How do I slow people down so we're more profitable?
February 25, 2009 10:43 AM   Subscribe

We have a guy who's in charge of selling our products a group of customers. He has a list of artwork requests that's a mile long (e.g. put this customer's logo on item xyz, create a custom design to celebrate that customer's anniversary, etc). I noticed recently when I went with him to visit some customers that he has a tendency to put down art requests even when the customer doesn't seem very interested. e.g. He'll show the customer a product, get a *luke-warm* response (at least in my opinion), and offer "ok, we'll send you a sample and artwork." To me, that's part of the reason the list gets so long: because he keeps offering to send customers artwork even for products they might not be interested in. I mean, it's no skin off his back. He's sales, and getting artwork done is "someone else's problem." If artwork generates a sale, its to his credit. If not, then, again, it's no skin off his back.

Any idea how we can cut down "non-essential" artwork requests?

We're trying to hunker down for the recession, and trying to cut costs. Usually, he's the only one who visits the customers, so all we have to go on is his word that x customer wants to see all this art before they give us an order.

I know the "correct" response is something along the lines of somehow holding him accountable for the expenses he generates and/or making his compensation dependent on profit or profit margin rather than just sales. In the long run, that's a goal. But for now, I'm looking for relatively simple "hacks" or band-aid solutions that will require *minimum* effort on our part to track what he's doing. Basically, I'm looking for quick and easy baby steps to eventually lead us to that goal.
posted by edjusted to Work & Money (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've run into very similar problems at a few points in the past, where business development would require a fully art-complete product in order to make the sale. In other words, they're asking for it to be done, with all expenses incurred and design decisions made, before the customer has even seen the product.

Them: "Make it look as if it were branded by Best Buy, so I can take it to Best Buy and show them how awesome it would look."
Me: "Has Best Buy even seen the product at all?"
Them: "No. If they see it with someone else's branding, they won't want it."
Me: "What about dummy branding?"
Them: "Dammit, can't you just wave your magic wand and throw something together? Why do you have to be an obstacle?"

I attempted to handle it with a few different approaches:

* Provide biz dev with an art budget. There is not an open-ended commitment to support them. They want extra? Pay for it. If the sales are commission-based, insist that change-orders are paid for out of the commission. This puts the onus of sales creativity and execution on them, not you.

* Clear expectations. Most of the time, the head of sales had no idea their sales guys were making these requests. You need to make it clear that this approach doesn't scale, and why it doesn't scale (see next point).

* Cost/benefit analysis. One time, it became clear that the art support expenses were actually higher than the revenue to be gained, but the sales guy would still make his commission. In other words, the only winner here was the sales guy himself, not the company.

* If there are few high-value customers, we can make a list of targets to go after, and tailor approaches to them specifically. Most of the time, art was not involved in this process at all.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:00 AM on February 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

I will say, the above requires you have a firm grasp of the metrics involved in providing the art support. You have to be able to quantify this with man-hours and costs, and not hand-waving about how unfair it is.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:02 AM on February 25, 2009

Get someone in charge of him to make him prioritize the requests--assign a 1-5 number signalling the urgency of the request, so that you can work on them in priority order. I.e., present it to him as a way to improve service for requests more likely to lead to actual sales. This way he doesn't have to stop making requests, and you can stop worrying about wasting time on requests that aren't likely to lead to sales.

Underlying this should be an awareness on the part of his and your bosses that he's wasting a certain amount of your time with "Hail Mary" jobs for you, and this is a positive step to reduce that waste, which is especially important in recession times.

OTOH, be careful you don't dry up the flow of requests too much. He's keeping you employed, after all. He sounds like a key source of your own departmental revenue.
posted by fatbird at 11:02 AM on February 25, 2009

I know the "correct" response is something along the lines of somehow holding him accountable for the expenses he generates and/or making his compensation dependent on profit or profit margin rather than just sales.

Aside from just talking to him about it, you can also track statistics on how many artwork requests he's responsible for, what percentage of his artwork requests result in actual sales, etc. Make the point that if the numbers improve, it will directly result in more profit for the company, and every month or so go over the numbers with him to see if he's improving. Once you establish some metrics and track them both of you will have a better idea of what the current situation is and what the goals are.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:04 AM on February 25, 2009

Response by poster: @David: Yes, we've talked. Many many times. I think it's a difference in perspective. He hears a luke-warm response and thinks "it can't hurt. they might buy!" I hear a lukewarm response and think "he doesn't sound particularly interested. Let's move on." I mean, I don't think he's doing it on purpose. But like I said, it's a no-risk way for him to potentially gain more sales.

@Cool Papa Bell: I agree with everything you've said. Clear metrics *is* the ultimate goal. But we're looking for baby steps to get there. I should also clarify that a lot of the artwork we do is for products, and not e.g. big presentations. Maybe he's showing 50 products and asking for artwork to be done up for 30 of them with the client's logo. Each piece of artwork may take only 10-15 mins, but they add up. And I'm not sure I want the artists spending too much time keeping tabs of every minute they spend, at least not yet.

