Recently, one of the salespeople with whom I was working with just happened to mention that he often obtained demonstration samples by coming into the office, visiting the warehouse, opening a box of the product he wanted to sell, taking one out, and re-closing the box.

As you can imagine, this gave the warehouse manager fits. However, there were more consequences to this practice than a furious warehouse manager. This is an example of sales system gunk!

What’s gunk? It’s any practice that detracts from the salesperson spending time with customers.

When we boil down the job of the typical outside salesperson to its essence, it is clear that we want one thing from them. The one place that they bring value to the organization — and the one thing they do that is the essential reason we have them — is to interact with customers. Everything else should be a means to that end.

It's lurking everywhere

Most drainage pipes, over time, accumulate layers of gunk that clog up the system. So too, most sales systems accumulate layers of habit and practice that erode the time the salesperson spends in front of the customer.

Here are some examples of sales system gunk.

Samples: In the example above, not only did the salesperson detract from the purity of the inventory, cause needless stress for the warehouse manager, and potentially short-ship a customer, he also spent time doing something that took him out of his territory.

— In a gunkless sales system, the salesperson would call or e-mail the person who was responsible for maintaining samples, and ask for the appropriate sample to be sent. It should have taken 2 min to send an e-mail, instead of an hour driving back and forth to the office.

Sales literature: In a gunked-up system, salespeople drive into the office regularly and collect the literature they need from a variety of sources.

— In a gunkless system, they maintain literature inventories in their cars or home offices, and regularly replace their inventory by e-mailed or faxed requests.

Emergency shipments: I was recently scheduled to interview a number of salespeople for one of my clients. We had sessions scheduled every hour. One of the salespeople didn’t make the appointment. The reason? He had to drive home, change cars with his wife, use the larger car to drive to the warehouse, pick up an emergency shipment, and deliver it to a customer.

While on one hand we can applaud the salesperson for taking care of the customer, on the other we need to recognize that this practice is extremely costly gunk. This whole episode probably took the better part of a half-day of the salesman’s time.

Several sales calls were not made because the salesperson was acting as the company’s highest paid delivery driver. The company could have hired a limousine service to deliver the product in a stretch Lincoln for less.

— In a gunkless sales system, an inside person expedites backorders and arranges for emergency shipments so that the salespeople are free to concentrate on interacting with the customer.

Office time: This is one of the largest contributors of sales system gunk, depositing large clumps of smelly, sticky stuff whenever it occurs. In a gunked-up system, salespeople come into the office regularly. Maybe they start every day there.

That time in the office is generally their least productive time. There is coffee to be drunk, phone calls to take, mailboxes to empty, colleagues to talk with — all gunky practices that take up expensive selling time.

This is such a large issue, I have even developed a law similar in scope and dependability to Einstein’s law of relativity. I call it Kahle’s “law of office time.” It states that, “Whenever a sales person has 30 min of work to do at the office, it will always take 2 hrs to do it.”

— In a gunk-free system, salespeople are not allowed in the office before 4:30 p.m. on Fridays.

Find and de-gunk

From my experience, gunk is inevitable and often barely visible. Gunk habits develop with time and become part of the unwritten rules about how things are done in your organization. Yet, they suck valuable time and energy out of your sales system.

One sure way to improve the productivity of your sales system is to clean out the gunk, freeing the salespeople to spend their time and energy on the essence of their job and the activity that will bring you revenue — being in front of the customers.

Here are five steps to de-gunk your system:

1. Identify the gunk.

Have someone interview the salespeople, asking them to recall a blow-by-blow description of how they spent their day or week. Look for gunk. Sometimes, gunk is so deeply ingrained in the sales force’s habits and routines that they don’t even recognize it. So it may work better to have someone spend a day with each salesperson, making notes about all of the gunk. Make a list of all of the things that the salespeople do that could be done better or cheaper by someone else.

2. Work with a team of inside people and salespeople to develop alternate ways of handling each of those activities.

3. Create policies and written procedures. Job descriptions may have to change.

4. Roll out the new procedures in a sales meeting.

Start with the big picture. Explain why you’re making these changes, and how it will help them and the company be more productive. Talk through some scenarios, answer their questions, then chisel the new program in granite.

5. Appoint someone to watch over the implementation of the changes.

Remember, we’re talking about habits here, and habits are hard to change. Someone needs to monitor the new program, reminding everyone involved of the new way to do things.

Once you’ve gone through this process and cleaned it up, you won’t need to revisit the issue for a while. But remember: The sales system, like a mechanical system, needs to be maintained in order to run efficiently.