Labcast: Tis the Season. Achieving Accurate Seasonal Sales Forecasting

It’s no secret that August is a slow month for just about everyone, and in this week’s Labcast, sales and sales training expert Tibor Shanto, Chief Sales Officer at Renbor Sales Solutions Inc. addresses the timely issue of seasonality and seasonal sales forecasting.

What is the true impact of seasonality on sales? How do you overcome the challenges it poses to accurate forecasting? And how can you ensure your actions are driven by the sales cycle rather than the season?

Kevin: Hello and welcome to this edition of Labcast. I’m Kevin Cain, and today I’m joined by Tibor Shanto to talk about sales seasonality. For those of you who don’t know Tibor, he’s a recognized speaker, author, and sought after trainer. He’s also the co-author of Shift!: Harness the Trigger Events That Turn Prospects Into Customers. A 20-year veteran of B2B sales and information, content management, and financial sectors, Tibor has developed an insider’s perspective on how information can be used to shorten sales cycles, increase close ratios, and create double-digit growth. Hey, Tibor. Thanks for joining us today. How’s it going?

Tibor: Pretty good, Kevin. How are you?

Kevin: I’m good, thanks. We’re heading into the summer here, or actually we’re well into the summer I should say, coming up on August, and things are slowing down. I wanted to ask you from a sales perspective, August is generally a slow month, but what’s the reality? How does that impact sales?

Tibor: I think it impacts it to the degree that you allow it to impact things, so let me back up. I think first of all unless this is your first year selling you probably have lived through the pattern before, and you know what the seasonality of your particular vertical or target group is. Some of it is very much tied to summer, as you say, with vacation. Other industries have a seasonality that’s driven by the marketplace.

The first thing that any sales person should know well in advance is what are the patterns or the season of the year going to look like so they can prepare accordingly. Knowing that August is going to slow down, whether organically because it is summer and people have a tendency to go on vacation, or whether it is a seasonal slowdown based on your vertical, knowing that in advance there are probably steps that you can take to ramp up certain activities in advance of that. Knowing you’re going into a loll, perhaps prospect more aggressively in June, or prospect for a specific type of opportunities in June, so you’re preparing for it in advance.

The other is, while I do recognize that people tend to go on vacation in the summer, unlike some parts of Europe that completely shut down, most instances companies continue to function. While it may be a slow season for selling certain aspects of things or for delivering certain products because demand might be lower, I don’t think it slows down from a point of view of business owners actively thinking about what makes sense for the business.

For most of us in B2B sales, and I realize it might be different for consumers, but for most of us in B2B sales this is the time to be selective and to begin to look at which type of people do you want to get in touch with. This is perhaps the time that even though their company has slowed down, some executives are thinking what type of programs or opportunities they might be pursuing in the fall. If you have something to contribute to that, this is a good time to engage with them because they are more in thinking mode as opposed to production, running on the treadmill mode.

I think the other thing that you could do is, again, if your fiscal year tracks to the calendar year, there are probably people that you spoke to in January, February, the first quarter of the year that were at that time perhaps, not ready to make a move, or perhaps you went some distance in the sales cycle and then it stalled and drifted sideways. Those are people that are worth reexamining or, at least, revisiting in this time frame.

Again, some will be on vacation, others won’t, which means that there’s probably a greater likelihood that you’ll be able to engage with them, use the opportunity to go and meet with them and find out a lot of information that otherwise you wouldn’t have. I would argue on a regular basis I put opportunities back on track because they’ve had a chance to overcome whatever it is that prevented them from moving forward earlier in the year. It does come back to a combination of planning and understanding the rhythms of your particular marketplace, and again, whether it’s seasonal by nature, August being summer, or seasonal because of the movements in the industry. There are things that you can do in advance to take advantage both in terms of planning and specific targeting.

