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Sales Productivity — What If We Changed The Way We Look At The Problem?

by David Brock on September 22nd, 2009

Everyday, I speak with sales executives about the issues of sales productivity, effectiveness, and efficiency.  For any sales executive it’s a critical issue, something they are constantly seeking to improve.

All the executives I speak with are bright, successful people.  They constantly are looking at their sales processes, the skills of their people, the tools their people use, and other things to get the highest levels of performance out of their sales people.  They are fine tuning, trying to find an edge, a few percent productivity improvement here or there.  They are looking to reduce sales cycle times, improve win rates.  They are looking at more effective and efficient ways of filling the top of their funnels.

As a self proclaimed sales guru, I spend a lot of time talking about it–even pontificating at times.  I’m not the only one, there are hundreds of blog posts every week, with everyone offering good ideas on improving the sales process.  Many of the Sales 2.o tools and vendors offer tremendous productivity and effectiveness advantages in executing the sales process.  There’s lots of training that teaches us how to prospect, qualify, discover, propose and close more effectively.

Yet at the end of all this thinking and good work, on a daily basis, I speak with executives that, while they can’t put their fingers on it, they just don’t feel they are getting as much out of the sales people.  The question I pose, in fact this is probably the starting place for any sales effectiveness assessment, is:  “How much of their time are they spending on ‘doing deals’ and deal related activities?  How much time are the spending on activities not directly related to selling?”  After all, that’s what we do—deals.  We find them, we qualify them, we understand what the customers want, we propose a solution, and we negotiate the close.  We do that as effectively and efficiently as possible.  We have all the latest tools, the best training, great management coaching, and we execute well.  When we don’t, we have all the consultants, trainers, and tools in the world to help improve our execution and productivity. 

But some how that misses something.  What we are focusing on is only a part of what sales people spend their time on.  To get a sense of where they are spending time and other areas to improve sales productivity, we need to almost do an old fashioned time and motion study  (sorry, that industrial engineering class in college made a lasting impression).

We’ve done that with a number of large organizations and every time, the results are startling.  Simplifying it, we basically look at how sales people spend their time.  Typically, we find sales people spend between 11% and 23% of their time “doing deals” or deal related activities.  Included in this is the time spent researching, prospecting, executing all the steps of the sales process in meetings with customers, the time spent preparing for those meetings, etc.   Usually, when we are looking at sales efficiency and effectiveness we are looking at these types of issue.  Stated differently, we are only looking at how sales people are spending 11-23% of their time.   Big initiative productivity improvements of 10/20/30% in how they execute the sales process are only impacting this 11-23% of their time.

What if we started looking at the other 77-89% of their time.  Those are the “hidden” time wasters, but eliminating or reducing those can have a tremendous impact on sales productivity, without changing anything about the way the execute their process.

Some of this time, we have no control over–things like holidays and vacations.  There’s a lot, though that we do have control of:

1.  Internal corporate requests of sales.  Lots of people in the organization contact sales people for help and customer input.  Product managers and marketing people are always looking for sales and through sales customer insight.  This is fantastic, the product managers and marketers are doing their jobs.  However, even though each request is small, taken together, these requests have a tremendous impact on people’s time.  In one Fortune 100 organization, we found requests for information from these people was taking up to 20% of the sales people’s time.  It was so easy to send an email blast to the sales force to get their views.  Product managers didn’t know their peers in the next cubicles were also sending request—and they were all sending followups.

2.  Meeting discipline.  We waste a lot of time in meaningless meetings.  We waste even more time waiting for those meaningless meetings to start.  It all adds up.  Think of it, 2 meetings a day, starting 10 minutes late, for about 236 workdays a year is just under 79 hours a week—almost 2 weeks a year per person of wasted time—waiting for meetings.  Think of it, if you could reclaim that time and apply it to sales related activities, without doing anything else, you’ve added 4% more selling time.  Based on the numbers I outlined above, that can be roughly a 20-30% increase in selling time, which is directly translated into productivity.  And this can be implemented at no cost!

Looking at the number of internal meetings on many sales people’s calendars, and knowing that 10 minutes is probably an understatement, think of the time that could be recovered only by starting meetings on time!  Add to that the number of meaningless meetings that are total wastes of time (read some of my other posts on that topic).  One European client has adopted a very novel approach to managing this problem.  All meetings start precisely on time and end on time, more importantly, meetings are optional.  So if people feel a meeting is a waste of time, they don’t come.  Imagine the number of meetings that are eliminated.

3.  Reporting discipline.  You read me rant about reporting.  Sure there are a lot of good tools that reduce the amount of time needed for reports, but I continue to be amazed by the amount of time sales people spend on reporting that is never looked at—but I’ve written about it before, needless to say, there are lots of opportunities to divert this time into selling related activities.

There are amazing and very simple solutions to freeing up sales people’s time to sell—dramatically increasing productivity.  Look at the amount of time spent in non-selling activities.  Much of it is necessary and a part of any sales professional’s job.  But there is tremendous waste.  I’m not suggesting you start managing by a stop watch, but the first pass at any sales productivity initiative needs to be decreasing time spent on non selling activities.  Make sure you are giving them as much time as possible to sell.  The next step is making them as effective and efficient as possible in selling.  There are hundreds of articles, lots of advice and many tools that focus on this.

