This post pulls together several separate threads that I’ve experienced over the past few days. First, I’ve been working on a new speech about healthy sales cultures for a new client, and I’ve found that what seemed to be a straightforward and routine undertaking has gotten much deeper than I expected. Second, I listened in on a podcast by Tim Hurson on The Sales Experts Channel, in which he introduced me to the concept of the “third third”. Finally, in a conversation with a new client this weekend, he told me that he had begun working on his first book, but abandoned the project when he got negative feedback on his first chapter.
These three separate incidents helped me to spot—or maybe just clarify—a pattern that seems to apply when you take on a difficult project that requires both deep understanding and creativity. I examined similar situations that I’ve been in before, including writing three books, creating new courses, and—of course—major speeches. I can’t say for sure whether it applies to anyone besides me, but I’m not that different from you, so you might find it helpful.
I noticed that these undertakings seem to go through three phases if they are to succeed:
Ambition: The project has to be ambitious, with just a slight whiff of “fake it ‘til you make it”, for the next two stages to kick in. If the project is comfortably within your current capabilities, the good news is that you won’t go through the concern/crap stage, but the bad news is that you won’t produce anything to get excited about either. On the other hand, it has to be close enough within reach that you have to have some sense of confidence that you can rise to the occasion. For example, for my project I knew that my experience and wide reading have given me a good grasp of the topic, although I’ve never put it together into a coherent package.
It has to be big enough and worthwhile enough to stimulate your interest and sustain it during the inevitable next stage. Even better, make a commitment so you don’t have the option of backing out when the going gets tough, because it will.
Concern/crap: This is by far the hardest but the most productive phase of the entire project. As you get deeper into the topic, you generate concern and inevitably produce crap. The concern arises because as you dig into the nuance and detail of the points you’re trying to make, you realize that you have to learn far more than you thought—and the more you learn, the more you figure out how much more there is still left to know. You discover that others have more expertise than you do, so you begin to doubt your own abilities, maybe even your right to talk about it.
The crap comes out as you start regurgitating everything you know onto the paper or your slide deck, because your concern causes you to overcompensate, and you haven’t thought through the patterns and linkages carefully enough. The less you understand something, the more words you use trying to show otherwise.
But there’s value in just getting stuff on paper, regardless of how bad it is. It builds momentum and helps you think out loud. Plus, as long as you allow yourself enough time, you’ll find that your mind is somehow working on the problem in the background. In my own case, I inevitably wake up in the middle of the night with new insights or a clearer idea of how everything fits together.
The most important thing is to keep going. As Tim Hurson says, we stop thinking before the good stuff comes. So, when my friend quit writing his book because he found out it wasn’t as good as he thought it was, he forfeited his chances of working through to the good stuff. During the concern and crap stage, remember to keep pounding the rock, because frustration can mask the real progress that’s going on underneath.
The crap stage can easily frustrate and discourage you, but here’s where your ambition comes to the rescue. If you’ve committed in some way, you can’t get out of it, so there is no way out but to keep plowing forward to produce something that won’t embarrass you and will truly add value to your audience. With a customer it’s one thing, but if it’s a personal project such as writing a book you might need to go for some type of public commitment to raise the cost of failure.
Excitement: When you break through the concern and crap stage, the glittering prize at the end is the incredible excitement you will feel knowing you’ve produced something fresh and worthwhile. As your key ideas crystallize in your mind, you start cutting out the crap and clutter—chipping off the rough edges and additional polishing makes the hard diamond sparkle through, and you can’t help but be charged up to deliver it.
You know you’re going to deliver something that others will value, and you’re going to look good in the process. You get to the point where your only thought is, like Jack Welch: “I can’t wait to get out there and do this!”
What if you get through the first two stages and you’re still not excited? Repeat steps 1 and 2.
