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B2B Sales

What is the main cause of sales under-performance?

Sales people simply don't spend enough time selling.

Business leaders often tell me that "a lack of pipeline is the number #1 cause of sales under-performance". That's categorically wrong - lack of pipeline is just the net effect of poor sales activities.  

In a recent blog post, I stated that main cause of sales under-performance is due to declining markets which is very much a result of market maturity and the increased velocity at which growth markets mature these days. Whilst I absolutely stand by that assertion, it is obviously an external macro factor that is outside of the control of every sales person.

So, let’s now turn our attention to the things that we sales people can control, and with that in mind, here is the irrefutable and undeniable reason that 3 out of 4 sales people (according to Objective Management Group) are now failing to achieve their quotas: Misguided Activities:

How absurd is this: "most sales people spend very little time selling" – or more specifically, engaged with actual buyers. Sales people often work longer than the typical forty-hour week, and a recent study conducted by Pace Productivity found that the average sales person is only spending around 22% of their typical working week selling. The rest of their time is spent on admin, planning, travel and other duties. Is it just me, or is this completely insane?

Sadly, I can absolutely vouch for the accuracy of this type of weekly breakdown. In fact, in many of the sales departments that I work with nowadays, I’m witnessing less than 22% actual selling time, and this flies in the face of all business logic and resource allocation thinking.

  1. Why pay an expensive B2B sales resource to spend the clear majority of their time in low-value activities (LVA’s)?
  2. Wouldn’t it be smarter to employ lower cost resources to perform the LVA’s and let the ‘specialists’ focus on performing the tasks that actually create value for customers? The high-value activities (HVA)?

Rhetorical questions or course, but it's a classic case of inputs equaling outputs. It’s no surprise that sales people are now all complaining about lack of pipeline, low conversion rates, and stuck deals when we are spending more than 50% of our working hours engaged in Admin, Order Processing and Travel etc. Seriously, we all need to be hung, drawn and quartered to have allowed this nonsense to continue for as long as it has. It’s simply unacceptable to keep loading sales people up with a myriad of (mostly internal) LVA’s but then expect them to somehow keep finding more and more time of their own throughout the working week to increase their selling time. Sales under-performance continues to increase rapidly across most industries, along with the ever-growing number of B2B sales people that are now frustrated/disenfranchised with a role that is increasing difficult, stressful and not very enjoyable.

Savvy vendors are now looking for every opportunity to reduce the cost of sales & marketing as a percentage of revenue (or cost of customer acquisition), and if your sales activity breakdown resembles the pie graph (above) then you desperately need to quickly reassess how you allocate and deploy resources.

So how did it get to this?

  • Failure to accept that the world has moved on: buyers have evolved but sales people have not, and this type of sales activity breakdown is so last century. Times have changed and if your sales leader is still expecting you to conduct your role around these sorts of time restrictions and expectations then you probably should start looking for a new role. You can NOT be successful in this hyper-competitive customer-pull era by spending less than a quarter of your time engaged with potential buyers. Period.
  • Failure to clarify purpose, goals & objectives: how can a sales person possibly know if any given activity is valuable to his/her employer if there is any ambiguity around objectives? Of course, it’s very easy for management to default back to telling sales people that “your only objective is to hit your revenue quota”(which is now outdated thinking, but a topic for another post). However, it’s a complete contradiction to then turn around and say, “oh, but you also need to spend over 50% or your time in admin, order processing and other LVA’s". Too many sales leaders create unnecessary and unproductive obligations and duties for sales people - in many cases simply to appease some other department head.
  • Failure to establish the right measurements and KPI’s: why ask sales people to be 100% focused on just "hitting their quota" if you are then going to also measure them on Admin, HR, and the myriad of other unproductive internal tasks? My personal favorites: the folly of measuring size of pipeline and CRM accuracy - both are often used simply to beat sales people up.
  • Failure to put in place the right support structures: sounds so obvious to say that the only way to extract maximum value from any specialist or highly skilled practitioner is to create the environment that allows that specialist to flawlessly execute only those skills that will optimize output, whilst simultaneously removing the need for said specialist to perform LVA/tasks that others can do just as well (and cheaper). Basic performance management fundamentals.

A-Grade (or specialist) B2B sales people have always been uncompromising about their time, and whilst this often makes them unpopular with some internal stakeholders, they rarely care about popularity because they have clarity of purpose, and they know that ‘proactive distraction management’ is the only way to ensure that they are 100% focused on the attainment of the goal.

"You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality" (Ayn Rand)

So, if you are a sales leader in 2017, then this is your biggest challenge: you must find ways to remove LVA’s from sales people to allow these expensive resources to spend as much of their time as physically possible on HVA’s.

Buyers continue to tell us that they only want to engage with specialist sales people (and not generalist order takers) that can provide them with genuine commercial insights. It therefore makes no sense whatsoever to have these B2B sales specialists wasting their time on meaningless tasks like planning, admin, and other internal fluff, when someone else could be doing this stuff for them. Agree?

  • Does a Brain Surgeon prepare the operating theatre?
  • Does a Barrister conduct paralegal discovery work?
  • Does the Quarterback waste his time (and specialist skills) blocking or tackling?

In my experience, the best way to transform your sales execution plan is to put in place a separate, cross functional sales enablement programme that has been empowered by senior management to drive real change.

The next best thing to do is engage SalesTribe to run an audit on your sales activities to ascertain if your business is running a modern, digitally enabled, sales execution model that your buyers actually value.....or are you still 'pushing/chasing" 20th century style? Your buyers will be looking elsewhere if you are......