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Rule 10: Manage Multiple Customer Priorities


What are your biggest time wasters?


Management by crisis

Lack of priorities

Conflicting goals




Voice mail


How many of these apply to you? Did you find that you don't have any time wasters of significance? Or did you, like most people, recognize at least a couple that cut into your productivity? All of the items on the list except "Lack of priorities" and "Conflicting goals" are activities that we can control to some degree - and even those two items are activities we can handle proactively.

Most sales professionals have a discretionary control over their time. But if you find that you occasionally spend time on activities that are not highly productive, it is worthwhile to change how you handle them. If you don't use your time as productively as you should due to outside influences or your own distractions, take corrective action. It is impossible to be a sales leader with unproductive work habits or interferences.

The most common time waster is interruptions. That's true whether those interruptions come from a cell phone, a pager, a phone, or a visitor. I find that many salespeople have a high interest in finding ways to use their time more effectively.

How to Control Interruptions

How much time do you lose each day to interruptions? Thirty minutes? An hour? Two hours? Are most or these interruptions of value? When you are interrupted, do you find that when you go back to what you were working on it takes almost as long to get back to where you were as it took to do the work originally? If so, all the work you did originally and all the time you invested are wasted. If you are one of the many people who are constantly interrupted, you'll benefit enormously when you use the ideas that follow to better control interruptions. It helps to know that there are three types of interruptions:

Knowing the difference between these three and what to do about them will help you control them. You won't eliminate interruptions, but you can control them more effectively.

The personal interruption occurs when someone wants to chat - about the weekend, the game, the party, or whatever. The quick solution is to say that you have a deadline for a proposal, or other work you must finish, and that you'll catch up with the visitor another time. If you are managing your time well, you really will have a deadline and something to complete, so you are just being honest.

The wrong-time interruption happens when you want to speak to the person interrupting you, but at a later time. Use a similar response to the personal interruption, but more structured. First, if you are in the middle of writing or reading, keep your work posture. Look up with your eyes, but don't raise your head. (It sends the first signal that you are reluctant to be interrupted.) Don't put your pen or pencil down. Don't sit back in your chair. Instead, let the person know you are aware of him or her but that you have a deadline to meet, and then propose to visit when you're done or at the earliest time possible for you.

Most people will accept this alternative. Some will insist that they must see you now. Sometimes they may even get annoyed that you won't see them now. The best way to handle these situations is to alert people you normally work with before the next interruption. Explain ahead of time that there are certain times you prefer not to be interrupted. Explain why, and whenever possible, show them how it benefits them. People resist change; this gives them a chance to adjust.

A woman I was having a discussion with once apparently worked for seven bosses. She told them, "When I have my pink cap on, it's not a good time to interrupt me." The pink cap may not be for you, but how about a traffic cone? That's what one manager told me she did. When I replied that it was a novel idea and asked where she got the cone, she said she'd rather not discuss it. If you communicate to people why you're doing something and do it with humor, people are more willing to accept it.

The good interruption happens when you must speak with the person now. It could be because it affects what you're working on now or because it affects another high-value activity that must be handled urgently (in other words, a crisis).

If you agree to stop what you are doing, get your papers and thoughts organized so that when you go back to them you can quickly recapture your thoughts. You should also set up a time frame: how long would it take to resolve this issue? Don't leave it open-ended. Get agreement to the time needed and explain that this way you'll be able to get back to your deadline. Stick to the time frame. Thank the person for his or her cooperation.

Most interruptions are of the untimely type. Unfortunately, too often we treat them as if they are appropriate. If someone approached you and asked for ten dollars, would you give it up? In most cases, probably not. Why, then, are we so willing to give ten minutes of our time? Don't give up on controlling interruptions. Even if you haven't been able to control them before, you will with the methods I've outlined here, and the payoff will be that you'll be able to concentrate your efforts and get your work done more quickly with better results.

Set aside blocks of time (thirty to sixty minutes) to complete work where you need to work uninterrupted. Let your calls go to voice mail or have someone else handle them during that time. Again, it's impossible to eliminate interruptions - but you can and should control them.

After a discussion during a program about how to control interruptions, one of the participants remarked to me that her customers were her interruptions. She worked in a bank and could not ignore the customers, she said. She added that she was required to submit a report every week and couldn't find the hour it took to complete it during normal business hours. I recommended that she ask a knowledgeable colleague to help the customers during the hour that it takes her to complete the report and that she try to arrange this during a slow time for the bank (not on Monday or Friday, for example). That is what I mean by controlling interruptions. (A bonus: she could also use the opportunity to delegate responsible tasks to someone she saw as having the potential to take on more responsibility.)

