According to research from The Bridge Group, sales productivity is the number-one challenge for nearly 65% of B2B organizations. What are the reasons for this? Well, let’s look at some stats:
- Two-thirds of sales reps fail to make their annual quota
- Most sales reps spend more than 50 working days a year busying themselves with tasks other than their core activity
- 87% of training content is forgotten within a matter of weeks
- The average sales rep has to update over 300 CRM records per week
- The average sales rep receives nearly 600 emails a week
These stats highlight some of the main problems that stand in the way of productivity: time spent doing things other than the main task of selling; poor or discontinued training; lack of leadership; and an abundance of information to sift through.
One of the main problems is a lack of clear direction from above, that salespeople are left to their own devices without a cohesive, overarching plan. 'Productivity is never an accident,' says the professional-development guru Paul J. Meyer. 'It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort.'
So let’s look at ways to increase productivity by taking deliberate action based on known truths about the modern sales environment.
1. Embrace Technology
'On my desk I have three screens, synchronized to form a single desktop,' said Bill Gates. 'I can drag items from one screen to the next. Once you have that large display area, you’ll never go back because it has a direct impact on productivity.'
Gates’s point is simple: if you have the best tools available to you, then your job is made easier and you are therefore more productive. It’s not rocket science, but the majority of companies are still lagging behind when it comes to implementing technology to make their reps’ lives easier.
'Salespeople are spending hours searching for information and recreating things,' Nicholas Lihou, head of global sale enablement at Xerox, told Forbes.'They are mobile and doing things in the car or a coffee shop. The resources should be available to them, and access to those resources can now be enabled with technology.'
It’s a sales manager’s job to keep on top of technological advancements to ensure that their reps are not working with obsolete equipment. Business tech is moving so fast now that it makes sense to take an inventory once every year—or even once every few months—to find out if there is anything new that could help your reps.
That could be additions to the stack that get rolled out companywide or across all of sales - but it could be the Chrome extension that makes it faster to find a prospect’s email. (Datanyze has one of those, since it came up.)
'If [reps] are working on sub-par technology that’s out-dated, or doesn’t run the programmes they need to use, it can end up being something that distracts them from selling, and keeps them on the phone more with tech support than with prospective clients,' writes Brian Hasenbauer in the Center For Sales Strategy’s blog.
Tech can be a time suck as well as a liberator for sales reps. It has to be selected and implemented carefully. But any time tech shaves time off, or automates low-value activity that doesn’t pay off directly in revenue, you should grab it with both hands. And reps will love you for it if you sell it to them like that, because they’re looking at their own bottom line too.
2. More Selling, Less Meeting
One of the reasons reps spend 50 days a year on average attending to tasks other than selling is because their sales manager keeps calling pointless, interminable meetings whose sole purpose seems to be to make said sales manager feel important.
'The least productive people are usually the ones who are most in favor of holding meetings,' said the American economist Thomas Sowell. How many meetings have we been in where we can’t even concentrate because we’re being kept from a pressing task that’s part of our actual job?
Before calling a meeting, ask yourself if it’s really necessary or if your message can’t be conveyed simply via email or text message. If it is necessary, don’t insist on reps having to be there in person: if they have a client to meet, let them dial in remotely rather than having to sacrifice more time than they need to.
Another question to ask yourself prior to a meeting is: Is this meeting required or am I holding it (a) because managers are just supposed to hold meetings, or (b) because I want to feel important? If either of these things is true, cancel the meeting and let your reps get on with the job they’re paid to do.
3. Destroy The Myth Of Multi-Tasking
The ability to multitask is often held up as a virtue. Circus metaphors abound: the best multitaskers can spin plates and keep balls in the air. The problem with this is that even the best performers can’t attend to everything forever, and eventually balls and plates come crashing down, leaving an ugly mess.
In his book Procrastinate On Purpose: 5 Permissions To Multiply Your Time, Rory Vaden attacks the notion that multitasking is something to which salespeople should aspire. 'Multitasking is a complete myth,' he writes. 'Every time you switch between two activities it costs you extra time.'
Instead of trying to spin plates, Vaden suggests focusing on one thing at a time, purposely putting off—or even refusing to take on—other tasks in order to give 100% focus on the most pressing priority. 'It’s empowering to learn how to say ‘no,'' he says.
Encourage your salespeople to be honest with you. If they genuinely feel that taking on a new task would impact their productivity, respect their openness and find another solution to the problem.
At the same time, you should be looking for ways to reduce their number of tasks. Vaden, for example, doesn’t read his emails. 'Instead he has an assistant who constantly monitors his bulging inbox and texts him when she sees a note that needs his immediate attention,' writes Susan Adams in Forbes.
Many companies have begun to hire appointment-setters to relieve their sales teams of constantly having to organize their calendar, which detracts from their primary focus. A lot of outbound marketing companies now offer an appointment-setting service in which they arrange appointments for salespeople from a list of qualified prospects. This is something to consider that will make your salespeople’s lives a lot simpler.
