The Ultimate Guide to Activity-Based Selling: What, Why, and How

Activity Based Sales Manifesto

It’s the most powerful, promising and successful way to sell. It puts you in the driver’s seat, gives you visibility into your pipeline, builds your confidence and even makes selling more fun.

For any salesperson, adopting an activity-based approach is a game changer. I know this because it was for me.

I went into this field convinced that I didn’t belong. “I’m not really a salesperson,” I told myself. And at first, I struggled.

Then some successful, experienced people told me about activity-based selling. I changed my mindset and revamped my process. Soon, I started selling.

Now, as a Pipedrive co-founder, I’ve committed my career to helping other salespeople all over the world master their work. This guide can be used by anyone in sales, from the largest multi-national companies to sole proprietorships. This is your path to maximizing your potential — and your closing ratio.

What is Activity-Based Selling?

Let’s start with the basics.

In its most elementary form, selling boils down to this: A gives B something of value in exchange for money.

Of course, there are all sorts of processes that introduce more color and complexity — wholesale operations, office sales, etc. But it still ultimately comes down to this exchange. Without the exchange of money, it would be just a charitable deed.

But here’s a crucial question: When you hear the word “selling,” what do you think of? The exchange of that money? Or the process you go through to ultimately make a sale happen?

‘Selling’ refers to two things

“Selling” refers to both: the actions you take throughout the process and the closing of a deal.

The vast majority of salespeople focus on results rather than their actions. The inclination makes sense. We all need to make money. As salespeople, the pressure to get deals through the pipeline to a close is powerful.

So most people are engaged in results-based selling. Their mindset and focus revolve around making a sale happen.

You need to do the opposite.

Design your strategy around process

In activity-based selling, you keep your focus on your actions. You operate on the knowledge that you’ll get better results by completing key steps with a prospect, and repeating these same steps with all your other prospects, straying only where necessary to customize for the customer. And — this is perhaps the toughest part — you must not worry about results while you’re taking these actions.

Notice I did not say you forget about results. But the centerpiece of activity-based selling lies in resisting the temptation to make them your focus.

Think of it as a marathon. At the start of the race, you know your goal: the time to make it to the finish line. But in an activity-based approach, once you start running you don’t focus on the finish. Instead, you concentrate on what you’re doing. How quickly you’re running. How you’re breathing. How often you swig water.

Your goal is in the back of your mind, and it stays there. The metrics you care about are the ones you’re in control of right then — your process.

This is the core mental shift you need to make. Now let’s dig into why.

Why activity-based selling is the answer

As salespeople, we’re in one of the most stressful fields of work. In fact, it’s one of the most depression-prone professions.

The constant uncertainty, frequent rejection and worries over quotas can eat away at you — not to mention the need for commissions so you can pay your bills.

On top of that, selling often requires travel. That means time away from family, lonely dinners in hotel rooms and a feeling of being detached from your community.

Activity-based selling helps turn all this around. It allows you to build a better life while simultaneously boosting your closure rate.

You’re in control

In many fields of work, you can know that if you apply yourself and do your absolute best, you will often get the result you want. Not every time, of course — a surgeon won’t always perform a successful operation, a teacher won’t be able to get through to every student. But much of the time you will succeed.

Not so in sales. Even if you do everything right, most of the time you will fail. A 49% closure rate is virtually unheard of, and even an imaginary person succeeding in sales that often would still be failing most of the time.

The reason is that the result you’re looking for is entirely out of your control. You simply cannot control whether someone will decide to buy.

So your work life becomes a roller coaster. You’re on the ride and have no idea what’s coming with each turn. This lack of control leaves many salespeople exasperated and unfocused.

Most people respond to this by constantly changing how they work. If they hear about someone else making a successful sale in some way, they try that. If they get lucky and have success with one deal, they try repeating that process with other customers, even though it never works again. They find themselves directionless and scattered.

In activity-based selling, you take a stand. You say that for a set period, perhaps a month, you’re going to follow a system you’ve established and focus on your own actions. Then you’ll assess it to see how well things are working and how they can be tweaked.

When you do this, you suddenly find yourself in the driver’s seat. You control your actions. You control your schedule.

And here’s the great news: When people focus on what they can control, they’re more productive. They do more of the things that ultimately lead to the sale.

Think again of the marathon analogy: If you’re fixating on the finish line while you’re running, you may start to run faster, fail to pace yourself and burn out. You might fail to drink enough water or avoid leg cramps. Runners who focus on every step of the way — what they can control at that moment — run better throughout the race.

This is true in any field. All the great achievers focus on what they can control. They remain systematic about it.

