the opportunity to sell something new, is a colossal waste of time. Not just your salespersons time, but the customer’s time as well. If COVID taught us anything, it is that face to face time is precious and no one wants that precious time wasted by meetings with no profound outcome. All winning strategies have a fallback plan or a secondary acceptable outcome. A customer meeting strategy is no different. At the absolute worst, your salesperson should gain a commitment from the customer on a specific date and time for the next meeting and topics to be discussed at the next meeting. While this end cannot hold a candle to advancing the sale or finding a new selling opportunity, at least it is a minor commitment from the customer and should be considered half a win.

We know where we want to go, so now it is time to plan out how we will get there. This is where salesperson and customer meetings fall apart many times. The salesperson is either unprepared for questions posed by the customer or the conversation starts to go sideways and the salesperson does not know how to pull the conversation back to the task at hand which is accomplishing the meeting objective. Both situations can be avoided if the salesperson takes the time to plan the meeting. Anticipating customer questions can be a tough ask, especially for a new salesperson. I strongly recommend that salespeople share their pre-call plan with a seasoned salesperson or sales leadership to help prepare for some of the more well-known customer questions which can only be known based on experience. This part of the meeting is also where things can blow up in the salespersons face so they will need coaching. If they do not know an answer to a customer’s question, coach them to not panic and write it down and promise to get an answer. The answers to all questions need to be sent to the customer within 24 hours of the meeting but preferrable during the same day as the meeting occurs.

The last section of the pre-call plan is a list of questions that we want to ask the customer. These questions should follow a specific methodology starting with 1) casual, warm-up type questions designed to ease the customer and build rapport personally, not from a business perspective. 2) Questions that confirm the meeting discussion topics and cause the customer to commit to the topics. 3) Project specific questions which can relate to product, budget, decision makers, objections, etc. 4) “What if” questions forcing the customer to think about potential issues they may encounter by not moving forward with the salesperson’s product or solution and 5) commitment questions designed to achieve the meetings intended objective.

Sounds pretty easy, right? No, it’s not easy at all. The process of pre-call planning takes discipline, practice, and learnings (both positive and negative) for one to improve. The one mandate I always had with my sales teams was that a pre-call plan was required every time that had a customer meeting, with no exceptions. This mandate was for new team members as well as seasoned veterans regardless of how many sales calls they had accomplished in their career or how many times that had met with a certain customer. Don’t let your superstars bulldoze you on this topic. It’s too important to the overall health of the organization and it sets the tone for what you expect of all team members.

In summary……….

  1. Plan must be written down.
  2. Have a primary and secondary objective.
  3. Prepare for customer questions.
  4. Plan questions that drive the conversation.
  5. Every meeting. No exceptions.
  6. Be disciplined. Practice. Learn. Get plan input.

Pre-call planning is critical to sales success both short and long term. It will create salesperson confidence, increase hit rates, and streamline your overall sales methodology. I urge you not to “wing it” when it comes to teaching pre-call planning. If you are not 100% confident, seek the help of a sales training professional.

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