Sales. Every great business starts with sales (since without sales and revenue, you have no business.) And just as every great salesperson works from a solid sales plan, so does every great business.

So how can you create a sales plan that helps your sales team -- even if your sales team is only made up of you -- grow your business, especially if you've never created a sales plan before?

Here's a guest post from Ryan Robinson, a content marketing consultant to the world's top experts and growing startups.

Here's Ryan:

Strategy. Few words are thrown around with as much wanton disregard as 'the big S'. The internet is full of people who will tell you all about the success they've found from their "strategies":

Have you tried personalizing your newsletter subject line? It can 5X your open rate!

We changed the color of our Buy Now button... and made $5m!

Unfortunately, these tips and tricks aren't actual strategies. If running your business is a war, these are merely skirmishes.

"Business is like war in one respect. If its grand strategy is correct, any number of tactical errors can be made and yet the enterprise proves successful." Robert E. Wood -- Executive and Brigadier General

To create real, lasting growth for you and your company, you need to create your own grand strategy. And that starts with a solid sales plan.

As billionaire investor Warren Buffett puts it:

"Someone's sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago."

A sales plan is the "who, where, why, when and how" that will guide you to hitting your sales goals for the year.

Big picture aside, a sales plan is a month-to-month forecast of the level of sales you expect to achieve and how you're going to get there. It covers past sales, market concerns, your specific niches, who your customers are, and how you're going to find them, engage with them, and sell to them.

If done correctly, a sales plan empowers you to spend even more time on growing and developing your startup, rather than responding to the day-to-day developments in sales.

Armed with this information, you can quickly identify any upcoming problems, sales droughts, or opportunities--and then do something about them. It may seem like a lot of work at this point, but once you answer all these questions you'll be in a place to take your sales and your company to the next level.

Sound exciting? Let's jump right in.

To make things easier, I'm going to break down your sales plan into 3 distinct parts:

  • Sales forecasting and goal-setting
  • Market and customer research
  • Prospecting and partnerships
  • Each part naturally works itself into the next, starting with your high-level goals, then taking into consideration market factors, and finally looking at who you know, and how to find more prospects to help hit your sales goals.

    1. Set realistic sales goals

    Before we get into the process of how you're going to get your sales this year, we need to talk about something bigger: Goals.

    Your sales plan needs an end goal. You need a number--either sales or customers or whatever metric you choose--that will tell you whether or not what you've done has been a success or not. I've written about setting realistic sales goals in depth before, but what it all comes down to is determining what realistically you can bring in based on the size of the market, your company goals, and the experience and resources available to your sales team.

    Aside from that, there are 5 other pitfalls you should be aware of when setting your sales goals:

    Wishful thinking: You want your business to grow, so it's understandable that you might be over-optimistic. Start by looking at last year's forecast and results. Were you being realistic? For new businesses, avoid working out the level of sales you need to be viable and putting this as your figure. In psychology, we'd call this the confirmation bias, but it's also just straight up bad business.

    Ignoring your own assumptions: Make sure your forecast is based on your assumptions about the market. If you assume the market's going to decline and you're going to lose some market share, it just doesn't make sense to forecast increased sales.

    Moving goalposts: For the most part, you want your forecast to be finalized and agreed within a set timeframe so you can get onto the business of, well, business. Avoid making adjustments--even if you discover you've been overly optimistic or pessimistic in your sales plan. This document should be a benchmark to judge your success or failure off.

    Not asking for consultation: Your sales team are in the trenches with you and probably have the best knowledge about your customers. So, why wouldn't you ask their opinions, give them time to talk to their customers, and come to an agreement about the targets?

    Not setting aside time for feedback: Having set your sales goals, you need someone to come in and challenge it. Get an experienced person--an accountant, senior salesperson, or qualified friend--to review the whole document before taking it company wide.

    2. Define clear deadlines and milestones

    In order to know whether or not the assumptions you're making in your sales plan are close to the mark, you need to break that big number down into smaller expectations with strict deadlines. We call these milestones and they are incredibly handy in tracking whether or not your sales plan is on the right path.

    Clear deadlines and manageable milestones take research and time to develop. They should challenge and motivate your sales team, without being so difficult they kill morale.

    Again, start with last year's numbers (if you have them). Track how sales revenues increased annually and compare your company to the industry standards. Talk to your sales team about what they do during the workweek, whether that's getting on sales calls, prospecting new customers, or closing deals. Ask how much they're currently doing, and how much bandwidth they have to do more. This will give you a real, frontline take of what milestones to set.

    Next, it's time to set your milestones. These need to be specific with clear goals and deadlines. For example, you might want to increase your customer base by 20% or increase sales 50% for a specific product. Or even increase the percentage of users on a paid plan by 15% by mid-year. Whatever the milestone is, be clear what your expectations are and set a hard deadline for your team to work towards.

    Lastly, set individual milestones for your sales team as well. These individual goals need to take into account the differences among your salespeople. If someone on your team is making a lot of calls but not closing, give them a milestone of upping their close rate. If someone's great at closing but doesn't do much outreach, give them a milestone of contacting 10 new prospects a month.

