This article is part of a larger series on Sales Management.
Sales forecasting is the estimated revenue your business expects to generate and the number of customers it will serve during a specific time period. These estimates come from analyzing historical trends, forecasting opportunity conversions, or relying on your team’s existing sales knowledge. In this article, we answer “What is sales forecasting?” by breaking down its objectives, owners, methods, and best practices.
While many customer relationship management (CRM) software products offer built-in forecasting tools, your CRM might not, or your business may not yet use formal CRM software. In either case, we’ve created two free sales forecast templates you can download to create a one-year or multi-year report:
Sales Forecasting Definition
Your first questions might be, “What is a sales forecast and what does it look like?” and “What is sales forecasting in marketing and sales?” A sales forecast is a prediction of expected sales revenue or how much your team or business plans to sell within a given time period, usually every week, month, quarter, and year. While it is not an exact prediction, it is an excellent basis for your sales team’s performance.
Key Objectives of Sales Forecasting
As discussed in the sales forecast definition above, the goal of forecasting is to have an accurate estimate of your sales performance. Ideally, sales professionals aim to either achieve their expected sales target or exceed it. Sales forecasts also help organizations make better decisions based on a realistic prediction of future revenue, which helps them achieve the following objectives:
Team Members Responsible for Sales Forecasts
While sales projections generally affect the whole company, the sales management team takes the lead in generating them. However, each member involved in the sales and revenue chain must likely submit their individual forecasts. These are the team members responsible for sales forecasts and their corresponding roles in the process:
Common Methods of Sales Forecasting
Forecasting entails inputting factors into an equation to output a sales estimate. Depending on which sales forecasting method you use, internal factors such as past sales, current opportunities, and marketing campaigns influence the estimates produced. There are also external factors to consider, like the economic climate, market competition, and seasonality. Below are the primary sales prediction methods.
This projected sales forecast method takes data from previous time periods, accounts for new factors such as growth or increased demand, and calculates estimated sales revenue. While this method is ideal for businesses at least a few years old, new businesses could also use historical trends by evaluating information from similar businesses. Let’s look at an example of using historical trends to make a forecast.
Last year, the ABC Online Store made $90,000 in revenue, had 2,000 customers, and 60,000 website visits. Based on their marketing plan for the new year, they expect to increase web traffic to around 80,000 visits, which in turn would be converted into new customers. Assuming each new customer spends the same average amount of $50 per purchase and the conversion rate of 3% remains consistent, ABC Online Store can expect a revenue of $120,000.
Use our calculator below for a quick sales projection based on historical trends:
Let’s switch it up and say the business wants to predict how well it will do in terms of revenue during the busy season. In past years, the Q4 holiday season (October to December) accounted for 40% of its revenue. Through September, it had made $80,000. Based on the consistent proportion of revenue generated in Q4, the business can expect total revenue for the year to be $133,333, with $53,333 done in Q4 alone.
Now let’s switch the factors of the known historical information. Imagine after five years in business, ABC Online consistently makes 15% more than the previous year. There’s also a demand increase in the total market of 10%. If ABC did $150,000 last year, they could expect an increase of $22,500 (150,000 x 15%) due to standard growth and an additional increase of $17,250 due to new demand, for a total of $189,750.
Pro tip: Many CRMs include forecasts in sales reporting features. Pipedrive, for instance, analyzes revenue reports from past periods and considers growth projections and current open opportunities to estimate future revenue.
A sales process that follows conversion rates of a sales pipeline or funnel can use conversion-based forecasting to estimate anticipated revenue. This method is more common in business-to-business (B2B) sales, which are usually finalized as deals.
Business-to-consumer (B2C) organizations can also use this method if they follow a typical sales cycle for closing deals. Ecommerce businesses can use it if they track website traffic, browsing, and purchasing rates.