Removing the administrative burden has a twofold effect on productivity. Firstly, it allows the salesperson to spend more time selling, which automatically makes an increase in sales more likely. Secondly, it shows your team that you are willing to actually do something tangible to make things easier for them, rather than just repeating empty motivational mantras in the meeting room.
'When a sales team know that a sales manager is going to bat for them they will work harder—and ultimately sell more to show their appreciation,' says Brian Sullivan, vice president of global accounts with Sandler Training. 'The most effective teams have sales managers running interference on the endless administrative tasks, and talking with other functions about limiting the amount of administrative tasks in general.'
4. Start Training Right Away - And Don’t Stop
'Creating a productive sales team starts with onboarding,' writes Anna Mazereeuw of LifeLearn.com. 'Onboarding presents the opportunity to impact the future productivity of your salespeople before they ever make a sale. Effective training gets new sales reps up to speed quickly, but without overwhelming them.'
The costs involved in recruiting and onboarding a new sales rep are astronomical. 'Recent Aberdeen research revealed that it takes over seven months and almost $30,000 to fully onboard and train a sales rep,' writes Shelly Cernel of KnowledgeTree. 'That’s a tremendous resource investment, especially when considering the fact that 87% of training content is forgotten within weeks.'
If it costs $30,000 to onboard a new rep but your reps are always leaving because they are dissatisfied, that is going to have a major effect on productivity. As we’ve covered in a previous blog post, effective onboarding and continued training are the way to remedy this problem. A 2015 survey by the Brandon Hall Group showed that improved performance management resulted in increased employee engagement, which reduces staff turnover while boosting productivity.
In addition, research from the Corporate Executive Board Company found that 'sales reps who receive just three hours of coaching a month exceed their goals by 7%, boosting revenue by 25% and increasing the average close rate by 70%.' And as Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson note in The Harvard Business Review, it’s a brilliant way of improving the performance of the middle two-thirds of your reps who aren’t hitting quota: 'The real payoff from good coaching lies among the middle 60%—your core performers. For this group, the best-quality coaching can improve performance up to 19%.'
As a manager in this situation, you also need to accept responsibility for hiring good reps. There’s no point training recruits who are ill-suited to the job in the first place. Beware of placing too much weight on a job interview and make sure you evaluate the candidate’s abilities as a whole. An article by Frank V. Cespedes and Daniel Weinfurter in Harvard Business Review noted 'a low correlation (generally, less than 25%) between interview predictions and job success,' so beware the fast talker.
5. Run (Effective) Sales Competitions
Old-school sales competitions are ineffective. They tend to be won by the top 20%—a group that doesn’t require any extra motivation—and have the effect of further alienating the middle 60%, who believe they’ll never have a chance of winning anyway.
However, new sales competitions have addressed this conundrum to produce a stunning effect on productivity. Based on a fantasy-football league, Adam Hollander’s FantasySalesTeam competition offers a variety of awards for achieving different targets both individually and as a team. Salespeople can select a 'fantasy' team of their colleagues, creating a mutually supportive network that encourages people to help each other gain success.
As George Bradt notes in Forbes, a competition Hollander designed for a company called Wireless Zone ended up being won by someone who had previously been the worst-performing sales rep in the company. 'That individual was performing at 150% of what he had done in prior months,' explained Hollander. 'He was invested in success.'
6. Focus On Lead Quality
Too many managers focus on the number of leads their team is getting, rather than the quality. But this can present your team with the considerable problem of having to sift through reams and reams of poor-quality leads, wasting their time going down dead end after dead end. Instead, try to provide them with a few high-quality leads.
'Working from high-quality leads means less time pursuing sales that won’t pan out, and more time sealing deals with prospects who are genuinely interested in purchasing,' writes Mazereeuw.
As we noted in a recent blog, an account-based strategy is a good way to shift the focus from quantity to quality. Account-based intelligence systems such as Outreach.io or LeanData can help you make the switch.
7. Channel, Don’t Dictate
If you’re a basketball coach giving a team talk and you have Michael Jordan sitting opposite you in the locker room, champing at the bit to get onto the court, you don’t try and dictate to the man how to go out and play. You recognize that he has talent and you let him express himself, perhaps with a few words of encouragement to keep doing what he’s doing.
Sales is no different. Some salespeople—the middle 60%—will require nurture and training. Others—the top 20%—will not, so do not try to dictate to them. 'Great leaders channel the genius in the room,' writes Lou Carlozo of Yesware. 'They don’t bark out orders and call it a day.'
Driving productivity means creating an environment where it happens naturally. Cracking the whip over unproductive reps isn’t a solution, it’s a substitute for one. Put reps in a position where they can be productive, remove administrative clutter and equip them with the right tools. Then you’ll see big, permanent changes in productivity.
About the Author
A serial entrepreneur and digital nomad, Geoffrey has been running his own marketing consultancy for the past year.More Content by Geoffrey Walters