Replace anxiety with confidence

Results-based selling could just as easily be called “anxiety-based selling.” You have a goal, such as a quota, but you simply don’t know how you’re going to achieve it. You lack a solid plan. So of course you’re feeling anxious.

When prospects meet you, or even talk with you on the phone, they can instantly sense your anxiety. You come across as desperate for their money. So they trust you less, and are less likely to buy from you. The anxiety of your results-based approach turns customers off.

To turn this around, you need confidence.

And confidence starts with a sense of achievement — when it’s the result of being in control — that is possible to repeat consistently.

Activity-based selling is the quickest way for you to feel less anxious and more confident. You take genuine pride in achieving the marks you set out for yourself — how many calls you make on a certain day, how many meetings you hold, how many prospects you move from one stage to the next within your pipeline.

This confidence fuels you. It keeps you consistently doing the things that work for you. And it puts customers at ease. They respond positively to your confidence.

The improvement is so powerful that it’s almost unfair to your competition!

I’ve seen this repeatedly. One of the best examples was how my colleague met his wife, as I wrote in Entrepreneur. To ask her out, he said, “I’d really like to go out with you. A couple of friends and I are going to have a party on Friday, I’d love for you to come, but I also understand if you can’t make it — that’s fine too.” Later she said that confidence made him stand out. It even made him a bit mysterious. She felt a pull to go see who he was. So he sold himself to her with his confidence.

Maximize your Key Performance Indicators

Activity-based selling helps you make the best use of your time. And it makes you work smarter.

When you follow this approach, you’re forced to determine how you work best. You can take lessons and gather ideas from other successful salespeople, but in the end you’re going to build the process that’s optimal for your skill set.

This is how you maximize your Key Performance Indicators:

  1. Number of deals The total figure for how many deals are in your pipeline, from the initial call to an offer being accepted
  1. Deal size — The average value of all the contracts in your pipeline
  1. Conversion rate — The percentage of deals that enter your pipeline and ultimately make it through to closing
  1. Sales velocity — The average time it takes for a deal to make it all the way through your pipeline

As you adopt and refine your activity-based sales approach, you’ll find improvement in all of these KPIs. You’ll develop the skills to get more deals into the pipeline. Your confidence will help you increase the value of your deals. You’ll close more. And your process will become so organized and fluid that you’re able to keep deals moving through at a faster pace. I’ve seen dramatic transformations from individual salespeople and entire teams when they’ve adopted an activity-based approach.

So now you know why it’s so critical to make this change. Here, now, is how to go about it.

How to build your activity-based plan

In changing how you operate, it’s critical to keep this in mind: Be proactive, not reactive. Don’t design your process around answering calls and emails — design it around simple, concrete steps you can take even when nothing is coming your way. When something does need your urgent attention, you’ll have an action plan for how to handle it.

When sales managers come to me seeking advice, they often joke:

“My guys are really good at waiting for a phone call. They aggressively wait for the phone to ring.”

A successful activity-based plan is built on the knowledge that there are steps you can and should take every day. It’s not dependent on forces beyond your control.

Here are the eight steps to creating your plan:

Step 1: Understand your goal

This might seem counterintuitive. Isn’t the whole point not to fixate on the goal? Yes. But as I said earlier, you still need to know what your goal is from the start.

For some people, the goal might be a dollar figure — or it might be selling a certain amount of the product.

To set your goal, keep the marathon analogy in mind. You have to aim for what you can realistically achieve. Setting a goal of completing a marathon in an hour is useless because you’ll never achieve it. Have a realistic, achievable goal that will still take hard work and dedication.

Step 2: Know your ‘why’

Determine the personal meaning behind your goal. Why is achieving this important to you?

Certainly, there’s the need to make money and pay the bills. But there’s often something deeper at work as well. It could be as human and simple as: “I just want to be really good at what I do,” or “I want to experience the version of me that’s a stronger seller.”

If the money is the ultimate key for you, think about the reason behind that. Perhaps there’s a loan you need to pay back, something you want to provide for your family, or a lifestyle you want to achieve. This is your “why.” Be sure you know it.

Along the way, you will run into unforeseen obstacles. Salespeople who make it through these tough times are the ones who have an enormously good “why” behind their actions.

Step 3: Map your successes

Take a good, hard look at the times you have been successful. What steps did you take? What exactly did you do to move the prospect forward through the pipeline?

Look for commonalities in your actions when you were successful. List them. When salespeople do this, they often find themselves saying: “Wow, that’s my process.”

Of course, there will be plenty of times you took these same actions and did not make the sale. Determine at what stage in your pipeline you lost the opportunity.