Sales targets are a good thing. Challenging goals, coupled with rewards for meeting them, can be enormously powerful in motivating performance and driving results. But there is a downside: fixating too much on the numbers and thus forgetting the person on the other end of that number can backfire, leading to customer dissatisfaction and lower sales.
Don’t deemphasize the numbers, but counterbalance the focus on numbers with reminders of who benefits from what you sell. I’d like to propose making the customer—not as a “target”, or a “wallet”, but as a real, living, thinking and feeling person—a major focus of your sales efforts.
First, a few examples to illustrate the power of personalization:
· One study showed that attaching a digital picture of the patient to a medical file increased the amount of time that radiologists spent looking at x-rays, and led to them spotting more unlooked-for issues.
· Employees in a call center dedicated to soliciting donations from alumni for scholarship money were connected with students who had benefited from the scholarships, and heard about the difference the money had made in their lives. One month later, they had brought in an average of $506 per week as compared to $186, an increase of 172%.
· When I worked in a bank, we had targets for cross-selling additional services to increase profitability. One product was credit life insurance, which was sold to people taking out car loans or consumer loans. The average was about 25% or less per loan made, except for one lady, Rosa, who consistently had almost 100% success. When we asked her why she was so successful, she told us that a close relative of hers had died, and his spouse ended up losing the car because she could not make the payments. Because she believed so strongly in the benefit, it made it easy for her to pass on that belief to customers.
· Here’s a negative example: in wartime soldiers usually depersonalize the enemy by giving them a nickname (often derogatory), which makes the idea of killing them a little less horrible.
What these examples point out is the importance of personalizing the outcomes that you sell. When you can connect your sales efforts to real results for real people, you will have a much stronger intrinsic reason to succeed than just to selfishly make a number. You will be guided by a sense of purpose which can be a much more powerful motivator than financial self-interest. Which achievement would you be more likely to brag about to your friends, making your number or making a difference in someone’s life?
We all know that testimonials from satisfied customers can be useful tool to convince customers, but if you are a sales manager, you might see even better results by using those testimonials for your own people.
When you start seeing your customers as a person and not a target, they will notice the difference. Trust requires more than just competence; they must also perceive that you have a genuine concern for their welfare. I call it the grandma rule: If that were your grandma sitting across the desk from you, what would you recommend to her?
It’s a commonplace in management that what gets measured gets done, and for the most part I agree with it. But when it’s taken too far it can backfire on you—sapping morale, breeding resentment, and fostering destructive sales behaviors.
I’ve been doing some research into the Wells Fargo scandal for a speech I’m delivering next week about ethical sales cultures. One of the most fascinating documents is a copy of the lawsuit that the City of Los Angeles filed against Wells in May 2016. It details the pressure-cooker management practices that branch managers and above followed to try to fulfill ambitious—some would say unrealistic—goals for cross-selling in connection with the bank’s “Going for Gr-eight” program. There is a lot of fodder in there for anyone studying unhealthy management practices, but what I found the most repellant was the extreme monitoring and measurement that went on.
In many branches, daily sales for each branch and each employee were reported and discussed 4 times a day, at 11, 1, 3 and 5pm! Some branches, doubtless run by high achievers who really wanted to impress their bosses, had hourly calls. The verb discussed is a euphemism, because the report further states that “managers constantly hound, berate, demean and threaten employees to meet unreachable quotas.”
Is it any wonder that employees resorted to cheating? And by cheating, I mean opening accounts for customers without their knowledge or authorization: 1.5 million deposit accounts and 500,000 credit card accounts. While all this measuring paid dividends in the form of a steady rise in the bank’s stock price, it also ended in congressional investigations (and what CEO would not relish the opportunity to be lambasted on national TV by Elizabeth Warren?), resignations, penalties and lasting damage to its reputation.
We all laugh at the stereotype of the helicopter parent, who can’t seem to let go when their kids go to college, constantly hovering over them to monitor what they’re doing and to step in to help them whenever they feel it’s necessary. I wonder how many people who laugh at that behavior in others might be guilty of it themselves when it comes to how they manage their sales teams?
