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Selling time

You might be surprised by how little time your salespeople actually spend selling

By Frank Hurtte

Selling timeMost of us realize there’s whiskey and then there’s that fine bottle of Prohibition Age Templeton Rye your granddaddy stashed in the hollowed out spot of his house in the country. There’s $20 a bottle scotch from the local convenience store and finely crafted bottles of 20-year-old single malt. Boone’s Farm or out of the way Napa Valley Estate. We could go on, but the point is some things are precious, rare and relished. Most would agree, these extraordinary blends deserve to be savored. Purposefully diluting the unique character would be scorned, bullied and abused.

Let’s reluctantly move from the sensual world of epicurean delight to one I find equally satisfying: Distribution. Call me sick, twisted or deviant, but I have enjoyed a lifetime love affair with the world of wholesale distribution. While a fraction of those reading are only employed in our industry because they need a paycheck and can’t find another job, I believe most share my appreciation for the beauty of our business.

Here is the point of all this: distributors are sales organizations. While inventory control, operational excellence, marketing, web tools and all the rest are very important, selling is the fundamental building block of our industry.

To me, a well-executed sales call is a thing of absolute beauty. It ranks with the rarest of whiskeys, the finest of wines, Picasso, Rembrandt and the words of Edgar Allan Poe. We’re talking the crème of human experience. But, along the way, distractions and impurities adulterate the call.

It’s time we ask a few questions: How much time do our salespeople spend selling? What distracts them? How might we put the beauty back into the process?

How much time do salespeople spend actually selling?
Based on observations of hundreds of salespeople and dozens of distributors the answer is simple; not much. Without getting into anything earthshattering, we can subtract vacation, holidays, training sessions, sales meetings and sundry interruptions. Vacation, holidays and personal time for life issues alone typically account for nearly eight percent of the work year. Let’s add in a few sales meetings, training sessions and off-site vendor meetings and we could easily come to some interesting conclusions. First, salespeople are paid to “sell” yet they’re away from their job for over 10% of the time. Secondly, the seller spends just one day per week doing administrative “paperwork” and we’ve somehow managed to drop time spent selling by another 15 or 20 percent.

This brings the total time engaged in face-to-face selling activities down to 70 percent of the real year. This is the functional equivalent of being paid regular wages for an 8 to 1:30 workday. But those are just the mechanics. For the next 5 minutes, let’s look at how we drop from 70 percent to the actual number which has been pegged by experts at around 25 percent.

Before the sales folk out there get their lynch ropes out and start looking for a low hanging branch, allow me to make a couple of points. This isn’t about sales department slacking. And, while we may touch up against the need for planning, scheduling and effective use of time, this article isn’t about calendar management. Instead, it’s about management.

What takes salespeople away from selling?
Operational issues are a major source of sales distraction. Think back to the last time you went out with one of your sales team. Was a portion of the sales call devoted to discussing shipping errors, delivery issues, or a poorly handled customer service issue? Nothing sours the fine bouquet of a well-planned sales call like a little back peddling early in the meeting. It’s hard to sell “ease of doing business” when you just cost your customer money based on something easily avoidable.

What’s worse for many distributor managers is this: most lack the data to determine if their growth problems are based in a sloppy warehouse and crappy customer service department or ineffective sales team. Some wonder if customer issues with missed delivery dates and/or inaccurate shipments is just part of the “distributor sales game.” With this in mind, one would wonder if gathering administration and logistics data shouldn’t be a standard procedure for every distributor. We think it should be.

Pricing situations can spoil a selling situation. And, while it could be argued price negotiations are integral to selling, I believe a couple of points need to be explored.

First, unless you have accurate pricing information loaded into your ERP system, just arriving at a valid price provides a selling distraction. Each transaction requires additional research. Every time a salesperson quotes an amount to a customer a dozen questions flash through their mind. Is the price right? What price did we use last time? Could someone in customer service have priced this differently? Where do we sit compared to the competition? And more.

Not only is time spent researching the right price, doubt and uncertainty is created. When the salesperson guesses wrong, it creates even more distraction. The salesperson spends even more precious selling time fixing the issue.

Secondly, when no selling process exists, the salesperson is stuck negotiating every single sale. To summon up something said by my friend and pricing expert David Bauders of Cleveland-based Strategic Pricing Associates, you never see a dog beg just once. His point is simple, if you give your dog table scraps one time, they turn into constant beggars. When our salespeople lower their prices once, the customer becomes conditioned to request a lower price on each opportunity. Negotiations take away from, you guessed it, selling.

Unless the distributor employs a full-on pricing process, salespeople are left to determine price. Customers bombard them with the message “your price is too high” and it ruins the selling moment. This constant bombardment of negative energy causes many sellers to lose perspective on the value their organization provides to customers. Sales experiences without the presence of value creating solutions are about as exciting as the paint page of the 1964 Sears catalog.

Management teams syphon selling time on a regular basis. Earlier we listed all the mundane consumers of time (vacation, sales meetings, etc.). But many times managers hurt their own cause by not thinking of the sales team when they set up meetings. Any meeting scheduled for mid-day consumes the better part of a whole day, even if it only lasts an hour. This is especially true when ending times are not strongly enforced.

The office is not the salesperson’s friend. Specifically, the practice of starting a business day in the office. It puts the kibosh on selling efficiency. Nothing cuts into sales time like being easily available at the launch of a business day. Here’s why.

It’s natural for customers to ask for their salesperson on some of the most routine issues. And, the sales DNA steers the seller toward helpful behavior. They get wrapped up in lots of trivial tasks which should be funneled to someone in customer service. What’s worse, customer service people often don’t understand it’s their job to get the salespeople out of the office. I have seen inside sales people and customer service representatives comment negatively when sellers refuse to handle incoming calls. This quickly becomes a management issue. You cannot afford for salespeople to handle things like order entry, stock checks and routine expedites.

How do we ramp up the real selling activities?
It’s a management-driven process. First, you must insure the distractions are removed. Distributor selling today is a team sport. Management must remove the distractions. Some of these are not directly tied to outside salespeople. Metrics and measures must be inserted throughout the whole of the customer experience.

Performance expectations need to be developed for all components of the selling machine. Here’s a fact: Many sales types confuse routine reactive care with selling. They feel good at the end of a long day of handling administrative tasks and minutiae associated with their customers. Customer care is important, but it’s not the best use of their time. If they must step aside from real face-to-face selling, something is wrong in another department.

I believe in data. Hand waving and opinions are nice. No discussion of politics, religion or Olympic figure skating should go without them. In our world, I’ll take data. I regularly require my clients to take inventory of their day. How did they really spend their time?

Here’s how it works. I ask every salesperson to log their day in 15 minute increments. Simply put, I want to know what they did from 8:00 to 8:15, 8:15 till 8:30 and so on throughout the day. If they were talking on the phone, who were they speaking to and about what? If they were at their desk, what task was at hand?

At the end of the week, I ask for tabulations. How much time was spent in each of 10 activities? I insist on real time logs, but leave the tabulation to the seller. The end result is always eye opening for the seller and their manager. Most can radically improve their sales effectiveness. Why? If your sales time is hovering around 25 percent, just a few minutes a day can ramp you up to 30 or 40 percent. And, that’s a big jump.

If you would like to see the 10 activities we tie to times, drop me a line. You can log the time spent under planning and process improvement.

Frank HurtteFrank Hurtte, founding partner of River Heights Consulting, writes, speaks and consults on the issues facing distributors and their supply partners. Contact Frank at River Heights Consulting via email at or via phone at (563) 514-1104.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of Industrial Supply magazine. Copyright 2014, Direct Business Media.


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