“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half,” John Wanamaker (1838-1922), a successful U.S. merchant and early pioneer in marketing, once famously said. The same could be said for sales productivity improvement efforts.  Despite the large investments that companies make every year in sales training and technology, sales leaders continue to struggle with low quota attainment rates in their sales organizations. 

In the past, it’s been difficult for sales leaders to pinpoint exactly why under-performing reps don’t achieve quota and what to do about it. Leaders then attempt to solve sales productivity challenges based largely on what worked at a prior company — or by using anecdotal evidence, or focusing on sales rep effectiveness  (the way reps behave when they’re preparing for and executing on buyer interactions).

However, an equally important and arguably more fundamental approach to solving productivity challenges is to understand where reps invest their most precious asset — their time — and to address sales rep efficiency.

Understanding why reps are spending time on non-productive tasks, and then freeing up that time so they can spend more time selling is a data-driven approach. It’s hard for reps to be effective in front of customers if they don’t have time to actually get in front of customers.

Given that on average, sales organizations typically invest 90% or more of their budgets in personnel, the need to solve sales productivity challenges has long been important; however, it has increased in importance for several reasons.

First, as B2B buyers move away from large upfront purchases to a subscription-based recurring revenue model, sales leaders can no longer heavily rely on a small handful of larger deals from high-performing reps to make their quota every quarter. Instead, they need a broad contribution from their entire sales organization. Second, rep attrition means that sales leaders must remove the issues affecting sales productivity to ensure they can onboard and ramp new reps quickly and maximize their productivity before they move on to their next role or company. Lastly, B2B buyers are more demanding and impatient — this means that sellers must be hyper-responsive and their external interactions must be highly refined and effective to engage in a more buyer-friendly way.

There are three key steps to identifying and solving sales productivity challenges related to rep efficiency:

1. Gather Data on Current State

Conduct a survey of sales reps to understand where they are currently spending their time and categorize their responses into selling vs. non-selling time, as well as core vs. non-core activities. Forrester has conducted sales activity studies with over 28,000 reps from over 150 companies in North America, EMEA, and Asia-Pacific via a sales activity study and can compare a client’s data set vs. a peer set of companies to isolate improvement opportunities.

Our latest findings show that 23% of a rep’s time is spent in the most productive way — actually selling (i.e., talking to and engaging with prospects and customers via phone, email, video conference, face to face) — while the non-core internal selling activities that are least productive (e.g., expense reports, travel planning) takes up around 27% of their time. In the wake of COVID-19, sales reps have been doing more virtual selling and repurposing some of their travel time. The average work week for a sales rep is 50.8 hours. Imagine how much rep productivity would improve not by asking sales reps to work longer hours, but by removing sales productivity barriers so reps can reallocate their time from non-core selling activities to core selling activities.

2. Share Results Widely

Many of the sales productivity challenges that sales reps and managers identify are caused by breakdown in cross-functional processes. Results should be shared not just with sales reps and sales managers who completed the study, but also with all stakeholders who play a role in making it easy for reps to sell. For example, an activity that reps frequently cite for saving time is deal pricing and approval, which typically involves folks from the legal and finance teams. Using the data can help sales leaders build the business case to justify why they need help from other groups to fix cross-functional process issues and gain commitment to make changes. This information can also potentially justify technology investments that will scale and automate these processes, directly resulting in less non-selling time for reps.

3. Prioritize Sales Productivity Efforts and Execute Initiatives

Sales leaders can use the data gathered from these studies to prioritize the key productivity initiatives that will yield the biggest productivity improvements for their teams. For example, a few of the most frequently cited challenging areas by reps are too many internal meetings, too much internal communication, and customer service issues. Instead of trying to tackle all or many of the productivity challenges, sales leaders can focus their attention and resources on the top three knowing those will yield the biggest incremental improvements.

The data-driven insights from these studies can drive changes that improve sales productivity. A Forrester client who is a senior vice president of sales recently conducted a sales productivity study to understand why only 25% of his reps were achieving quota. He found that reps were spending too much time on customer service issues which was taking their time away from selling. Using the sales productivity data from the study, this client constructed a compelling case to the CEO and board of directors of his organization to hire partner success managers who could manage the customer service issues. Based on this investment and other changes, a year later, 85% of reps were achieving quota! Working smarter indeed.