Enhancing sales productivity and effectiveness by increasing selling time and removing the hurdles salespeople and sales teams encounter.

Here are two classic challenges for workers who need information to do their jobs successfully, which organizations try to solve but nonetheless keep struggling with.

One: workers spend far too much time seeking the information they should have immediately available in order to effectively do their job. Two: the time that these workers need to successfully do their job is restricted by all sorts of tasks and activities which hinder them from de facto being successful. Among these tasks and activities: seeking information, which links both classic challenges.

The sales experience drives 53% of customer loyalty (Matt Dixon)

It’s a challenge for knowledge workers and beyond in times where information, collaboration and new skillsets are required to be effective. In this article we focus on salespeople and what stands in their way to be effective, from a perspective of time, information and activities they (have to) spend too much time on, keeping them from their actual task which in the case of salespeople is still selling the last time we checked.

Increasing selling bandwidth and selling time of sales teams - frictionless experiences for sellers and buyers

Setting the scene: the evolving reality and challenges of salespeople and buyers

Let’s start with some facts:

  • Buyer behavior has changed and salespeople need different tools and skillsets to be productive and succesful amid these changes (on top of the skillsets good salespeople always needed). Our interview with Nancy Nardin made that much clear.
  • The commercial reality has changed. Deals are stuck in the pipeline, we see this weird phenomenon called ‘good-enough buying’, wonder what we do wrong and forget that maybe it’s not (just) about us as we still like to think in terms of them and us instead of offering frictionsless experiences to prospects.
  • New generations of salespeople have entered the workforce and they are open to use social and digital tools for sales purposes. Their more digital lifestyle can influence the company if properly guided (see next point).
  • Just as there is a marketing technology stack, organizations need a sales technology stack. While the mentioned new generations might come with the openness regarding social and digital tools that doesn’t mean they know the best sales productivity tools nor dispose of all the skillsets to optimally leverage them. As an example: check out how artificial intelligence is used in sales and sales tools.
  • The responsibility over the sales technology stack and even sales enablement and sales productivity all too often lies in the hands of marketing, whereby goals de facto are far from aligned (more below).
  • Poor alignment between divisions such as marketing, sales, customer service and logistics force salespeople to spend time solving customer-related issues they should take note of, watch over but not resolve end to end as is regularly the case (unless there is a clear value in doing so and going the extra mile leads to higher sales productivity; it’s not a black and white story, all depends).
  • The same poor alignment causes frictions as goals are not aligned and salespeople feel not involved. Referring back to the responsibility point: sales enablement efforts whereby marketing dictates what needs to be ‘created’ to empower sales often focus too much on marcom priorities, rather than on what the key stakeholders, being salespeople and customers (whereby salespeople are frontline) really expect/need (and both often aren’t even truly involved).
  • A culture of enhanced collaboration possibilities has led to collaboration fatigue and even collaboration overload in organizations where there is a lack of responsible use of collaboration tools and a mentality of meetings and reporting (often manually) which reduces the time salespeople have to sell. By the way: it’s not because someone is not the best ‘internal collaborator’ in the world that he/she can’t be a top sales person; in the end the customer matters and, again, it’s not a black and white story.
  • Too many sales leaders have a poor understanding of the technological enablers and tools that exist to make sales teams more productive as Nancy Nardin also stated.
  • Just as buyers feel more overwhelmed, sellers feel overwhelmed with a genuine so-called seller burden as CEB (since early April 2017 Gartner) calls it. A few years ago CEB’s Matt Dixon told us that ‘what really gets in the way of driving change and simplifying things is how much leadership clings to their own assumptions about what customers want’. Now they invested in understanding what customers want but overlooked some of the lessons of The Challenger Sale and The Challenger Customer.

Optimizing salespeople’s time effectiveness: a shared responsibility – focus areas

There are only so many ways to increase sales productivity. So, it’s crucial to look at the full picture to do so.

While training and coaching your salespeople is one way to increase sales productivity (and a very important one), optimizing the allocation of salespeople’s time is another one and it’s becoming increasingly important.

