Category Archives: Sales coaching and mentorship

Sales Lesson #1: Don’t “Get” Your Customers to Do Anything!

Every so often, an article with a title like How to Get Any Customer to Take Action Immediately, burbles into my newsfeed. There are infinite variants. No matter what you want your customers and prospects to do, you can count on finding a putative method for making it happen. But for all the how-to’s devoted to getting customers to do things, it’s easy to forget that the goal, of course, is helping them succeed, and not twisting their arms – figuratively or otherwise.

If you ask top producing sales reps – those who truly serve customers – how they get their customers to buy, they’d probably be confused by the question. Instead, they’d reveal that they don’t get their customers to do anything. What produces their excellent results is their ability to guide their customers, and ultimately help them achieve good outcomes. Guiding versus Getting: these are fundamentally different approaches, with little in common. Guiding assumes prospects can be trusted, Getting assumes they cannot. Guiding sees prospects as partners, Getting sees them as objects. Guiding views prospects as capable decision makers, Getting views them as inept. Guiding relies on inquiry and collaboration, Getting relies on telling and insistence. In countless interviews I’ve held with successful sales professionals, I’ve learned they embrace Guiding in every customer interaction, and eschew Getting.

“How to get your prospect to [fill in the blank]!” What regularly emerges are manipulative high-pressure sales tactics that break customer rapport and erode trust. Instead of improving sales outcomes and buying experiences, the resulting behaviors and activities undermine them.

The top producers I’ve worked with have figured out a better way, and honed their skills accordingly. They begin with a natural curiosity, and connect it to a sincere desire to understand customer problems, limitations, issues, concerns, performance gaps, and strategic challenges. They uncover the intensity of motivation to change the situation, and learn the mechanisms their customers have developed for investing in solutions. And if customers lack the mechanisms, top producers guide them to create a path forward. From there, they harness the power of the customer’s will to change. The energy might be low, or altogether absent, which is why reps, often goaded by their managers, turn to Getting. My question to them: how’s that working for you? . . .

The best salespeople know that attempting to force customer action can become a distraction. It can also backfire. As one rep, Denise, explained it to me, “I don’t push the monthly specials the way management wants me to. They don’t work, and it’s not the way my customers buy . . . When I talk on the phone, there’s no sales urgency to my voice.” The year I interviewed her, she was her company’s top producer out of over 50 reps. Though her immediate boss wasn’t clear about the reasons for her success, her statement provides much of the answer: Denise guides her customers. She doesn’t get them to do anything.

Do Salespeople Lie More Than Other Professionals?

 

Compared to other professions, are salespeople disproportionately prone to lying? To reveal the answer, I searched online for most dishonest professions, and was rewarded with several surveys. One study conducted in 2014 listed the top 10 least honest (the number following indicates the percentage of survey respondents who believed the profession trustworthy):

Lobbyists – 6%
Members of Congress – 8%
Car salespeople – 9%
State office holders – 14%
Advertising practitioners – 14%
TV reporters – 20%
Lawyers – 20%
Newspaper reporters – 21%
Business executives – 22%
Local office holders – 23%

Go us! Of the top 10 most dishonest professions, biz-developers hold only three slots – lobbyists, car salespeople, and advertising practitioners. Still, as marketing/sales professionals, we’re over-the-top touchy about our honesty image.

Earlier this month, a writer on LinkedIn asked whether it’s acceptable for salespeople to lie. He felt that lying seems the new normal in selling, and he invited others to weigh in. Some opinions were as malleable as a steel girder:

  • “My answer is short and simple – no.”
  • “A person is either honest or a liar. The Truth is not conditional. Half-truths are lies.”
  • “Never acceptable. Persuasion is a positively reinforced message through fact and data driven decisions.”
  • “just don’t do it.”

These thoughts outline an archetype: the impeccably honest salesperson who never lies, never distorts, and never withholds facts and information. Unfortunately, that archetype represents an impossibly high bar. Try any of them out on a newbie rep. Chances are, he or she will flunk day one on the job. Same for days two and three – assuming they get that far. And experienced reps will just roll their eyes. “Get a grip, pal!”

“Just don’t do it.” If only things were that simple. For hundreds of years, the meaning of honesty has been debated by legal scholars, judged in courts, and mulled by philosophers. Honesty is difficult to define. One reason we often pad the word with adjectives: pure honesty, partial honesty, brutal honesty, radical honesty, morally honest, and mostly honest. The same for truth and lies. Few would argue that white lies aren’t acceptable, or that honest facts aren’t used for fabricating illusion.

