I’ve had the opportunity to sit in on a number of QBRs with my clients, and as an outside observer I’m struck by how common it is for salespeople to make untested assumptions that directly affect the accuracy of their sales forecasts and the outcomes of their sales opportunities.

It’s all-too-easy for salespeople – particularly if they have relentlessly positive personalities – to fall into the assumption trap, and to confuse hope with evidence. It’s easy to project past experiences onto current situations, and to assume that they will lead to the same results.

And it’s all too easy (to draw upon one of my recent articles) for salespeople to succumb to avoidable errors of ignorance or application. The conclusion is clear: assumptions kill opportunities. So how can sales leaders create an environment that avoids these mistakes?

Checklists can help. They can draw the salesperson’s attention to the things that – if they spent a moment reflecting – they recognise that they need to know and do. Sharing the best practices and the winning habits of their top performing colleagues can also help.

Fostering self-honesty and self-awareness

But the most important thing a sales leader can do is to establish an environment that fosters and rewards an openness to learning from others, curiosity, self-honesty, self-awareness and self-criticism.

I’ve come across some toxic sales environments that stress the opposite – focusing on making the number to the exclusion of all other considerations, and which refuse to listen to or to acknowledge what they see as negative inputs that challenge the corporate narrative.

These cultures are ineffective and unsustainable. Fortunately, I’ve always been able to qualify them out as potential clients or to terminate the relationship if one has managed to slip through the net (I can only think of one such organisation in the past decade).

Assumptions must be challenged

Assumptions need to be challenged. They need to be called out for what they are. And this needs to be done in a way that encourages people to acknowledge and confront their own untested assumptions rather than suppressing them.

The process of qualification is acknowledged by most observers to be the critical foundation of success in complex sales, and in too many sales organisations it is managed as a somewhat cursory exercise that frequently conceals unchallenged assumptions.

Where’s the evidence?

Sales managers have a critical role to play in flushing out untested assumptions. They need to not only ask their salespeople where every opportunity stands against a set of consistently defined qualification factors, they must also expect salespeople to be able to justify their judgements and support them with tangible evidence rather than guesswork.

If the salesperson is unable to do this, they should be coached (in fact, you want them to decide to do so of their own volition) to recheck their assumptions and – where necessary – to honestly admit that they “don’t know” and take action to find out the truth.

In some circumstances, a more extreme approach may be required – one in which poorly qualified opportunities are removed from the active pipeline until and unless the salesperson can make a compelling, evidence-backed case for why they should continue to invest in them.

Facing the end of year with confidence rather than hope

I’m prepared to bet that there are assumptions lurking under the surface in a number of the sales opportunities that some of your salespeople are relying on to make their targets for the year (and maybe yours as well).

They (and you) can carry on, hoping for the best. Or by robustly requalifying these opportunities and by uncovering and confronting any unjustified assumptions, you may still have time to do something about what you find.

Another effective approach can be to hold “what could go wrong” pre-mortems and evaluate potential errors of ignorance and application in your most important currently forecasted end-of-year sales opportunities while you can still take corrective action.

Redirecting your energies

And as for the opportunities that you come to realise are never likely to close before the end of the year, you and your sales team can redirect your energies towards the well-qualified and eminently closable opportunities that could benefit from more resource.

Or would you prefer to wait until the end of the year before your salesperson admits (to misquote Bob Seeger) “I wish I knew then what I know now”? If you’re determined to maximise your success for the remainder of the year, make sure that your team understands, believes and does something about the fact that assumptions kill opportunities.