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JWPM Consulting

Sales planning and management in a digital world

20 September 2020

The traditional sales organization is changing, transitioning from field sales to inside sales closing business by phone and email.

According to the Harvard Business Review, there are three key factors that determine whether a sales organization will utilize a field or inside sales model. They are…

  • The sales organization’s stage of development
  • The complexity of the products that are sold
  • and to a lesser extent, the sales leader’s perception of inside and outside sales model effectiveness.

In this article we are talking mainly about big ticket complex B2B selling (examples: engineering services, system integration, software development, building construction, business services, or technical equipment sales).

The modifier driving a trend from field sales (external sales people) to inside sales is (you guessed it) the Internet. The easy access to information over the internet means customers are better informed. Where once sales people with their sales materials were a primary source of information, they now facilitate the sale. The digital world has altered the buying process.

However, in solution selling there is usually a need for initial collaboration between the buyer and vendors to discuss the problem that needs to be solved and to explore possible solutions.

In technical solution selling there is still a need to get face-to-face.

The problem may be as simple as selecting the right model and equipment configuration or it may be as complex as a large design and construct project. Getting Face-to-face with the customer is inevitable.

Once upon a time the topic of sales planning and sales management dealt primarily with the management of a field sales force. Now, there is a need to address several different sales models.

The role of the sales plan - the need to efficiently utilise a finite resource

To maximise the effectiveness of a sales team (external and internal) requires planning and management

Sales plans seek to answer key questions driving sales productivity : selling model, territory plan, strategies and tactics, systems, training, incentives, resourcing and activity reporting.

At around AUD$200 to $500 per sales call, the sales team need to base each visit on a defined purpose.

The sales plan demonstrates to the rest of the organisation: these are the sales targets we are shooting for, this is our evidence showing why we think it is achievable, and these are the resources (cost) required.

There is a big difference between plans that get done and plans that get forgotten. Sales plans need to be gritty (specific and detailed).

Hunting buffalo - an illustrative example

A tribe of primitive people’s is facing starvation; "we need food."

The chief pulls the hunters together to discuss the situation and they develop a plan. It’s not documented because writing has yet to be invented but the plan is agreed on – it’s articulated. The plan goes like this:

"We will focus on the water buffalo because they are slower, yield more per kill, there are more of them, and we know where to find them."

Everyone agrees this is a good assessment of the market place and the decision to hunt buffalo is strategically sound. The next day the hunters arise as usual and assemble for a days hunting. "Today we hunt buffalo" and off they head. At the end of the day they return empty handed. The next day, the same, and the day after.

Strategically the plan was good, but it lacked detail.

It didn’t identify where to hunt (which water ways they would investigate), who was going where and how many water buffalo they needed to kill. It was a marketing plan but not a sales plan.

The chief puts more detail into the plan.

"There are 48 waterways, here on the map (scratched into the dirt). I will divide you into 4 groups of hunters; each group will travel to 12 waterways in the next week."

"But chief there is a great distance to cover; it is not possible to cover that many waterways in 7 days" (unrealistic number of sales visits).

It is agreed they need to focus on the waterways (territories) most likely containing the highest number of buffalo (market intelligence identifying the lowest hanging fruit).

The process continues, until every hunter knows where he will be going as soon as he leaves camp next morning, the morning after, and for the foreseeable future. He knows what catch he is expected to achieve in order to make his contribution toward feeding the tribe (sales targets and budgets). A few weeks later the chief and the hunters meet.

"How is the hunt for buffalo going?"

"Well Chief, most of the waterways we chose are achieving their targeted number of buffalo kills" a cheer rises from the assembled hunters. "However, there are a small number that are well below target" a groan. Somebody shouts out "Our plan is a failure!"

After he is solidly beaten with clubs (a sales meeting) the discussion continues.

"No! Our plan is good, but it needs fine tuning", says the Chief (the sales manager). "We need to decide; do we abandon these waterways and divert resources into others we have chosen to ignore, or do we put more hunters in to these same waterways?"

And so the process continues. The tribe fine tune the original plan (based on new information) and the program delivers results.

Sales planning is much the same, the objective is to improve efficiency and effectiveness by setting measurable tasks, aligning sales activities to the marketing strategy and marshaling that most expensive and unwieldy resource - the sales force.

