Note: Art Harding, COO of People.ai, originally published this blog on LinkedIn.

The sales forecasting call: ask any sales organization where it invests the highest level of operational expense, and you will inevitably hear something about this weekly ritual. The forecast call has been the center of the world for sales leaders and sales operations teams for decades. It is where we keep score, where we succeed, and where we fail. It is how we plan the rate of our investments and manage expenses. And it is mission-critical for managing the bottom line.

The leadership forecast call requires teams from across the organization to consistently capture qualitative and quantitative data points about the past, present, and future. Yet, despite the significant time and effort, forecast accuracy continues to be disappointing for many organizations.  

The prevailing frustration has triggered a wave of investment in forecast automation and visualization tools. Unfortunately, improved visualization, monitoring sales rep data entry changes, and automation alone fail to deliver the accuracy we need and do nothing to drive the growth we desire.

Why? Because after all the forecast calls, roll-ups, inspections, and analysis, we still can’t forecast our way to growth. Furthermore, anyone who has had to call a number knows that pipeline coverage and pipeline quality will strengthen forecast accuracy far more than any standalone visualization or forecast data entry tool.  

While it is nice to have a low-friction process and a visually appealing way to share the forecast, those benefits aren’t nearly as valuable as being prepared, having a plan, and delivering a high-performing pipeline.  

So, if a forecasting tool isn’t the answer, how can we reliably improve forecast accuracy and drive growth?

As cliche as it sounds, it bears repeating: pipeline cures all

Pipeline creation, conversion, and coverage are the strongest disciplines of a high-performing business. Conversely, the forecast is a lagging indicator of how well we prepared, planned, and performed when building and converting pipeline. 

Let’s unpack the “Pipeline Printing Machine” for the purpose of delivering more pipeline coverage, improving conversion, and optimizing your strategy for creating future pipeline. 

Are You Prepared?

Starting out on the right foot is essential. Adequate pipeline coverage requires accurate, complete CRM data and ensuring your sales team is aligned to the right methodology. 

Ask yourself the following questions:

1. Can you capture every account engagement and contact relationship in your CRM – from across the entire client-facing organization – without entering it manually?

Every interaction with prospects and customers should be captured automatically in real time. This not only improves the accuracy and completeness of CRM data, but it also keeps reps focused on selling, not mundane administrative tasks.

2. Can your CRM provide your entire marketing, sales, and post-sales teams with visual relationship maps, with real-time engagement data for each contact? 

Whether you call them relationship maps, power maps, or org charts, the benefit of creating and maintaining these visualizations should far outweigh the cost. 

Organization maps or charts should automate initial contact creation, capture every interaction across the organization – not from just your sales team – and should be accessible within the CRM to each of the cross-functional teams serving the customer.

3. Have you selected and trained your sales team on a consistent qualification methodology to engage these contacts? Can your relationship map or org charting solution show who your sales team engaged, through the lens of your methodology?

Organization maps or charts should align to your sales methodology and provide cross-functional teams with a clear understanding of the role each engaged contact plays in the buyer and customer journey.

4. Can you do all of this consistently without requiring your customer-facing teams to deliver this through manual data entry?

Again, modernized organizations do not require sales teams to perform heavy data entry for activity capture. Instead, these forward-looking organizations ask the sales team to provide valuable context and direction about an account or contact with little more effort than a few simple points and clicks.

What Is the Plan?

Delivering a healthier pipeline requires adequate planning – no matter whether your organization is in annual planning mode, making an in-quarter adjustment, or forming an account-specific plan of attack. In this case, account engagement data and strategic account plans are key to maximizing the results of your sales ecosystem. 

When in the planning phase, consider these factors: 

1. Are you using automated, verifiable account engagement data when designing sales territories?

Dormant accounts trapped in territories without engagement are target-rich opportunities for increasing sales capacity and building pipeline.

2. Does your team consistently create usable account plans for driving and measuring progress?

While opportunities and salespeople come and go, account knowledge should be an asset your organization retains forever. Account plans capture that valuable intellectual property. They should be stored natively in the CRM, simple to create and use, leverage a consistent structure across similar sales team segments, and be accessible to cross-functional teams.

3. How much of your team’s time and supporting investments will be directed to these accounts?

For consistent pipeline creation and conversion, sales and marketing resources should be allocated toward target accounts based on historical knowledge of: 

  • How many accounts a sales team can successfully work.
  • Which personas drive successful pipeline creation and conversion.

Moreover – sales, marketing, and enablement playbooks should outline when each target persona needs to be present in the buyer and customer journey.

How Are You Performing? 

The best go-to-market teams collaborate on converting pipeline by leveraging engagement data to validate plans are being executed on schedule and in compliance with a fully operationalized sales methodology.  

To properly assess pipeline performance, ask yourself the following:  

1. Can all levels of cross-functional leadership validate historical, real-time, and planned future engagement with target accounts and personas?

Sales and marketing leaders should not have to wait for a QBR and other forms of retroactive analysis to know if reps are engaging target accounts. Modernized organizations should be able to: 

  • Validate engagement in real time to redirect resources mid-quarter or mid-year, as needed.
  • Ensure customer-facing sales teams are following through when marketing drives demand into the top of the funnel through intent and lead flow in target accounts.
  • Coach resources on time management when inspecting engagement levels according to target account plans.

2. Can all levels of cross-functional leadership validate historical, real-time, and planned future engagement with target accounts and personas on active opportunities in the pipeline?

Sales coaching on opportunity engagement needs to go beyond making changes to CRM values. Proper levels of inspection should occur while there is still time to improve multi-threading, drive or shape future meetings, and penetrate key buying centers on any open opportunity. Identifying the presence of key personas at key points within your sales stage is also crucial for converting pipeline from an opportunity.

3. Can sales leadership measure pipeline health through validated execution of your sales qualification methodology?

Your sales team must be able to communicate pipeline status through the lens of your sales qualification methodology. If they can’t, you haven’t fully operationalized the methodology. 

Methodologies should be operationalized in a lightweight, low-touch method, native to your CRM. You should also leverage account and persona engagement data to help measure pipeline health and generate the subsequent forecast.  

Prioritize Your Pipeline, and Forecast Accuracy Will Follow

Accurate forecasts are crucial for making smart investments in the business. But remember: you can’t forecast your way to growth. 

Pipeline does indeed cure all – it is crucial that GTM leaders maximize investments and focus on pipeline preparation, planning, and performance, paving the way to more accurate forecasts and more predictable growth.   

About the Author

Art Harding is the chief operating officer at People.ai, where he leads all business operations. He has over 20 years of hands-on operations experience at B2B companies and most recently served as SVP, GTM Strategy & Operations at New Relic, Inc. Before that, he held a variety of roles across services, sales, and operations driving business growth to $1B in annual revenue at enterprise companies such as VERITAS / Symantec, VMware, and Riverbed.