Sales Planning, Part 1: Where Are You Going?

by Martha Nelson

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If you're working in sales, the goal is of course to GET sales—preferably every day, every week, in a steady stream throughout the year. We know it doesn't always work like that due to seasonal slumps like vacation times or other low times peculiar to what you're selling. But one thing that will help you keep employed at a steady pace each week is if you step back and analyse the customers and prospects before you.

To do this, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. How many active customers do I have?
  2. How many times do I need to see them in a year?
  3. Do some need more attention than others? Are there ways I can service them without a visit (e.g. phone call or letter)?
  4. How many weeks do I have to sell in a year?
  5. Who are my top 20 customers? What are 3 specific things I could do for each of them this year to increase their sales? ( e.g. suggest a new product line to increase their overall purchasing, offer a new display to enhance their retail sales, point out their best sellers compared to your company's national best-sellers and be sure they're ordering what sells best.)
  6. What's the maximum number of appointments I can handle in a day?
  7. What are my 10 best selling cities or areas? Usually these are areas with high population or tourist influx, and high receptivity to your product. If you're new to the territory and don't know, ask others on your sales team for guidance. Also study the population figures and income per capita for each county or state. If you're selling to retailers, it's no good having a large population if their customers can't afford to buy what you're selling. A good library will have this information—and other market information is available by contacting trade organisations.
  8. How many prospects do I have on my database? Do I need more? If so, retail shops can be found through the Internet from sites like by searching on a city and type of shop (e.g. jewellers). You can also get new prospects by purchasing databases, advertising, exhibiting at a trade show, or cold calling. Larger companies have a Marketing Department to handle all but the cold calling—but if you're in a smaller operation you may need to do this yourself. All are effective and work together to give you sales leads.

Dividing Your Sales Areas Into Routes

Whether you have to travel a lot and stay away for your work, or are working a large metropolitan area from home, it may be more efficient for you to divide your territory into routes, and assign every customer or prospect a route number. This allows you to work the area systematically with the least amount of driving.

For example, my sales area for our jewellery company in the UK includes 14 counties. Most of my customers require a visit three times a year, or at least I want to be in the sales route three times a year to juggle different customers' seasonal buying and be able to follow up leads in a systematic way. I have 39 weeks to be on the road, and the rest is vacation, office weeks, corporate meeting times or trade shows. Therefore I know I can only have 13 routes in order to see them 3 times per year. (Actually I have one route that only requires two visits, leaving me with an extra week either for prospecting from the office or developing a new area that needs more time.) If your customers only need two visits per year, you could have 19 routes with one extra week.

Next decide what geographical area each route will cover. Don't be afraid to cut out far distant or poor areas—all sales territory is not equal! You want a set number of routes that will allow you to cover your existing customer base as well as develop any new areas that have potential. If possible, plan a circular route and stay at a motel within driving distance of your week's appointments if you have to stay out.

Then assign each customer and prospect a route number—and see how many customers and prospects per route you come up with. For example, I know I can usually see four appointments per day (more if they're in the same city) but also need driving time on Monday morning and Friday afternoon. So my ideal week is 12 to 15 appointments, and in order to do that I know I need to have at least 20 customers plus prospects on my route—since some customers won't want to see me every time and I need time for getting new business. If after dividing up my customers per route I come up with 40 customers on one route I know I'll never be able to give them good service OR build my customer base—so I'll need to change some route assignments to make it as even as possible.

For efficient route planning, be sure to have clear information about your buyers' opening hours, days off, or days when they only see reps. I use the software program Act, which is excellent for sales reps and allows you to have a field on the contact screen just for Buyers Hours. I print out a report for each route that shows me at a glance what everyone's particular times are and this speeds the sales route planning time.

If you have too many customers per route after dividing this up, focus on your top customers. Then find other ways to service the smaller accounts—perhaps with just one visit per year? Or perhaps you have too much sales area and can pass some of those contacts to a colleague.

Who Will You See?

Now that your customers and prospects are all assigned to a route, you need appointments. I try to work 4 weeks ahead of each route, to give plenty of time to send mailers as "warm up bait" before phoning prospects, and time to phone buyers who may be hard to reach or on vacation. POOR OR LATE PLANNING AND PHONING AT THIS STAGE IS THE BIGGEST REASON FOR POOR SALES WEEKS, so don't think you can get by with winging it and not working ahead. It doesn't work. Your competitors will have already booked up your buyers' diary and budget, and your prospects won't know you from a bale of hay when you phone for an appointment—even if you talked to them 4 months ago.

Plan your circular route of week's appointments plugging customers in first, starting with your biggest customers. Refer to their buyers hours and plan in more than you can actually service, as some will say no and you want a full week of appointments. Then refer to your list of prospects on that route and highlight the most important ones or most interested ones. Plan these in around your customers. I always send a brochure to prospects (sometimes including a sample) with a letter saying I'll contact them soon about an appointment on a specific date. Send this 4 weeks before the appointment date, and follow up with a phone call 3 weeks before. That way they have time to consider your product and think about it (even if you've talked to them before) vs. forcing them to make an instant decision on the phone—which, if they're busy, can more easily be "no."

I usually don't have to send "warm up" brochures to my customers, but if times are hard, the economy's down and everyone's in a negative mood, I have also sent them to customers and found I got more appointments. Although we'd like to think that our customers often think about us, they don't because they're busy people too—and the effort of sending a brochure to spark their interest pays off.

So proper sales planning and organising your territory into routes allow you to manage your contacts efficiently and work the territory systematically. As you get new sales leads, assign them a route number. You will also need to be constantly building up each route and adding new contacts to it, so let's discuss next month the topic of "Finding New Prospects."

(Martha Nelson is the Sales Manager for Fine Enamels Jewellery in the U.K.)

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