Gritty, detailed sales plans drive sales momentum

The sales plan provides a sense of who is doing what, when and where, and must set targets. It has to be believable and achievable. There also needs to be someone monitoring progress against the plan and keeping the team on task.

Maintaining energy levels in the sales team requires the team do not operate with a blank sheet of paper.

The question shouldn't be "why aren't you out selling?" it should be "Why haven't you visited ACME Manufacturing this week?"

To effectively manage the sales team, the sales manager needs to maintain an operational picture of what opportunities each member of the sales team is currently working on and an overview of the activities they have planned during the week. The sales manager is the field marshal directing the activities of the troops.

Most sales people are task oriented and need to be pointed in a certain direction with a clear game plan. The sense of camaraderie and realistic-optimism derived from a well executed sales strategy and plan is a key element for building a selling-culture. (Managing star performers is a different matter and needs to be discussed separately).

A plan is not rigid. It is our best guess, based on the information we had, the information we could afford to obtain, and our past experience.

It's a bench mark against which we measure progress. And through measuring progress we identify where changes need to be made. So many plans in business are said to have failed when really they were never followed through (sadly in many cases they were never even started); it's impossible to say it was or wasn’t a good plan; it simply never happened.

Sales management is the process of developing a sales plan, driving it into action, and fine tuning on the fly.

A large number of businesses have no sales plan. As one Chief Executive once said to me ‘The only plan my sales reps have is to decide whether to turn left or right when they drive out the gate in the morning.’

Digital marketing and the "inside cat" syndrome

Measuring the progress of the sales plan starts with measuring call rates. The hardest outcome to achieve in sales is getting face-to-face with customers and potential customers and seeing "the whites of their eyes". Too many sales teams become comfortable working indoors waiting for the phone to ring. I call them "inside cats." A key function of the sales manager is to encourage them to venture outside where they might bump into a customer. Prune the time vampires.

The heavy emphasis on digital lead generation and sales automation has hijacked the debate on how best to 'market' and 'sell'.

Many organisations have embraced digital marketing (and its cousin sales automation). At the end of the sales lead funnel sits a sales rep getting ready for the catch. A strong case for the inside cat.

I recently read an article that asserted "digital marketing has become so effective the role of the modern sales rep is to simply not get in the way of the sale." For some products that may well be true. However, this article is deliberately broad and not specific to a product, service or industry. For solution selling face-to-face contact is essential.

The extent to which online lead generation and sales automation meshes with (or potentially replaces) the sales team is best examined case-by-case. Note also the digital world has become a crowded space. The organisation that rediscovers the art of face-to-face selling may find the territory strangely empty, and potential customers will find the chance to actually meet with a human being refreshing.

Digital marketing as a means of generating leads, and sales automation as a means of improving efficient tracking of leads, managing quotes and bids, and managing follow-up - have unquestionable value in the modern sales operation. However, particularly in big ticket B2B selling - getting face-to-face with the customer and building and manging relationships remain a key differentiator.

In B2B selling, face-to-face wins the race

So how do we put together a sales plan?

Sales plans sit at the bottom of the planning hierarchy. At the top is the high level decision making, as you descend down the planning hierarchy the planning becomes increasingly more detailed or ‘gritty’ to the point where each sales representative knows what they will be doing when they get to work each week, and this activity will be 100% aligned with the strategic direction of the organisation.


A sales plan is an operational plan describing activities required to achieve the sales budget.

Notice how it differs from the marketing strategy. Marketing is about strategies to achieve competitive advantage, build brands, create awareness through promotion and drive sales enquiry. Marketing is more strategic and selling is more tactical.

The important step is the list of expected sales is translated into a schedule of planned visits to an identified list of customers or prospects broken down by sales representative and territory. The schedule of calls is so devised to ensure adequate promotion of the company’s products/services and the building of the relationship with those customers in order to achieve the expected sales. Of course it’s important not to neglect existing customers, so calls need to be scheduled to maintain existing clients. Sales plans are generally structured around making a list of revenue sources...

