Call reports with substance

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The only three things that matter

By Jerry Stapleton, for SBT

Your salespeople return from customer visits. Naturally, you want to know what happened. So you probably have them write call reports, right? And, if you’re like most executives, you’re usually underwhelmed with their usefulness. There’s a reason for that — most of them are "vendor reports," not "Business Resource reports."

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The vendor report sounds something like this:

"Met with Bill Smith at Perkins Manufacturing Co. Bill’s the decision-maker for widget purchases. He told me they’d be buying a total of 1,000 widgets and the decision would be made by the end of next month. Perkins likes our quality and trusts our company. Bill asked us to make several changes in our proposal. I’ve attached the details of Bill’s request. Sally, could you and your team work on this? I need to get back to Bill this week. Thanks!"

Pretty pathetic, isn’t it? There are about 17 things wrong with that report. I’m sure you can spot most of them. Let’s not waste ink analyzing it. Instead, let’s talk about what a call report should sound like. That is, what’s in a Business Resource’s call report?

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Here’s how a Business Resource might report on that same meeting:

"Met with Bill Smith at Perkins Manufacturing. As we suspected, Bill is a classic ‘High Title/Low Influence’ gatekeeper. Before I could even start my analysis of Perkins’ organizational dynamics, Bill felt the need to inform me that he was the ‘decision-maker’ for widgets. He said they’d be buying 1,000. But when I asked him to talk a bit about what was happening in Perkins’ business that was driving its need for widgets, Bill spent five minutes saying nothing. My sense is that this opportunity is real. But until we can find out what the key drivers are I don’t think we should put anymore time or $ into Perkins. I’ve got a call into Jim Smith to request a phone meeting with him. Jim isn’t a heavyweight at Perkins, but he seems to know what’s going on there. I will attempt to get a handle on the org dynamics and drivers from Jim."

There are several things that distinguish the two reports. But the most prominent difference is this: The vendor version offers a regurgitation of a transaction; the Business Resource version offers analysis.

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The three parts of a good call report

Here are the three things that you should ask from your salespeople in every call report.

1. Summary: A quick, bulleted recap of the key things that they learned in the call.

2. Analysis: This is what counts. And it’s one of the two key things you’re paying salespeople to do.

3. Next steps: Specific action steps that will help your company advance the sales campaign. Advancing the sales campaign is the second key activity you’re paying salespeople for. It’s interesting that in the above two call reports, the vendor version has the greater appearance of advancing the sales campaign. All that activity — re-working the proposal for Bill — creates the feeling (translated: the illusion) that things are moving forward at Perkins. But if you’re paying the bills, which one gives you the better feeling?

Do your salespeople answer those questions in their call reports?

Let’s drill down on the analysis part of a call report. There are two overarching questions that drive the analysis of a sales situation:

1. How real and how hot — in the customer’s mind — is the opportunity?

2. How likely are we to win and how much effort should we put into winning it?

Both of those are present in spades in the Business Resource report but sorely lacking in the vendor version.
To find out how real an opportunity is we need to understand the level of customer urgency. For example, your salespeople should be able to answer questions like these:

— What specific business circumstances are compelling the customer to seek/need our type of solution? (This is the "key drivers" referred to in the second report above.)

— What is the customer doing now and why is the customer looking to make a change?

— What are the consequences to the company of not making this purchase right now?

Here are several questions that should enter into the analysis of your likelihood of winning:
— To what extent do we have contacts at the account who will share information with us? Note: These do not have to be people with power. (Like Jim above.)

— Who at the account has what impressions of us? And what is the level of influence of those people in the company?

— To what extent do we have support from powerful people? Note: The answer to this question is reliable only to the extent that the salesperson can draw a sufficiently complete organization chart and provide evidence to support the salesperson’s perception of contacts’ level of influence. Again, compare the above two reports on this question. The vendor report contains the classic — albeit useless — statement that "Bill is the decision-maker." The Business Resource version demonstrates organizational savvy.

— Who are our competitors and what do we know about how they’re positioned at the account and with whom?

— What business priorities or major initiatives are we aware of that we might be able to "hook to" in our efforts to gain credibility with this account and differentiate ourselves?

Keep it simple! Summary, analysis, next steps: the three things that make up a call report with substance.

Jerry Stapleton is president of Stapleton Resources LLC, a Waukesha-based sales force effectiveness practice. He can be reached at 262-524-8099 or on the Web at

Feb. 21, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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