When I was in college, I was struggling with Set Theory and some large, complicated proofs. I had always been good at math, so I found this struggle particularly frustrating. I was fortunate to find a math whiz who was in my computer class – and he offered to barter math tutoring for some help with our programming class – probably one of the best deals I’ve made in my life!
He taught me a technique that I continue to use to this day. He explained that when I got stuck with where to go next in my proof, that I should “work backwards” – start at the end of the proof and see if you can work your way backwards from the end of the proof to meet where you got stuck when going forward. My math whiz buddy called this process “meeting in the middle proofs”.
How does this relate to sales forecasting? I think about this process every time I find myself moving a close date on my forecast. I am guilty of this more often than I’d like, but when I apply the “meeting in the middle” technique, I tend to be much more accurate. There are a few tactics you can employ to help with this.
1) Don’t “cheat” the normal process. A sales process has a natural life to it. Especially when selling to an enterprise, where you have a lot of human, legal and emotional moving parts. This is an area where it’s much better to under-promise and over-deliver. Map out all of the steps to get from where you are to closing the deal – this might include items such as:
- executing an NDA
- initial demo
- present proposal
- legal/finance terms
This is an over-simplified list. Even so, each of these will take time, both internally and with your customer. Have a solid idea of what needs to be done and make and track this list for every one of your deals. And be sure to add the harder aspects of your sales cycle into the mix. They are always there.
2) Get “good” answers to how you move from one step to the next. Ask direct questions of your customers. Always keep in mind that people constantly underestimate how long things will take or simply don’t want to put the effort into giving a thorough answer, so don’t accept all your input at face value.
When you ask “what are the steps necessary to get this contract signed?” do you simply take the answer you get and put that into your forecast? Or do you ask specific questions to make sure that you understand all the steps? I learned in college that you cannot skip steps in Set Theory, and you have to show all your work! There are no shortcuts in sales execution either! I tell sales reps to “Be Columbo” in their questions – You’d be surprised how much information you can get by simply asking “What happens next?” or “How does that work?”
The main goal is to get people to commit. Closing the deal isn’t the only commitment you should be getting from your prospect. You should be asking (and getting) commitments all through the sales process. Typically, if you get your prospect to commit to getting something done, they will do it. Most people do not like to slip on commitments. You can ask things like “I’d like to get a call setup with the head of Finance to discuss the way they’d like to use the product”. If your contact says no, ask them “Why?” If they say yes, ask them “By When?” Don’t be dictatorial or managerial, be curious – “When do you think we could have the call setup by?”. Also, don’t ask Yes/No questions (e.g. – “can we setup the call for next Tuesday?”) – it’s too easy for your customer to say no to questions like that. Ask open ended questions that require them to give a reasoned response.
We are a favor-based economy. Nobody likes to owe somebody something. You can use this to your advantage. If I do something for you, you will want to do something back for me. Human nature for people that are worth doing business with. If you are finding that you are the one constantly doing something for your prospect and you can never get them to reciprocate, they will not be a good customer.
3) Constantly “re-prove” your assumptions. This is one thing I found different from my math proofs. Math is pretty static – once you prove something, you are done. That proof will always be right. (This isn’t necessarily true, but this is a sales blog, not a mathematical one!)
In sales situations you are dealing with humans – anything can change at any time. Once you’ve mapped out the steps to get to closure, constantly confirm that things are still on track. Make sure you aren’t blindly believing what you’re told, instead be validating the data constantly. Remember that it’s your job to forecast accurately and the best way to do that is to ask and confirm information on a regular basis.
Forecasting requires you to gather up all your assumptions and postulates, and “prove” that you can close your deal in the timeframe you have targeted. By “Meeting in the Middle”, you can map out the steps (working forward and backward) with reasonable timeframes for each one, and find you are hitting your close dates more consistently.