Feeling lost? Make some maps
Whether managing a company, a portfolio, or an account run, visualizing a plan will change the way you work
Salespeople are fond of using analogies to describe their craft. Selling has been compared to everything from fishing to playing jazz music.1 The improvisational nature of these acts is also what makes it difficult to describe how to be successful at them. There’s no one way to accomplish the goal, just a notion of the expected outcome: catch a fish, make some music, close a deal.
The emphasis on results leads to some perverse thinking and bias. Salespeople mistake an “up month” for innate talent; managers confuse good outcomes for smart decision-making. The problem is that without a plan, it’s near impossible to distinguish between luck and skill; there’s no yardstick by which to measure the quality of a process.
A friend and colleague recently told me:
Numbers lie; they obscure the relationship. Salespeople must get comfortable with abstraction.2
How does one get comfortable with abstraction? One way is to put the ideas on paper or sketch them on a computer. In short, make maps.
Maps are tools that:
Classify information, and
The process of cartographic abstraction—of transforming reality to a map—is more than just a useful exercise, it’s a prerequisite for lasting success because it forces us to model the world in a way that serves a specific need. This is paramount when there is ambiguity, conflict, or disaster.
Companies have org charts to map how jobs relate to one another. Office buildings have fire evacuation plans because when there’s an emergency you don’t want to rely on your memory—which isn’t likely all that great when you’re panicked—to get you to safety as quickly as possible.
In The Premonition, Michael Lewis relays the importance of maps:
He told her a story about some troops who’d gotten lost in the Alps. “They’re in a blizzard,” said Carter. “A guy finds a map in his backpack. The map leads them to safety.” What was cool about the story Carter thought, was that once the soldiers were safe and able to study the map more closely, they saw that it was a map not of the Alps but of the Pyrenees. “A map has value when you are lost,” he said. “It gives you a starting point.”
So where does one begin?
Start simple. Map your physical territory. This is a feature your CRM might have built into it. If it doesn’t, use Google Maps (or some other such free software) to build your own.3 Visualizing your or your companies’ accounts might reveal interesting and actionable insights about changing demographics. Are more accounts opening (or closing) in a particular neighborhood or zip code? Don’t rely solely on your gut when a map will provide you with a fuller picture.
Don’t stop with geography. Try to better understand temporality. Map your day, week, or month. This isn’t the same as properly managing your calendar (which is also important). Making a time map will help you or your team understand how to work wiser and not just harder.
Ready to take it to another level? Map your network of customers (use LinkedIn and/or Instagram) to find out who knows who and how. You don’t need to be a data scientist or computer whiz. Databasic.io can walk you through all the basics of creating a network graph in their Connect the Dots activity; it was designed for middle school students.
Maps don’t just show us the world, they help situate ourselves in it. Knowing where and how we fit in is the essential first step of managing ourselves.
Why the desire to compare sales to some “nobler” trade or avocation exists in the first place is another question altogether. Like drinking subpar Tequila during one’s misspent youth can leave a bad taste in one’s mouth (sometimes for decades), an early terrible sales experience is enough to poison one’s mind for a lifetime. There is no shame in selling. Everybody is a salesperson even when they’re not a rep. Good wine and spirit companies run afoul when executives, managers, and admins forget that they need to be salespeople, too.
By extension, those who manage salespeople must also be comfortable with abstraction.