If you don’t mind, I’ll give you a quick example. Very few people want to take sales training in the summer because people are on vacation, but at the same time it’s a great time for me to engage with these people of sales who are thinking actively what they’re going to do in the fall, how they’re going to set up a good potential for fiscal 2013. I don’t think I’m the only one in that position, whether you’re selling marketing tools or marketing automation tools or even graphic designs and so on, these are the times that retailers are planning their fall season.

Kevin: Right. It sounds like the thing to really do is try to take advantage of whatever the situation is and either prepare for what’s coming or to be prepared in advance of it.

Tibor: Very much so.

Kevin: Is there any way that this summer seasonality would differ from, say, the seasonality you might see in December for the holidays?

Tibor: Not really. In December, you see two things coming to play. One is that for a lot of companies that are specially tied to annual contracts and subscriptions, if you will, the industry that I came from very much focuses the latter part of November, coming out of Thanksgiving and into Christmas as their renewal season. Thirty, 40% of their accounts will renew in that season, so they get distracted from prospecting and doing current things because of the level of activity that they have to do around renewals.

Couple that with the fact that it’s “the holiday season,” so we’re either being entertained or entertaining, people again get distracted from doing some of the basic things. Let’s face it, since prospecting is most sales people’s least favorite activity, any excuse, whether it’s a Christmas party or renewing an account is going to fit the bill of not needing to
prospect. To your question specifically, both of them have one commonality, and that is that if you have a three month sales cycle and you accept the myth that there’s no business to be had in August, then you can bet that three months after August there’s going to be a loll in your pipeline that’s going to be quite negative.

Similarly in December, if you buy into the fact that I just need to renew without doing even a minimal amount of prospecting, or I need to go out and meet with my clients and take in the holiday cheer. Again, if you have a three month cycle, you can pretty much bet that there’s going to be a loll of opportunities in your pipeline about three months down. That has a definite impact on not only the company’s ability to sustain revenue, but I would argue from a commission sales person’s point of view their ability to drive money into their own pocket.

Kevin: What advice would you give sales professionals who are looking to capitalize on what you just said and are looking to let the cycle drive their actions rather than the season?

Tibor: What I would do is two things. One is to understand the broad cyclicality of their industry. Do they suffer some of these natural lolls, and if they do, what’s the most likely time that they will? That’s one cycle that I think they need to become familiar with. Again, what I would do is keep an eye on, make sure that it’s unfolding the way that it had in the past. The other cycle that they need to come to terms with is what is the average length of their sales cycle. You can measure that in a couple of ways. The simplest way I find to measure it is from handshake to close. Let’s say I made an appointment with you, Kevin, for next week, and we met. From that time, assuming that it continued to be an active cycle, what’s the average length of that?

If you have, let’s say again, we’ll use a simple example, a three month sales cycle, 90 days, and you see how that overlaps with the seasonality of your business. You may find that in June you have to put again an extra amount of focus on prospecting, or conversely, if you’re heading into a really busy season, because we talked about seasonality from a slowdown point of view, you also have seasonality from the standpoint where you are very much in delivery mode.

If you know that either one of those peaks is coming up, and it’s going to impact your ability to close things within 90 days, then again I would prepare for that in advance and make sure that I have enough things from an activity point of view, whether that’s prospects or whether people who are in discovery mode with me or whatever stage of the cycle, that I have enough of those flowing through. I just want to make sure that those two cycles, the seasonality of the business, the length of your sales cycle, you’re working to make sure that they’re aligning to create a smooth line as opposed to accentuating the peaks and valleys.

Kevin: Great, Tibor. Thanks so much for joining us today. Before I let you go, can you let our listeners know where they can find you online?

Tibor: Sure. There are a couple of places. The easiest is my website, which is www.sellbetter.ca. If you take a /blog at the end of that, you can find my blog there, and I publish about three times a week. I’m relatively easy to find on Twitter because it’s my full name, Tibor Shanto. Lastly, you can reach me toll-free at 855-25-SALES.

Kevin: Great, Tibor. Thanks again so much and we’ll look forward to talking to you again soon.

Tibor: My pleasure, and I hope the seasons treat you well

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