Squirrel Spotting: Products and Sales Results—The Fallacy

Squirrel Spotting: Products and Sales Results—The Fallacy

Sales results are a function of “stuff” that has absolutely nothing to do with wishing for better sales results. It does not come from good intentions, management pressure, or–the best fallacy of all– from the fact that it’s “not last year” and, as such, we ought to see sales increase.

We’ve all done it. Sat down at the end of the year, or the quarter, or the month, and put to paper, white board or spreadsheet a number that we expect to hit for the coming period. The goals usually come from someone with lots of leverage and everyone else follows along, even if they know the goals to be delusional.

It is a rare company (unless they are a public organization in the crosshairs of Wall Street analysts and prognosticators) that is bold enough to forecast a sales decline. How can we? The price of everything else has gone up. So how can we plan for a scenario that results in less business?

And yet, many companies see sales declines year over year and are left to ponder, as the Talking Heads did in the 1980s, “Well, how did I get here?”

Sales forecasting is an inexact science. It is filled with many variables and no matter how many scenarios you plan for, two things will come to pass:

1) You will be surprised by something that was difficult, or even impossible, to predict; and

2) You will have fallen victim to what Daniel Kahneman calls in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow,” the “planning fallacy.”

Sales forecasting is a hugely important part of our businesses; we need context, a frame of reference, a check and balance, etc. What ultimately determines sales results (whether good or bad), however, is 100 percent a function of doing the right stuff, or doing the wrong stuff.

And paying a lot more attention to what that “stuff” looks like will more positively impact sales results than “running the numbers” until you’re blue in the face, or holding meeting after meeting designed to motivate, threaten or cajole salespeople into doing what they might not have the tools, the resources, or the wiring to do.

One of the biggest contributors to the sales delusion is, of course, our products. And, unfortunately, most companies believe that their products are better than their customers believe them to be. We know that to be true because dated and non-performing inventory is an industry epidemic on the retail and supplier side.  
“If it didn’t sell, it’s no good. The quicker you deal with it honestly and proactively, the better your business will be for it.”
I know of a number of companies on the supplier side that could chart a much healthier course but for the millions of dollars of non-performing inventory sitting in retailers’ stores. Likewise, almost every retailer I visit has a serious dated inventory problem that is preventing them from being the best version of themselves.

No matter how smart, intuitive or creative you thought you were when you bought, commissioned or designed that dated product, one of two things is certain. You either miscalculated, no matter how much post-rationalization ensued, or your decision was sound when you bought or made the products, but the world has changed and the product is no longer relevant.

Whether you are a retailer or a wholesaler, the good news is that you don’t have to rely on instinct, intuition, buyers or designers to provide explanations, rationalizations, excuses or promises about what and why. You have the data. If it didn’t sell, it was a bust. If it sold, do it again and again until it stops selling.

Johnny Carson once quipped: “When turkeys mate, they think of swans.” You can think of your products as swans all you want, but if it looks like a turkey, walks like a turkey and gobbles like a turkey …

Since none of us have a crystal ball, we can all agree that getting the product story right remains one of the central challenges in our businesses. It is even more so with retail evolving at the pace it is changing.

That process is not going to get any easier in the coming months and years, but there is one dynamic that is even more challenging, and which continues to haunt retailers and suppliers alike, and that is accepting the realization that some or, in certain cases, many of our products just don’t work anymore. They’re not relevant to today’s consumer.

Dressing it up, repackaging it, or pretending that it is not a problem is not a winning formula. You’ve got to be honest; stop the rationalizations and stop listening to your inner voice, your buyers’ protestations of validity, or those of your designers and production teams.

If it didn’t sell, it’s no good. The quicker you deal with it honestly and proactively, the better your business will be for it.

I know that many will read this column and keep doing the same stuff anyway. I get it.

American journalist Franklin P. Jones famously said, “Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger.” He had a point, and he wasn’t even in the jewelry business.

Peter Smith is president of Vibhor, a public speaker and author of “Sell Something” and “Hiring Squirrels.” He spent 30 years building sales teams in retail and wholesale and he can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter.

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