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  1. Hey, Dave. Thanks for the very insightful post.

    I appreciate how you emphasized that tackling a problem requires selecting the best perspective to see it from: the more you understand it, the easier it will be to solve it.

    Keep those articles coming!

    • Thanks for the comment. Sometimes, I think we spend too much time improving the smallest part of the problem, ignoring the biggest part. In many cases, I have been able to double productivity of an organization by doing nothing with the way people sell, but focusing more on the systemic time drains.

      I appreciate your continued active invovlement and comments!

  2. Dave,

    very pertinent reasoning as usual. Forgive me though for playing devils advocate.

    Let us assume for a moment, we would free up time for sales people so they have more time available to spend with customers. How many of them would though know how to use this new found time effectively? I speculate only those that are the best performers already. Mediocre sales people and sales managers can hide behind these time wasters. That’s way I would expect a lot of resistance for the cure you suggest.

    Note I have not said that therefore we should not try it. But it will be harder than we might expect to achieve as there are irrational aspects to be considered as well.


    • Christian, you bring up a tremendous point. The good new is we freed up time for the sales people, the bad news, they don’t know what to do with it.

      This is where all our efforts focusing on the sales process and how effectively the sales people are executing the sales process come into play. Are they using the tools well, can they sharpen their execution, etc.? All the things that we do to maximize the productivity, efficiency and impact of sales people have the greatest return and impact at this point.

      Other areas, should we realign their territories, giving them more responsibility since they have the time? Do we now have too many sales people. Should we reduce the number of sales people.

      There is a certain “irrationality” as there is with much knowledge based work. We cannot expect to manage time with the precision of a manufacturing process, as an example. At the same time, too often we overlook the things that detract from selling time. In my experience, there are tremendous drains here that we do not take advantage of.

      Thanks for offering a different point of view. It really expands the thinking and tests what I write. You don’t know how much I appreciate it. Regards, Dave

  3. David, I strongly echo your call to look at the sales productivity problem differently + to start by finding ways to increase the amount of time Reps actually spend selling.

    Once done, IMO, there’s a crying need for new measures that reveal the systemic connection (based on observed prospect behaviors) between the impacts Reps are having from the efforts they’re investing. When it’s clear what practices are having what (if any) impacts, Reps tend to learn (from observation) how to use their added selling time to practice best their best practices – one of the keys to honing their ‘craftsmanship’ and becoming more productive. Thought du jour. Hopefully helpful.

    • John: Outstanding thoughts! Thanks for taking the time to contribute. You bring up a topic that I think is important for every sales professional. As you outline, it is important for every sales professional to continually examine what they are doing, how they are doing it and how they might improve. Managers have a strong role in helping this through their coaching. Any sales professional not doing this on a systematic basis, will ultimately be left behind.

      John, I really appreciate you following the blog and taking the time to comment.

  4. David,

    Very interesting post. Time and time again I’ve seen senior leaders look for quick fixes to improve sales productivity..”If those Reps made just 5 more calls per day, we’d be golden!”. But, the problem is much more complex. In addition, the skill of your sales reps also impacts where they choose to spend their time.

    For ex. Your less skilled Reps may want to spend more time handling customer service issues. While your best reps know when to delegate.

    Bottom line, improving sales productivity needs to be looked at through a number of different lenses. And, there is no quick fix.

    Marci Reynolds
    The Sales Operations Blog

    • Marci, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I am often amazed at how much time and money is spent, often looking at the smallest part of the problem. As you point out, we focus everything on the smallest part of the time they are spending on selling, yet the unfortunate reality in most organizations that I see is non sales time is far greater than sales time. But we spend almost no time looking at that.

      Perhaps the way to get 5 more sales calls a day is to free up the time they are spending on customer service.

      Great insight!

  5. I liked your point of view. At Emcien, we have also changed the way to look at the problem of sales productivity. We have tools to empower a sales rep to quickly serve up the best product choices to the customer. This is typically done in ad-hoc ways, and the sales rep is not empowered to offer a good product and close the deal.
    While current CRM tools automate the contacts and sales pipeline, sales reps are still expected to carry the product knowledge in their heads. The products keep changing, have new features….. the list is endless.
    Emcien offers a product recommendation engine that sales reps can type in the few features that the customer asks for, and up comes the best product choices. Add a budget, and you will choices within that price point.

    Would love your feedback on this.

  6. Clayton permalink

    Hi , I am with you ont he point that sales people need to spend more time actually on activities related to identifying , porgressing or closing deals , thta really cant be disputed .

    The fact is that there are ” time wasters” as you term them within every organisation like the few you mentioned . Some of them are easier to address like maybe meeting timimgs and reporting systems .

    However there a few others which are not quite so easy to address , speaking from my experience there are areas like information requests , clarifications , and sometime customer support related issues which to my mind cannot be termed as ‘time wasters’ as they indirectly and directly contribute to the the customers image of the company , the responsibility for building which lies mostly on the customer primary contact with the company i.e th Sales person .