Wells Fargo was an extreme case, but the potential for helicopter managing exists everywhere, particularly under pressure of ambitious sales quotas. When sales slip—or just don’t rise fast enough—it’s human nature for the manager to dig in and figure out what’s going on, or to lend a hand to get a deal done. But if that level of intervention doesn’t work right away, it’s also human nature to redouble your efforts and ratchet up the pressure. As psychologist Edward Deci says, “Control is an easy answer,” but that constant monitoring and pressure comes with a price:
- The most immediate and obvious price is that eats into selling time, forcing salespeople to constantly attend calls and file reports.
- It kills trust. How do you get your buyers to trust your account managers when you don’t?
- It drives short term thinking. I once had a client who hired me to train their enterprise reps to develop account plans meant to cultivate long-term, forward-thinking relationships with clients; but then held their feet to the fire with quarterly quotas.
- It stifles outside-in thinking. Fear makes us inwardly focused, which makes it difficult to see things from the customer’s perspective. At the same time, you begin to see each customer as a target and not a person.
- It stifles creativity. Pressure actually does improve performance—for routine tasks that are done the same way every time. But pressure degrades performance in tasks that require creativity and resourcefulness, which pretty much describes high-level B2B complex sales. (In Wells’ case, the pressure did make their people more creative—in finding ways to cheat the system
- It can lead to a vicious cycle, where too much pressure hampers performance, which leads to more pressure. Like a drug that requires increasing amounts to have the same effect, it can become the monster that must continually be fed.
Keep in mind that the only reason the Wells Fargo scandal came to light is because it was so egregious, which makes one suspicious that this kind of behavior is far more prevalent than we know. Most sales managers are not that extreme, of course, but pressure does funny things to people, including turning managers into stalkers. Ask yourself: do you hover too much?
 Why We Do What We Do, Edward L. Deci and Richard Flaste.
I had the privilege yesterday of meeting and listening to probably the most energetic Canadian I’ve ever met. Jamie Clark was the keynote speaker before me at a sales kickoff here in Fort Lauderdale. We had never met and we certainly did not coordinate our talks, but I was struck by the similarity of messages that we both delivered.
Jamie is an adventurer and entrepreneur who has climbed the Seven Summits and made four attempts on Everest, the last two of which were successful. He spoke about the first three attempts, and rightly spent most of his time talking about his failures, because in many ways failure is probably more interesting—and certainly more educational—than success.
Failure is interesting and educational because when properly handled it provides painful but useful information about your weaknesses and the gaps you need to close to become good enough to reach an ambitious goal. As Jamie told hilarious stories about his early mistakes and rejections, he stressed that one thing he had going for him was that he always asks why he failed. When he was first turned down to join the expedition team for his first Everest attempt, he went back and asked way, and was told, “Because you’re an idiot.” But at least this idiot figured out a way to be a little less of an idiot and eventually found a way to weasel (his word) his way on to the team.
I won’t go into the rest of the fascinating details of his talk (mainly so he can’t sue me for plagiarism) but one theme emerged very clearly as Jamie’s story unfolded. Through the years that it took to finally reach the summit, Jamie found that the less he thought about himself and the more he thought about the good of the mission and the team, the closer he got to his goal. He called it “service to the mission”, and it was a powerful message.
My talk was more in the form of a workshop than an inspirational speech, but my central idea was exactly the same, albeit with different words. I’ve written many times in here about outside-in thinking, which is the ability and the attitude to look at things from the perspective of your customer. When you focus on making your customer successful, good things will happen and you will be successful too. The more you focus on what you want the further it gets. Outside-in thinking ennobles the purpose of your profession—as Churchill said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
You’re a salesperson, so you probably aren’t going to have a mission as exciting as climbing the world’s tallest peaks. But if you make it your mission to make your customers successful, and you serve the mission faithfully, you can definitely reach the heights of your profession.