@fatbird: prioritizing's not a bad idea. I'll have to look into how we could do that.

@burnmp3s: That is exactly our goal. We're just trying to do baby steps because doing all that tracking is going to take a good amount of resources. Again, we *want* to do this, it'll just take a while to get there.
posted by edjusted at 11:15 AM on February 25, 2009

Response by poster: @fatbird: oh, and you're right. He *is* an asset. So I'm not trying to stop the flow of requests, just minimize the ones that don't result in sales.
posted by edjusted at 11:27 AM on February 25, 2009

Thing is, salespeople will prioritize items for prospective sales over the jobs for completed sales (since, y'know, they're already in the bag). If you are able to get him to prioritize, you may have to invert the list in practice. Just saying.

That said, I know where you're coming from with salespeople kinda overselling the resources of the company. I'd simply tell him that jobs that the company is receiving money for take priority over prospective items. Another approach might be to supply him with a line of samples that he can use to demo what he's currently having you custom-make. Maybe there's a technology out there where you can just print a logo on cling-wrap or something for him to actually put the (prospective) customer's logo on that coffee cup.
posted by rhizome at 11:43 AM on February 25, 2009

Have you asked him to cut down on it? It's an almost universal feature of someone who faces only the client to over-commit, at least once and a while. It's easy, it costs them nothing at all to say "Let's do that for you!" when those five words just meant a weeks of overtime for the whole creative team. Mostly it's caused by not understanding what he's offering. So teach him. Bring him down to your department and show him exactly what each one of these changes/requests takes you. Go into excruciating detail. Run through a sped-up simulation of the process, of using all the software, tools, resources that you can. Go over and talk to the other artists about it, do a search for stock photography, sort through some fonts, kern something by hand. Just be a real bore about it. Then after he's fidgeting and looking for an excuse to leave say "And that of course leaves lots of stuff out and is super sped up, but that in general is the process for every single sample that you promise. When we're busy, like we are now, it's very hard to meet your sample requests and our paying client's obligations at the same time, so we'd appreciate it if you reign it in so we can have a more productive company."

If you can get full support from his superior you can try giving him "art credits" per client/meeting. X new pieces of art, X changes. Explain it to him as you did to us, that art takes time and company resources and we're trying to hunker down and could he please be a team player and help make the company successful by not sucking up the resources of the whole department on a whim?
If he overspends his credits has to go back to the client and apologize that it's not going to happen the way he. (Trust me, they hate doing that.) Don't let him go over or in a month you'll be back where you started.

It sounds like you're a small company, and I'm not sure if there are other sales/client managers on staff. If there are you'll be able to compare his numbers to the others and say "Look, Bob makes us work 3x as hard to land 1/2 as many clients. Can we do something about this?" Time/task tracking could definitely be your friend.
posted by Ookseer at 11:46 AM on February 25, 2009

As per fatbird's suggestion - Prioritization is key.

Straight out, today, ask him, "Of all the current submissions you have for clients, who's your top 20 that we can turnover and sell next week when we have the art?"

If he can't prioritize the sales pipeline to convert real potential clients from luke-warm prospects, then someone needs to set him straight.

Sure, he won't be able to provide metrics on these yet, but if he gets commissions on SOLD accounts, and not for all the artwork you produce, then let him tell you his HOT 20, then you can ask him again when those 20 are close to being completed what his next 20 are.

I'm also assuming that existing clients do not channel their requests through this lone salesguy?

Maybe a little more background on your comany structure might help too.
posted by emjay at 11:58 AM on February 25, 2009

Sales guys have budgets.
Simply have a rule established that the cost of producing all art requests that aren't customer-originated (i.e. the samples he's constantly ordering) come out of the salesman's budget.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:13 PM on February 25, 2009

Response by poster: @rhizome: He does have a set of samples to show. What happens is customers want to see their logos on the product, mainly as an approval process, before they place an order.

@Ookseer: Yes, we've had many discussions and he's well aware of our resource constraints and has been aware for a long long time. But for whatever reason it's just not making much of a difference. The "art credits" idea is really intriguing though, and I could actually tie that in with his projections. Hmm... Yes, we are a small company, so that's why the emphasis on spending minimal resources tracking everything.

@emjay: He's responsible for...I guess the best term is a specific pipeline. So only the customers in that pipeline go through him. Artwork-wise, though, his pipeline generates the most artwork, *which makes sense* give the pipeline he deals with. I'm just trying to...probably the most direct thing to say is I'm trying to make his group of customers more profitable.
posted by edjusted at 12:17 PM on February 25, 2009

Response by poster: @Thorzadad: hear hear. Budgeting is a very inconsistent and painful thing for my company, though upper management agrees with it in principle, execution is really spotty. Thus the constant call for "baby steps."
posted by edjusted at 12:28 PM on February 25, 2009

Have you looked into scripting/automating more of your tasks?
posted by mmdei at 12:49 PM on February 25, 2009

Clear metrics *is* the ultimate goal. But we're looking for baby steps to get there. ... Each piece of artwork may take only 10-15 mins, but they add up. And I'm not sure I want the artists spending too much time keeping tabs of every minute they spend, at least not yet.

