Thursday, January 30, 2014

Windows of Opportunity: How Not to Miss Them

I wrote this article for a major publication back in 2007. Just yesterday, a client reminded me of its contents. Apparently, he runs everything on a 90- day window. And while you may choose to update the technology referenced, the idea works, whether you are a product specialist, salesperson or manager. 

-Frank          



The Product Specialist’s Window of Opportunity

Picture Benjamin Franklin – old Quaker outfit, printing press in the background – sitting at his writing
desk. He coins phrase after phrase, a number still popular in daily life 250 years later. “The early bird gets the worm,” “a penny saved is a penny earned,” “a stitch in time saves nine,” and the lesser known; “Make a plan – live the plan.” Just for fun, let’s test this 250 year old kernel against the grit of our own laptop toting, blackberry driven life.

Distributor managers put together a financial plan at the beginning of every year. Typically, this plan revolves around financial data. Sales, gross margins, operating expenses, and new equipment are covered in detail. Specific sales and marketing activities have been the domain of the vendor marketing plan. Major suppliers ask distributors to “do a business plan” around the first of every year. Running the gamut from single page and simple to lengthy and complex – these plans are often not implemented. Regretfully, these plans often become clutter- the kind found in forgotten files and unopened credenza drawers of factory marketing people. We know intuitively a plan is a good thing, yet somehow these things just don’t seem be part of our daily lives. If you find yourself turned off by the whole planning idea - Distributor Specialists tell me they are – let’s explore a better idea.




Distributor Specialists profit most by controlling the calendar for (just) the next 90-days. While we know we plan to do some really important things “next summer,” rarely can we make important planning decisions until we are 90-120 days away from the activity. A sliding-window plan guides major activities, allows for coordination, and guides your thought process. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call this a 90-day sliding-window. If you develop an annual plan, a 90-day sliding-window breathes new life into what otherwise can be static. A 90-day sliding-window can be used to effectively measure the results of group activities over a long period of time. Best selling author Michael Gerber (of The E Myth) calls this process Quantification – the application of results to efforts. Without Quantification there is no judge of what works in your environment.

In addition to the intrinsic value provided as a Quantification tool, a 90-day sliding-window provides value in a number of other ways. In order to survive and prosper in today’s business environment, a distributor salesperson must be able to balance a number of priorities and handle multiple initiatives. The Specialist who provides the best opportunities to anticipate the future wins the battle for mindshare. A Specialist armed with a 90-day sliding-window allows salespeople to see over the horizon - to better anticipate events looming in the 5 or 6 week future. The sad truth is; your important product launch - only 6 weeks away - may be completely invisible on Herb the sales guy’s radar screen. By bringing the next 90 days into better focus, you plant seeds of success. Account targeting improves. Your company executes sales plans better. Your sliding window acts as a sentry to warn of upcoming events. Far fewer salespeople will slap their forehead and say, “Darn it, I thought the launch was scheduled for next Wednesday.”

Let’s stick with a product launch example. As Specialists, you are often charged with a number of responsibilities. A 90-day sliding-window will help you if you find yourself scrambling to handle any of the following the night before a meeting:
• Is the meeting room still available?
• Will the local Manufacturer’s Salesperson be able to share in the presentation?
• Are demos available and working?
• Is the proper literature (resource material) in place?
• Does lunch need to be ordered?

These are the little things that turn into big headaches. I have seen important initiatives postponed for weeks, just because something “slipped through the cracks”. With the help of a 90-day sliding-window, little details become much less likely to be the handful of sand that grinds the machine to a stop.

How to begin
There are companies who sell 90-day calendars. Hopefully, they won’t line up and sue me for suggesting that instead you use a MS Excel spread sheet. To assist you in getting started, I have included a starting example below (Table 1)

Table 1: Example 90-day window (started Jan 1)


Date
Event
Notes
January




1-17
Product technology launch
Br 3 Target customer group

1-23
Cust Serv training
Start at 11:30

1-25
X-Y Co. Demo
With Account Manager

1-31
Demo for RHC tech update
Rep

1-31
Literature for sales blitz

February




2-05
Com. College Tech training
w/ supplier rep

2-10
Literature for Mar. Sls Mtg
Sharon in Marketing




March




1st wk
Mar. Sls Mtg


3rd wk
RHC technology update
Get date from Joe

3rd wk
Technology demo in place


3-4th wk
Sales blitz





April





Begin by listing the most current activities, then work your way forward. Note that most items for January are specific dates, while items scheduled for the third month are less specific – week of dates. On January 2nd you might not know whether the RHC technology update will be Monday or Wednesday. By placing these items into your marketing plan, you can begin your plan by arranging for a demo on January 31. Using Excel allows you to add additional rows and cells as needed – some months will be “action packed” others will prove to be slower. Using a 90-day sliding-window allows you to fit more into the same limited amount of time.

The point (and purpose) of the plan is to extend your planning period. As you review items scheduled for 90 days forward, you add clarity. In year end reviews, Specialists often discover they weren’t able to schedule as many customer seminars, training schools, and other high impact events as they would have liked. They were wrapped up working urgent items rather than important items. Because you are able to schedule them further out, you naturally find ways to schedule more high impact events.

Successful Specialists lead teams of people – they make the products they are responsible for easy to sell – and they cultivate “mindshare” amongst their sales teams. The sliding-window should be constantly at the ready. By focusing sales people on future events, they move the activity to top of mind. A Specialist should have her sliding window at the ready – always. During “windshield time” on a joint call, the Specialist can involve the salesperson in the process. At important sales meetings – a Specialist can ask the team to “mark their calendar”. And, you will never postpone a meeting because you forgot to order the demo.

Get started…
No need to make a big deal of the process but start a 90-day sliding window soon. Spend just ten minutes on the task today, and then invest just a few minutes every week modifying your plan - constantly slide your calendar window forward – adding new items for the coming months. On your next meeting with your manager, ask for his/her input for important events on the horizon. And after you have a few months under your belt, I suggest coordinating your 90-day calendar with fellow Specialists to look for overlaps and windows of opportunity in the larger collection of plans. Fine tune the process, strategize for efficiency, grow your business – you will love the results.

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And for those of you realizing you didn't do your 2014 plan, it's not too late.  Check Amazon.com for a helpful tool.  You'll thank us later!

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