Are you producing the results you need?

Is your sales operation as productive as you need it to be?

I spend my time working with businesses helping them to become more successful and the starting point is always to look at the way they take their proposition to market. Simplistically, how they approach; marketing, sales and selling. Of the many issues that can have an impact on success, I find the most common is the productivity of the marketing and sales operation(s).

In considering productivity I refer to a dictionary definition “the effectiveness of productive effort as measured in terms of the rate of output, or the yield, per unit of input”. Immediately I can see a clue as to where the root of the problem may be found as the definition says productivity is about effectiveness whereas most businesses that I know are focused on efficiency. So while productivity is based on undertaking activities that will produce the desired results efficiency focuses only on minimising things such as time and cost.

First do the right things; only then focus on doing those things right.

While efficiency and effectiveness are not mutually exclusive making efficiency the primary objective usually stifles the very things that would make the business more effective. To gain competitive advantage the aim should always be to work smarter not harder although there is merit in maintaining an appropriate blend of the two.

Why might you want to spend time, and possibly money, making your marketing and sales operation more effective? There are many reasons but by way of a simple illustration; if you employ five sales people and you help them all to become 20% more productive you have in effect gained another whole sales person without having to spend money on; recruitment, induction, training, managing and of course paying them.

Where is the evidence?

It isn’t just me talking to businesses providing anecdotal impressions, the quantitative evidence that there is a crisis in sales performance is clear to see; the data is everywhere.
At the beginning of October during Dreamforce 16, the annual sales conference of, there was much discussion about “time available for selling” I think this must be an exaggeration but it was reported that in many cases the time available for selling had plummeted to less than 30%. This feels wrong to me but I have observed plenty of situations where the sales people are only engaged in actual sales and selling activities for 50% – 60% of their time.

Other evidence that there is a real problem can be found in research data from CEB (also reported at Dreamforce 16) which shows that the cause of a lot of stalled/lost deals is due to internal organizational complexity rather than action or inaction by the prospect. This chimes when I hear sales people say getting the customer to say yes is the easy part; getting things done internally is when it gets tough.

A few more examples from the research included; less than 50% of sales people achieve their target, high staff churn (voluntary and involuntary), the average tenure for a sales leader is less than 18 months and the average sales person tenure is around 22 months.

Extracts from research undertaken by Accenture, show 59% of sales reps believe they are required to use too many sales tools, while 55% feel that their CRM is more of a hindrance than a help. It is of course well observed that sales people don’t like what they see as admin and many have a personality biased towards freedom of expression so these results are not surprising. However, from my own observations I see many CRM systems that collect low level meaningless data that provides little of value either to the sales people or their managers. I also tend to agree with the observation about sales tools and in particular the lack of integration leading to situations, such as that observed on a recent customer project, where sales people had to look at three separate systems to understand the complete picture about the products and services being used at the clients they managed.

There are also impacts on the quality of life for many sales employees including; working longer hours, being constantly tied to technology sending emails and other messages and being contactable 24 hours a day. I see a lot of dissatisfaction as people struggle to keep up with work while feeling pressured by their managers to do even more.

This brings me back to the point about efficiency and effectiveness. All too often the sales managers’ answer to every ill is do more and do it faster; a perfect example of efficiency (working in a well-organized and competent way) but without regard to the effectiveness of the activity.

If current activity isn’t producing the desired result, then why should more of the same be any different?

Consider a different approach; doing less but doing it better will usually be more effective as it will produce more of what you really want – more customers and deals.

Is there a solution?

It seems ironic that today, when technology can deliver an endless supply of sales and marketing tools, all intended to make people more productive, that the trend is in the opposite direction. It is often the misused technology that is the great thief of time and sapper of innovation.

There has never been more advice available to people through; books, videos, conferences and networking groups (on and off line), but still the trend is for people to be less effective and therefore less successful.

So, it is important to explore whether technology is the solution to, or perhaps the cause of, the problems. Working on a recent customer project I observed the sales people spending at least one hour per day (14% of their time) entering data into the CRM system. The only thing they got in return was e-mails from the boss saying “do more”. What was being recorded in the CRM was very low level activity such as “a call was made” which meant the system provided the boss with nothing that would help him identify issues the sales people might be having as a basis for performance coaching. You cannot manage people by e-mail and spreadsheet!

Technology enables sales and marketing people to access huge amounts of data both internally and also externally about prospective customers and their markets. However, we see cases where sales people are literally swamped by data that swirls around like a fog making it difficult to see the actual target. This presents an opportunity for Marketing to provide concise insights and pointers based on analysis of the market/industry and also for Finance to provide sales ready insights based on a prospect’s annual accounts – or at least a tailored guide to help the sales people spot relevant opportunities within financial figures.

It is also the case that before making a call a sales person uses technology to check; CRM, LinkedIn, Social Media, Google, the customer’s website, credit rating agencies, maybe Companies House, plus they will typically access internal documents such as support call logs and sales visit reports. After the call they send a meeting invite, populate the calendar, send a confirmation e-mail, prepare some material for the meeting (perhaps a PowerPoint), check with marketing for case studies and other sales enablement material, and so it goes in a never ending cycle. Some of this is necessary and useful but not all of it every time!

All of this activity looks like work but the ultimate test is whether it makes the sales people more productive or just busy; are they getting a better yield from effort expended?.

So, yes there is a solution!

Here are a few things to consider:

  • Choose the right people to be your sales people. Recruit and select carefully, understanding that there is currently a limited supply of skilled sales people so you will need to invest in training and on-going development if you want the best for your specific business.
  • Consider the sales and selling methodology you use and whether it helps or hinders your sales people. Some of the methodologies that have emerged in recent years are very complicated and are probably only appropriate for very complex long life-cycle sales situations – sledgehammer to crack nut comes to mind.
  • Use technology sparingly to empower sales people to make better calls and conduct better meetings but ensure the proportions are right. As a start point I would suggest sales people should be spending 80% on/with prospects and customers; research & planning around specific prospects, calling, meeting, e-mailing them and preparing proposals, quotes and presentations. 20% is more than enough for administration, updating the CRM, reporting and attending sales meetings.
  • Ensure there is perfect alignment between what the sales function wants, driven by customer need, and what marketing is delivering to support it. All too often sales people have to spend time re-working collateral produced by marketing to make them a suitable selling aid.
  • Ask yourself if you have made the life of your sales people more complex than it needs to be.
    • A recent fashion has seen the emergence of a function called “Sales Enablement” which basically combines some marketing functions with sales and/or technical support. All too often this new function adds little of value but it does add another layer that the sales person has to work through to get the support they need.
    • Sales enablement often focuses heavily on product knowledge and marketing material when a real enabler would combine it with; process, methodology, skills training and regular performance coaching.
    • Many sales people have limited business acumen, struggling to understand the world they sell into, which leads to them selling the features of their product rather than the solution it will deliver. To entice a prospect to consider their product or solution a sales person must be able to see the world from the prospect’s perspective – asking “If I was the prospect would I buy this from that company and that sales person?

So for the outputs from sales enablement to be of real use they need to be delivered within the context of the business issue(s) they are intended to address; this is where coaching and mentoring from an experienced manager will really deliver great value.

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