Revenue sources listed in a sales plan

  • Existing customers: The 80/20 rule usually applies; 80% of revenue is derived from 20% of customers. Your first step is to list your existing customers and put a revenue budget along side each. Each sales representative needs to make a judgment about the next 12 months – will that customer be buying more, less, or the same? Having strong relationships with each customer, communicating regularly and experience are needed to improve this guess-estimating. Having an experienced sales manager to question the assumptions "what is your evidence for your estimate?" improves accuracy. But, it is only a target.
  • Identified new customers: List the sales targets for next year. You might be able to list 20 companies that, with some aggressive sales targeting 25% could become customers. Estimate sales revenue for each. These customers should already be listed in your sales pipeline.
  • As yet not identified new customers: Put an allowance in for growth from as yet not identified future customers. These may be achieved through servicing enquiry (driven by marketing) or through sales prospecting.
  • Major projects: Depending on your type of business, make an allowance for major project revenue.

Old sales saying "If you don't paint a target on it, you'll forget to shoot at it."

Translated this saying highlights that sales outcomes don't happen by chance. There needs to be continuous review of sales objectives (targets) accompanied by discussion about how to achieve those targets and agreement on actions (what and by when) that are then scheduled in to the sales persons weekly activity plan. Every sales organisation hides a well kept secret - many opportunities slip through the cracks because they are not followed-up.

The sales pipeline is the primary tool for managing multiple opportunities and continuously reviewing short term sales objectives and required daily sales activity

Read more about what a sales pipeline is and how it is used to translate the sales plan into day-to-day activity.

The sales plan should be driven by the marketing strategy and synchronised with the marketing plan. If the marketing plan states ‘market intelligence has identified a new market segment we can target using existing product, and we anticipate with a coordinated promotional campaign followed by a concerted sales effort we should realise 20 new customers, each buying an average of $250k of product’ then the sales plan needs to reflect both the anticipated revenue and the sales activity required to achieve it.

Conversely, if the required sales effort needed is beyond available resources, the sales manager (armed with the draft sales plan) needs to make a case for either declining the target or increasing the size of the team.

This negotiation is a vital part of the planning process.

Key elements of sales planning

  • Sales plan: Allocates the available sales resources toward achieving the sales budget and specifies resources, tactics, tools, and training.
  • Not cast in stone: A plan is not something that is slavishly followed. It is our best guess, based on the information we had, the information we could afford to obtain, and our past experience.
  • Measure progress: A plan is a bench mark against which we measure progress. Through measuring progress we identify where changes to the plan need to be made.
  • Sales management: Sales management is the process of developing a sales plan, putting it in to action and fine tuning it on the fly. This includes monitoring, directing, coaching and encouraging the sales team.
  • Must be gritty: The sales plan has to provide gritty detail. There has to be a sense of who is doing what, when, and where. It must set targets, and it has to be believable and achievable.
  • Customers: The sales plan has a list of mostly identified customers or prospects listing the expected sales from each during the next budget period. It is broken down by sales representative and territory.
  • Call planning: This list of expected sales is translated into a schedule of planned visits to an identified list of customers or prospects broken down by sales representative and territory.

The sales plan as a management tool

The sales plan solves the following sales management problems:

  • Forecasting annual sales revenue: To plan resources every company needs to begin the year with a sales revenue budget. Instead of simply saying ‘last year plus a bit’ the sales plan can actually identify by customer, by territory, by product, and by sales representative where these sales will be coming from. Sales plans are also a key input to manufacturing plans. After detailing the expected sales budget for each customer, what should fall out is a product sales forecast. Manufacturing then have a heads-up on what they need to gear for. An important finding for the sales team is when manufacturing come back with "I think we have a problem." Better to find out early. Of course, forecasts don't always pan out. However, rather than seeking a perfect match (actual to forecast), the purpose is to avoid a perfect mismatch (e.g. we've stopped making it).

  • Achieving face-to-face visits:: We know that ‘face-to-face wins the race’. Each sales representative is capable of a finite number of sales visits in a year. The sales plan is a tool to provide direction so this valuable resource is not squandered on less productive activities.

  • How many reps do we need? This is a big question. The sales plan however, provides an outstanding tool to put forward a solid business case arguing the number of sales reps required. It is also provides a very good answer to the chief executive or distant shareholder who hears from a customer ‘they haven’t had a visit from our sales rep for years.’ In a well managed sales operation the sales manager should be able to find records to show how many visits to the customer have taken place, the objective of the call and the outcome. If no call has taken place ‘for years’ then the reason may well be the sales representative’s time had been better directed elsewhere. Or, indeed they had been neglecting that customer.

