I recently had a conversation with a client related to workforce planning for their sales force. The basic premise was that you "can't do workforce planning for sales" based in the high levels of variation in sales achieved, process used, different customer groups, etc. While I understand how one might come to that conclusion, I don't necessarily buy into it. I have had some experience doing workforce planning for sales so I thought I would share just a few things on that topic.
The classic image of the lone road warrior sales person out on the road closing deals is still certainly the model in some companies. And in others the teams are multi-faceted and virtual, with a lot of web based interaction with clients and prospects. Regardless, there are some fundamentals that allow for workforce planning to be done:
1) There is a process. That process can be viewed and broken down in many ways, but at the highest level you identify / target customers, you pitch those customers and you close those customers. I wouldn't suggest just looking at those 3 steps of course, but there is a process to be examined.
2) There are metrics - both for the process and for the individual. Looking at traditional sales funnels and clients in each stage is one example. Looking at conversion rates from one stage of the sales cycle to the other is another one. And there are many more. There is some good research out there on what kinds of activities are most productive for sales people and lead to closed business. While certainly conversion ratios, etc., vary depending on a wide number of factors, there are still measurements to be had.
3) Outcomes can be affected. You can improve sales through any number of interventions such as automation, training, incentives, etc. Those improvements can be measured both in terms of cost and in terms of outcomes.
4) The associated skills can be measured. Companies can measure who is better at various sales-related activities and there are a number of skills-related competency models out there.
These are the fundamentals of many workforce planning efforts and they exist for sales as well. Now certainly, there are variations in performance among individuals. But this is true in any process, and while there are probably some bigger differences in those performance gaps, they can still be accounted for mathematically.
Now I am not saying that you would want to approach sales the same way you call center reps or other types of high-volume positions. But the same approaches that one might use for engineering or other high-skill positions can often be used with sales. It still involves understanding productivity, mobility, outcomes, skills, time, and the other factors used to do good workforce planning. The differences in across the sales process, product suite, etc. must be accounted for, but it can certainly be done.
To be sure, workforce planning for sales can be one of the more complicated exercises, and I have really just begun to scratch the surface here. But at the same time, it can be done. The question is the same as always - is this where your biggest needs for workforce insights and strategies lies? Or is there another part of the organization that deserves the focus? Prioritization of where you use your workforce planning resources is still key!