Remember the television commercial of the salesperson driving down the expressway with a cell phone balanced on his shoulder, a cup of coffee in one hand, and a laptop computer teetering on the dashboard? The voice in the background says, “You know he’s out there.”
That’s a frightening commercial because of the element of truth in it. The life of a salesperson these days is a battle with an overwhelming number of things to do, ever-rising expectations, and conflicting pressures.
Changes and Pressure
While this has always been the case for field salespeople, in recent years the pressures have increased dramatically on every aspect of the salesperson’s job. Customers are more sophisticated, more demanding, and harder to see. Communication technology has compounded the difficulty of the salesperson’s job, making it necessary to be constantly on the phone either talking or texting. Whereas a few years ago a salesperson could visit a customer without an appointment, getting that appointment today adds multiple phone calls to the salesperson’s job. Each phone call, text, or email is one more task and one more small investment of time in an already full day.
The products and services offered by many salespeople have expanded in quantity and sophistication. As companies strive to meet the fracturing demands of their customers, the number of items sold has increased proportionately. I just finished a phone call with a sales manager who described a typical situation.
His company, previously a software publisher with one basic product, had recently purchased a competitor. The combined sales force now has 11 products to sell. Every time a new product or service is introduced, it must be learned, the information must be filed, the presentation organized, etc. All these things take time out of the salesperson’s day. A salesperson with 10 things to sell must spend much more time dealing with information and organization than one with half as many offerings.
So, not only are customers’ demands and the increasing number of products and services adding more pressure to the salesperson but also the companies for whom they work are chipping in with additional demands. Salespeople are being asked to collect more information about their customers, report in more sophisticated ways, use more complex computer programs, and take part in more meetings than ever before.
The concept of the field salesperson as part of a “team” is growing more common. All that communication with team members adds more tasks to the salesperson’s already long list. Each new task is an additional demand on his time.
No wonder typical field salespeople feel like the weight of the world is pressing down on them. Their jobs have become overwhelming. Field salespeople are working more hours and as a result, feeling more stressed. Personal relationships fracture as spouses, children, and significant others are neglected. Production suffers as salespeople are confronted with too much to do and not enough time in which to do it.
At the same time, traditional time management guidelines have little application for the field salesperson. Years ago, I watched a time management guru present a two-day seminar at an annual sales meeting for the company for whom I worked. This university professor conveyed principle after principle of time management—all very appropriate if you worked in an office all day long, but very inappropriate if you were a field salesperson. The audience of field salespeople became more and more frustrated as the seminar progressed. Finally, one of my colleagues stood up and said, “You don’t understand. We don’t get interruptions; we are the interrupters!”
Clearly, most of the time management principles and tactics presented by this and other gurus totally miss the unique challenges of the field salesperson.
All of this may be moot if it doesn’t impact you. So, before you read any further, reflect on whether you personally feel the weight of any of these pressures.
Complete the assessment below:
1. Has the quantity of the products or services you sell increased in the last few years?
2. Have those products or services become more complex and sophisticated?
3. Are your customers more difficult to see today than they were three years ago?
4. Do your customers expect you to set appointments rather than just stop in?
5. Are customers more pressed for time when you see them?
6. Does your company require you to collect more information today than it did a few years ago?
7. Are you expected to complete more forms and attend more meetings, either in person or electronically, than previously?
8. Are you expected to work more closely with others in your organization, perhaps even be part of a team?
9. Do you find yourself working longer and harder than you did a few years ago?
10. Are your personal relationships suffering as a result of your stress and hours on the job?
11. Are you worried about your personal performance?
A “yes” answer to any one of these is reason enough to focus on improving your time management skills. If you answered “yes” more than three times, you are ripe to crash and burn.
Benefits of Smart Time Management
Imagine that you have waved a magic wand and transformed yourself into a time management expert. You are now totally in control of your days, working at the most effective things, delegating wisely, and calmly producing excellent results. What would that mean to you?
How about your personal life? Wouldn’t you have more time for the things you enjoy? Your spouse, kids, or friends would see you more often, and you would be less preoccupied with all the work stuff that fills your head.
You’d get your life back!
Not only that, but you’d probably be healthier. You’d sleep better, your blood pressure would be lower, and you’d be less anxious. It could add years to your life.
But what about your career? What would be the impact on your production?
As a veteran sales trainer, I can honestly report that improving your management of time will bring you positive results more quickly than any other single aspect of your job. That is because effective time management frees you. That’s right frees you. You unburden yourself of the countless petty tasks that fill your day. You cast off the shackles of the stuff you have to do, and instead luxuriate in doing those things that you are good at, that give you joy, and that bring you the best results.
A number of years ago, I was impressed with the book, Soar with Your Strengths by Donald Clifton and Paula Nelson. The premise of the book is that you are always more effective if you unleash your strengths than if you focus on overcoming your weaknesses. This is particularly true of salespeople, who have the ability to determine, to a large degree, how they spend their days.
Effective time management allows you to eliminate those things you must do that wear you down, sap your spirit, and weary your psyche—those weakness-generated tasks. Instead, you exercise your strengths, having become free of the burden of unpleasant minutia! And that always brings you more passion and better results.
The net result of all of this is increased results, and more joy and fulfillment in your job and your life.
Obstacles in the Way
If effective time management is such a powerful tool, why don’t all salespeople naturally focus on it? Why do we struggle with it so much?
First, it’s important to note that the really good salespeople are effective time managers. A number of years ago, the National Society of Sales Training Executives published the results of a major research study. The study attempted to identify the characteristics of the super-star salespeople, across a variety of industries and products. They discovered that the nation’s best salespeople had a number of characteristics in common. One was that they were “obsessed with time management.” That was in the 1990s before today’s heavy onslaught of “stuff to do” attacked the field salesperson. Imagine how much more of an impact effective time management has today.
