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Solving sales problems through activity management

solving sales problems

By Troy Harrison

Too many companies fail at creating a strong, high-performance sales force. The most common reason is that managers work from instinct and results, rather than process and activity. It doesn’t have to be that way. A good activity management program is within the reach of any company, whether you have one salesperson or 1,000 and it can be your best friend in developing sales results.

Activity Management is the process of quantifying sales inputs (the various types of activity that go into making a sale for your company) and using those numbers to reliably predict outputs (sales results), as well as to better manage your salespeople. Nearly every sale can be broken down into several different activities, with your sales funnel narrowing as the activities are performed. By counting the numbers of the different types of activities performed in a given time period, and then measuring those activities against proven success-generating activity patterns, we can diagnose sales problems and arrest negative work patterns before they become critical. This means that we can alter the performance of our salespeople by working ahead with them, rather than simply commenting and criticizing results.

Of all the skill sets that make up a good sales manager, the most valuable (and most rare) is the skill to alter performance by troubleshooting and coaching performance that is substandard. Closely related to this is the skillset of coaching for improvement in an already strong performing salesperson. Many managers, frustrated with the difficulty of coaching, prefer to simply fire and hire salespeople. Sometimes management-generated turnover is desirable, but often, turnover just leads to more turnover.

In generating sales results, you only have two variables to work with.

Those variables are: Quantity of activity (is the salesperson meeting expectations for calls, presentations, proposals, etc.? If not, why not?); and Quality of activity (is the time spent with customers spent in high-value ways with quality communication?) By understanding those two variables, you take the mystery out of coaching.

We’ll save coaching for quality of activity for another article; for now, let’s talk about quantity.

Developing Your Target Numbers
First, it’s essential that you have a good set of numbers to work with. These numbers should be based on real-world sales history with your company, and will provide a roadmap for the salesperson to achieve success.

The basic concept of sales activity management is this: Each salesperson has an expected amount of sales he/she needs to generate in a given time period. The average ratio of proposals to sales, from first appointments to proposals, from calls to appointments, etc., dictates the quantities of each activity needed. For instance, if the salesperson closes 50% of his/her proposals and is expected to sell four new customers per month (or close four deals per month), that salesperson will need to have at least eight proposals in the same month.

By understanding your ratios, and managing your salespeoples’ efforts to them, you can better assure that your goals will be met.

First, let’s understand your key ratios (feel free to fill in below):

Proposals to sales: _______________________%
Appointments to proposals: _________________%
Calls to appointments: _____________________%

My own preference is to manage activity on a weekly basis, rather than monthly or quarterly. The reason is that the farther you spread out the management schedule, the less urgency there is to fulfill activity quotas; you’ll end up “cramming” the last week or
two of the month. That’s not helpful. Let’s look at a real-life example. Let’s say that the result you want is one new customer per week. Your ratios above might be:

Proposals to sales: 50%
Appointments to proposals: 33%
Calls to appointments: 20%

In this example, to reliably achieve one new customer sale week in and week out, your salespeople would need to have two proposals per week (because only 50% close), six appointments per week (because only one of each three appointments
yielded a proposal), and 30 calls per week (because one of five calls yields an appointment). With those numbers in place, you’d have an activity road map. Don’t skip this step! Without some sort of an activity road map, using your company’s real life numbers, you will never be able to reap the benefits of activity management.
Once you have your numbers, they should be shared with salespeople at the point of hire (I like to put expectations in the offer letter, and have them sign as having received the letter), and reinforced constantly through sales meetings, one-on-one sessions and evaluations.

Integrating New Business With Current Customer Calls
If – as with many sales forces – your salespeople have to make calls on current customers as well as new customers, you need to make some decisions. Basically, you need to decide how much of your reps’ time will be spent on current customers vs. prospecting customers.

Start, as above, with the number of needed new customers, work through proposals, appointments, etc. Then figure out how much time is needed to accomplish this. That’s your percentage of time on new business. The remainder is spent on current customers. Give it the sniff test – is the mix reasonable to get the desired results in a 40-hour week? If not, adjust as necessary. Tip: My advice is not to have less than 25% of the salesperson’s time spent on prospecting. Any less and you’ll find that prospecting goes by the wayside.

For current customers, I’d recommend simply using “quality appointments” per week as a metric. A “quality appointment” is one where there is a substantive conversation with a decision-maker that advances the company’s interests.

The first step in troubleshooting sales performance is to look at the quantity of activity. The reason is simple: If the salesperson just won’t do the work, it doesn’t matter how good the salesperson may or may not be in front of the customer; they’ll never see enough customers to make their goals. You should have a set of sales activity metrics for your salespeople, so begin the troubleshooting process by evaluating the salesperson’s actual activity vs. the expected activity. If the salesperson isn’t meeting activity metrics, it’s time to find out why. The two most common reasons are:

  • The salesperson simply isn’t doing the work.
  • The approach used by the salesperson isn’t meeting the expected ratios (for instance, the salesperson is making the appropriate number of telephone calls, but is not getting the necessary appointments). In this case, quantity and quality become intermingled.

If there is a quantitative issue, begin troubleshooting at the highest point in the sales funnel (i.e. calls). Work downward as activity goals are met. If the salesperson is performing enough calls, are they getting enough appointments? If not, that might mean that they are not executing the call well. If they are, move from appointments to proposals, proposals to sales, etc.

At some point, you’ll find the problem, and then you have something to work from. Sometimes, the answer is qualitative coaching; sometimes, the answer is simply to have your salesperson work above your pattern. I once had a salesperson who simply wasn’t capable of substantially improving his quality of activity, but improved his quantity so much above basic expectations that he still made President’s Club. Once you understand these two variables and how to make them work for you, anything is possible.

One side issue is the size of the prospects or customers pursued; this method is dependent upon your salespeople pursuing customers of whatever you have deemed the appropriate size. If this is a problem, it’s simple to correct through some list generation and re-targeting.

Troy HarrisonThis article has been excerpted from Troy Harrison’s new book, “The Pocket Sales Manager.” Troy Harrison is the author of “Sell Like You Mean It!”, “The Pocket Sales Manager,” and a speaker, consultant and sales navigator. He helps companies build more profitable and productive sales forces with his cutting-edge sales training and methodologies. For information on booking speaking/training engagements, consulting or to sign up for his weekly E-zine, call (913) 645-3603, e-mail, or visit

This article originally appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2015 issue of Industrial Supply magazine. Copyright 2015, Direct Business Media.


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