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Sales Activity Studies: A Sirius Perspective

December 18, 2017

By conducting periodic sales activity studies, organizations can verify that improvements are made and correlate these changes with sales productivity

Today’s b-to-b salespeople are expected to be as self-reliant as possible. In fact, companies spend millions on the latest technology and training to promote and enable independence. But are these investments really working? Are reps indeed more efficient, or are there activities that should be automated or performed by others? A sales activity study can help answer these questions, prioritize corrective actions and track the impact of changes. In this issue of SiriusPerspectives, we examine the concept of a sales activity study, link it to sales productivity and discuss common pitfalls to avoid when conducting the study.

Sales Activity Studies: The What

The origin of sales activity studies can be traced to the manufacturing world, where every aspect of a worker’s daily routine was closely monitored with a clipboard and stopwatch (more commonly known as a time-and-motion study) and then assessed for ways to increase productivity. The concept has been adopted with great success and used to determine the productivity of other job functions. For example, global transportation giant UPS used detailed driver time studies to develop innovations including reworking delivery routes into a series of loops to limit left-hand turns, save time and fuel, reduce emissions and increase safety.

Sales productivity is often measured in simple terms: the greater the revenue, the more productive the rep. However, the SiriusDecisions Sales Productivity Quotient measures sales productivity through five categories and 24 data indicators that correlate with revenue growth. Activity, one of the five categories in the Sales Productivity Quotient, measures the amount of time reps have spent on core selling activities (vs. non-selling activities) as well as the quantity of various types of interactions between sales reps and prospects or customers (e.g. meetings, interactions, calls, emails).

The focus of a sales activity study is to identify barriers that affect increased productivity. Analysis of the results identifies actions and initiatives that sales organizations can pursue to reduce the time sales reps spend on low-productivity activities and shift that time to higher-productivity activities. For example, a sales activity study might seek to delegate activities that hinder efficient prospecting (e.g. pricing requests to a support team), identify processes and practices that increase productivity (e.g. consistency in how and when prospecting calls are conducted) and determine whether Web-based content can be used to quickly engage prospects.

Sales Activities: Critical Components

A sales activity study must be consistent and conclusive, but not so extensive and complex that it is unable to provide valuable intelligence (e.g. attempting to build a survey that captures every possible sales activity rather than focusing on the set of activities that are most important). When structuring a sales organization’s activity study, make sure it includes the following elements:

  • A defined set of activities. This is where a sales organization must employ the Goldilocks approach to sales activities – not too many, not too few, but just the right amount. The SiriusDecisions Sales Activity Study has identified 39 sales activities that can be analyzed to generate insights and create impactful productivity initiatives. Identify the activities that are most consistent across all roles within the sales organization and categorize them in two ways: core selling vs. non-core selling, and internally focused vs. direct engagement.
  • Time parameters. Activity data is valuable, but if the process behind a sales activity study becomes overwhelming, respondents from the sales organization will not give it the required attention. The SiriusDecisions Sales Activity Study, like the Relative Productivity Framework, focuses on a single week (e.g. basing a week on 50 hours). This timeframe helps participants devote a certain amount of time per day to working on the activity study or a reasonable amount of time at the end of the week.
  • Respondent rankings. There is a popular saying in sales: “You have to give to get.” If you want the sales organization to respond to the findings of a sales activity study, you must allow them the opportunity to give feedback and not just activity data. This requires the study to include a method for respondents to rank activities based on their contribution (or lack thereof) to sales productivity (e.g. capture each respondents’ top five activities for driving productivity). Also give respondents the ability to rank which activity improvements will have the highest productivity impact, and correlate these areas with activities that concern large amounts of time. Combining time spent on an activity with relevance to the sales role allows sales leaders to prioritize productivity enhancement initiatives.
  • Quantitative insight. Gathering responses to a consistent set of questions with a defined set of answers gives sales organizations a great advantage in diagnosing sales activity. If feedback from respondents in their own words is added, the organization can gain intelligence that most likely could not be gathered in face-to-face conversations. Make sure the study allows respondents to enter short comments about activity pros and cons using internal nomenclature (e.g. process and tool names). This information can be used to inform the sales organization on specific productivity initiatives and create instant alignment and clarity about why the study is valuable and warrants participation by sales.

Mistakes to Avoid

When a sales organization is considering a sales activity study, it should avoid common pitfalls by adopting the following best practices:

  • Have a valuable purpose. Think an activity study sounds like a great way to check up on reps to monitor how much work they’re doing? Think again. Studies that are conducted under the guise of understanding sales productivity but in truth are just spying exercises perpetuate resentment among sales reps and quickly become counterproductive. Because many reps work remotely or from home offices, there can be suspicion regarding how they’re spending their time. If there truly are fact-based concerns that particular individuals are slacking off, use first-line managers to address these concerns through direct feedback, coaching and performance management.
  • Conduct studies annually. It’s not uncommon to hear sales leaders say, “I don’t care what individuals in the sales organization are doing as long as they make their number.” In such an environment, one would think an activity study should be done only when revenue drops; however, this means that these studies will be viewed as punitive, not productive. Additionally, it can be very difficult to implement changes during down times, when a sense of desperation may afflict across the sales team, and management is singularly focused on hitting the number. Improvements made to sales activities during good times can ensure that reps are prepared to mitigate the impact of future downturns.
  • Make the commitment to take action. Organizations should conduct an activity study only if there’s a true commitment to take action on the results. This includes ensuring that resources are available or may become available for productivity enhancement initiatives. Part of this commitment should be a change management process to support the execution of recommended improvements. Failure to follow up on sales activity findings will result in frustration among the sales force as well as a loss of credibility for its sponsors.

The Sirius Decision

A well-designed sales activity study that is developed and deployed for the right reasons will help a sales organization identify productivity roadblocks, highlight what highly productive sales reps are doing, replicate those activities across the organization and gather data to refute perceptions of what sales is doing incorrectly. By focusing on what various sales roles are doing as individuals, and the ways in which they are collectively supported by the organization, organizations can gain a complete view of where reps are spending their time and why. Only then will they have the intelligence they need to make reps’ professional lives – and their results – better.