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I've learned a lot about sales management from being a parent. Take forecasting, for example. Mid-way through each grading period, I obsessively interrogate my children about their current grades. Have their tests to-date yielded A's, B's, or (hopefully not) C's? What tests do they have remaining? How likely is it that they can pull their grades up before the semester's end? What do they expect their final grades to be?

This is forecasting. I periodically extract enough data from my children to either give me comfort that their grades are going to be good or to adjust my expectations downward. However, I've improved nothing through this exercise. I've neither enhanced their performance nor affected their ultimate grades—I’ve only recalibrated my children’s grades forecast.

Similarly, weekly conversations about the likelihood and timing of a deal closing do nothing to improve the chances that the deal will actually close. Yet every week in nearly every company, sales managers sit down with their teams to scrub numbers, believing they’re having productive pipeline management conversations. In fact, they are having administrative forecasting sessions.

Instead of scrubbing forecast data, managers should be talking about how to improve performance—as I do when I’m being a good parent. On those days, I'll actually help my kids study for upcoming tests or brainstorm strategies to improve their grades. Similarly, managers should be brainstorming ways to improve their reps’ productivity. That is pipeline management.

Here are some basic criteria to differentiate between the two tasks: If you’re asking about dollar amounts or the likelihood and timing of a sale, you are forecasting. If you’re examining the health of the pipeline and discussing how to improve the chances of winning deals, you are managing the pipeline. These two conversations are almost always intertwined, but it’s critical to separate them as they are two distinct activities with vastly different impacts:

  • Forecasting estimates performance by updating data. It has no impact on sales results.
  • Pipeline management improves performance by discussing pipeline health and how best to win opportunities. It has a monumental impact on sales results.

It seems obvious that a manager’s time is best spent in pipeline management conversations but it goes even deeper than that: Research shows that the more frequently sales managers and their reps meet one-on-one to discuss forecasts, the lower the rep’s performance. Which means that not only should sales managers be maximizing their pipeline management time, they should simultaneously minimize their time spent forecasting.

Proper prioritization of these two conversations can have an extraordinary impact on results. Take Diego, a rock-star sales manager for a major global company. Like all sales managers throughout his company, Diego is required to meet with his sales team to scrub pipeline data and give updated forecasts to his boss every Friday afternoon. But where other sales managers then dismiss their teams, Diego holds a second meeting focused on pipeline management. He helps his reps evaluate the opportunities in their pipelines, works with them to get good deals in and bad deals out, and brainstorms with them about actions they can take to win their opportunities. The result: the sales pipeline for Diego’s team is 30% smaller than other teams in the company, yet they produce twice as much revenue.

It comes down to understanding that forecasting conversations, which center on close dates and probabilities, don’t move the needle toward a win. If all you really accomplish in an hour-long conversation is to adjust the likelihood of closing from 60% to 70%, you haven’t actually improved the chance that you’ll win that deal. You need a separate conversation for that. And if you aren’t having that separate conversation with regularity, your sales reps won’t make the grade.

About the Author

Jason Jordan is a founding partner of Vantage Point Performance, a global sales management training and development firm, and co-author of Cracking the Sales Management Code. Jason is a recognized thought leader in the domain of business-to-business sales and teaches sales and sales management at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business.

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