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Spend Less Time Selling

time spendBy Andrew Kent

It’s official: salespeople are spending less time selling to customers, and more time on internal activities, than they were five years ago.  That’s trend #8 from our “Ten Trends Every Sales Exec Must Know in 2011.”  But what if I told you that less customer-facing selling time is a good thing?

You’d probably think I was crazy.  I’ve never met an exec who told me, “My priority this year is to get my reps spending less time with customers.” For most of us, the priority is the exact opposite; indeed one exec told me he wants salespeople to “live” with their customers.

But before we ask our customers for the keys to their apartments, it’s important to understand what type of face time we’re losing and why we’re losing it.  SEC Solutions has been tracking rep time spend since 2003, and the evidence points not to the usual suspect of administrative time-sinks (although they’re a part), but to a fundamental change in what “selling time” means.

More specifically, star sales reps are spending less time presenting and persuading, and more time planning and orchestrating stakeholders.

The chart below shows how rep time-spend has changed over the last seven years, based on SEC Solutions’ analysis:

The hit to “Sales” time pops out immediately, so it’s worth a deeper look inside that red bar. Reps are certainly making fewer sales presentations to customers: they spent 20% less time presenting the value proposition, and 22% less time closing and negotiating. But they’re spending more time getting themselves and their organizations ready for those presentations: 11% more time lining up internal cross-functional stakeholders, and 83% more time strategizing with the manager.

Before and after the sale, moreover, sales reps are spending more time planning.  Within “Pre-Sales,” they’re spending 58% more time creating sales plans, and 64% more time vetting opportunities.  After the sale, they’re spending 74% more time gathering customer feedback, 84% more time on joint marketing and education to end users, and 71% more time updating their account plans.  (If nothing else, this at least shows that executives’ countless hours preaching the value of account planning have had an impact!)

But what’s more interesting still is to cut the data by rep performance—and there’s been one big reversal in how average and star reps spend their time.

When we ran this analysis for the first time back in 2004, the best reps spent more of their time “presenting the value proposition,” while average reps spent more time “lining up internal cross-functional stakeholders.”  Today, however, the situation is the exact opposite: it is stars who spend time pulling together internal resources, and core reps who spend their time presenting to customers.

This data tell us that in complex sales, selling is about more than being a persuasive presenter: it’s about the hard work that happens before and after that presentation, from researching customers to pulling together internal stakeholders to planning how to grow the account over time.

At SEC, we believe this shift is because the ever-expanding scope of customer relationships is straining both suppliers’ systems for deciding what to sell and customers’ systems for deciding what to spend money on. Group dynamics arising from so many stakeholders’ involvement just seem to gum up decision-making.

The reps who win in this world aren’t spending all their time making presentations; burning through deals too quickly will just exacerbate group decision-making problems.  Rather, winners take time to understand how a deal impacts stakeholders, to assertively lead the customer to a decision, and to line up the necessary internal resources to deliver.

While this may seem like a long hard slog through the trenches, it may not have to be this way.  SEC is focusing our research in 2011 on how the best companies help customers navigate their group decision dynamics, in large part because we believe there are likely to be a finite set of predictable “buyer types” off which suppliers could build suitably scalable systems and skills.  (SEC members can check out our Work in Progress page to learn more.)

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