“Time available for selling” is plummeting. Several years ago, we assessed how sales people for a very large client were spending their time. Both they and we were shocked with the results, less than 20 percent of their time was being spent directly on customer related activities.

Let me sharpen that definition a little, primarily so you can see the magnitude of the challenge sales people face. In this survey, we defined “customer related activities” as time spent preparing for a meeting with the customer (phone or face to face), the actual time spent in the meeting, and the time spent in doing follow-ups. Basically, it was the time most critical to finding new deals and helping the customer move through their buying process.

It’s no wonder sales and quota performance is plummeting! Sales people are basically spending one day a week selling and four days doing lots of other things!

As we looked at this particular client and others, we found two major thing impacting time available for selling. One, as might be expected, was “how sales people were spending their time,” but the biggest was “how their time was being spent for them.”

As sales people, we like to think we are in control of our time, but actually a large part of our time is being spent for us. It’s insidious, and sometimes it’s for all the best reasons, but in the end it takes away from time available for selling. Let’s take a look at it:

1. Time spent in reporting, providing information, and compliance: Everyone wants to know what’s happening. It could be the sales manager wanting to know the status of deals, the pipeline, the territory, whatever. It could be well intended people in marketing, wanting to know about particular product sales, customer needs, trends, issues customers are facing. Since sales people are the closest to customers, whenever anyone in the corporation wants information about the markets and customers, where do they turn? Yep, it’s to the sales person.

It’s easy to see how it happens, each person in the organization thinks, “It will only take a couple of minutes for the sales person to deal with this.” Individually, it seems like there is no impact, but when all rolled up together, looking at the sales person, the drain on their time is huge. A lot of this is important stuff, managers do need to be informed, others in the company need to understand what’s happening with customers. But when all of it converges on the sales people, the adverse impact on their time is enormous.

It’s critical to be thoughtful about the reporting, information, and compliance requirements we impose on sales people.

2. Time spent in customer service/support activities: Where do customers turn when they have a problem? Yep, it’s the sales person. Even when there are other support channels they know about, if they have a problem they really need to get solved, they turn to the sales person. As a results, sales people spend a lot of time chasing late/lost orders, billing problems, contract problems, service and support issues. Either the customers don’t know where to turn, or they aren’t getting the answers/responsiveness they need–so the customer problem becomes the sales person’s problem.

We need to make sure customer know where to turn for support and help. We need to train them on it–teach them that it’s the fastest most effective way to address their problems. Then we have to deliver superior service levels, solving their problems. If we don’t, they will go to the sales person.

3. Time spent in internal meetings: Meetings, meetings, meetings! The larger the organization, the more we like talking to each other. Sometimes, it seems we define ourselves by how packed our agendas are. We complain about the time wasted in meetings and probably schedule meetings to address the problem. Meetings are necessary, but we need to be thoughtful and purposeful about each meeting we have. We need to minimize meetings and eliminate wasted meetings. There are lot of other ways to communicate and share information, not all of them require a meeting.

I could go on, I think I’ve captured the major categories of time drains.

But time drains are insidious. Each, individually, looks small, but in aggregate they conspire to keep sales people from spending time with customers.

There’s something wonderful about understanding these time drains and eliminating them. Without changing anything about how people sell or their own effectiveness, eliminating time drains drives more customer engagement and higher sales.

Thinking back to the client I mentioned above, with a little work, we took their time available for selling from less than 20 to 30 percent. Still too little, but a 50 percent increase in the time they spent with customers! You can guess what that did to results!

The simplest and fastest way to improve sales results (not effectiveness) is to identify the time drains that adversely impact time spent with customers.

It’s not an issue sales people can solve themselves because the time is being spent for them, not by them.

In another post, I’ll address the other component of time available for selling–it’s how sales people spend their time.