One person’s bald-faced lie is someone else’s minor distortion. Should things be any different in selling? Is there something magical or different about sales that invites draconian edicts like these? Emphatically, no. Lying appears the “new normal” in selling because by these standards, lying is . . . pretty normal. And it’s hardly new.

The advocates of “no lying” need to abandon their idealized interpretations of truth purity because they are divorced from selling reality. A major reason is that the default rhetoric of marketing and sales tends toward certainty – especially for describing outcomes and results. We favor concrete terms like definitely, will, guaranteed, and proven. No rep wins the boss’s approval by adopting mealier – but more honest – terms like probably, possibly, could, and might. I challenge anyone to find a Chief Sales Officer willing to trade off persuasive power for a sworn commitment to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

“Never acceptable.” If marketers followed pure honesty to the letter, the first thing on the chopping block would be storytelling. I have yet to read one sales story that hasn’t been factually creative, at best. The second thing to go would be “case studies,” since they are never as objective as the name implies.

Admonishing salespeople to “never lie,” only creates dissonance and goal conflict. Managers manufacture failure by insisting their reps behave “100% honestly,” while holding a hatchet over their necks as motivation to achieve goal. Inevitably, the rep must choose. And sadly, saying “I got fired for doing the right thing for my customer” doesn’t merit an invitation for a second job interview. Sales Culture Training 101: “No matter what, make quota.” Message, received.

That’s not the only problem. When “never lie” absolutism exists, ethical risks lurk nearby. Absolutism crushes debate and discussion. And when it comes to honesty and ethical behavior toward customers, nuanced conversations are sorely needed. The problem with these LinkedIn comments is that there’s no room for interpretation.

At its most atavistic, selling is persuasion. And persuasion requires distortion. Distortion of fact, distortion of meaning, distortion of reality and urgency. Over beer, we can hold a simpatico conversation to parse the differences between distortion and lies. We can exchange information about what we allow ourselves to do and say when representing our companies, and the honesty lines we refuse to cross. We can talk about the influence of David Hume and Diogenes. One thing is certain: neither our honesty interpretations nor our ethical boundaries will be identical.

According to these absolutists, distortion and lying are equivalent. My recommendation: don’t follow their advice. If you want your customer to take action – say, for example, to buy from you and not from your competitor – you must make sure they believe that it’s fully in their interest to do so, and that ordering now is a priority. You can’t do that without tweaking reality to promote your point of view.

For salespeople, balancing honesty and persuasion means walking a hair-thin line. Same for ego and empathy. All are needed for success, but they collide and clunk against one another. “It’s a miracle anyone can do this job,” Philip Broughton wrote in his book, The Art of the Sale. No joke.

I am not a proponent of lying as a sales tactic. I am not advocating deceit and misrepresentation as a business practice. And I am not saying that anything goes as long as it results in revenue. Far from it. I am saying that marketers and salespeople should strive for honesty and high ethical standards in their professional conduct. I am also saying that to be effective, salespeople need a rational basis for ethical consideration, and “never lie” undermines that goal. We need salespeople who are strong critical thinkers, not sycophantic believers.

A personal confession: I have made sales lies. Repeatedly. Here are three:

1. “I can’t offer you a lower price.” Lie. Prices are quite easy for vendors to massage, and rarely – if ever – is it impossible to offer a lower price, as “can’t” connotes. Customers know it. Everyone knows it.

What’s more truthful? How about, 1) “it’s not convenient for me reduce my price,” or 2) “if I allow you to buy at the lower price, my profit margins will erode, and our CFO will get angry with me,” or 3) “I get higher commission selling at list price, and I need the income this quarter.”

2. “Buying my company’s product is the best use of your resources right now.” Lie. I’ve never been 100% sure when using superlatives, yet I still use them. Besides, with this lie, I have rarely had full visibility into every project a company is considering anyway. So I’m not being fully honest when making the claim.

What’s more truthful? 1) “based on my analysis of the numbers you provided me, you should probably meet your expected financial return,” 2) “My competitor’s product does pretty much the same thing, so you can’t go wrong choosing either one of us,” 3) “I understand why you want to implement my proposal now, but based on what I have seen, you’d be much better off solving [name of project that my company doesn’t provide a product for].”

