Are Your Sales Reps Wasting Their Time?

June 1, 2018
Failure to understand and guide your people in this role leads to overstretched teams and undermines basic sales principles.

“I would buy more from you if I saw my sales rep more often.” It’s a common lament from buyers in many industrial and B2B markets. And it stems from the fact that many sales representatives are squeezed for time and thus not as available as they once were. Customers badger them for free trials and want them to resolve issues that would be better handled by service staff.

From the other side, sales leaders are also asking them to do more—cover more accounts, provide more reporting, hunt for more business.

In a pressure cooker such as this, many sales teams lose track of which accounts consume most of their time and how they spend the time they do have with customers.

Failing to understand and guide how reps spend their time leads to overstretched teams and thus undermines the following basic sales principles: Increase the number of interactions with the right customers; make the most of each interaction; use data to inform all of these decisions and track the relevant activities and outcomes.

A recent survey conducted by Bain & Company of 870 B2B executives worldwide shows the extent of the challenge. Fewer than one-fifth of respondents said they have a data-driven, quantified understanding of the total market opportunity and untapped customer potential. Even fewer regularly determine required sales capacity and coverage based on this market opportunity. And fewer than one-quarter have an account management process that identifies critical actions, such as cross-selling opportunities, based on understanding how customers make decisions.

There’s a lot at stake: Companies that consistently do these things well gain more than twice the market share of those that don’t, our analysis shows.

Some B2B companies are now using analytical software to take a hard look at how their sales staff spend their time. Armed with this clear view, sales leaders are becoming more selective and deliberate about who reps should interact with, and how, based on how they answer a series of questions.

Where are the biggest pockets of potential growth? Before delving into account time, it’s critical to align coverage levels with future potential rather than last year’s revenue. Time and again, sales reps return to the same watering hole, overlooking the untapped pockets they haven’t had time to uncover. This can hurt growth and profitability in several respects. Small accounts often require a disproportionate amount of service and may not justify the high-touch model they are receiving. Alternatively, some large accounts might be tapped out for growth and should be moved to a maintenance model that matches sales investment to likely growth.

How do we gain a greater share of wallet? Next, sales leaders must understand what factors affect share of wallet. In some industries, this might be penetration of specific products where the company excels. Elsewhere, it could be the cross-selling of multiple product categories or brands. In some industries where channel partners are making choices on each transaction, it may be important just to stay top of mind by increasing the frequency of interactions with them. Companies can use multivariate regression or cluster analysis to help identify these insights.

How should people spend their time with customers? The answer here is not always obvious, as there are many ways to steer the conversation—new products or projects, cross-selling other categories, foothold products, consultative offerings or even potential partnerships. Once sales executives understand which type of conversation yields the greatest outcomes for certain segments, they should align and measure account plans accordingly.

Consider how restructuring time has refocused the salesforce at a large distribution company. The company’s average sales rep productivity was best in class, but growth had stagnated. Customer segmentation was based solely on previous years’ revenue, with sales rep time allocation neither guided nor measured. 

Using trade association data, the company was able to piece together a share-of-wallet view of accounts. It combined this with an estimate of where reps spent time, based on a flash survey, to form the insight that there was a close correlation between time spent and share of wallet. A broad customer survey confirmed that more than 70% of customers said that increased interaction would lead them to buy more. The best opportunities were in medium-size accounts with ample growth potential yet little current field sales coverage.   

Further primary research and analysis found that a big factor in growing share of wallet was to successfully cross-sell product categories. Reps had been returning to the category they knew best rather than introducing new categories that would expand the scope of the offering. So the company increased the number of conversations with target accounts by two to three times, and created an account planning tool that highlighted the next categories to emphasize.

Time allocation should be informed by hard data and analytics and be linked to actual outcomes, rather than by quotas based on last-year-plus-x and gut instinct. That’s how sales executives can turbocharge growth while raising the productivity of their selling resources.

David Burns is a partner and David Schottland a principal with Bain & Company’s Customer Strategy & Marketing practice.

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