Step 4: Tap action resources

It also may be helpful to research some of the most successful sales techniques. At the Pipedrive blog you can learn about many.

You’ll find great advice about each step of the pipeline. How to determine the kind of customer you should be talking to. How to call or email a prospect. How to ask people for a meeting. How to interview people in a way that helps you to understand their needs. How to avoid wasting time on someone who isn’t really interested. And how to close more deals within your time frame.

Research can offer excellent ideas and insights. But don’t assume that other people’s techniques will work for you. Give serious consideration to whether they’re your style or not. And don’t give up the actions that are already working for you. Experiment with some new ideas to see whether they augment your process.

Step 5: Calculate your action metrics

Use the figures you have in front of you. You know what your goal is. You know your KPIs. (If you don’t, calculate them first.)

In general:

  • How many prospects do you need to close the number of deals you want in the allotted time?
  • How many proposals does that mean you need to send?
  • How many follow-up calls and meetings?
  • How many prospects do you need to have at every stage of your pipeline?

Now do the math:

To use a very simple example, let’s imagine your goal is to close 10 deals this month, and your closing ratio is 10% of leads that receive a proposal. So you need to send proposals out to 100 willing leads in your pipeline to hit your goal.

You also know you qualify 20% of leads that enter your pipeline to receive a proposal, meaning you need five regular leads to produce one qualified lead. You now know you need 500 leads in your pipeline to close 10 deals this month.

Come up with these figures. Take the time to get them right. In the end, you’ll have your initial action metrics — a set of achievable goals.

Step 6: Set weekly and daily action metrics

Now translate those metrics into daily and weekly ones. What do you need to get done each week to keep up your necessary pace? What does that boil down to per day?

This is a crucial time to make sure your goal is realistic. While it’s good to be ambitious, it’s also essential to make sure you can carry the load each day. Don’t overwhelm yourself. If you do, you’ll get off track early on, start flailing just trying to catch up, and soon find yourself stuck back in a results-based, anxiety-driven work life.

With this in mind, write down your metrics somewhere prominent, right in front of you in your workspace. These immediate goals are the ones you’ll be focusing on each day. And as you achieve them, you’ll have that all-important sense of accomplishment.

Of course, there will always be some adjustments. If you get less done one morning, you’ll do more in the afternoon. If you get less done on a Monday and Tuesday, you’ll do more to catch up Wednesday through Friday. These metrics will help keep you on track as you negotiate the demands of your week.

You’ll also find that it benefits you to be structured about the parts of your day. Some people prefer meetings in the morning and solo work on proposals in the afternoon. Others reverse that. After I adopted an activity-based sales approach, I discovered that I did best with phone calls between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.

When you start observing and concentrating on your own actions, you’ll discover the rhythm that works best for you.

Step 7: Take stock

At the end of each week, look back at those metrics. Treat yourself, even in some small way, to celebrate the metrics you achieved. And be honest with yourself about those you missed, so that you can rebound.

After this analysis, you may find you need to change your daily goals or do a better job of keeping to them. Or you might discover that you’re easily meeting certain metrics and can increase your daily goals without overworking.

Step 8: Evolve

The pace at which this new approach starts working is different for every person. It depends on your style, your ambition, your potential, and other factors, including those beyond your control.

But after a while — I can’t tell you how long that while will be — you should start to recognize that things are moving along better than before. More prospects are entering the pipeline. More deals are progressing. More sales are happening. You’ll also likely have a gut feeling that this new structure is working better for you.

Then, you’ll start to ask more of yourself. You’ll ask yourself to increase how many deals enter your pipeline. You’ll calculate and recalibrate your action metrics to make it happen. And it will. This is true not just in sales, but in everything. You evolve and improve through commitment to your goals.

By being aware of your actions and having a plan, you’ll equip yourself to thrive as a salesperson. Based on everything I’ve seen, learned and experienced myself — as a salesman at all levels, from knocking on doors to sell books to overseeing our booming sales operation at Pipedrive — I know this: When you master activity-based sales, you’ll put yourself on the best possible track to success.

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Timo Rein

CEO and Co-Founder of Pipedrive

  • Scott McClannahan

    Excellent article. I really appreciate not only the Pipedrive tools but also the blog articles that come out on a regular basis. Thanks for helping our sales team soar!

  • Another great article. I find the part about calculating your Action Metrics very useful for knowing how many leads I need a month to meet goals. Also, the anxiety-based-selling term is hilarious. Prospects sense that a mile away,

  • There is one extra description to this –which explains why sales is harder than trading.

    I give you an something, a promise of an uncertain return, while you give up a certain amount of money to me. Hard trade, psychologically.