3. “Our machines have highest performance rating in the industry.” Lie, by omission. But still a lie. Is highest performance rating based on MTBF (mean time between failures)? Longevity of components? Quality of output? All of these? And where was the benchmarking performed? – In house? Through an objective third-party? And there’s that superlative problem again: highest.

What’s more truthful? 1) “We have the highest performance rating in one category.” 2) “We performed the benchmarking in-house.” 3) “Our in-house test results always look better than what you will achieve in the field.”

I harbor no remorse for committing any of these. But if you’re into “never lie,” try some of the more truthful statements with your customers, and let me know the results.

I want to head off a concern right now. You might already be thinking, “These are trivial lies. They are not the kind that get anyone into trouble.” Fair point. But then I’d urge you to identify what type of lies really get your dander up. Lies like telling customers, “We have offices in 28 states,” when those “offices” are actually indirect employees working virtually from their homes? Or, my favorite, “Our software has over 48 installs,” when two-thirds of them are dormant beta accounts that have made no commitment to purchase? Smile, wink. These statements are kinda, sorta true, and because of that, they stink around the edges. I don’t like them. Mostly, I get annoyed with the CMO’s explanation, which often begins, “Well, technically . . .”

Maybe we need a new taxonomy for marketing lies. Here’s what I propose:

Class I lies: run-of-the-mill marketing fluff, flamboyant writing, and expected braggadocio. The claims prospects are already jaded to. “Four out of five dentists recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum.” Or “We’re the industry leader!” There’s really no foul for broadcasting any of this stuff. If any prospect bases a purchase decision solely on such claims, well, shame on them.

Class II lies: deeper, more egregious transgressions. Stuff that generates fines, lawsuits, and bitterly negative Yelp reviews. Example: “Our brain games help users achieve full potential in every aspect of life,” which got Lumosity fined by the FTC. The FTC asserted there was no scientific proof to substantiate that claim, along with others Lumosity made.

Class III lies: I call these BHAL’s (Big Hairy Audacious Lies), because of their potential to directly and significantly influence a customer’s buying decision. Lies that obscure the true cost of procurement or operations. Lies that patently overstate the capability of a product, or promise a result that can never be delivered. The Fyre Festival debacle resulted from a series of Class III lies.

If your business objective is to instill ethics and integrity in your biz-dev organization, don’t fret over Class I lies. Just keep your eye on them to make sure they don’t become more serious. Propagating Class II and Class III lies, on the other hand, substantially increase business and stakeholder risks, and they must be carefully managed. Here are some important practices:

  1. Recognize that honesty and truth are subject to interpretation, and there’s often ambiguity in selling situations.
  2. Model ethical, honest behavior from the top echelons of the company. Executives who are not vocal proponents, or who are not rigorous about their own honest conduct cannot expect any different from employees.
  3. Encourage internal discussions among staff about what they encounter in sales and marketing situations, and how they make choices.
  4. Offer guidelines to staff when rules don’t fit. Avoid vague requests like “don’t be too salesy,” or “don’t over-promise.” Instead, ask your staff to think about what’s ethical in selling, and to always consider, “what is the right thing to do?”
  5. Don’t penalize honesty by creating conflict. It happens more than companies realize. If Wells Fargo taught us anything, it’s that a salesperson should never have to decide between being honest with customers, or keeping his or her job.
  6. Provide clarity for what’s restricted by documenting them in writing, and reviewing them routinely with your staff. The Class III lies that significantly influence customer decisions, that directly contradict product specifications or contract terms, that inflate or falsify an employee’s credentials. The restrictions should also include what can – and cannot – be said about competitors, performance benchmarking data, pricing commitments, and other financial disclosures.

P. T. Barnum, one of the greatest salespeople who ever lived, was adamantly against fraudulent selling, but he recognized the subtle nuances about honesty and lying:

“An honest man who arrests public attention will be called a “humbug,”‘ but he is not a swindler or an impostor. If, however, after attracting crowds of customers by his unique displays, a man foolishly fails to give them a full equivalent for their money, they never patronize him a second time, but they very properly denounce him as a swindler, a cheat, an impostor; they do not, however, call him a ‘humbug.’ He fails, not because he advertises his wares in an [outrageous] manner, but because, after attracting crowds of patrons, he stupidly and wickedly cheats them.”

