Let’s start with the premise you’re fantastic. In fact you are a highly trained, experienced sales professional, you regularly achieve your sales target and you routinely exhibit good judgment and make sound commercial decisions. Let me ask you a question.
Should you use a checklist as part of your daily sales activity?
If you answered in the negative or even laughed at the very idea, yours would not be a lone voice.
I’m constantly amazed at how rare the use of checklists is amongst the sales profession but I’m equally amazed at the scale of improvement in the performance of my clients when they implement a consistent, disciplined use of checklists.
Firstly let’s look at why others use checklists.
In the world of aviation the use of a checklist is mandatory. The reason is an extremely well proven link between pilot performance and the use of checklists
I show two videos in my class on this topic. The first is of a twenty year airline captain with 11,000 hours in command of a particular type of aircraft. He’s about to launch on his third flight of the day. Despite all of this experience and acquired skill, he reaches for his checklist and begins to run down the items with his co pilot one at a time. The flight departs and lands with the routine safety we have come to expect of this industry. The second video is of an aircraft that crashed on take-off killing the two highly trained display pilots on board. The crash was caused by the pilots failing to remove a Control Lock, a large clamp that is attached to the rudder of the aircraft overnight to prevent wind damage. The checklist for the aircraft states, in the External Check section “Control Locks ……. REMOVE” and in the Pre Engine Start section states “Controls ……CHECK FREE” The crash was attributed to the pilots failure to practice effective checklist discipline.
The aviation companies and authorities have long recognised that there is a very powerful link between human performance and the use of checklists. But does that link extend beyond aviation? Atul Gawande is a surgeon who teaches at the Harvard Medical school. In his book,The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, he explores the value of checklists in the medical profession. Time and again, he found that checklists were an effective antidote to uncertainty and complexity. “We brought a two-minute checklist into operating rooms in eight hospitals,” Gawande says. “I worked with a team of folks that included Boeing to show us how they do it, and we just made sure that the checklist had some basic things: Make sure that blood is available, antibiotics are there.” How did it work? “We get better results,” he says. “Massively better results. We caught basic mistakes and some of that stupid stuff. But the study also returned some surprising results: We found that good teamwork required certain things that we missed very frequently.”
Now of course it’s true that both surgery and flying are situation in which mistakes put human lives at risk and that is rarely the case in professional sales. But if one looks at the use of checklists in terms of professional performance of difficult and complex tasks then their value is transferable to the world of selling. We too operate in a dynamic complex and often uncertain environment. However we too also operate in accordance with an underlying sales process. We too are human beings capable of omitting some important part of that process, no matter how experienced, qualified or trained we are.
If you have ever had a difficult debrief of a sales meeting because the salesperson omitted to get a vital piece of information or an uncomfortable review of a prospect account at a sales meeting because the salesteam failed to stick to the Sales Process and invested resources and energy into a poorly qualified prospect, could it be time to consider implementing a checklist discipline into your sales operations? Is there a checklist you could develop this week that might help strengthen your work flow?
However don’t expect instant buy in from everyone. Despite overwhelming evidence that checklist usage improves results even amongst elite performers, many salespeople will still resist. In the surgery trial mentioned above, even though checklists clearly raised the surgeons’ performance level and thus saved a number of lives a surprising 20% resisted the implementation of checklists beyond the trial.
Why does Gawande think medical professionals have such a hard time admitting that having a reminder of the tasks that need completing might be a good idea “Partly I think we have a hard time admitting weakness,” he says. “And one of the things we have to grapple with is that we have to assume we are fallible, even as experts. Some surgeons saw their work as an art incapable of being reduced to a dry checklist. Sound like anyone you know in sales?
The increase in your or your teams’ performance caused by replacing an element of uncertainty with predictability is unlikely to save a life but could it be worth doing anyway? Could a 2 minute drill give you “massively better results”.