Let’s take the example of ABC Management Consulting. The leadership team wants to estimate revenue based on deals, deal values, and the conversion rates of its sales funnel. Going into the new year, it currently has 200 leads in the funnel and expects to generate 50 new leads throughout next year’s campaigns. There’s a total potential deal value of $6 million and the following conversion rates:
Based on the data above, ABC estimates that of the 250 total leads, 40 (16% of them) will be interested in more information. Of those interested, 20 (50%) will want to receive an offer through a proposal, and 12 of them (60%) will strongly consider the offer by negotiating some of the terms. In the end, nine of the leads are expected to become clients of ABC, which translates into a total deal value and sales prediction of $216,000.
Next, let’s look at conversion-based forecasting for a B2C ecommerce company. Using industry averages and their internal marketing knowledge, ABC Online believes its digital campaigns will reach 2 million views (awareness) over the next 12 months. It also anticipates 10% to click and view the online store (interested). From the website, 30% will likely browse for a solid amount of time (consideration), and 5% of those will actually make a purchase (decision).
Let’s assume each purchase is for one unit of what’s being sold for $100 each. Based on this, 3,000 purchases will be made for a total projected revenue of $300,000.
Pro tip: Use your CRM software to track sales pipeline or funnel stage conversion rates. Zoho CRM, for instance, takes data stored in your CRM system, including the number of leads and stages of each lead, and shows you the conversion rates. The information is presented on Zoho’s dashboard and can be broken down further by the location of a lead, sales stage, and lead source.
This sales forecasting method is the least accurate because it doesn’t rely on actual historical data or conversion rates. Instead, you depend on your sales team’s performance expectations, market intelligence, and confidence to project the number of deals they expect to close or leads they anticipate generating.
Accuracy will always be questioned for this method as sales reps like to be optimistic about what they expect to close, especially to their managers. That said, sales rep knowledge is instrumental in interpreting or reviewing sales projections generated from historical data or forecasted conversions to see if it’s aligned with your typical business performance.
A simple example of how this method would be used is if XYZ Company is having a sales meeting with their sales reps. The manager goes through a list of new business opportunities and asks a rep responsible for a lead to provide a confidence level of closing the deal and how much they expect the deal to be worth. The following responses are given:
Expected Deal Value
30% chance for $50,000
50% chance for $20,000
90% chance for $5,000
40% chance for $60,000
30% chance for $40,000
20% chance for $70,000
Total Expected Deal Value
This makes the total sales prediction for new business in this scenario $79,500. It’s the total of the expected deal values ($15,000 + $10,000 + $4,500 + $24,000 + $12,000 + $14,000).
This method could also be less probability-based and go exclusively on a “close” or “will not close” basis. For example, rather than asking for confidence levels, a manager could just ask for the estimated value and whether or not the rep thinks it will be closed within the time frame. The benefit of this method is that you can motivate your sales reps to prioritize closing deals, especially ones where they expressed a high confidence level that it would close.
Pro tip: Software tools like Salesforce have predictive analytics capabilities through its artificial intelligence (AI) tool, Einstein. This can provide actionable forecasts and recommendations sales reps might miss.
5 Steps to Performing a Forecast
Much of the process involved in learning how to project future revenue is taking information like historical sales and conversion rates and then incorporating them into a mathematical formula. Once you have a formula, all you need to do is plug and play with different numeric factors to produce revenue calculations. Below are the five steps involved in performing a sales projection.
Your sales operation and offerings determine which forecasting method you should use. For instance, if your business is an ecommerce company that sells to consumers, you can use historical trends to forecast upcoming sales. Alternatively, use the conversion-based method with online metrics that offer conversion rates for potential customers who click and navigate your website.
On the other hand, B2B businesses that treat every lead as an opportunity or deal in the sales pipeline should use conversion-based forecasting or sales rep knowledge to obtain revenue estimates. If you sell B2B services but generate sales through ecommerce, such as downloadable software products, use the online conversion-based forecasting method or historical trends analysis.
No matter which method you use, you must gather and organize the data needed to perform that method. For the historical trend method, you will gather data from previous years for sales revenue, units sold, deals closed, growth percentages, seasonality trends, and historical demand.