    Brought together, these milestones inform and support your overall sales plan, giving you a clear, actionable plan of how you're going to hit your overall goals for the year.

    3. Pick a niche to focus on and build traction

    Now that we know the targets we want to hit, let's get into the nitty-gritty of building out our sales plan.

    First, we need to know the market we're in and the niche we're going to occupy so we can properly position our business for growth.

    What's a business niche? Essentially, it's what your business specializes in, but it goes a bit deeper than that. A niche is the space your business occupies, not just with your products, but with your content, your company culture, your branding, and your message. Your niche is how people identify with you and search you out over the competition.

    As serial entrepreneur Jason Zook explains:

    "When you try to create something for everyone, you end up creating something for no one."

    Don't do that.

    Instead, start by looking at a niche and asking yourself these questions:

    • How big is the market?
    • Is there a built-in demand for what you're selling?
    • What's your current market position: Including any strengths, weaknesses, opportunities or threats
    • Who are your competitors? What are their strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats?

    If you're stuck, start by going back to your own strengths. List your strongest interests and passions. Pick a field where the odds are already in your favor. Where you have a proven track record, more expertise to offer, an extensive contact base, and people who can provide you with intros.

    The beauty of working in a field that you already have an interest in is that you can build traction through becoming a thought leader.

    Do you have something unique to say about your market? Blog, write and contribute to relevant publications. Be a guest on podcasts. Speak at events. Add value to the lives of your prospects before you ever ask them to become a customer.

    The more visibility you can have in your niche, the more chance you have of hitting the goals and milestones in your sales plan.

    And even if you focus on one niche, it doesn't mean your business can't grow. Start with one product in one niche and then branch out to a complementary niche. Sell beautiful, handcrafted tea cups? How about a booming doily business? Or customizable teaspoons?

    A niche doesn't limit you. It focuses you.

    4. Understand your target customers

    It makes no sense spending time and money chasing after the wrong prospects.

    Once you know your niche, it's time to dig into finding out as much as possible about your target customer in order to properly sell to them.

    So, just what should you look to define? This depends on your company and your market, but start with basics like company size (in terms of employees or turnover), geographical information, industry, job title, etc--any traits that are common across your best customers or the types of customers you'd love to have.

    Also, don't forget to think about whether they're going to be a good 'fit'. If this is a long-term relationship you're developing rather than a one-night stand, you want to make sure you're speaking the same language and share a similar culture and vision.

    Use this information to build out an ideal customer profile. This can be your ideal 'perfect customer' or a fictitious organization that gets significant value from using your product/service and also provides significant value to your company. A customer profile helps you qualify new leads and disqualify ones before you spend months barking up the wrong tree.

    Once you know the type of company you want to target, it's time to get inside their head. Start by hanging out where they hang out:

    • Are they on social media? What's their network of choice?
    • Are they members of any Facebook or LinkedIn groups?
    • Can you answer industry questions for them on Quora or Reddit?
    • What podcasts do they listen to or what resources do they read?

    Get in your customers' heads and you'll be in a much better position to sell to them.

    5. Map out your customer's journey

    All right. Now we're getting somewhere solid.

    With your ideal customer profile in place, the next part of your sales plan needs to address how that customer becomes your customer. We can do this by mapping out their journey from prospect to loyal customer.

    So, what do we need to know about our soon-to-be customers? Let's start with the basics to ask them:

    • What do you want our product to do for you?
    • What features are important to you? Why?
    • What's your budget for this?
    • How are you currently solving this problem?

    These are all great questions to ask. However, it's a huge mistake to only focus on the present.

    Great sales people take their buyers on a journey through time -- from before they even knew they needed your solution to when they're a happy, loyal customer. To fully understand their journey as a customer start by asking about past buying experiences:

    • When was the last time you bought something similar to our service or product?
    • Was that a good or bad experience? Why?
    • How did you make your decision back then? What was the decision-making process like?
    • How did you evaluate different offers?
    • What were the deciding factors that made you chose that particular solution?

    If they had a great previous experience, think of ways to align your pitch with that experience and differentiate yourself with your unique value proposition (more on this next!). If they had a bad experience, distance yourself and explain how you would fix that situation.

    Next, get your prospect to define their own roadmap to a close by asking them what's next. "What needs to happen to make you a customer?"

    If they say they'll have to get approval from the VP of Finance, ask: "Ok, and let's say he agrees that we're the right fit. What's next?"

    Putting your prospect in this future-thinking state of mind makes them imagine buying from you. This is a powerful tool, which can help uncover any potential roadblocks and even help accelerate the sales process.

    In your sales plan, be sure to address the entire customer journey from pre- to post-sale.

    6. Define your value propositions

    We know our customers. We know their journey. Now we need to fit ourselves into it in the best way possible. This comes from defining your competitive advantage.

    Your competitive advantage is what sets you apart from the competition. Start by asking a few simple questions:

    • Why do customers buy from us?
    • Why do customers buy from our competitors and not us?
    • Why do some potential customers not buy at all?
    • What do we need to do to be successful in the future?

