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3 Approaches to Sales Planning — And They Don’t All Start at the Top

Illustration: a conductor-led orchestra (left) and a rock band (right), demonstrating two different ways to create your sales planning strategy.
Here’s how to weigh the pros and cons of top-down and bottom-up sales planning approaches, plus a new option to consider. [Salesforce]

Which is a better strategy, top-down or bottom-up? We cover the pros and cons of each — and why a hybrid approach may be your best bet.

When it comes to music, some people prefer the order, precision, and structure of a symphony performance. Others enjoy the more collaborative nature of rock or jazz. 

I’m a hip-hop, pop, and Bollywood fan, but I appreciate the rhythm of other styles. As a revenue leader, I apply this same mindset to sales planning. I understand why some organizations take a top-down, conductor-led approach, with sales leaders setting goals and strategy, then leading execution. I also get why smaller or more agile companies may operate more like a rock band, where individuals collaborate with leaders from the bottom up, contributing their suggested goals and strategies to create a cohesive yet dynamic final sales plan. 

The ideal sales planning strategy depends on your company’s stage, needs, resources, and operating model. I’ll explore the pros and cons of each below — and propose a third, hybrid model that lets you harmonize the strategic vision of leadership with the on-the-ground expertise of your customer-facing teams.

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What is sales planning?

Before we get into planning approaches, a quick definition: Sales planning is the process of building a roadmap to reach revenue targets. A sales plan includes which buyers and territories to target, which sales strategies to employ, how many reps (if any) to hire, what your quotas should be, and how to set compensation for the sales team. Sellers use this plan to prospect, sell, and close. 

What is top-down sales planning? 

A top-down sales planning strategy is orchestrated by senior sales leaders. They set sales targets, develop strategies to hit those targets, and coordinate with cross-functional teams (like marketing and finance) to make sure the plan aligns with the company’s larger strategic vision. When these core elements have been mapped out, the leaders share the plan with the sales managers and reps who will carry it out.

Pros of top-down sales planning 

Ability to address sudden market changes: When leaders draft a sales plan without input from the rest of the team, they cut out time spent gathering feedback and revising. This reduces the length of a typical planning cycle, making it easier to quickly adjust to market changes. 

Clear direction: A clearly defined sales plan, delivered by leaders, avoids the confusion that can happen during a multi-stakeholder planning process. When the sales plan is shared with teams and individuals, everyone understands what they’re aiming for.

Efficient resource allocation: Since they control both budget and sales planning, leaders can create plans that use available resources effectively.

Cons of top-down sales planning

Morale dips: A sales planning strategy set primarily by leaders may not fully align with sellers’ expectations. This may lead to a lack of buy-in from the sales team and, potentially, resistance executing the plan.

Disconnect between sellers and leaders: In my experience, a top-down approach can miss the everyday challenges and needs that reps and managers see on the front lines. Without a grasp of the full picture, leaders can make incorrect assumptions that may require a replan of entire sales periods. 

Operational issues: Sales leaders are primarily focused on big-picture strategy and topline metrics. That means execution details, like enablement needs and onboarding time, may not be factored into the sales plan. This can cause delays, and, with more rigid plans, derail sales efforts for entire quarters.

What is bottom-up sales planning?

A bottom-up sales planning strategy typically starts with sales representatives. They use their firsthand knowledge of customer needs, preferences, and market trends to map out achievable sales targets and strategies. Sales managers review these, finalize the targets, and build a sales plan for the entire team. Sales leaders approve the plan set by the sales managers.

Pros of bottom-up sales planning

Empowered teams: By contributing their on-the-ground insights, reps gain a measure of ownership over the direction of the sales organization, which can help increase engagement.

Diverse perspectives: Starting the sales planning process with input from the broader sales team introduces a wealth of different perspectives. This insight is invaluable to sales leaders who want to shore up sales on all fronts, not just for a select group of target buyers.

Cons of bottom-up sales planning

Conflicting strategies: Despite its empowerment of sellers, bottom-up sales planning can make it hard to land on a cohesive sales planning strategy. Many questions arise that are hard for sales managers to answer: Are goals set by frontline teams in line with broader sales organization goals, or are they self-serving? Is the strategy set to meet those goals in line with the larger strategic direction? How do teams prioritize which goals make it into the final sales plan? 

Lack of budget visibility: Most reps are not aware of budgets, which means their proposed sales plan may not be feasible. Sales managers or leaders may have to cut critical plan components — like new sales demos, for example — that are too expensive. The team then has to revise the plan, causing delays.

Consider an alternative: hybrid sales planning strategy 

I’ve worked mostly in fast-growing companies, ranging from SMBs with very modest earning targets to larger businesses with hundreds of millions of revenue a year. Across all my sales planning experience, my favorite approach is a hybrid one. It brings together a lot of the pros of top-down and bottom-up planning.

Here’s how it works: Leaders lock down sales goals aligned with the company’s most important strategic priorities. These are passed down to reps, who review the goals and discuss the best way to meet them. As the plan steps are finalized, reps funnel details to managers who recommend plan changes based on budget and capacity. Once managers and reps are aligned, the final plan is laddered up to leadership for approval. 

There are a lot of pros here: You start with clear goals and consult people on the ground to assess and minimize risk, and then determine effective frontline execution. Instead of waiting four months to build and deploy your plan, you can get feedback during the planning process and pivot quickly. Each time I’ve run this hybrid approach, I’ve cut our sales planning time in half  — with better results. That impact is hard to ignore.

Create harmony in your sales planning strategy 

There is no “best” sales planning approach. Ultimately, choose the one that helps you achieve your sales goals. Whichever model you choose, know it’s not set in stone. Get frequent feedback from your team on its effectiveness. Revisit your approach annually (or as often as your planning cycle requires) to determine if it’s a good fit for your organization size, team structure, goals, and resources. As long as you remain nimble, you can feel confident that your sales plan meets the needs of the moment.

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Dini Mehta Former Chief Revenue Officer, Lattice

Dini is passionate about leading authentically and building high-performing, diverse teams with a strong culture. She offers a wealth of expertise on scaling companies from the Series A stage to unicorn status.

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