For conversion-based forecasting, seek information based on current opportunities in the pipeline, industry averages, or intelligence from experienced sales staff to estimate pipeline or funnel conversions. For using sales rep knowledge, pull information on current opportunities and find out from your sales team which ones are the most promising.
Pro tip: CRMs like Zendesk Sell make it easy to store and gather the information needed for sales projections. It allows you to create opportunity profiles to track the stage in the sales process the opportunity is at as well as the potential deal value. This information can be used to create conversion and estimated revenue reports. You can also customize the view by grouping the data by criteria, such as by deal owner or team.
Once you have the information required, you are ready to create a usable forecasting equation. The layout for each equation will vary depending on the method you’re using and the information you already have. For example, if you’re using historical trends and know the growth rate you expect to see, the sales projection formula would be:
For determining the number of deals closed or new customers using conversions, add each of the stages and conversion percentages to an equation as follows:
If you use the knowledge of your sales reps, you could still set up an equation based on their confidence percentage levels:
The information you accumulated in step two is what will be added to the formula to give you a sales estimate. Using the sample equations from the Methods section above, this is what the equations look like with sample quantitative information added to them:
Note: Numbers are from the ABC Online and XYZ Company examples above.
Once the numbers are added to the equation, you’re ready to take the steps on discovering how to calculate your sales prediction. It should be noted that if your equation is used to determine deals closed, customers created, or units sold, an extra step is required to calculate the actual revenue anticipated. This means taking what you calculated and multiplying it by an average value per deal, sales per transaction, or price per unit.
Below are the estimated revenue totals using the equations above:
Best Practices in Sales Forecasting
Forecasting sales offers many advantages—especially in providing businesses with accurate visibility of their upcoming business performance. However, it must be done correctly to reap the benefits. Below we share some best practices sales teams should observe when doing sales forecasts.
- Have a proper and consistent forecasting system: Having an established system in place ensures you process the correct data while using the same system consistently will help provide more accurate forecasts based.
- Use current and updated sales data: Ensure you use only the most updated data. For example, regularly updating your pipeline and opportunities lessens the instances of overestimating your incoming revenues.
- Put proper team collaboration in place: Team collaboration is always ideal when doing forecasts as there are areas one team member can spot that others may not. Having the sales team manager review forecasts also increases the chances of correctness and accuracy.
- Complement software usage with human knowledge: While forecasting sales lessens instances of inaccuracy, having an actual sales agent review and interpret the data gives businesses a more holistic and realistic view of their sales forecasts.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
These are the reasons why accurate forecasting in sales is important to a business:
- Sales forecasts serve as the basis for making business decisions, business plans, budgets, and risk management efforts.
- It allows organizations to properly allocate their resources and manage cash flow.
- It indicates whether a sales team could achieve its short-term and long-term goals.
Some of the main benefits of calculating future sales include:
- Having accurate data to back hiring requests or expand locations
- Being able to create a realistic framework for salary increases or bonuses
- Attaining a realistic overview of your year-on-year performance
- Being aware if you need to look for more business or clients to hit targets
- Being able to determine a healthy spending capacity
- Having proof for commercial lending underwriting
These are the top three common mistakes in forecasting that could be costly for your business:
- Relying on gut feeling: Hunches, guesses, and gut feelings are unreliable bases for important business decisions. Make your decisions based on solid and realistic data from your sales forecasts.
- Ignoring historical patterns: In order to properly allocate a budget or generate a sales forecast, you need to consider historical data on demand and sales patterns. These patterns provide you with a baseline for predicting future sales.
- Failing to be flexible: When creating your sales plan and budget, be prepared to make any changes if there are sudden declines in your sales trend caused by seasonal factors. For example, you should adjust your inventory if there is a big sale coming that was not previously anticipated.
The best way to forecast sales involves taking data you already possess and calculating a future outcome. These estimates are particularly useful for spending and growth planning. Businesses often use a CRM system to make revenue predictions as it’s already storing historical sales data and conversion rates. For those without a CRM, download and use our free templates or step-by-step process to perform your forecast.