What makes an outstanding sales rep? We’ve learned that the best sales people focus their efforts on their most important priorities. This means concentrating on just four major activities:
That’s it. That’s really all that sales people should be doing.
The challenge for sales reps is that they need to do all kinds of other activities; providing service, delivering goods, handling complaints, attending meetings, writing reports, and more. Some of these are in their job description; some are extra requirements that have built up over time.
So how do sales reps maximize their time on their most important activities? Which activities should they focus on? How do they spend their time compared to others? Are they maximizing productive time and minimizing time wasters?
Pace Productivity Inc, based in Toronto Canada, has been conducting productivity studies of knowledge workers since 1990. The information for these time studies is gathered from a portable electronic device called a TimeCorder, which is superior to an app for diagnostic studies.
The TimeCorder allows individuals to easily track the time they spend on different pre-coded activities. At the start of each new activity, an employee presses a button and time starts recording on that activity, like a stopwatch. When another activity begins, the user presses another button. Time stops recording on the previous activity and starts on the new one. Because the device is easy to use and the results are anonymous, we achieve a remarkable participation rate of 94%.
For this report, we examined data from outside sales reps - those whose activities take them out of their offices to customers’ locations. This excludes inside sales reps who work at order desks, as well as retail sales clerks and personal bankers whose customers generally come to them.
Prior to tracking their time, we gave sales reps a short questionnaire and asked, “In your job, what are the most important things you need to do?” The top responses reflect an orientation toward getting new business and maintaining relationships as follows:
Prospecting / generate sales / orders / marketing 41%
Build relationships, meet, contact customers 36%
Provide customer service 20%
Time planning / planning / focus 10%
The first thing we discovered about sales reps’ time is that their work hours are above average, though not as long as some other jobs. Typically their work week is 47 hours long. This includes lunch and breaks, plus travel time and other miscellaneous activities. It also includes work done at night or on weekends.
For comparison, sales managers work slightly longer, amounting to 50 hours per week. Clerical employees in banks tend to work fewer hours. Among the highest jobs we have tracked are independent consultants and trainers who average over 54 hours per week.
Frequency of activities is about the same as other employees. We can measure how often they are engaged in different activities based on the number of occasions they track. Sales reps switch activities every 17 minutes. This is about the same as all employees across our database.
Weekly hours can be divided into categories of activities. Usually the participants in our time studies track between 20-40 different activities. Each client has a different list; hence we have measured hundreds of different activities among sales reps. The most common activities include prospecting calls, travel, customer sales meetings, daily planning, and administration.
Frequency of activities is about the same as other employees. We can measure how often they are engaged in different activities based on the number of occasions they track. Sales reps are “interrupted” every 16 minutes, while employees across our entire database change activities every 15 minutes.
Weekly hours can be divided into categories of activities. Usually the participants in our time studies track 26 different activities. Each client has a different list; hence we have measured 332 different activities among sales reps. The most common activities include travel, customer sales meetings, personal development, prospecting calls, daily planning, and administration.
These individual activities can be grouped into nine major categories for analysis;
The pie chart below shows how these break down. A discussion of each category follows.
Planning takes up 2.9 hours per week, or 6 % of the time. Along with selling, planning consists of vital “A priorities”, as we define them. These are activities that affect results a month or more into the future.
This category includes determining long term strategies, deciding which customers to contact, and working on presentations.
Most sales reps spend about half of the time in this category, or 2 hours per week, planning their schedule and activities. Another hour is spent in presentation preparation and prospect research.
There is some correlation between daily planning and time spent on selling activities. The chart below shows four groups of sales reps, distinguished by how much daily planning they do each week. Those who plan more create more time for selling – but only to an extent. Spending 2-3 hours per week, or 24 to 36 minutes per day results in 12.5 hours for selling, or 26% of the time. However, too much time spent doing daily planning (over 3 hours per week) becomes counterproductive. As a result, selling time decreases, as shown in the bar on the far right.
Everyone complains about meetings. But for sales reps, internal meetings are not hugely onerous, accounting for just 2.2 hours per week. However, reps would always prefer those hours to be spent on the road, rather than in a board room listening to product updates and new sales procedures.
SELLING TO PROSPECTS
The selling category consists of activities designed to seek out new business. Sales reps need to find, cultivate and maintain relationships with new prospects and existing clients. By keeping the funnel full of prospects, they can maintain a steady stream of business. Employees track such activities as marketing, cold calls, calls to existing customers, sales visits, presentations, and to a lesser degree, writing articles, books or columns.
On average, these add up to 10.7 hours per week or just 23% of the workweek. This is quite surprising to sales managers who expect their reps to be actively selling for at least 50% of the time. The reality though, is that other activities outlined in this report need to be done, and they infringe on selling time.
The good news is that many individuals are able to achieve above average selling time. For instance, as a whole, financial planners spend 27% on this category. And among them, some individuals achieve over 40% of their time selling by hiring a full time assistant to handle their administrative and order processing activities.
Typically, sales reps engage in sales activities on 35 different occasions per week. These are direct contacts with customers and prospects, primarily phone calls and meetings with both current customers and prospects.
Sales calls to current customers are longer than those with prospects. Specifically, sales calls with customers typically take 11 minutes each, while those with prospects are only 7 minutes. The prospect calls may be shorter because some of them are just voice mail messages.
When sales reps engage in face-to-face meetings, they spend an average of 50 minutes per meeting with current customers. Meetings with prospects are shorter, at 39 minutes. Thus, telephone conversations tend to be short, but once meetings occur, there is a greater opportunity for in-depth discussions. No surprise there.
Once a product is sold, the sales rep is often responsible for delivering customer service. He or she does this through client meetings, account maintenance requests and related activities. We identify activities in the service and order processing categories as “B responsibilities”. Usually these need to be done in the short term, but are not as important as “A priorities” that drive future business.
