Create an effective sales forecast

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Sales forecasting is essential for short and medium-term business planning. An accurate forecast can help you manage your cash flow and allocate the resources you need to meet your business objectives

Sales forecasting is a key part of business planning and enables you to work out what your revenue is likely to be from month to month over a fixed period. Without this knowledge, it is difficult to sensibly see what funds are going to be flowing into your business and make practical decisions about stock purchasing, staffing levels and investment in equipment and premises.

According to Geoff Hurst, marketing director at the Chartered Institute of Marketing: "Sales forecasting is essential. If you don't plan, you can't know where you're heading. And if you don't know where you're heading, you shouldn't be surprised if you end up nowhere.

If you over-estimate or under-estimate your sales, it can create problems. "If you have more sales than you expect, for example, then you may not have the resources to fulfil them," says Bryan McCrae, owner of Cognitive Sales Consulting. "At the very least you will have unhappy customers and at worst you will lose some of them."

Gather sales information

Predicting your likely sales is not a matter of holding a finger up to the wind, but should be based on experience, market knowledge and the structure of your business. It is essential to record a range of sales-related information accurately for each of your sales channels.

If you are a small firm with just a few channels, an Excel spreadsheet should be sufficient for this. If your sales processes are more complicated, consider a customer relationship management (CRM) system with forecasting capability.

Always start with last year's trading figures and look for seasonal patterns. Unless there has been a change in your market, these are likely to be repeated.

"Think of your forecast as a dashboard," advises McCrae. "The more dials, gauges and instruments you use, the more you should be able to figure out what is going on. Factor in anything that might have a significant effect on sales. Last year's figures are a good starting point but you need to ask whether anything has changed."

This might include losing - or recruiting - a sales person, opening a new branch, new competitors or a change in pricing. Consider how many customers you are likely to lose and gain in the year to come. Which products should perform well, and which ones might struggle? How long might it take you to establish new products? If you had a particularly good or bad month last year, what were the reasons and are they likely to be a factor this year?

Look at your ongoing sales efforts, too - what stage are you at with new customers? What is on your order book at present?

By continually monitoring your sales efforts, you will also be able to see where the strengths and weaknesses are in your sales operation. Should you be putting more resources into certain products? Do sales of others repeatedly fall down at the same stage? What can you do about that?

Understand your market

Sales forecasting is more challenging for new businesses. If you are starting out, you will need to be guided by market research as well as any initial sales you have made. Knowledge of potential and existing customers as well as the influence of competitors is invaluable when forecasting.

"Sales forecasting is an art as well as a science," Hurst says. "Imagination must be used to determine factors that will hinder as well as help your sales success. But this must be tempered with hard-headed research and detailed analysis of the facts.

Make realistic sales predictions

Above all, your forecast must be realistic. Avoid forecasting sales that you want to achieve, rather than what you are likely to achieve. If your projections are unrealistic you will not be able to make worthwhile business development plans. It is better to under-estimate sales than to over-estimate and spend too much on resources.

McCrae warns against over-reliance on your forecast, however. "You don't want to get to the stage of analysis paralysis," he says. "Each individual deal is either won or lost - having 100 deals at 90% probability doesn't necessarily mean you are going to win anything."

Also vital is not ignoring that age-old indicator - the gut feeling. "Ask the sales person: 'If you had to bet your house on it, do you think we will win the business at the end of the day?'" he concludes.