    To reduce the impact of these so called ” time wasters’ these one needs a strong backend support system which will work in tune with the priorities set by the sales people and not by their workload and who is making more noise . This requires a commitment in terms of support pre-sales and after-sales which many companies only pay lip service to especially in these recesionary times .

    • Clayton, thanks for taking the time to comment. Many of these “hidden time wasters” sneak up on us and accumulate over time. We have to pay attention to all of these. Thanks for your ideas, please keep visiting and contributing. Regards, Dave

  7. Hi Dave:

    One element that is usually overlooked is how few usable productivity features CRM systems offer to the salesperson. They are usually just large contact management and forecasting systems, and do little to help a salesperson run a sales campaign – or even plan their day.

    I’m not sure if you include in the “2.0” category, but it is a classic example. It’s “Activities” function is nearly unusable by an active salesperson.

    What I need is a list of my 10-15 sales situations with the last two and next few action items listed, so I know at a glance where I am with each one. I’ve yet to find a system that could give me a simple “dashboard” like this without a convoluted process to input each item. Most systems make you fill out a complete mini-form for each activity – which is WAY more work than I’m willing to do – and much more effort than the pad of paper I keep (and re-write once a week) that gives me a single view of my entire territory.

    I’ve tried PC-based outliners, but since they don’t link to the CRM system I end up doing a bunch of copy/pasting that again is more work than it’s worth. So I stick with paper.

    I can’t believe that 30-odd years after the advent of CRM systems, it’s still more efficient to plan and track my activities on a piece of paper…

    • Larry, thanks for the thoughtful comment. In many ways I agree, but in some ways I disagree. I couldn’t imagine a sales person being as productive as possible with out a strong CRM system and leveraging related tools. That being said, I think most CRM implementations are not fulfilling their potential as personal productivity tools for sales professionals because they have been sold incorrectly and implemented poorly. Many end up being sold as management reporting tools.

      Until sales people see the power of using these as personal productivity tools, they won’t utilize them and they won’t understand how they can really help improve what you do. Unfortuantely, I don’t think many of the vendors or management does a great job focusing on this. This leaves sales people to figure out what works for them and leveraging that—in many cases it is pencil and paper.

      I happen to be a fan of Salesforce, but it’s not much different functionally than many of the other tools. In implementing it in our company, we’ve focused on how to use it for our own personal productivity (and there are still a lot of paper and pencil things we do as well). None of could imagine living without a tool like this—and, by the way, as the manager I get some great reports–but that wasn’t the driver.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I hope you keep visiting and commenting, it makes the whole thing more valuable! Regards, Dave

  8. Dave, we had our different points of view in the past 😉 This post is in particular interesting as I had a meeting with some sales people in the trenches (actually a very different topic) in December last year and we discovered an interesting situation:

    Sales effectiveness is all good but it needs a PERSPECTIVE. If the perspective is “leave a message”, “can’t reach”, “No interest”, “talk to…”, or “Great you call, here is the problem with the product I have…”, “I’ll get back to you…”.

    If having “MORE TIME WITH CUSTOMERS” means more down turner for sales people, then Christian Maurer’s point comes to play, people keep them selves rather busy with “things” then with customers – who aren’t really customers.

    Now in our December meeting we introduced a whole new “social selling” process. A process that matches the changing behavior of the buyers. And viola – sales people are now actually trying to seek more time to spend with customers by themselves.

    In other words PERSPECTIVE (the perspective we give sales people) is a key element in sales effectiveness. Too many people just lost touch what selling means today – which is radically different than just 5 or 10 years ago.

    (my social map)

    • Axel, it is wonderful to hear from you, I’ve always enjoyed our exchanges, knowing that we are more in agreement than disagreement. As I recall, we are celebrating the anniversary of some of our first discussions 😉

      I like your concept of “perspective.” I think too many people, both on the buying and selling side have incorrect perspectives of each other and how to work together effectively in helping solve problems of mutual interest.

      Professional selling is about sales person aligning themselve with the customer, helping to facilitate their buying process, and creating value through the process. My sense is this probably aligns with the concept of social selling. (By the way, my purpose in this article was not to talk about that, I’ve written extensively about it in other articles, but your point is more important than the article).

      I think that as buyers and sellers start to approach the process as more of a collaborative problem solving process we will see some radical changes in the way we work with each other, and profound improvements in effectiveness–on both sides.

      Sales needs to change their approach and behaviors. The foundation processes and models have been in place actually since the mid 60’s, but the consistent execution of these has been sorely lacking. We see many things today that are creating forcing functions to drive behavioral changes in this process. Social media and social selling are at the forefront of some of these forcing functions.

      Thanks for the comment, it’s great to reconnect. Separately, it would be great to discuss privately–then in a forum “innovation in selling,” (which is way beyond the Sales 2.0 tools). Together, I think we can come up with some interesting concepts.

  9. Shrikant Teli permalink

    Hello David ,

    Good Article .

    We have really think on the area of 77-89% their time .


    • Shrikant: Thanks for the comment. Based on our experience, that is a very good result! Congratulations!

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