    Remember that customers buy benefits, not features. When describing your value proposition, it's easy to get caught up in talking about you. What you've made. What you do. Instead, flip the script and talk about what your product will do for your customers. A strong competitive advantage:

    • Reflects the competitive strength of your business
    • Is preferably, but not necessarily, unique
    • Is clear and simple
    • May change over time as competitors try to steal your idea
    • Must be supported by ongoing market research

    It's not that your helpdesk software has social media integrations and real-time ticket tracking that matters to most customers. It's the fact that it makes their lives easier and allows them to focus on what they care about most: Creating a great customer experience rather than keeping track of what that one customer said on Twitter last week.

    Focus on value, not features.

    Your competitive advantage is not just an integral part of your sales plan, but will inform everything your company does moving forward, from marketing to product development. It's a great example of where sales can influence the development of a product and the direction of a business.

    7. Build a prospect list

    Now that you know the types of customers you're after and how you're going to sell them, it's time to build out a list of people at these companies to test our theories out on. A prospect list is where we take all the theory and research of the last few sections of our sales plan and put them into action.

    At its core, a prospect list is a directory of real people you can contact who would benefit from your product or service. This can be a time-consuming task, but is essential for driving your sales plan and company growth.

    First, use your ideal customer profile to start finding target companies:

    • Search LinkedIn
    • Check out relevant local business networks
    • Attend networking events and meetups
    • Do simple Google searches
    • Check out the member list of relevant online groups

    Target up to 5 people at each organization (You can always move laterally towards the proper buyer no matter who in the organization actually responds to you). Targeting more than one individual will give you better odds for connecting on a cold outreach as well as a better chance that someone in your network can connect you personally.

    Remember, this isn't just a massive list of people you could sell to. This is a list based off of the research you've done previously in your sales plan. In a sense, a solid sales plan qualifies your prospects before you even spend a minute talking to them.

    8. Leverage current client relationships

    "Ultimately, almost all software companies end up getting approximately 80 percent or so of their new customers from their existing customers once they hit scale. From referrals. From brand. From word of mouth." SaaStr founder Jason Lemkin

    You're missing out on a huge opportunity if your sales plan only focuses on finding new business leads. Word-of-mouth, introductions, and current customers can be your most solid lead for growth.

    Use LinkedIn to see if anyone you know can introduce you to one of your prospects. Or reach out to your most loyal customers and ask them if they know anyone that would benefit from your product or service (you can even offer a referral bonus or discounted rate).

    Now, when leveraging current client relationships, you need to make sure you do it in the right way. When asking for an intro, remember:

    • A good introduction is two-sided: As the person in the middle, you're asking your client to vouch for you. If you already have a good relationship this should be a no-brainer. You provided value to them and they should want to help you in turn. Ask them how well they know your target. Would they feel comfortable introducing you to them? By phone? Over email? A good introduction shouldn't come out of the blue. Ask them to make sure it's OK to intro and then cc you in on an email with both parties.
    • Stay in touch, even when they can't buy from you: Ask how you can help or support them, even if they stop being a customer. It's a small gesture that can pay off in the long-run. Things don't stay the same for long.

    9. Identify strategic partners (that reach the same customers)

    The last group you should include in your sales plan are any strategic partners--individuals, organizations, or companies--that reach the same customers. Some people call these Complementary Service Providers (CSPs) as they aren't the competition and instead offer some product or service that complements yours.

    For example, if you're selling a POS system for local stores, you could reach out to a retail organization like the California Retailers Association, or a respected local business consultant.

    • Plan to build your relationship with these groups through things like:
    • Writing for their publication
    • Giving speeches at seminars
    • Providing resources for their websites
    • Starting a mastermind group where you can swap contacts

    Remember, you should be offering all of these services free of charge. It's all about providing value to complementary businesses and fostering a culture of 'growing together'. The more you add value to the community, the more people will want to send leads your way.

    10. You're not done yet! Track, measure, and adjust as needed

    Just because you've made a solid sales plan, doesn't mean you get to sit back and watch the cash roll in. Remember what Basecamp founder Jason Fried said about plans:

    "A plan is simply a guess you wrote down."

    You're using everything you know about the market, your unique value, target customers, and partners to define the ideal situation for your company. But yes, try as we might, very few of us actually see anything when we gaze deep into the crystal ball.

    Instead, remember that your sales plan is a living, breathing doc and just like the rest of your company, needs to account for and adapt to new features, marketing campaigns, or even new team members who join. You need to return to it regularly to assess whether or not your guesses are turning into reality.

    Set regular meetings (at least monthly) to review progress, identify and solve issues, and align your activities across teams to optimize your plan around real-world events and feedback. Learn from your mistakes and victories, and evolve your sales plan as needed.

    In most sales situations, the biggest challenge is inertia. But with a solid, detailed sales plan and a dedicated team with clear milestones in place, you'll have everything you need to push through any amount of friction and keep on track to hit your goals!