Think Time

A fellow who came up with a radically new design for a computer chip gained the insight about how to do it while he was walking during an extended time away from work. It was one of those eureka moments, he said. He said that he realized after thinking about the problem for some time that the difficulty with the current design methods for computer chips was that the instructions were wired into the chip. The chips got bigger and hotter as a result. He realized that many of the functions of the chip could be handled by software, which would lower the energy requirements. This is especially important for notebook computers. His design is in use in some notebook computers as a result of the insight he gained that day. If he had not given his mind a quiet time, he never would have realized the answer to the problem he had been working on for some time.

Give yourself time to plan and think. If you are going to be a leader in your field and make breakthroughs, you need to think about problems creatively. This is critical to your ability to come up with innovative solutions. It may even be a way to see problems differently and challenge the status quo as a result.

" If you're an artist and you've had some success, you should pull back at some point and go back to square one. The only thing that endures is change."

- Robert Redford, actor

Time Wasters and Time Challenges

Eliminate or delegate time wasters; control time challenges. Time wasters are activities such as putting together sales kits, reporting information, and nonessential email. Time challenges are activities such as preparing proposals, precall planning, and learning new products. A time waster is an activity that doesn't add value to what you do for your customers. It makes you less effective. A time challenge is an activity you need to do for your job, but could do more efficiently.

Cut Meeting Time in Half

Almost everyone agrees that too much time is wasted in meetings. It doesn't have to be that way; that time can easily be cut in half.

In a program with client, we discussed the principles of running more effective meetings, which they called a code of meeting ethics. I like the name as a way of emphasizing the respect that people need to give each other in order to have meetings that work well. The list includes seven items and is shown on the next page. Some groups have principles such as these posted in any meeting they hold as a way of reminding people of how they have agreed to conduct their meetings.

As a sales professional, if you are running the meeting, take advantage of the code of meeting ethics. If you are a meeting participant, suggest to the meeting facilitator that you persuade the group to agree to follow this code. Put it on display. People who have adopted just the time-allotted agenda and the timekeeper ideas are enthusiastic about the results in time saved.

All the items listed will work for audio or video teleconferences as well as face-to-face meetings. Be sure to cover these principles at the beginning of the meeting and get concurrence from people to adhere to them. If you find that your meetings still last too long or aren't as focused as you would like, don't discard these suggestions. Give them time. It may take three or four meetings before people get comfortable working within the new parameters.

People who have used this approach have told me that their meetings are shorter and more productive. They say no one would ever want to return to the unproductive meetings they had before. I believe you can cut your meeting time in half and get more done when you follow these practices.

Code of Meeting Ethics

Get Organized

I haven't observed many disorganized salespeople. Even if you aren't a person who is normally highly organized, if you are successful in sales it's because you have worked to compensate for any inclination to be disorganized. But if you are looking for ways to become more organized, you might find the following discussion helpful.

Disorganization actually starts as a state of mind. Disorganized people tend to be comfortable with disorganization, seeing it as inevitable. They may even wear it as a badge of honor. Unfortunately, others may perceive them as being ineffective, even if they aren't.

How does disorganization become evident? First and foremost is the desk, work area, cubicle, home office, or car. These are the most visible to you and offer stark feedback about how organized (or disorganized) you are. I've found that it usually takes a lot less time to clean up an area than I think it will. And once I do clean it up, I find that I feel much more organized. When you look at your desk or work area and it looks disorganized, you subconsciously think, "If I can't control my own desk, what can I control?" When you feel you don't have control, your stress level goes up. So one of the best ways to lower stress and be more productive is to clean up your work area.

The quickest way to clean up the work area is to get some boxes and take what's on top of the desk and place it in the boxes. Label the boxes "desktop as of [date]." By doing this, you'll know where everything is, but things won't distract you on your desk. You can leave on the desk anything that is an active work project. The best thing is to put those items into vertical trays, not horizontal stacks. If your car is stacked with papers, do the same thing. The key is to ask when was the last time you used the papers, and pack them in the box if you can't remember. The rule is that it always takes longer to find something than it takes to file it.

The second way that salespeople sometimes get disorganized is not planning for appointments. This is one of the three most common mistakes that salespeople make (see page 52). Fortunately, this is correctable with some good planning strategies.

Home Office Challenges

Working at home has its benefits and its challenges. If you are besieged at the office, it may provide relief from the constant stream of interruptions you are likely to encounter there. But working at home can have its challenges as well. Salespeople often have a home office, besides their car.