What kind of task and time-tracking do you do now? Would something like Basecamp help?

"Keeping tabs of every minute they spend" is not just a good idea, it's vital. These are recoupable and billable expenses. You should be able to track down to the man-hour, or the half-day at least, without too much trouble. Some law firms track in six-minute increments.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:11 PM on February 25, 2009

Seconding Basecamp as a possible help.
posted by adjockey at 1:31 PM on February 25, 2009

Is he wrong? We're discoursing on the assumption that he should not be doing this so much. But what you call a "non-essential" artwork request may, in fact, be critical to keeping business going in a tough economy.

~ If your team has time to complete these requests, I don't see why it's a problem.
~ If your team has been told not to log more hourly work than absolutely necessary, someone with authority needs to make a determination about how these requests are to be prioritized. The boss needs to decide if the expense of custom samples is worth it.
~ If your team cannot complete the work due to impending orders, then someone with authority needs to make a determination about how these requests are to be prioritized. Who knows, the boss may decide they are more important than impending orders.

In this economy, any and all sales could be crucially important. In the end, no sales = no job. What if the differentiating factor between your company and a competitor is that you provide custom samples.....?
posted by ecorrocio at 2:17 PM on February 25, 2009

Clear metrics *is* the ultimate goal. But we're looking for baby steps to get there.

Clear metrics *is* the baby step. Sit down (without him) with a list of the things he's asked for over the past year. Pull out all the ones he's done more than once for different clients. If you still have a huge pile, weed down further until you have a reasonable set of "options" based on which ones he asks for the most often -- which, since he's a sales guy, are likely used often because they got better results than those rarely used.

Then, figure out how long it takes you to do each of those things, and use that to create a list of menu items showing what the work is and what the level of effort is.

Next, bring that to your boss (presumably his boss as well?) show her/him the list and ask him to make judgement calls about which are worth the effort and which are not, given the constraints being imposed by "hunkering down."

Finally, establish an amount of time per week that your team is willing to dedicate to his sales materials.

Deliver all this to him; let him know that you cannot support doing all the random work he asks for, but based on these being the most commonly-used things and this much time being available per week for his stuff to be worked on, could he please budget his requests accordingly?

All of this -- with the exception of the boss's time -- could probably be done in a single day by a single person familiar with his requests over the past year. You do have them documented, don't you?

If you don't -- then your first step is documenting it.
posted by davejay at 2:28 PM on February 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

A word on prioritization: He may try to game the system by rating everything highly (he may even do so sincerely, thinking that it's always important to go in with prepared artwork). You need to establish consequences based on priority, such as guaranteed turnaround times within the hourly budget you have to work. If he rates everything as a 5, point out that it prevents you from meeting your turnaround goals. In other words, if you can get him to see that prioritizing his requests improves the situation for him, you've won most of the battle.
posted by fatbird at 2:49 PM on February 25, 2009

Response by poster: @ecorrocio: what you call a "non-essential" artwork request may, in fact, be critical to keeping business going in a tough economy. It's a good point and it certainly is a judgement call. In our situation, the team certainly does NOT have time to complete all the requests. Not even close, which is the main problem. And I *am* someone with authority to prioritize, but I'm having problems because he keeps claiming "everything" that goes to art, results in a sale, which isn't true. While I don't have verified metrics, I at least have a feel that maybe 70% or so art requests do result in sales, which isn't too bad, but could be better.

@everyone who's replied so far: Great feedback and thank you all! I'm thinking that maybe what I'm asking essence shortcuts and hacks, probably won't work. I think I'm going to have to devote more resources to getting more detailed metrics put together after all, and take more careful control that way.
posted by edjusted at 3:29 PM on February 25, 2009

Response by poster: Oh, and one more thing to throw out in case in changes anyone's feedback. One of the reasons the artwork can be difficult to track is because they are so varied...some things (plop the customer's logo on a stock design) could take maybe 10 mins...others (customer wants 5 new designs celebrating Summer) could take...geez, who knows.

And yes, we've also had many many discussions about vague requests (customer wants "better" designs) vs. specific requests (customer wants a green circle instead of a purple square).
posted by edjusted at 3:32 PM on February 25, 2009

There are a number of very good automated software time trackers out there. These can even track what files you have open which can tell you how much time you're spending on each client. I used Slife for a while and found it to be good, though I've never used the group reporting and analysis tools it has, which would be great for you.

There are all sorts of reasons why tracking your time is a good idea beyond an annoying sales person.
posted by Ookseer at 12:04 AM on February 26, 2009

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