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Sales productivity improvement - An integral approach

Of 126 sales executives in a survey conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit in March 2010, 69% said that they are pro-actively evaluating new ways to enhance sales productivity. The same report cites also that 71% of respondents indicated, "Too much time spent on administrative tasks" as the biggest obstacles in improving productivity. If 69% is working on enhancing productivity, then why is something obvious as “administrative tasks” still the biggest obstacle?

Sales productivity is more than the sum of achievements of individual sales professionals. It is a combination of competent, motivated people, efficient processes, supported by the right technologies. Others have said this before us: selling is a process and not an event. This implies that sales productivity improvement is a process and is not a single event, action or initiative.

Over the last two months, we published articles addressing various issues of front line organizations. From hiring talent, people development, inter-department conflicts, selecting key accounts, channel management, to leading change and last week’s article about flawed target setting all regarding performance improvements. This article ties them together.

Note: In this and other articles, the term front line represents the combination of sales, marketing and customer support. A good sales force cannot be effective if not supported by good marketers and excellent support or vice versa.

Productivity killers

Peter Drucker phrases effectiveness as doing the right things and efficiency as doing things right. Improving the productivity of the front line is to get more front line resources engaged with (more and) the right customers, proposing and delivering the right solutions in the most efficient way. This is not a small feat and there are many issues negatively affecting or killing the productivity of a front line. An assessment could reveal:
  • Too many administrative tasks: This includes non-productive duties, but also an overkill of internal reporting.
  • A lack of competencies and knowledge: This ranges from basic sales competencies to in-depth solution and expert knowledge.
  • Issues with existing processes: Processes that are unnecessarily complex, not aligned, or which are a legacy, incompatible with the current or new way of work.
  • Issues with target setting, incentive plans and the management of the performance: flawed or not aligned target setting and incentive systems or the inability to efficiently track performance by system or manually.
  • Insufficiently accurate and complete information: Ineffective or non-existing reviews cycles, won-loss analysis, pipeline information or customer intelligence.
  • A lack of supporting technology and tools: from basic infrastructural needs - an decent laptop or mobile phone - to sales force automation systems
  • ...and more
Potentially, the list could be rather long.

Strategies to increase productivity

To improve productivity, there are three areas to adjust; first efficiency - who engages with which customer -, secondly effectiveness - how to get more out each of these engagements – and third, lowering front line cost while maintaining the top line. The latter is not immediately on the mind of most managers. It is a point to consider though, as having too much people can be similarly unproductive as having not enough. An analogy: how many people do you need to push a single car?

Strategies and initiatives to increase productivity could be:
  1. Increasing the funnel - marketing programs, incentives, channel strategies...
  2. Increasing conversion rates - training, coaching, support...
  3. Refining the sales related processes - sales force automation, pipeline management, training...
  4. Review customer or market insight – set new target accounts, target settings, refocus the front line ...
  5. Reducing non-selling time - eliminate administrative tasks, reduce traveling time...
  6. Improving the availability of information - sales force automation, IT infrastructure, communication...
  7. Re-organization - shuffling people, shuffling departments, combining or splitting departments...
  8. ...
There are many solutions and suppliers available to help with the execution of aforementioned strategies and some will declare that sales force automation is the definitive solution. Others will say it is training, the hiring, the leadership, the strategy and some may even claim it is your products. They are all wrong.

Unlikely a single action will offer maintainable results

Due to all kind of constraints, organizational, financial, time, the urge might be to focus on the top issue. This may however not give you the intended results. Worse, it could be even counterproductive. The above-mentioned Economist Intelligence Unit report discusses that productivity may actually reduce if for example companies tap into new sources of information, without having the ability to properly analyse and use it.

Results are the combination of how well people, processes and technology work together. Few improvement initiatives or actions address all three areas and therefore, to get a true high performance front line organization, it is essential to take an integral approach taking multiple actions as part of an overall strategy and plan, which could look like this:
  1. Perform a detailed audit of the sales, marketing and customer support department.
  2. Analyse the results and create a detailed list of issues – productivity killers
  3. Group and identify performance improvement areas.
    1. If needed, arrange for specific additional assessment and interviews to get more insight in certain topics.
  4. Create multiple strategies and evaluate with the team how well they address the identified performance improvement areas.
    1. a. Create a return on effort calculations for each.
  5. Select a strategy looking at:
    1. a. How the expected performance improvements aid in achieving objectives of the company
    2. b. The mid-term expected positive effects of the performance improvements
    3. c. The return on effort
  6. Create a detailed improvement plan.
  7. Execute.
  8. Measure the results (and go back to step 1). 
Note that during the whole process, clear, consistent and frequent communication to all levels of the front line helps to accelerate implementation and the success of the strategy.

Final words

An integral approach is important in successfully and sustainably improve the productivity of your front line. To solve a particular burning issue, it can be a choice to execute an action in isolation. A truly high performing front line though, needs orchestrated effort to match and align people, processes and technology. It is not the end-point however, but a starting-point for continuous improvements that keep your front line at the top and ensures repeatable and recurring successes.

© 2011 EnFeat