Total customer service time is on average 4.9 hours per week. This category also includes customer inquiries, credit issues, handling complaints, account maintenance, service meetings and even occasional deliveries.
Among some of the activities tracked are service and support calls, which take up 2.3 hours a week, averaging 13 minutes per call. Among those who conduct service meetings, the average is 2.7 hours per week, with each meeting taking 25 minutes.
Receiving one complaint is more than any sales rep would like. The average is 2 per sales rep per week, with each taking 19 minutes for a total of 0.6 hours (38 minutes) per week.
When we ask sales reps, “What things outside of your control get in the way of your productivity?” dealing with customer inquiries or complaints emerges as the second most cited response. Sales reps would rather spend as little time in this category as possible. The irony is that they also cite customer service as one of their top priority activities.
To achieve efficiencies in this category, they delegate many of their service activities while remaining as the main contact point for the customer. When sales reps do not need to worry about back orders, deliveries, customer training, and account changes, they can gain more time for selling.
CLIENT ADMIN / ORDER PROCESSING
The client admin category includes generating quotes, pricing repeat orders, entering orders in the system, handling stock orders, and assisting with designing the order (i.e. layout for print ads for instance). This category also includes client administration activities that are not direct service activities, but are necessary to support the account. They include setting up accounts, ensuring compliance, and writing reports on customers.
All together, these activities take 5.2 hours per week or 11% of the time. These are difficult to delegate. However, where repeat orders are involved, many sales reps can increase their efficiency by giving these to an inside or telesales rep.
Administrative activities are the “C requirements” that do not directly generate revenue, but are a necessary part of the job, and must get done eventually. Some need to be done immediately, some can be done in a day or two, but none support main “A” priorities. They are essentially a requirement of the job. They include paperwork, filing, handling mail, internal phone calls, sales meetings, correspondence, meeting with one’s manager and reading.
Together, these activities can be a huge time hog. On average they consume 10.5 hours per week, or 22% of the time. What this shows is that sales reps spend equal amounts of time selling, and doing administrative activities!
For many employees, one of the biggest time gobblers is an activity called “general administration and paperwork”. Depending on the person, this might include filling out government forms, writing regular reports, sending service updates, updating databases, and even fixing computer problems.
For sales reps, the paperwork activity represents over 4 hours per week. When asked, “What things outside of your control get in the way of your productivity?” sales reps cite administration and paperwork activities more often than any other response. Successful sales reps find ways to minimize their administrative requirements. They delegate to others, they automate them, they standardize them, or they batch them, completing a number of these tasks during a designated period.
Hours / week
General administration and paperwork 5.1
E-mails not connected with other activities 4.2
Internal calls 4.0
Maintaining customer data 2.2
Handling mail 2.0
Head office communications 1.3
Completing expense reports 1.0
Personal training 1.0
Another activity within the administration category is personal training. We place it in this category because often training is a requirement of the job. For instance, sales reps occasionally need to learn about new products or upgrade their software knowledge. Sales reps spend about 0.8 hours per week on this activity. Other employees in our database spend more time in training,
1.2 hours per week. Over the course of a year, this can be a considerable difference.
Travel activities add up to 5.2 hours per week, or 11% of the time. Typically outside reps make 13 trips per week of 25 minutes each. (Few of the study participants did overnight trips.) When asked about their ideal time, this activity is one where they would prefer to spend much less time, ideally only about 3 hours per week.
Our time studies exclude commuting time. For sales people who need to go directly to their office in the morning, commuting time is an extra burden.
Breaks, lunch and personal business usually average about 3.3 hours per week, consisting of 8 breaks of 24 minutes each. This is lower than most office workers who spend 4.3 hours per week on personal time.
Finally, the miscellaneous activity includes activities that were not tracked anywhere else. If items such as mailing or filing were not specifically included in the list of activities given to a participant, the time spent on them may have ended up in this activity. It might also include charity projects, special task forces and office socializing. At 2.2 hours, miscellaneous time is relatively low for sales reps.
DIFFERENCES VERSUS IDEAL
Prior to beginning a time study, sales reps fill out a survey indicating how they would ideally like to spend their time.
Ideal data is compared to actual data gathered using the TimeCorder. Overall, the work week for sales reps of 47 hours is 5 hours longer than their ideal.
Lower priority activities such as administration and travel take up much more time than ideal. Meanwhile, more vital activities such as selling and client admin come in below ideal expectations.
THE IDEAL PROFILE
The data in this report represent averages, based on actual time tracking results. Here is what we believe an ideal profile should look like, based on a 48-hour week. This is the equivalent of working 8:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, plus another 3 hours spread out between evenings and the weekend. The key to success is to make more time for "A" priorities, manage the "B" responsibilities efficiently, and minimize the "C" requirements.
Hours % of Time
Planning 2.4 5
Selling 15.8 33
Service 5.8 12
Order Processing 5.8 12
Administration 7.2 15
Travel 7.2 15
Lunch / Breaks 3.8 8
TOTAL 48.0 100
HOW TO CREATE MORE TIME FOR SELLING
To achieve an ideal profile for sales reps requires on-going attention and commitment:
Diagnostic measurement of time use
Increased clerical support for administrative activities
Effective technical tools – but only those that truly add value
Process improvements to streamline non value-added activities
Elimination of redundant administrative activities
Time management and productivity training
Strong leadership and coaching from management
Reduced interference from senior management
With all of those steps in place, sales reps should be able to gain an extra hour per day for their sales activities. Spending their time on what matters most will have a significant effect on sales results, and profitability.
Mark Ellwood is the president of Pace Productivity Inc., a consulting firm based in Toronto, Canada that shows employees how to gain an extra hour per day for their top priority activities.