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Success in sales requires solid knowledge of the markets you are selling to, a good understanding of how your products or services contribute to your customers success, your ability to express the value of what you sell to your customers (product/service knowledge) and of course good sales skills - the ability to listen, understand prospect needs, build trust and present solutions.

One skill often overlooked in sales training and sales literature is the skill of thinking strategically so you can develop a sales strategy along with identifying corresponding tactics to implement the strategy - in other words, an actionable plan to achieve your sales goals over a defined period of time.

Let's take a look at the fundamentals necessary to create and implement a sound sales strategy and action plan. Let's begin by defining "strategy". A strategy defines how you will gain competitive advantage in the markets you sell to. A well thought out strategy is derived from a thorough understanding of needs and trends in the markets you sell to, and how your competitors are responding to those markets. Your strategy might address competitive advantage based on your knowledge of unmet needs in the market, new products you have developed, a cost advantage your company has gained through lower cost manufacturing, geographic proximity to your major markets, or a host of other capabilities. Competitive advantage may also lie with the people in your organization - superior customer service, better technical support after the sale or a sales force with extensive industry and product knowledge.

Often your competitive advantage consists of an integration of several of the above capabilities. Once you have done your due diligence on verifying where your business advantages lie, you can begin development of your sales strategy. In addition to the organizational advantages listed above, your sales strategy should incorporate competitive advantages on a personal level - for example, long standing customer relationships, experience in a specific sales territory or well honed selling skills. A sound sales strategy should always incorporate both organizational advantages and personal advantages.

Once you have captured all these competitive advantages, begin thinking how they relate to your daily sales activities and how they can be woven into individual sales calls. This will help you integrate these advantages into your daily selling activities. The next step is to put these thoughts into a paragraph or two which is intended to answer the question - why should a prospect buy from me instead a competitor? The answer to this question becomes the basis for your sales strategy.

Once you have answered that question, the next step is to review your sales goals over some defined time period - the next quarter, six months or on an annual basis. Make sure your sales goals are clear and defined on a numeric basis - such as annual sales revenue, average gross margin on a percentage basis, number of new accounts opened, etc. Now let's link these numeric sales goals back to our strategy via the competitive advantage statement we developed. Looking at that competitive advantage statement - how can it contribute to our numeric goals? If you have done your homework and have identified all your advantages, some thoughts should come to mind. At this point, we want to link those thoughts to a series of tactics that are actionable -this will be our implementation plan. The implementation plan must be actionable, that means we have identified a series of clear steps that will advance our sales strategy and that those steps or actions are under your control, which means you can unilaterally initiate those actions and are not dependent on another to institute the actions.

An example of a tactic or action might be attempting to gain an appointment with the VP of Manufacturing at a key prospect company whose manufacturing plants align well with the distribution network for your products as reflected in your competitive advantage outline.

The actions you identify are also assigned to a time line so that you can chart progress in achieving those steps over weeks or months and correlate achievement back to your quantified sales goals over a corresponding time period (quarter, half or full year).

The best way to accomplish identification of action steps is by thinking about individual prospects -those companies that are either key customers or prospects. Review the current status of each target or key customer or prospect in the light of your competitive advantages and the sales strategy you developed earlier. The action items should be customized to each target prospect since not all of your competitive advantages will appeal to each prospect and every prospect and customer won't have identical needs. Once you have your action items, assign realistic timelines for completion. You want to be realistic in your estimate of time required but also be aggressive in pushing yourself to achievement.

A tool that will be very helpful to you in planning your sales activities, monitoring progress and measuring achievement is the Plan of Work which I define as a structured "to do" list carved out on a weekly basis. The Plan of Work is a simple listing of action items by account or prospect which you have estimated can be accomplished within the next week. The purpose is to give you a visible outline of the priorities you want to tackle and hopefully accomplish during the week. It provides some structure to help you manage your selling time and establishes some hard goals for the week. Don't worry that you have identified too many or too few actions to tackle. With time and experience you will get better at developing a reasonable estimate. Often too, the best plans get disrupted by the unexpected problems that everyone encounters. The objective here is to create that priority "to do" list that helps keep all of us on track as the week unfolds.

Finally, remember that we live in a dynamic business environment - assumptions can be proven wrong, industries can seem to change virtually overnight and the best information becomes outdated with time. So review your overall strategy, action plans and implementation achievements or failures at least on a monthly basis and be prepared to make adjustments as needed.



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