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.

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