When and How to Present an Engagement Plan

In last week’s post (Stop Calling it a “Close Plan”) I wrote about the criticality of incorporating into the sales process a mutual plan with the customer. I continued by calling attention to the folly of sales leaders using terms internally (read: Close Plan) and not expecting that some of their troops in the field would, consciously or unconsciously, use those same terms directly with customers. Words matter, and leaders have a responsibility to choose them carefully and deliberately – for their teams repeat what they say.

I recommended as an alternative to Close Plan the term Engagement Plan (Evaluation Plan is another good substitute) and promised that I’d review what I’ve found to be the best approach for presenting and structuring such a plan. I’ve also included a link to download a sample plan layout at the bottom of this post.

When to Present The Plan

When we consider the sales stages with which sales organizations manage a qualified deal cycle, we’ll find a discovery stage at the beginning. This observation is akin to stating that the sun will come up in the morning. Every sales engagement must have as its foundation deep discovery.

Immediately following that is a stage in which we look to establish clear answers to the “why change? why now?” questions. When we know that an evaluation exists, that the customer has agreed that they are going actually do something and they are considering doing it with us – that’s when we present the Engagement Plan.

An Engagement Plan is not a tool to be used at the end of the deal to make sure you get it in for the end of the quarter. It belongs at the beginning, when it can most help.

The intent of this plan is not to help us close the business. It will help us do that, and it will dramatically improve the chances of that happening – and at the highest possible value – but that is not the intent. The intent is to help the customer conduct their evaluation thoroughly and responsibility and to move through their engagement with us in a clear and deliberate manner.

Our Customers Need Help Buying

Our prospective customers don’t know how to buy what we sell. We spend all day, every day thinking about our particular corner of the market and the solution we have been trained on, believe in, and – in some cases – truly love. Our customers do not. They have demanding jobs with requirements that go far beyond just procuring our particular type of product, something they likely do no more frequently than once every few years.

As stewards of our company, our industry and our profession, it is our responsibility to help our customers through this process – independent of whether or not the end result is a sale or order that benefits us. That’s what professional salespeople do.

What to Say

When I have my teams present an Engagement Plan to their prospect, the objective is to help share all of the steps that we know a company must go through to conduct a complete and thorough evaluation to find the right solution to meet their business needs. The words they use are quite literally something like:

“Look – I know that you don’t buy (marketing software / spaceships / combat robot waffle irons) every day. But we do this all the time, and our customers have always found it to be helpful to have us put together an Engagement Plan with them. We’ll include all of the things that typically have to happen for a complete evaluation so you don’t miss anything, and then we’ll go through it with you. That way you’ll have a full checklist with dates, all working back from the day you told me you wanted to have this live and ready. Would you find that to be helpful?”

Many sales executives resist doing this, however, and as a result this incredibly useful tool – a tool that sets clear steps and dates for everyone – goes unutilized. Why? Putting aside those who are simply lazy or undisciplined, some sales executives feel uncomfortable – they fear that the customer will resist this as a tactic designed to get them to buy something. And the customer should resist it – if it’s a tactic designed to get them to buy something. But if the real and true intent behind the presentation of this plan is to help the customer, independent of outcome, then they will welcome it.

Be Conscious of Your Intent

Motive and intent. Motive and intent are the differentiators here. They are the differentiators everywhere. When we approach a situation with an intent that is clean and a motive of helping others, people respond. It is human nature. We are then in a position to help and to be of service. If we are providing the absolute right solution to solve their problem, if we are clear about the value we deliver and the business case that supports it, then an orderly and smooth business transaction is a natural extension of this alignment. When we detach from outcomes, all finds itself in order.

Components of the Plan

Some items to consider when you’re crafting and presenting an Engagement Plan:

  • Include anything that you know most buyers don’t think about, even if it’s not always necessary. An example is a security review by IT. They may not need to do it, but you want to find that out sooner rather than later. This is not a monster under the bed – it won’t go away just because you’re not looking at it. Surface these things as early as you can. Nothing kills the timeline of a deal and gets in the way of the customer getting what they need like an IT security review. See you in six months.
  • Do not make the last item in the plan the signing of the contract – that is self-interested and self-serving. The signing of the contract is the beginning of the next phase for the customer, which can include things like project kickoff, key milestones for the customer, etc.
  • Ensure that, if possible, you review this plan in person. Go through each item, confirm the necessity of its inclusion, validate that the target dates you’ve included are attainable, and note any changes or comments. Then revise the document and send to them.
  • Use the review as an opportunity to ascertain decision making authority, purchasing protocol, approval chains, etc. Remember – this is about helping your customer attain what they need to solve their business problem. A clear understanding of the process helps the customer get what they need in the time they need it, and sales professionals are better than anyone at figuring out that process. If it feels too early in the cycle to dig into those items, don’t – but list them and tell your customer that you’ll come back to them in a future review.
  • Revisit this plan with your customer routinely. Just like an entrepreneur’s business plan, an Engagement Plan is never right the first time. Or the second time. Or the third time.

For a sample layout of an Evaluation Plan, click here to download. This plan is an oversimplification, but provides a general framework for how to structure a plan that will work for you or your team. Tailor the particular line items to reflect the important milestones in your deal process and the important steps for your customer to consider. Remember – the intent is to help your customer conduct the most thorough evaluation they can.