  • What is the purpose of the sales visit? This is another big question relating directly to the high cost of sales visits. Getting face-to-face isn’t cheap, consequently you must have a purpose for each visit one better than ‘to keep in touch.’

The critical factor: the cost of getting face-to-face

Let’s look at the cost per call; divide the total employment cost of a sales representative by the total realistically possible number of face-to-face visits that can be achieved in a year. Annual salary, on-costs, vehicle costs, laptop, mobile phone, office space, training etc. this can easily total $120k per representative. Then look at the total number of visits; with 48 working weeks less 10 days public holidays per year. Take training days, 1 day per week on sales meetings and reports etc. many representatives would be lucky if they achieved 500 face-to-face visits a year. That’s AUD$240 per call. However, a many sales teams would be lucky to meet a customer once per week. Is your sales force too busy to meet with customers?

Resources are finite; opportunities limitless. Like any Field Marshall, you must deploy resources to best effect.

The conclusion is obvious; each sales call is expensive and needs to have a purpose. Calls need to be planned, they need to be prepared, the outcomes reported, and finally there must be follow-up. But let’s go back to their purpose. Sales calls generally fall into the following categories (which vary according to the sales model):

  • To sign-up a new customer
  • To further qualify a sales enquiry and obtain a requirements specification
  • To maintain the relationship with an existing customer and/or to identify new opportunities
  • To work toward progressing and closing a sale
  • To solve a problem
  • To develop a joint business plan
  • To promote a new product or service
  • To educate (particularly important for selling technical products through distributors and system integrators).
  • Attending a routine vendor review
  • A tender briefing

There are other purposes:

  • To physically deliver products/services
  • To pick-up a cheque
  • To solve a technical issue or service a piece of equipment

I am against using sales representatives for administrative matters or acting as a courier. Sometimes it provides an excuse to see a customer where otherwise there isn’t an opportunity to do so. However, at AUD$240 per visit it’s cheaper to send a delivery person. And using sales representatives for technical support is a vexed issue - click here to view a discussion on separating selling from delivery.

You need an appropriate sales model to suit your business

Understanding the purpose of the sales visit is a function of the sales model. Sales modeling is about working out the processes required to complete each sale. This varies by industry and business. A sales operation that sells large capital equipment (for example crushing machines for processing iron ore) will be different to a company that stocks 10,000 SKU’s of spare parts each having a value of less than $1,000.

Sales modeling is a big topic at JWPM and we work with our clients to help them develop one suited to their products and markets.


Sales plan content

A good basic sales plan would address the following topics:

