Are Your Salespeople Making the Most of “Face Time” With Your Customers?


This week’s article refreshes a piece I wrote about several years ago.

Organizations have a hard time improving their sales. This is not just because people need to perform better. Often it is also because the organization has to change if people are to have a chance of performing better.

Executives, stuck with the necessity of relying on other people to get things done, are at the mercy of the assumptions and the perceptions of those people. That is one reason why process improvement is so important: it requires the people to face the facts of what their words mean in reality.

Take the old assumption that “increasing salespeople’s face time with customers will increase sales.”

I’m here to tell you, it ain’t necessarily so.

Until next week.

Michael Webb
February 19, 2008


Are Your Salespeople Making the Most of “Face Time” With Your Customers?

Several years ago I had the privilege of working as a sales coach for an exclusive and exceptional sales training company. The salespeople who were our clients ran the gamut from brilliant to, well, let’s just say less-than-talented. This is the story of one of the latter, and why being a senior executive–in this company or in any other–is so difficult.

My memory of coaching this particular territory representative of a major electrical utility is vivid. Deregulation and market dynamics were (and still are) driving utilities to abandon their traditional “governmental” style of customer relations. In addition to basic electrical power, this utility offered new products and services, such as monitoring systems that helped companies increase their energy efficiency. The company felt that a good chunk of the company’s future depended on these new products and services, so there was considerable pressure on salespeople to make them successful.

Reps were given three days of classroom instruction on researching the customer’s business, asking high-impact questions, and developing coaching relationships through improved listening.  With the assistance of a field coach like me, each salesperson was expected to demonstrate the skills they had learned on a sales call to a real, live customer.

A Sales Call from Hell
This particular rep wanted to call on the maintenance manager of a huge commercial laundry in the inner city. I rode shotgun as the rep steered the car through city traffic and briefed me on the situation.

“This guy is going to buy a monitoring system today,” he said.  “You just watch.  I’ve got a plan that’ll make him cave in.”

“Based on what knowledge about his business?” I asked. “What research did you do in preparing your plan?”

“Look,” he said, “you guys have your way of doing things, and that’s fine.” He gunned the car to beat a traffic light, and just missed. “And I have my way. So just sit back and watch this time, alright?”

He explained that the price he’d proposed on the power monitoring system was too high last time. This time he had it figured out. My questions about “his plan” made him clam up. I figured this wasn’t going to be a good experience, but as an outside consultant, my options in that situation were somewhat limited. Having turned me into little more than an observer, he seemed oblivious to the noose he was placing around his own neck.

We arrived at the laundry and were shown to the maintenance manager’s office. There I witnessed the most unprofessional sales call I have ever seen. The rep quoted his somewhat lower price for the system, and then began trying to hammer the customer into submission. He argued, he cajoled, he insisted. I watched in horror as he actually gripped the man’s arm in his efforts to coerce him. As it turned out, the new quote ignored things like cabling for the new system (a major mistake that dramatically affects the cost). I attempted to intervene, but the rep paid no attention. Bringing him up short in front of a live customer would have created even more conflict, so I just watched him crash and burn. I still can’t imagine why the maintenance manager didn’t throw us both out of his office.

In the car on the way back to the office, the rep displayed no interest in reviewing the sales call. Instead, he simply blamed the customer, how stupid he was, how it was a waste of time going in there. This wasn’t just someone who “didn’t get” the training we had provided. It was a negative sort of willful ignorance. Obviously, such incompetence would hurt the company’s business, and needed to be reported to the rep’s manager, a woman named Sally.

I called my boss, Scott, who managed our relationship with this client, to tell him what I had seen.

Scott surprised me with his answer, “Mike, these branch managers are terribly protective of their reps. If you make the guy look bad, Sally’s going to turn on you.”

Unbelievable as it was, given the politics of the situation and my boss’s advice; I was forced to leave it at that. Obviously, this engagement wasn’t about making a result any more. Luckily, only a few of the coaching situations we worked on were bad apples like this one; most turned out much better.

Lessons from the Field
Later, I mentally picked over the wreckage that this rep had left behind him, and I found something I will always remember: The bigger and more rigid a company is, the less management really knows about what’s happening in the field. Despite their efforts, many people within this firm were still stuck in monopoly mode. Pushing as hard for results as they were, this utility’s senior executives were pressuring everyone to perform. Nobody wanted to look bad. The culture they created caused things to be swept under the rug rather than observed and corrected.

One of the big traps they fell into, for instance, was the rush to increase their “face time” with customers, on the assumption that this would boost sales. Of course, the face time that rep had spent at that commercial laundry would definitely NOT boost sales.

Most salespeople display far more sense and savvy than the rep in this story. However, without guidance, few salespeople intuitively know how to make themselves truly valuable to customers.  In fact, most truly talented salespeople at this large, hidebound company were swimming desperately upstream. The product was poorly conceived, support was mediocre, and the product literature did not
help the sale.

Why? Because management had given little, if any, thought to create value for the customer when developing the company’s marketing and sales strategies. The strategy seemed to be something like, “Here is a product that the MBA’s in product management came up with. You better rack up some sales today—or else. Now get out of the office (and into some customers’ faces) and sell something!”

Outstanding salespeople can often figure out how to get some customers to go along with a sale.  Some of them push hard now and then. Most of them fill in the gaps, puff up the
product, and work the levers back into production and service— whatever it takes to be generally ethical, bring in business, and make a decent living.

But what about average salespeople (not to mention truly bad ones like my rep example)? What are average salespeople to do when the environment they live in is so wrong?

I don’t like thinking about it. What I do like thinking about is the success that all salespeople could achieve with a sales process that actually created value for customers! A sales process that offered something of genuine value to the customer at each stage.  Something that made it easy for salespeople to sell and customers to buy.

How to Turn Your Sales and Marketing Into a Lean Six Sigma Production Machine That Runs Like Clockwork (And Do It in a Way Your Salespeople Will Love!)

Let’s Face It
Before asking your salespeople to increase their face time, you should face questions like the following:

  • What are your salespeople now doing with the precious time they spend with prospects and customers? Is it focused on something useful to the customer, or is it focused on your short-term agenda instead?
  • What might your salespeople be able to do for customers that would be valuable enough that some customers might actually pay for them to come and visit? Perhaps an honest needs assessment of some kind or a bit of commercial or technical expertise?
  • Have you left salespeople to their own devices? Or, have you developed a sales process that enables any diligent salesperson to be somehow useful for prospects and customers on every sales call?
  • Do your reps go into every sales call understanding which parts of the customer’s problem to work on in that call?

Having reps spend more face time with customers when they might be doing more harm than good is lunacy. In contrast, when you engage prospects in a value-generating sales activity, they will want to spend time with your salespeople—and it will be time well spent.

What’s more, you might be able to make it so customers could actually provide feedback about the time they spend with your reps (making it harder for incompetent reps to hide).

Do programs like this really well, and you may even find it hard to get your salespeople back into the office!

Michael J. Webb
February 19, 2008


Michael Webb

Michael Webb founded Sales Performance Consultants to create a data-driven alternative to the slogans and shallow impact offered by typical sales training, sales consulting, and CRM companies. Michael helped organize and delivered the keynote speeches for the first conferences ever held on applying Six Sigma to marketing and sales. Connect with me on LinkedIn.

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