If you enjoyed the post, please click one of the “Share This” buttons below to share on LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.

To make sure you know when future posts are published, click here to sign-up to be notified.

Stop Calling it a “Close Plan”

The importance of a plan to address the ‘last-mile’ of a sales cycle cannot be overstated. It is critical, especially for large and complex deals, that the sales executive draft and review with their sales leader a detailed plan to earn the business in question. Doing so is how we ensure that things don’t get missed, that the account team is in alignment, that senior executives are clear as to what is required of them to support the deal and that everyone is focused on the most important tasks to reach the desired outcome: closed business that will bring clean revenue to the company and a valuable solution or product to the customer.

Close Plans Are Necessary

Most evolved sales organizations have a process for this. At certain stages in the sales cycle, for deals of certain dollar amounts or strategic importance, sales leadership will require that the sales executive convene a review in which the sales executive presents the plan. Sales leadership will help strategize on tactics and iterate the plan until a final list of action items is determined. Most of the time, this plan is referred to colloquially as a Close Plan.

Invariably, there will be components of this plan that require collaboration with the buyer to do things like:

  • Align incentives “…and to confirm, we’ve agreed to this pricing structure with the understanding that you’ve agreed to take reference calls and sign the contract by the 25th of this month…”
  • Validate steps “…and you’re sure that the procurement director approves and then sends to the CFO for signature…”
  • Confirm dates (“…and we are certain that the CFO isn’t taking a trip to Bora Bora the week that we are planned to have him sign…”

A plan created in a vacuum isn’t a plan – it’s a hope and a dream until we confer with our buyer.

Don’t Call Them Close Plans

So, being fortunate enough to have one of those top deals in the pipeline and recognizing that it’s necessary to consult with our buyer on the items in the plan, we call our buyer and we propose that we sit down together to review our plan.

When this happens, please – for the love of all that is holy, DO NOT REFER TO IT AS A CLOSE PLAN.

To some this may be a statement of the obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard sales professionals and their managers actually state to their prospective customer that they would like to review their Close Plan with them.

But why wouldn’t they? For months or years everyone in their sales organization has talked simply about the Close Plan. After a period of time, muscle memory and habit kick in. If we consistently refer to something as a Close Plan when we’re inside the four walls of our organization, it’s a safe bet that we’ll refer to it as a Close Plan outside those four walls.

Words Matter

The words we choose matter. They convey the motive behind our actions and the intent that we bring to an engagement. When we talk about a Close Plan, we de-humanize our buyer and we diminish the importance of their needs and values in the process. We turn them into an object that is to be conquered, a deal to be won. We turn them into a thing.

Buyers sense this – consciously or unconsciously. They must. The result of choosing our words inelegantly is that we turn what may have been a very collaborative and mutually respectful process up to this point into a tug-of-war that trades on angles and leverage, a zero-sum game with a winner and a loser.

What the buyer hears us say when we use the words Close Plan is “this has been nice up until now, but I’ve got to get to work and close this deal. And that means I’ve got to close you.” It signals to the buyer that the situation has changed and that they must now be on guard against tactics designed to extract as much money from them as efficiently and smoothly as is possible. And we are the person with whom they must be on guard.

This is unfortunate. Most sales professionals genuinely enjoy their work and the opportunity to be of assistance and utility to the customers they serve. Most attempt to be as genuine and authentic as they can. Most work for organizations that legitimately believe in the importance of customer satisfaction and shared success. It is an error of sales culture and a result of bad habit that a couple of irresponsibly chosen words can undermine what are otherwise thoughtful and deliberate efforts to provide genuine value.

Sales Leaders: Lead

Sales leadership bears the bulk of the responsibility for shifting the tone of the sales organization and the words that our teams use, both in the field and in the office. Our people look to us to get direction – both spoken and implied – as to how they are to engage with the market, the competition, our prospects, our customers and our co-workers.

This is encouraging, because it means that in many ways all we have to do to start to engender a more value-driven culture is to choose our words more carefully. This is a discipline that is easily begun and, with practice, develops reliably. It does demand awareness, however. Many of us run-around barely conscious of the words that spew out of our mouths, oblivious to the emotional wake that we leave and the downstream impact of the words we choose. So we must consciously decide to begin.

There are any number of ways to convey the intent of a close plan – mutually agreed upon steps to reach a mutually beneficial outcome – without calling it a Close Plan. If you’re a sales professional, I’d encourage you to share this post with your leadership to initiate a conversation on the subject. If you’re a sales leader, discuss this with some of your managers and sales executives to collaborate on some new terminology that more accurately reflects the type of organization that you want to be.

For the past number of years I’ve favored the term “Engagement Plan” and have required my teams to use it in lieu of “Close Plan.” It maintains the word “plan,” and it’s important to call things what they are as simply as is possible. The term “engagement” conveys a sense of collaboration and forward momentum.

Next week I’ll spend some time reviewing what I’ve found to be the best approach for structuring an Engagement Plan and when to present it to your buyer. Hint: it is NOT at the end of the sales cycle. To make sure you know when it’s published, click here to sign-up to be notified.