“People don’t do what you expect but what you inspect.”

Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. IBM CEO 1993-2002


Sales Inspection: Two words that send chills down the spine of any sales or business professional.  Reps are inspected by managers, managers by directors, directors by VPs, VPs by CSO/CROs, CSO/CROs by the CEO and the CEO is inspected by the board.  Everyone spends time preparing to be inspected or to inspect.  Inspection, whether you’re doing or its being done to you, takes a lot of time.

If things are going well, its quick painless and cordial, mostly. If the rep is 120% of plan and is credible in their forecasts, all you’re doing is having a quick conversation. You might be checking on dates, looking for roadblocks, using the information to plan supply chain, resources etc. Simply put-you’re making sure they are doing what you expect.

For sales reps, you might think it’s easy, they are involved in the deals. For managers, who have multiple reps and are personally involved in the bigger deals, it’s easy. But again, the inspection when things are going well IS easy. When things are going well your rule about only inspecting the top 10 deals or the deals over a certain revenue threshold works fine.

Maybe you’re interested in what more might be delivered and that’s where the chill starts.   You’ve called into question the credibility of the person you’re inspecting. Have they missed something, or are they working as hard as they could be? You might not intend that as the outcome but I guarantee that’s the way it’s taken. Most of the time inserting that kind of positive anxiety results in improvement, motivation and hopefully better results.

If things aren’t going so well, forecasts are slipping, values are dropping on deals, gotchas are coming up, then things get ugly. The inspector will start to ask a bunch of why questions.  It’s annoying in many contexts, imagine what it’s doing to the person being inspected.

Ask yourself, even if you get a reasonable answer to the why question, what would you do with the answer? Why do you even need to know? All you’ve done, is either asked a question that the person doesn’t know the answer to, or you force them lie to you. In one, the person feels demoralized, in the other you made them push their own morals.  And even if you haven’t made the person violate their own morals, is this the time to find out that you can’t trust your people?

We all know what we’re trying to do. You’re trying to get the person to change their thinking, to be innovative, to do something different. But that didn’t happen.

Let’s assume for a second that you get through the forecast inspection with everyone’s morale and morals intact, what have you really done to improve the business? You went in with a forecast of 100 which is less than the target (definition of things not going well).  After asking all the questions to understand the status of the deal, at best you come out with 100. Never is 100 going to get better with this approach. Most of the time you’ll find really good reasons to reduce 100 by taking things OUT of the forecast. Your frustration and the person who is being inspected has a frustration level at an all-time high. Remember Jack Welch’s recommendation to take every opportunity to build confidence?  This is the opposite.

Let’s be more positive. You’re looking down the pipeline for deals that could be “accelerated”. As an aside, do we really think if a deal is real and it is in the pipeline that our people are NOT doing everything they can to move it along? If that’s not the case should the rep be on the team? We’re looking for deals that are in early stages, that we could do something to move it quicker or faster. Note: that’s not a bad thought, let’s set that one for a bit.

However, this is not how this comes across. To the person being inspected, especially if this person is a manager, you’ve gone outside the covenant of the inspector/inspected relationship.  You’ve asked a question about something they weren’t prepared to discuss.  Most employees that are inspected will either try to answer by dredging from the depths of their memories, or they will feel terrible and prepare even more for the next review. They anticipate harder, longer deeper grilling next week. Is any of this really helping the cause?  Do things get better because you LOOK at them more?

Most people in a reporting chain will spend more time preparing for internal calls and meetings than with customers. Yet when things get bad, what I have described invariably gets worse, and as the quarter progresses, the frequency will also go up. Once I had a forecast call at 5:00pm followed by another one at 8:00am the next morning.  The best thing about that was that I was well prepared.

And, this is just the forecast call. Have you ever asked how much time people spend in preparing?

So is there a better way?

It starts with process. What if when the forecast is 100 and the target is 120, rather than focusing on 100 why not focus on 120-100, in other words.. the GAP? Your sales ops and finance people will probably be able to tell you based on history and analysis 4 weeks BEFORE the quarter starts what is likely to be the end point +- 10%. Why not listen?  I know your reps and managers are going to be aggressive and optimistic, that’s their job. You have a team for a reason.  Listen to all of them.


  • Spend all of your forecasting calls in the early part of the quarter, or the last ones of the previous quarter on net new opportunities and progression.
    • In fact, why not look at those opportunities that are early stage and see how they could be moved now, rather than 2 months from now. 
  • Why not look at each stage of your sales cycle and ask what actions have moved things forward in past, and try those.
  • Have a conversation, not an inspection.
  • Make suggestions.
  • Coach
    • Work the plan with your teams, don’t try to make them come up with the answers to your questions, instead give them the answers.
    • Debate the answers with your team. Instead of asking “why” questions, ask who/what questions.

If you are wrong, they will tell you. If not, you may not have a culture that allows for reps to tell managers/executives they are wrong.  Subject of another posting methinks.

Inspection is an ugly concept used to change behavior. Unfortunately, it assumes that the person you’re inspecting KNOWS how to change behavior and has chosen NOT to do so. What if they simply just don’t know what to do? This might not be about skills or motivation but experience.  Your team might simply not know what to do.  Criticism is significantly easier than synthesis. Asking questions someone can’t answer is MUCH easier than making a suggestion of what they should do.

When I interview managers, I ask them their opnion of why a sales force wouldn’t be  performing. Generally, I get “there is a lack of alignment between strategy and reward”, and some of the time they are completely right. However, to make my point I ask this question “for $500 could you jump from your chair to the moon?”. If they can’t, I say “Oh I’m sorry, let’s make it $500,000, now jump from your chair to the moon”.   They usually get the point.

I know much of this flies in the face of what we were all taught to do. But then again, much of our success historically was due to refresh cycles and new products. Where is that in our world of agile SW development and the cloud?  Try it, and if it doesn’t work, try something else. It’s what we do!

Good Luck and Good Selling.

If this piece as piqued your interest, or you have an issue you’d like help with, visit www.spectrumleap.com/contact/