10 commandments for good sales time management

by Dave Kahle

Plan precisely for the use of your sales time. Sales time refers to the time when you’re face-to-face with your customers. It’s the fundamental reason for your job. Think about it. There is someone in your company who can do everything else that you do. The one thing you do that no one else does is meet with your customers face-to-face. It’s the defining moment of your job. It’s the part of your job through which you bring value to your company.

Unfortunately, it’s very easy to go through the motions of each sales call without taking the time to plan. Most salespeople have only vague sales call plans, if any. From my own personal experience, as well as my experience with the literally thousands of salespeople I’ve trained, I’ve come to the conclusion that it only takes three minutes to plan a sales call. A daily investment of about 15 to 20 minutes will allow you to thoroughly plan for every sales call.

Plan to make good use of uncontrollable downtime. You know what uncontrollable downtime is: It’s those times that occur without notice, when your day is turned upside down through no fault of your own. It’s the time you’ve driven an hour to keep an appointment with a client you’ve been wanting to see, who called in sick but nobody told you. The first temptation is to waste that time.

Instead, always carry some work with you wherever you go. That way, you’re not frustrated by uncontrollable downtime. In your briefcase, always have some literature about that new product to study, or that quote you need to price, or that paperwork to be completed. By being prepared, you’re always ready to make good use of uncontrollable downtime.

Prioritize your activities every day. In a world that constantly bombards you with things to do, it’s incredibly easy and extremely tempting to have your day shaped by the hundreds of demands and requests made by everybody else.

The only real way to take control of all these temptations and interruptions is to create a priority list every day and then stick to that list. That way, you have a clear choice between working your agenda and working everyone else’s.

If you have no priority list, then the choice is easy; it’s always everyone else’s agenda that takes precedence. At the end of each day, before you go home and join your family, take about 10 minutes to create a list of everything you want to do tomorrow. Then go back and prioritize the items in order of importance. Which of all these items is the one that is likely to bring you the greatest result? After that, which is next? Number them in order of importance. Tomorrow, when someone at the office wants you to do something, realize that you have a choice. You can do what they want you to do or you can work on your agenda. Success belongs to the proactive salesperson, not the reactive one.

Constantly evaluate the effectiveness of what you’re doing. As a straight-commission salesperson, I developed a couple of habits that have served me well over the years. One was the habit of asking myself several times during the course of the day, “Am I doing, right now, the thing that is the most effective thing for me to do?”

I can’t tell you how many hundreds or thousands of times my answer was, “No.” Every time I answered myself in the negative, I had to change what I was doing and do the thing that was the most effective.

My second habit was to always do what’s hottest first. What’s hottest? Hottest is closest to the money. For example, if I had a choice between seeing one customer and closing the order, and seeing another to do a product demonstration, I’d close the order. That’s closer to the money.

Cluster similar activities. If you have 10 phone calls to make, don’t make two now, three later, and five this afternoon. Instead, make them all at one time. That way, the amount of time you spend transitioning to the next task will be significantly reduced.

Create systems to handle routine tasks. We all have routine things that we must do over and over again: fill out expense reports, create sales reports, complete other paperwork, file invoices, review back orders, etc.

You’ll find that routine tasks can be handled very effectively if you create a system to handle them and then always use that system to complete the task. You only have to think about the best way to do some of these routine tasks once. For example, if you have to fill out a weekly expense report, always put your receipts in the same portion of your briefcase. Always fill out your form at the same time of the week, in the same place. Again, the duplication of routine efforts makes them mindless tasks. Some things are best done mindlessly.

Use an appropriate strategy for the size and potential of the account. Some accounts need more attention than others. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out, but developing that concept into a workable daily routine is something else. Some accounts should get a visit from you every six months and a phone call once a month. Others should get two visits a week. Don’t be afraid to use a phone or fax machine to keep in contact with your low-volume accounts. Invest your time in appropriate ways for the potential of each account you have. Do not treat everyone the same.

Don’t go into the office! This is my number one negative rule. It’s based on Kahle’s law of office time. Kahle’s law is an inviolate observation about nature that you can count on to the same extent that you can count on the sun coming up every day. Kahle’s law of office time is this: “If you plan on working in the office for 30 minutes, it will always take you two hours.”

There is just something about going into the office that is inherently a time-waster. People want to talk to you, you receive phone calls, there’s mail to read, coffee to drink and customer service people to chat with. Add that all up, and it’s guaranteed to waste your time.

If you must go into the office, and I recognize that sometimes you must, then go in the last thing in the day, not the first thing in the morning. If you go in at 4:30 in the afternoon with a half-hour’s worth of work to do, you’re much more likely to get it done in 30 minutes than if you attempt the same thing at 8 in the morning.

Be conscious of time-wasters, and work to eliminate them. Time-wasters are unconscious, time-wasting habits you have created over the years. You’ve become so accustomed to them that you’re probably not even aware of them. The first step is to become conscious of them.

I suspect you have created some unconscious habits that fall into the category of time-wasters. Here’s a list I’ve gathered from my seminars when I asked participants to list some of their more cherished habitual time-wasters.

• Taking smoke breaks
• Making personal calls
• Running personal errands
• Not making appointments, just showing up unexpectedly
• Small talk in the office
• Not planning your day
• Reading the morning paper

Got the idea? You might have a special little time-waster that you’ve treasured for years. If you’re going to be effective in our time-compressed age, now is the time to work to eliminate it.

Don’t get caught up in immediate reaction. Immediate reaction occurs when you have your day or a portion of a day planned, and then you receive a phone call or fax from one of your customers with a problem for you to solve. The natural tendency is to drop everything and work on the problem. After all, isn’t that good customer service?

When you do that, you become reactive and lose control of your day. Isn’t there some way to provide service but stay in control?

The stumbling block is the assumption that just because someone calls, the problem is urgent and needs immediate attention. So you react immediately. But that isn’t always necessary. Often, the situation isn’t really urgent and you can address it later.

All you need to do is ask the simple question, “Can I take care of it (fill in the most convenient time for you to do so)?” Often, your customer will say, “Sure, that’s OK.” On those occasions, you will have regained control of your day and you can proceed with your plan.

Granted, sometimes customers have urgent issues. On those occasions, you do need to take care of the problem as soon as you can. But if you ask the question, a good portion of the time you’ll remain in control. By asking the question, you refuse to get caught up in immediate reaction.

Implement these 10 commandments for good time management, and you’ll make great strides in becoming an effective self-manager.

Excerpted from “The Six-Hat Salesperson.” Reprinted by permission of AMACOM, a division of American Management Association International, New York. www.amanet.org.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2000 issue of Progressive Distributor. Copyright 2000.

Olman Martínez

Director de la Universidad de las Ventas.