The Myth of Multi-tasking

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An important character trait in many recruitment adds for sales people is to be able to handle “many balls in the air simultaneously”. I think this is a harmful perspective on a salesman since the only way to handle this many balls (read tasks) simultaneously is to throw the balls as far away from you as possible in order to do some real work before catching the next ball. I claim that no one can do anything effective while multi-tasking (no not even women).

Some could argue that “I can walk in the street, chewing bubble gum and talking in the phone at the same time.”. Yes, it is possible to do multi-taskning but not in an efficient way. I have talked to friends on the phone while they are walking in the street (and even chewing bubble gum) and I must say that the quality of this conversation, with the wind blowing into the mic and the chewing sound in my ear, could have been better. People are able to toggle the focus of tasks so I am quite sure that if my friend would have been 100% focused on our conversation he would have increased the risk of crossing a red light or stumbling on something on the street.

Many sales managers expect their sales people to be masters of multi tasking. Take a customer meeting as an example where your are expected to:

  • listen closely to what the customer is saying
  • picking up signals how they say it to validate the effect of what is said
  • ask relevant questions to find out the real problems of the customer
  • keep control of the conversation in order to guide it towards the goals of the meeting within the set time frame
  • picking up on buying signals not only within the topic of the meeting but also on opportunities around the discussions
  • taking notes to be able to retell what was agreed on the meeting
It is a valuable lesson to accept that you are not be able to do all this effectively at the same time. If you think you are, you are either not doing any of these activities in a professional manner or you are fooling yourself thinking you are the exception that confirm the rule. If you accept that you are not able to multitask effectively you can have a more proactive response e.g. which of these tasks should I focus on for the coming meeting? or how can I improve my skills in any of these tasks to make me so effective that the other tasks won’t be compromised?

To answer to first question I would like to remind you of the essentials of goal setting and prioritization. Another factor is how well you know the customer and his/her needs. The second question; how to improve my skills… is interesting since you could argue why should you strive for that if you can not do multi-tasking? Well, you can perform several unconscience tasks simultaneously e.g. your heart is pumping blood through your veins simultaneously as you see, hear, smell and think something. So, if you practice e.g. note taking really hard you may be able to improve this skill to the point that you could almost do it unconsiencently.

My suggestion is to understand this and take a decision how you should act based on it. Myself e.g. take very few notes during a customer meeting since I feel that the moment I do this I lose some focus and attention on the customer. When I only note what is really really critical I get a better rapport (connection) with the customer during the conversation and this help me remember the essentials from the meeting. Directly after the meeting I jolt down notes for a sponsor letter or future use.

As a sales manager you should promote focus before multi-tasking since this will lead to more efficient and less stressed sales team.

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