In fact, learning salespeople how to better use their time should be part of the training and coaching. However, it stretches far beyond that as you could already read.

Who is responsible regarding the way salespeople spend their limited time and, in the broader context wherein this aspect of time fits, sales productivity overall?

The responsibility of salespeople

Salespeople obviously are responsible for their sales effectiveness.

In the end, the difference between a successful sales rep and one who is less successful, is related with an ability to prioritize, manage time and make the difference between what is important and what is not. Salespeople also need to be able to voice the frictions they encounter in an environment that fosters feedback instead of ignoring it.

The responsibility of sales leaders

This brings us to the role of the sales leaders/managers. Their job is not just to make sure that sales targets are met overall (which of course is also a sales rep’s responsibility).

They also need to make sure that salespeople are trained, coached and equipped to be able to prioritize, manage time, able to voice concerns and…sell. Moreover, sales leaders and salespeople have a shared role in motivation. If a sales rep doesn’t feel motivated it’s important to know why and address the motivation issues. If they can’t be tackled, the conclusions are clear. However, motivation is essential for sales leaders and others to watch over. If salespeople aren’t motivated they will obviously waste time.

Last but not least, sales leaders should also co-drive sales enablement, the sales tech stack and the needed collaborations. Sales leaders need to understand the tools and ways to make their salespeople more successful, remove obstacles and increase the time that salespeople can spend on selling.

Salespeople are asked to do a lot of non-selling tasks and they’re asked to handle larger and larger territories with bigger and bigger quotas. It’s enough to cause anyone to crack (Nancy Nardin)

The responsibility of corporate leadership

Motivation, time management and so forth are not just about salespeople and sales management; it fits in the broader management and organizational/culture picture.  

Below are some examples to illustrate this corporate leadership role.

Are there clear agreements on the ownership and measurement of sales productivity?

Without a compass, instruments and clarity it’s harder for a ship to reach its destination, let alone know where it’ heading to. It’s not different for your sales team. Sales productivity assessment and clarity is important for everyone, not in the least for salespeople themselves. Performance is part of motivation, if it’s recognized, although there is more to it as you’ll read next.

Do you have a top-down culture where all decisions are taken centrally with no involvement of the people in the field and on the front line?

You wouldn’t be the only one. Management decides centrally or has handed over sales enablement and other sales decisions to an executive that isn’t even part of sales. Country-specific or local needs and differences aren’t heard. Employee engagement, change management (where change occurs) and sales force motivation or feedback/recognition/incentive programs don’t exist or purely focus on numbers.

Motivation, however, means recognition of existence (‘a voice’), involvement (‘a heard voice’) and recognition as a person of flesh, blood and emotions (‘a personality’).

If your culture shows one or more of the mentioned traits don’t be surprised that salespeople leave, burn out, feel unmotivated and waste precious time. Only robots perfectly execute tasks without any personal involvement, emotion, feedback or recognition. If you want a team of sales people that behaves like a team of robots or that (unwillingly) sabotages everything, keep your top-down dictate approach alive. If you want a team of successful salespeople, change your ways.

Sure: you can focus on getting the best natural born salespeople with their profound experience but that doesn’t mean you have a functioning team and ultimately these sales champions give up as well (and they are highly wanted by your competitors who do have a better organization and culture to make them thrive as they want to).

The modern seller is overburdened with process, technology, internal selling and the evolution of the modern buyer (Brad Gillespie)

As a wake-up call: we’ve covered a report, entitled ‘Leading by Example’, from The Institute of Customer Service in the UK a while back. Quote: “Most UK CEOs and boards have no understanding of what customers want, yet ignore experienced frontline employees”.

So, where are those decisions with regards to frontline employees, such as sales, and customers based on? Moreover, note the word ‘ignore’. Ignoring frontline employees is the death of (their) motivation.

Leadership buy-in and sales enablement – an ongoing priority, also in tougher times

We’re drifting away a bit of our scope of efficient time management and allocation of salespeople’s time, although clarity, motivation and involvement by definition impact how salespersons spend their time, which is especially seen if clarity, motivation and involvement are missing.

