Storm Warning

What is the No. 1 reason why salespeople fail to follow-up with prospects and customers, even though they swore they would do it today? The answer can be found in three words: Life is unpredictable.

Stuff happens. Good stuff and bad stuff. A new opportunity pops up, and suddenly that’s all you care about. A problem occurs, and you drop everything to make sure it gets fixed and make the customer happy.

Unpredictability is normal, but like a tornado, it can blow your best-laid follow-up plans to smithereens. After a storm of unexpected events, you need a plan for a speedy recovery, so follow-up tasks get checked off the list.

When it comes to thinking, organizing and managing time, sales professionals come in all shapes and sizes. For a follow-up strategy to be effective, it must fit your style. Before you continue reading, take a sheet of paper and write down this question: How do I set aside time for follow-up now? Put down your thoughts. As you read the rest of this piece, supplement your list with new ideas to manage your time better and sell more.

The Pomodoro Technique

If you search for Francesco Cirillo on Google, you’ll find more than 536,000 results. Why? Because he’s the inventor of a time management method favored by many techies called, “The Pomodoro Technique.”

Cirillo created the technique in the late 1980s as a university student, just as the internet was starting to make its mark on the business world. In recent years, it has received more attention as a way to improve productivity in a distraction-driven environment.

When it comes to thinking, organizing and managing time, sales professionals come in all shapes and sizes.

By working in timed intervals separated by short breaks, the software developer discovered he could maintain focus and get tasks done. The Pomodoro Technique works like this:

  • Decide on what you need to get done. This could be one big task or a smaller group of tasks
  • Set a timer for 25 minutes
  • Work until the timer rings, staying focused. If a thought distracts you, write it down and go back to your task
  • After the timer rings, take a five-minute break
  • After four pomodoro work intervals, take a longer break

When Cirillo used this technique, he had a tomato-shaped timer that prompted him to name work intervals “pomodoros” after the Italian word for tomato.

When it comes to thinking, organizing and managing time, sales professionals come in all shapes and sizes.

This technique trains your brain to stay focused on task. Setting a timer creates a behavioral cue that signals now is the time to get focused. Regular breaks serve as a reward for sticking to a task and helping you avoid decision fatigue. If you start your day with The Pomodoro Technique, you can focus on important follow-up priorities first. This is a smart way to guarantee they’ll get done.

This technique works great for bigger thinking tasks, such as planning an account strategy. It’s also an efficient way to work through a batch of similar tasks, like making calls to prospects. Keep time using the stopwatch function on your phone or, if you like the idea of having a visual reminder to stay focused, you can order an official tomato timer from Cirillo’s Pomodoro website.

Ten-Minute Time Management

On some crazy-busy days, the idea of spending 25 uninterrupted minutes focused on a task is enough to make my heart pound and my blood pressure rise. On these days, I use a technique I developed when I was selling printing called, Ten-Minute Time Management.

Sales professionals spend a lot of their day responding to client requests, questions from team members and tasks with specific deadlines. These are reactive tasks.

Follow-up activities are proactive tasks. To get them accomplished, you must plan, allocate time and execute. Reactive tasks scream at you, demanding you take action now. Proactive tasks remind you of their importance in a calm rational tone that makes them seem less urgent and easy to ignore.

When you ignore follow-up activities, you seldom feel any immediate sense of discomfort or pain. If you don’t reach out to prospects today, the boss unlikely will call you to complain. When customers express interest in learning more about a new product, there is no obvious penalty for a four-day delay before you reach out to set up the meeting.

When determining how to spend time, everyone weighs risks and assesses outcomes. If the payoff for the activity occurs in the distant future, and the risk of ignoring it now is low, it’s easy to focus on other tasks – even when the tasks we deliberately ignore will significantly contribute to long-term success.

After several years in sales, one of my major epiphanies came when I recognized servicing activities are not the same as selling activities. Servicing activities focus on keeping current customers happy with projects that already are sold. Selling activities focus on getting future opportunities.

Once I realized servicing and selling were not synonyms for the same tasks, I started to look at my task list differently. What did I have planned for the day? Were my tasks servicing or selling activities? In less than a week, I observed that far too many days passed with an overemphasis on servicing activities.

I didn’t really know how to solve this problem at first. To keep my clients happy, good service was a must. By then, I had also sold long enough to understand the problem of attrition. Everyone loses business because customers change, buyers leave and new competitors gain ground. This is normal. The only effective cure for attrition is selling.

One day, I was hit with a revelation. I realized that if I focused on selling activities for 10 minutes, I could accomplish one, two or even three tasks. Since this was a small investment of time, I eliminated the anxiety I felt from delaying servicing tasks.

I tried my plan and my world did not end when I took 10 minutes to focus on follow-up tasks. Nothing blew up and no customers were lost when I shut my door, avoided email, and did not answer the phone during this brief period. Like Cirillo did with The Pomodoro Technique, I used a timer because eliminating clock watching increased my ability to focus.

For the past 12 years, I’ve taught Ten-Minute Time Management to thousands of sales professionals around the country. If you’re looking for an easy way to follow-up, try it for yourself. It works.

Follow-up Friday

On social media, there is a trend called “Throwback Thursday,” where people post old photographs. In sales, it might be time to start a trend called “Follow-up Friday.”

On Friday, list the follow-up tasks that have lingered all week. Next, take time and get them done using one of these strategies:

  • Start working an hour earlier than normal. Have a list of the tasks you want to accomplish, and get them done first.
  • Have lunch delivered. Work on follow-up tasks while you’re munching on a slice of your favorite pizza.
  • Set an alarm for 3:30 PM. When it rings, turn your attention to follow-up tasks and stay focused on them to get them done before the week ends.

When important follow-up tasks slip through the cracks day after day, a nagging sense of guilt often develops. The longer you put follow-up off, the more anxious you feel, and the more internal debates you have about time allocation.

Worrying about choices kills productivity. Worse yet, if you don’t allocate time for follow-up activities this week, there is no guarantee that next week you will have more time to get those important tasks done.

Once I realized servicing and selling were not synonyms for the same tasks, I started to look at my task list differently.

There is another plus to the Follow-Up Friday system. By taking action every Friday to follow-up, you keep the funnel full, which is a necessity to consistently generate new sales.

Managing follow-ups can be challenging, because every day includes a measure of unpredictability. Right now, you already are doing something to allocate time and get these tasks done. Since follow-up activities directly affect your ability to make future sales and increase your income, it’s smart to look for ways to improve your approach.

The Pomodoro Technique, Ten-Minute Time Management and Follow-Up Fridays each offer benefits. Give them a try and find a way to take your skills to the next level.