As Broughton observed, “There is evidently a line here somewhere between humbug and deception, between Barnumesque hype and outright lies, between reading your customers to give them what they need and exploiting their weakness to your own advantage.”

I hope the “never lie” proponents figure that out.

Should Companies Stop Worshiping Sales Rock Stars?

“Can you find us a sales rep? And not just any rep. We want a rock star!” An ordinary request for something truly extraordinary. I hear it often. Lately, I began to wonder, what does this honorific mean?

I searched online for sales rock star, and received a deluge of results. 23,800 of them, if you’re into numbers.

How to Find Your Next Sales Rockstar

Be an Inside Sales Rockstar

How to Be a Sales Call Rockstar

And, From Sales Rookie to Enterprise Sales Rockstar.

I found a YouTube video, How to be a phone sales Rockstar. It’s over 90 minutes long, with 1,276 views. Oddly, just one Like.

I dove further into the results by clicking on random links. Many were for job opportunities like this:

“Business Development Sales Rockstar Jobs in Connecticut.” The position stipulates “Other Must Have’s: Ability to sit for extended periods of time at a desk, in meetings, etc. . .” Oh, baby! How many candidates applied?

There’s a definitive book on the topic, Sales ROCKSTAR: How Top Producers Perform by Jeff Krantz. You can find it on Amazon, which offers an expectedly salesy blurb:

“This book was written for those who want to become ultra Top Producers in the profession of selling. It has been developed for those who desire the lifestyle that only a successful sales career can afford.”

Questions for the copywriter: Is it necessary to modify top producers with ultra? And which lifestyle are you referring to? The retirement you’re planning while burning out as a micro-managed, bag-carrying road warrior, shackled by a thin thread of job security?

I even discovered yet another usurpation of the Keep Calm mantra: Keep Calm and be a Sales Rockstar.

This was getting weird. The last straw was an article, The Seven Absolute Must Have’s to Become a B2B Sales Rockstar. The title leaves no room for dissent. Had the writer been interested, I would have questioned why honesty, ethical integrity, humility, and empathy don’t appear on his list of essentials.

About 45 minutes into my rock star investigation, my head hit the keyboard. I was appalled by what I read, and felt no closer to an answer. The most consistent idea I gleaned about sales rock stars was that they achieve high ratios of revenue compared to goal. Lots of unanswered questions remained. How difficult were the goals? Were they impossibly high, or ridiculously low? Are rock stars better at exploiting serendipity? Are they more immune to black swan calamities? How long do rock stars remain rock stars? Forever? Or like many professionals, is their performance subject to ups and downs?

For rock stars, there’s lots of admiration for their revenue outcomes, but what about their customer outcomes? Do rock stars have happier, more loyal customers than non-rock stars? Do rock stars nurture more profitable customers than others? No answers.

Finally, there’s the question of fairness. For sales reps, does a rock star label mean landing a peachier territory than reps whose abilities have not been similarly anointed? Does it gain them more opportunities for professional development? More autonomy and independence? A speaker slot at Achiever’s Club? Does being considered a rock star become a self-fulfilling prophesy – or an unwieldy career burden, causing the bearer failure and disappointment? Hard to say.

“It’s tough to juggle the mountain of details about everyone we meet, and we need an easy way to think about them, wrote Peter Cappelli, professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, in a Wall Street Journal article, Why Managers Should Stop Thinking of A, B and C Players (February 21, 2017). “Managers routinely put employees into one of three boxes: people who perform well (A Players), those who perform poorly (C players), and those who are stuck in the middle (B players). Rock Star persists in sales parlance, reflecting our adoration for all things ostentatious. Rock stars belong in Sales! A-Player banality belongs in Accounting.

“The problem is that there is precious little evidence to support the A-Player model and the basic idea beneath it. The evidence from objective measures of actual job performance for individuals shows that it varies a great deal over time, even within the same year,” Cappelli writes. Could his research explain why I have witnessed so many high-flying sales achievers who tanked at their next gig, or suffered revenue craters when territories realigned, products changed, or competition stiffened?

Before rock stars produce even one dollar of revenue, hiring managers proclaim their stratospheric hopes. “We just hired Stefan away from [competitor X]. He crushed his goal in their East region last year, and he’s a fantastic closer. Welcome aboard, Stefan. We know you’re going to just kill it!” Bro hugs from proud management follow as Stefan joins the team.