  • Sales strategy: This is a general statement reflecting the strategic direction of the organisation and the main marketing strategy. Some organisations refer to it as the "Sales Thrust". For example ‘the main challenge for the sales department in the next 12 months is to maintain current sales levels from existing customers whilst supporting the organisation’s plan to grow revenue through the launch of the Crusader product range which is designed for an entirely new customer type.’
  • Marketing Activity Integration: Describe how the marketing strategy and action plan informs the sales strategy. This is particularly important if your main online lead generation comprises a digital sales funnel and a key role of the sales department (indeed, a key element of the sales model) is servicing leads. This speaks to the heart of the organisation's business model. High volume component sales organisations are very dependent on online sales lead generation. Conversely, solution selling sales teams will be less worried about online leads. Many technical selling organisations offer both and have a mix of field reps and internal sales (combining "run-rate sales" with "high-touch sales").
  • Sales model: The Sales Model speaks to the sales channels the firm uses to reach its customers. The Sales Model and Sales Channels are informed by the distribution strategy (part of the marketing strategy). Sales departments can be structured in many ways. The simplest is the ‘every person for him/her self’ model. Each sales representative is allocated a territory and he or she acts alone selling in their ‘patch’. More sophisticated models are collaborative with some people allocated to relationship building and finding new accounts whilst being supported by estimators and internal sales coordinators. For large capital projects, entire teams are assembled to work on one opportunity. There are other models, and hybrids. The choice of model and the implications on the sales department should be discussed here.
  • Territory plan: Describe how the sales territory is segmented and the rationale behind who has responsibility for each territory. The key issues are efficiency and effectiveness; allocating resources across territories in a way that maximises sales outcomes for minimum sales resource input. Remember sales territories can be segmented by geography, industry, customer type, product type, and customer size. The choice can have profound implications on sales outcomes.
  • Significant sales opportunities: In every sales planning year there will be identified large opportunities. These may be large customer accounts rumoured to be looking to appoint a new supplier and/or large project opportunities. These are listed with estimated revenues and a plan for capturing these opportunities.
  • Sales budget: A detailed matrix showing last year’s revenue by customer and product, making note about each customer and setting a sales budget for the next 12 months, and includes sales targets for sources of sales growth.
  • Sales activity plan: A call target plan showing planned activity for each sales representative in pursuit of the above sales targets.
  • Sales tactics: The plan might also describe any new initiatives designed to increase the effectiveness of sales activity. For example ‘we will be introducing the white paper method whereby sales reps focus on selling $5,000 white paper studies first which then identifies the project scope.’
  • Resource plan: The resource plan lists the requirements of the sales department mainly with regard to the number of sales representatives required to meet the activity plan, but also support staff, expense budgets, equipment purchases etc.,The resource plan provides a total month by month sales department expenses budget.
  • Sales incentives: The planned incentive scheme and its cost impact on the department are described. Incentives may also include a budget for team building (e.g. taking the team out for lunch to celebrate a big win and not coming back ).
  • Annual Sales Conference: Many organisations (particularly those having a large geographically dispersed team) see value in bringing them together for more advanced team building. Such activities are expensive. The efficacy of such events is a whole new topic.
  • Training plan: Training should be ongoing for any sales department. The training plan would indicate what training activities are planned, who will be participating, the costs of the training, the schedule and its impact on other sales activity. The training might also be in support of a new strategic initiative, eg ‘to support the launch of the Crusader product range we will need 2 weeks of product training...’
  • Operations plan: Every department needs adequate floor space, desks chairs, computers, training rooms and software. Such requirements for the next 12 months should be addressed and discussed in this section of the plan. The operations plan will have expense and possibly capital expenditure implications which are also discussed in the operations plan section.
  • Selling expense summary: The total month-by-month costs for the sales department are listed.

Planning starts with analysis, middles with discussion, and should take several drafts to get right. As with any planning process there will be several iterations. The aim should be to complete the first draft early and submitted to others in the management team for comment.

The company bean-counters (the traditional nemesis of the sales department, second only to marketing) must perceive the plan is based on more than just whimsy (and the arithmetic is correct). The above process delivers the required rigor.

The plan should be challenged, this not a negative; lack of challenge indicates people haven’t read it, or don’t see it as important – neither is good. However, your sales revenue targets will be scrutinised; the sales plan provides evidence.


  • Plans of any sort are no use unless followed. Too often plans are said to have failed when in fact they were simply not implemented.
  • Sales plans need to be detailed. They must be specific about how sales revenue will be achieved and what sales activity will take place to achieve that revenue.
  • Plans are not followed slavishly. They are a starting point from which deviation may occur if better information becomes available to make better decisions.
  • Sales plans are at the bottom of the corporate/organisational planning hierarchy. (also know as "the pointy end") However, sales activity right down to the planning of a sales visit must be 100% aligned with the corporate strategy at the top of the planning hierarchy.
  • Sales plan definition: A sales plan is an operational plan that identifies how the annual sales revenue budget will be achieved by aggregating sales budgets by customer, territory, and sales representative and listing the week to week activity required to achieve the sales budgets.
  • Sales plans answer the important questions: what is the annual sales revenue target? How many face-to-face visits will our company make this year? What sales resources will we need to allocate to achieve our budget? What sales model are we deploying? How will we make our sales visits more effective?

The most critical sections of the sales plan are:

  • The sales budget
  • The sales activity plan

End note

What about the resources (time) required for executing all of this lovely stuff? Reading through, it's easy to say "who has the time to do all of that?"

That's the famous retort of the gristly-tooth sales representative, followed by "all this bumping and ticking boxes on forms cuts the time I can spend with my customers." And, that isn't a totally unfair observation. The process needs to be done efficiently. The great sales organisations have these processes down to a fine art. In all things a balance is needed, however, with modern information systems and experience using the system will lead to efficiencies and the benefits will avoid "we had no plan, and we executed it flawlessly."

Too many organisations free-range their sales reps and wonder why the golden egg seldom cracks.

By Justin Wearne

salesmarketingb2bsales planningsales targetsindustrial marketingface-to-face sellingsales plansales plan definitiona guide to sales planningsales force management

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