The (Sales) Checklist Manifesto

What do a heart surgeon, a fighter jet pilot, a structural engineer for a skyscraper, and an enterprise software salesperson have in common?

Their jobs are all high stakes, complex, and require orchestration across a large team to achieve a successful outcome. Most saliently, there is little or no room for error and even one missed step can result in failure. Granted that for some of these cases, the stakes are life-or-death, but for an enterprise software salesperson (or their manager) whose quarter or year hinges on closing a major deal or retaining at an at-risk strategic account, the consequences of failure can feel if not life threatening, at least, career-ending.

Atul Gawande, a professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and a staff writer at The New Yorker, wrote “The Checklist Manifesto – How to Get Things Right”, a New York Times Business Book Best Seller. He makes the case that checklists can help professionals to more effectively deal with the increasing complexity of their responsibilities. Failure, he argues, stems not so much from ignorance (not knowing enough about what works) as from ineptitude (not properly applying what we know works).

The book’s main point is simple: no matter how expert you may be, well-designed checklists can improve performance. In medicine, he writes, it is just too easy for an otherwise competent and well-trained surgeon to miss a step, forget to ask a key question of a nursing staff member, or fail to plan properly for every eventuality during surgery. This is equally true for an enterprise software salesperson, who in the stress and pressure of a critical sales call, might forget to make an essential point or neglect to ask a pivotal question. Or, in the haste of managing his or her day-to-day activities, fails to plan for possible objections that might arise at an upcoming important prospect meeting or doesn’t thoroughly assess their competitive position and relationship vulnerabilities at a key account. In either case, failure to plan and manage critical best-practice steps can lead to irreversible damage.

Gawande tells the story of how stupid mistakes in surgery were largely eliminated through the use of a simple pre-operative checklist leading to staggering success for his surgical team. He discusses how checklists first became common in aviation, where pilots found that minor oversights led to tragic crashes, and how, as a result, flying today involves formal checklists and formal confirmation among pilots, air-traffic controllers, and anyone else involved in air travel.

So here’s the connection to your day-to-day management of salespeople. To increase the likelihood of success, whether it be qualifying a lead, working an opportunity, managing a strategic account, developing a territory plan, or conducting a pipeline and deal review meeting, you and your salespeople and anyone who is collaborating with them need a simple checklist to optimize results. In the parlance of sales, we call these sales processes. Not every deal or account will require the surgeon-like thoroughness Gawande advocates, but your most strategic ones will. Do it right the first time because it may be the only chance you get.

Even experts need checklists and you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to understand this – or maybe you do.

Have you crafted your checklists?

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