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Sales forecasting can be improved by encouraging accuracy of the sales force automation system

What are some guidelines for keeping up with our sales forecasts? Our forecasts have been off for some time and I'd like to find out what we're doing wrong.

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Forecasting is one of my favorite topics. You may not realize it, but forecast accuracy is one of the top three metrics identified across industries as being extremely difficult to fix, yet it is critical to managing sales.

First a few questions: Are your sales forecasts automated within your sales force automation (SFA) system or are they still handled outside the system on spreadsheets? If it's the former, are you keeping parallel spreadsheets to ensure system accuracy? If so, stop that immediately! Using Excel as a crutch only reinforces the idea that regularly updating the SFA system is not worth it. Ultimately, sales forecasting (manual or otherwise) has everything to do with pipeline accuracy. And pipeline accuracy is another way of saying that sales reps are accurately representing their opportunities and the associated sales stages.

I hope I've convinced you that a large part of the problem is that sales reps don't use the SFA system correctly. Typically, this is because the way it has been implemented makes it onerous and it takes them out of the field to perform what they consider to be administrative overhead. However, organizations attempting to automate forecasting must rely on pipeline information in the SFA system. Compounding the problem is the common scenario that sales reps who are not using the SFA system frequently are also among the highest performers (who are rarely fired).

What should you do? Make changes to the SFA system as needed to make it mirror and support the sales process and create effective training programs tailored by role. Create an environment of criticality and extreme visibility. Sales reps must be prepared to have their pipelines interrogated on a number of levels, including all levels of sales management: field/district management, regional management, and VP sales. The most critical element of process/system adoption is the use of periodic phone calls from the executive team to field sales reps and managers in order to discuss accounts in the pipeline or express interest in metrics/rankings.

The payoff will be worth it -- you'll have improved decision-making criteria for investments and expenses, as well as for enablement of more accurate financial projections.

This was first published in August 2006

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