So why is this such a big issue? Why aren’t salespeople natural time managers?
The workday of the field salesperson, by its very nature, is unpredictable and constantly changing. It is not like you go to an office every day and methodically chip away at whatever is in your inbox. One day you may be working on one side of town, and the next on the other side of town. You may be calling on production supervisors in noisy manufacturing companies in the morning, and suit and tie CEOs in the afternoon. You may start out with five solid appointments, and have the first one call in sick, and the second is too busy to see you. Your most meticulous plans can be wiped out by an urgent call from a customer. Every day, for a field salesperson, is an adventure, often brimming over with the unpredictable ebb and flow of communications with dozens of people intensely pursuing their own agendas.
While, on one hand, most salespeople find this unpredictable kaleidoscope exhilarating, on the other, it’s a major problem that presents unique challenges for managing time.
Independence and Responsibility
Here’s another unique complication. Field salespeople, to a degree greater than almost any other job, are responsible for how they spend their time. Managers typically work in an office, where there is some accountability for their time. If their boss isn’t around, their employees are, and they know what that manager has done all day. Goof off half the day and someone knows. This is true for the vast majority of jobs. Service people fill out meticulous job orders detailing how and where their time was spent. Inside salespeople, customer service people, purchasing agents, warehouse personnel, production people, are all accountable for their time, and to some degree, someone else dictates how their time will be spent.
This is not true for most field salespeople. You can probably take an afternoon off once a week, and it will be some time before anyone catches up with you. For the most part, you are the one who decides where to go, who to see, and when to do it. It’s your decision to spend a half-day in the office every week, to do your paperwork at night, or to visit your good customers every other week.
Again, this independence is one of the aspects of the job that most field salespeople highly treasure. It’s a powerful attraction for a lot of people. However, it brings with it enormous responsibilities. If you are independent and able to make your own choices about how you spend your time, then you must be more disciplined and attentive to time management than people who work in other jobs.
Here’s another major obstacle unique to field salespeople. Ourselves! The typical field salesperson has a personality that is inclined toward action. We like to be active, we like to be out and about, driving here, going there, and having 10 balls in the air at the same time. We find the rush of one thing after another to be exhilarating. We thrive on action.
Not everyone has that personality characteristic. But field salespeople generally do. That means that given the choice, we’d rather get into our car and go someplace than sit in the office and think about it. That inclination towards activity is an obstacle. It causes us to go without necessarily thinking about why or where to go. It means we must develop special disciplines and routines in order to hold our impulses in check, to make sure that they are applied in the most effective way.
One more final obstacle for field salespeople—the customer. I’ve often said that sales would be a really great job if it weren’t for the customers. The problem is that salespeople need to be responsive to their customers. You can have the greatest plans for the day, but if a customer calls with a crisis, you need to stop everything and take care of the crisis. Customers are unpredictable. They make decisions when you don’t think they will, they take longer to make up their minds than you expect, they want answers to questions you haven’t even thought about, and they expect you to be available when you have other things to do. No matter how proactive and well planned you may be, your customers’ requests are always the unknown, unpredictable X factor.
Let’s pull all this together. Why is time management such a challenge for salespeople?
• the unique, ever-changing characteristics of the salesperson’s day
• a typical personality inclination toward activity
• the unpredictable requests of the customers
An Introduction to Smart Time Management for Salespeople
I recall the moment when I first realized the importance of time management for salespeople. I was in my first professional sales position and was making a lot of discoveries about how to be a good salesperson. As I was driving East on Interstate 96 between Grand Rapids and Lansing, Michigan, I had a sudden flash of inspiration:
All the decisions you make when you are not in front of the customer have a crucial impact on your success. Should you go here or there today? Should you do this in the office or at home? Should you call this customer or that one? Should you ask this question or some different one? Should you present this product or that one? Is this customer worth another phone call, or should you move on to find a new prospect?
These decisions, and countless others of a similar nature, determine your success as a salesperson. Of course, what you say and do when you are in conversation with a customer is important. But equally important are the decisions you make when you are by yourself.
One salesperson I know reflected that “Sales is a thinking person’s game.” How very true. The best salespeople know how to think about their jobs. It’s the quantity and quality of thought that makes the difference. And good time management is 90% composed of thoughts about your job—it’s the decisions you make when you are by yourself.
I have spent much of my professional career equipping people to “think about it.”
Books to Read
My first book, written for distributor salespeople (How to Excel at Distributor Sales), was woven around the theme of thinking about your job. On the cover of my second book, The Six-Hat Salesperson, the publicist wrote, “[the book] gives you a unique system that looks at all the pressures and challenges that you face, and shows you how to use critical thinking skills to make the most of every situation…”
When I wrote “Ten Secrets of Time Management for Salespeople,” it became a world book, with publishers in over eight countries rendering it into 15 + languages. Later, we expanded it to “Eleven Secrets of Time Management for salespeople in a second edition. The basic premise was, at its core, instructions on how to think about your job in such a way as to make the most effective use of your time.
The secrets have bubbled up through my own 30+ years of field sales experience and been enhanced and further refined through the seminars I’ve done and my interaction with thousands of salespeople I’ve trained and helped develop. The secrets have taken shape over the years and been tested in the lives of salespeople around the world.
It is my belief, formed by years of observation and experience in working with tens of thousands of salespeople, that these management secrets have the power to transform your results, to allow you to sell more with less hassle, and to gain back fulfillment, joy, and leisure in your personal life.