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Role Pollution: The Hidden Cost of Sales

TonyYeungToday's guest post is by Tony Yeung, principal at ZS Associates. To learn how well your salespeople are using their time, check out the Sales Force Activity Snapshot from ZS Associates.


It happens to most of us: seemingly urgent tasks creep into our work, and before we know it, the day is almost over, and we haven’t made any progress on the truly important work that will have an impact over the long term. While countless books have been written with “proven” systems for prioritizing the important over the urgent, the problem has arguably gotten worse over the years.

We’ve worked with hundreds of sales forces, and almost without fail a similar dynamic occurs: low-value activities consume a disproportionate amount of a salesperson’s time. At ZS, we describe this as “role pollution,” the steady creep of low-value activities into a salesperson’s job. The cost of role pollution is massive, both in direct costs and the opportunity cost of lost selling time.  


We’ve started collecting data on sales-effort allocation using a tool we call Sales Force Activity Snapshot. The results so far have shown that the typical field salesperson spends far too much time on activities that are not actually selling, including the following:

  • eight to 10 hours per week on internal administrative activities, such as expense reporting, internal meetings, and incentives tracking;

  • five to seven hours per week on nonselling customer service and support activities;

  • seven to 11 hours on travel.

For a typical sales organization, that’s more than 20 hours per salesperson every week on nonselling activities. If even a fraction of that time were redirected to actual selling, the impact could be huge.

We’ve worked with many clients to quantify the opportunity, and we’ve often found that selling time can be increased 20 percent or more by identifying and acting on the root causes of role pollution.That’s equivalent to increasing the size of the sales force by 20 percent without adding any new salespeople.

Covey urgent important

These organizations take a rigorous approach to identifying the root causes of role pollution and implementing the right solutions. They develop a deep understanding of the lower-value tasks that consume a salesperson’s energy and prioritize the ones that can be acted on cost effectively to free up selling time. The solutions are usually company specific, but there are often common solutions, such as improvements in systems and tools, offloading activity to lower-cost resources, or discontinuing a particular activity completely.

One recent ZS client, a provider of industrial equipment, was successful in reducing the time its salespeople spend servicing and supporting customers. More than 50 percent of sales reps’ customer time was dedicated to service and support, with highly variable customer responsiveness and quality. This organization increased the size of the customer service team and focused on the highest-priority customers. The company also moved lower-value customers to self-serve channels. Within months of implementation, the industrial-equipment company significantly increased field selling time, which was focused on new customer acquisition and cross-selling.

Do you know what causes role pollution in your sales force, and what it ultimately costs? Share your thoughts in the comments section. 

[Photo credit: Flickr


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