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Checklists: For Surgeons, Pilots and… Salespeople

I believe in checklists.  Clearly the medical community just got the message as well.  A study published online by the New England Journal of Medicine this week shows that adopting a surgical safety checklist (PDF) reduced deaths and complications by more than a third.  From the Wall Street Journal:

Researchers collected data on nearly 8,000 patients who were operated on in eight hospitals scattered around the world. As a basis for comparison, about half the patients underwent surgery before the checklist was adopted. The death rate fell from 1.5% to 0.8%, and the rate of inpatient complications fell from 11% to 7%.

As a pilot, I’m always aware that while flying and on the ground, lives depend on me not missing any steps or getting them out of order.  Make sure propeller area is clear before starting engine.  Landing gear extended before touching down on runway.  It’s amazing how many pilots don’t use a checklist and execute wheels-up landings.   (Note:  I wrote this post literally as US Airways Flight 1549 ditched into the Hudson River.  There is no doubt in my mind that the event would have been a disaster had the pilots not executed their emergency engine-failure and water-ditching checklists. )

ESR estimates that 80% of sales opportunities are lost due to either ineffective qualification or ineffective planning.  Every sales plan I’ve ever written has had a checklist.  What’s a sales plan without a list of events, activities, calls, meetings, and tactics—a checklist?

A top salesrep I mentored almost missed his number one year because he didn’t have a checklist.  Here’s what happened:

He was selected at a division of a Fortune 500.  The VP of Manufacturing was his sponsor.  The solution was $1.5 million of ERP software and related services.  During a conversation about the opportunity, I asked him whether the appropriation was on the agenda for approval at the next board meeting, the last of his company’s fiscal year.  The silence on the other end of the phone was my answer.  “I’ve never forgotten to check that before,” he said.  I believed him, but he forgot this time.  I held on as he called his sponsor on his cell phone.  The item had not been added to the board’s agenda for that next meeting.  A quickly executed series of calls got the item on the agenda and the rep got his dea.

A checklist is a simple way to instill some discipline into a salesperson or sales team.  There is very useful technology that will support building a series of pre-ordered events and steps for a sales process and for monitoring execution.  But in the absence of a tool like that, an Excel-based checklist will get the job done.

When you think about it, the checklist is nothing more than a to-do list.  The difference is the checklist is built for multiple sales opportunities.  Here’s one you can download, with my compliments.  It was used as an example in my book, How Winners Sell. It’s very simple, but will get you moving in the right direction if this is a challenge for your sales team.

If you don’t know whether your sales team needs a formal checklist as part of their standard sales planning regimen, ask them, “What are the next five things that need to be done, in order, to advance this sale?”  The answer will reveal a lot.

Photo source: http://www.pilotmall.com


11 Responses

  1. Dave,
    This hits home! I’ve had many a deal get scheduled for a board meeting only to learn that it was the next board meeting and NOT the one coming up before quarter end! It’s the simple things that we sometimes forget to do – that can have the greatest impact on our sales success. Everyone needs a simple checklist – the one you provided can map nicely into a sales pipeline process.

  2. Another fantastic post, Dave. We’ve done research which complements yours. It indicates that sales people make up to 2-3 times the number of calls necessary to close. When you drill down into the causes, you find: Poor Preparation or Call Planning, They “forgot” to do somethings, or Poor Call Execution.

    A simple fix is a checklist—-why try to remember everything if you can capture it in a checklist. Using a checklist can have a profound impact on productivity and effectiveness. Look at the number above. Imagine if you could accomplish the same results by making half the number of calls.

    They are also elegantly simple! I wrote a short article on checklists a while back: http://partnersinexcellence.blogspot.com/2008/02/in-priase-of-checklist.html

    Clearly, recent events further reinforce the value of checklists.

    Thanks for the great post!

  3. This advice is spot-on … as you get to a level where there are more than a few moving parts – you need some mneumonic help, which is what a checlist can be used for. Almost all implementation roadmaps or project plans are basically checklists – some more elaborate than others. All of the packaged opportunity management methodologies have a checklist of some sort – most methodologies are checklists with a concept/model and/or process wrap.

  4. Great posting.

    I see so many lost opportunitues fall through the cracks due to sales people over looking the “small stuff” that would have been picked up on a check list.

    I don’t believe in scripts per se but I believe heavily in check lists. After all, a check list is what the perfect job should look like so why wouldn’t you use one.

    Check lists also become a very valuable coaching tool for sales managers and sales directors. They can coach what their sales team do as opposed to the ideal (i.e the check list!)

    Sean Mc

  5. Hi Dave,

    I love the checkist concept -thanks for the checklist download. I visited that first thing and will use it on my current opportunities. That is something I’ve haven’t been doing to that level of detail.

    I love the checklist concept in every aspect of life – can’t do a thing without them it seems! One I’ve used over and over is JustSell’s Sales Management Checklist (http://www.justsell.com/salestools/salesmanagementchecklist.aspx). I had almost forgotten about it until you reminded me of checklists. It often came in handy. I need to put more discipline around using one like yours for my sales role.

    Thanks for reminding us of such a basic yet important concept that, like surgeons and pilots, we’ve never gotten too experienced to need.


  6. That’s any easy one to answer!

    Just plain old laziness and the lack of planning and prep leads to the majority of sales people just “winging it”

    A check list is plan old common sense but as we all know…common sense is not common!


  7. Good points about checklists. We just don’t realize the power in the concrete and simple and sometimes overlook putting our flaps down!

  8. Hi Dave,

    In terms of checklists I agree with them wholeheartedly as long as they are put in the right hands and the hands that they are put in, are coached to use them in the right manner. The danger is that people use checklists as a way of filling up their days with activities that ultimately go no where near helping them achieve their objectives. A salesperson needs to be coached that a checklist is a way of structuring their path towards their objectives and that that path has to be flexible: ultimately because we sell to people it is possible to go through a whole career where no two sales are the same.

    The other point which you mention, qualification, the company I work for and I believe heavily in (hence why we have developed SymVolli). All too enough people will chase sales that they really shouldn’t go anywhere. The qualification of the sale should coach and guide the salesperson as to what is the next step, from their checklist, to undertake.

    The danger with any checklist is that in the wrong hands it can be treated very linearly: the salesperson can go from step one to step two, three, four marking them as being completed yet potentially making little headway or missing vital detail which could aid them in reaching their objective. I believe that with checklists the key is in the coaching.

  9. Thank you Dave. My boss is always talking about the difference between “efficiency” and “effectiveness”. You can be efficient without and being effective: in other words you could keep a tidy desk and a busy diary but still get no where near being effective in reaching your targets. This is the definition he uses to draw out the differences bewteen Sales Performance Management and CRM.

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