Another task of leadership (and a task for sales management to sell it internally) is the recognition of the role of sales, sales productivity and sales enablement.

With recognition we don’t mean paying lip service but effectively investing in programs and platforms that free up salespeople time and enable them to become more successful. Training, coaching, the sales tech stack, you name it: their value needs to be recognized.

Unfortunately, when they do (and the sales leader has done his job), they are often among the first to be cancelled in tougher times while it’s exactly then that it’s more than time to thoroughly look at what sales needs (and why the heck it’s only now, in these tough times, that you might start taking it serious).

Instead of upping the volume of meetings and activities that refrain sales from selling as is often the case when tough times hit, make sure that you streamline your operations, get the right tools on board and enable your salespeople to sell instead of creating a highly demotivating and exhausting culture of fear and urgency, sending you into a downwards spiral. Sure, you can stress how crucial it is to succeed now and up the expectations but realism and enablement can’t be replaced by them.

When times get tough, the tough get going it is said. That is nonsense. When times get tough, those who have the time, motivation, tools and skills to go, are going. So, consider these aspects before times get harder, reducing the impact in case times effectively do get though.

The role of leadership in alignment of systems and processes: focus on agility and time

Another role for corporate leadership is in enabling the alignments between various functions, departments and their information systems.

The goal: to enhance overall efficiency and making sure that everyone, including salespeople, dispose of the means, information sources, tools and assets needed to streamline operations and reducing the time workers have to spend on tasks that are repetitive, offer little value and negatively impact the available bandwidth of salespeople to focus on their core tasks.

This alignment is not just one of strategy, vision and goals but also one of processes and operations. Its aim is to make the organization and its workers such as sales teams more agile, flexible and ready to go where the challenges and opportunities lie at any moment and any time, without being hindered by disconnected systems and divisions which are lethal for agility and focus on the core business goals.

That goes for the business goals overall (an essential part of what digital transformation is all about) and for the goals of salespeople: selling. Time and speed have increasingly become crucial for both and removing hurdles and silos is key in achieving it. And that requires leadership.

While most executives lay the blame of purchase complexity squarely at the footsteps of their companies, it turns out that the sales rep has a ton of control over how complex the purchase experience is in the eyes of the customer (Matt Dixon)

Reorganizing selling approaches to remove seller burden and meet changing buyer challenges

Last but not least, we need our sales organizations to adapt to changing buyer realities and that is a key role for leadership as well.

Simply said: salespeople need the time to engage differently with buyers in easier ways. Make it easier to sell. We massively invest in ways to better understand our customers. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, at the same time we’re making sales more complex.

Just as it’s important to reduce customer effort (and it can be complex to buy these days), we need to reduce sales effort in areas they really shouldn’t be involved in.

It’s an often overlooked reality. Buyers feel overwhelmed by the buying process. At the same time, however, sellers feel overwhelmed too: by internal processes, systems and technologies they need to use and don’t focus on helping them sell but on internal goals and even a growing demand that they internally sell the value of a deal before signing it, as was made clear at the 2016 CEB Sales and Marketing Summit (where the company spoke about the phenomenon of “seller burden”, which we mentioned earlier).

And that’s not even taking into account the complexity of our offerings with, among others, all kinds of add-ons and, at least as important, the challenges of customers that go beyond their commercial relationship with us but lead to a range of issues when selling to them, requiring commercial organizations and sellers to adapt. Just like customer friction needs to be reduced, these kinds of overwhelming tasks and requirements need to be taken into account and simplified as well so sales people can get rid of friction and focus on selling to the changing buyer.

It’s as Brad Gillespie says (who also spoke at the CEB Sales and Marketing Summit), when writing on seller burden: “The modern buyer continues to evolve to be more informed, more empowered and more complex; and the modern seller is overburdened with process, technology, internal selling and the aforementioned evolution of the modern buyer. Add these two, and you have a cocktail with quite the hangover”.

Top image: Shutterstock – Copyright: Maslowski Marcin – All other images are the property of their respective mentioned owners.