One of those challenges may be interruptions from people who are at home with you. They may think that because you are "at home" you are available to run errands, handle chores, or help out. You may give in to these distractions yourself. One of the benefits of being at home is that you have some flexibility to handle emergencies and to build your schedule to accommodate personal needs. But without limitations on those demands, you can fall victim to home distractions and your productivity can suffer.

On the other hand, sometimes we need extra patience when we deal with family interruptions. I heard a story about a fellow speaker who became impatient when his child interrupted him because he was in the middle of work. But then he stopped and thought about it and realized he hadn't set a good example. Fortunately, he was able to remedy the situation.

These tips will help you minimize distractions when working at home.

Working from a Distance

You may work with remotely located people who are supporting you on a customer solution. Working with people at a distance presents its own unique set of challenges.

The advent of email, instant messaging, cell phones, and audio and video teleconferencing have given us more efficient means of managing at a distance when compared to the more limited means that still may be useful - namely, travel in person, the phone, fax, or letters. We have a variety of ways to communicate quickly with people regardless of where they are. But these communication channels don't change the basic need for good, timely, and purposeful communication.

Distance magnifies differences between people so that dealing even with small problems can become difficult. Here are ten suggestions for working effectively from a distance.

Language Differences Matter

There are many diverse cultures in the workforce and in customer organizations. When you encounter people whose native language is not the same as yours, slow down, be patient, repeat what you hear, and use illustrations when possible. I've found that I can usually start to understand most accents, given enough time to pick up the cadence. If you find it difficult to listen to someone's voice, concentrate instead on listening for the content of what the person is saying. Write down key points as a way to concentrate on what the person is saying rather than how he or she is saying it.

Crisis Management

"My most important priority is deciding what my priorities are."

- Anonymous sales executive

Crises are bound to come from time to time. When a crisis happens, we lose control of the situation. As we manage through the crisis, we attempt to regain control. (Some of us are crisis managers. We say, "I do my best work under pressure.") The only way to prevent the same type of crisis from happening again is to learn from it, to debrief after the crisis is over, to understand the root causes behind the crisis, and to take steps to keep them from recurring.

Crisis managers don't have time to do that because as soon as one crisis has ended, they are moving to the next. Why? It's exciting. They know what they need to do, and they and everyone else who has to pitch in to solve the crisis can actually see the objective achieved when the crisis is over. In the meantime, there is a high cost in terms of resources and burnout if this continues for too long. Other higher-value work doesn't get done, which, of course, leads to the next crisis. And so on.

Crisis Contributors

Why do we too often become willing crisis contributors, people who seem to prefer to work in a crisis environment?

Author and consultant Peter Drucker noted that effective people focus on results, not just activities. Effective people set and stay with priorities.

Of course, as a sales leader you want to experience as few crises as possible. You must proactively plan ahead and tend to high-value, customer-driven activities.

Five Lessons on Managing Through a Distraction[*]

Crisis Replacers

A crisis gives us excitement, focus, and satisfaction when it's solved. But if we want to get out of the crisis mentality mode we need to find something else that does the same thing. You can't be a crisis manager and sales leader at the same time.

What else can give us excitement, focus, and satisfaction? Achieving worthwhile, challenging goals. Seeing your solutions implemented by your customers will. By actively deciding what we want to achieve and what we want to strive for, we create positive energy and excitement.

The difference between a crisis and a goal is the difference between reacting to the past and problems and focusing on the future and opportunities.

Working in a Crisis-Prone Organization

If you find yourself working in an organization that tends to function at the crisis level, what should you do? First, make sure you have your own priorities in line. Second, don't be lulled into a crisis mentality. That happens when you get caught up in the activity trap and aren't clear about the difference between activities that add value versus those that don't. Third, maintain your sense of control over your work, but don't promote the perception that you aren't "busy." People who function with a crisis mentality expect others to support the resolution of the crisis. Move quickly, act supportively, and keep an eye on your longer-term, high-value priorities.

Everything Works As a System

We need to think about the system as we define problems and solutions. If we fail to take into account how one change will affect something else, the change will not work or may be ineffective. The change may even backfire.

For example, if you attempt to lower costs, what happens to quality? If you attempt to speed up delivery time, what happens to cost? When you change something in one department, does it affect other people or departments?

There are very few situations in which making one change doesn't affect something else. If these other effects are secondary and you are aware of them, you can either accommodate them or ignore them, as long as you consciously decide.

The Core of Rule 10: Manage Customer Priorities

Work efficiently at home, in the office, or remotely with others and use effective planning to avoid or solve a crisis.

[*]Carly Fiorina, former CEO, Hewlett-Packard, as reported in the Wall Street Journal

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