Cappelli writes that more than half of US corporations routinely segregate individuals based on such expectations. “In this system, people are singled out as A players, often after only two years’ performance, and groomed to rise higher and higher in the company. Yet the evidence shows that people are kept in those programs no matter what their actual performance is – and only 12% of companies report that their employees see the process as impartial.”

That creates a morale problem, though some sales managers argue that it shouldn’t because all reps are evaluated the same way – on revenue achievement. That sounds egalitarian, but it doesn’t guarantee a level playing field. Could rock stars, by dint of their near-deity status, be granted better opportunities? Or are they allowed slack if their performances don’t match expectations? After all, what manager wants to admit a hiring mistake? “It is easier to play along with the A-player model and assume that job performance is hard-wired. It has the drawback of being wrong and bad for business,” Cappelli says.

Requests for sales rock stars say more about a company’s position than most senior managers realize. It’s tacit admission of a hornet’s nest of marketing problems. A neon sign on a job post that tells candidates “Our products are weak. We don’t know how to deal with our competitors, and we can’t a produce a quality sales lead to save our life.” Hence, Rock Star as salvation for a smorgasbord of management inadequacies. The problem is, high-achieving sales professionals are attracted to high-potential opportunities. When those opportunities don’t materialize, their appetites for sticking it out are no stronger than an employer’s resolve to keep a struggling rep on the team.

The sales profession needs to look at itself in the mirror. Using crass terms like rock star trivializes the difficult challenges that salespeople encounter every day. It ignores a reality in every profession that performance rarely remains consistently high or consistently low. And it perpetuates a dumbed-down culture. A hypocrisy that sales managers bemoan when sales reps face the cold, cruel world of the C-Suite. “Our reps just don’t know how to talk to senior executives . . .” Ahem . . . you can help them by first expunging sophomoric language like “rock stars” and “crushing it!” from your sales communications.

In his book, The Art of the Sale, Philip Broughton wrote, “A positive view of sales and selling “holds that . . . no matter the condition of your birth, if you can sell, you can slice through any obstacles of class, status, or upbringing in a way inconceivable in more hidebound societies. Great sales[people] need no other prop to succeed. Selling well, in this view, is also a reflection of a healthy character. It means you are the sort of person people are drawn to – hardworking, clean living, and trustworthy – and you are likely to succeed at whatever you choose to do.”

I’m under no delusions that sales success means possessing saintly virtues. But characteristics that distinguish outstanding sales professionals defy assigning labels. It’s time for companies to quit worshiping meaningless, flamboyant nicknames like rock star, and instead, seek the combinations of skills, behaviors and actions that produce the right outcomes for their companies and customers.

Three Things You DON’T Need to Know for Sales Success

In Virginia, the day after Labor Day means back-to-school. A tradition that reminds us that summer has entered its final fade, taking with it the sweet scent of suntan lotion, long days, warm nights, and fireflies. The day means boxy yellow school buses filling the roadways, and thousands of kids heading from home in the still-bright morning with oversized backpacks, new haircuts, and – one hopes – aspirations for learning.

But this season, something feels odd. Presidential candidate Donald Trump recently told the country, “Sometimes it’s better to know too little than too much.” He was talking about NATO, or more specifically, excusing his lack of understanding about it. Did young students receive his message?

“Gee, Mrs. Gimmelfarb, World History seems like a TOTAL waste of time. Why do we need to study it?” For Mrs. Gimmelfarb and other teachers confronting this question, my sympathies. You deserve more pay. Or, at least a public discussion that doesn’t glorify willful ignorance.

Yet, after thinking about Trump’s Declaration of Ignorance, I began to wonder if he’s right. Could people be required to learn things they don’t need to know or understand, or asked to spend time with subjects that have little value later on? Should We Stop Teaching Calculus in High School? Point taken. There are only so many hours in a school day.

As I pondered these questions, I got pinged with an email notification: “Please check out this article, What Neuroscientists Can Teach You About the Brain-To-Brain Process of Selling. Lead sentence: “A good salesperson knows how to use the brain to her or his advantage.” Thanks – helpful to know.

But that vacuous teaser, and the highfalutin sound of Brain-to-Brain Process confirmed my skepticism, and catapulted me into assembling this list of questionable knowledge that’s pushed at salespeople:

1. Neuroplasticity, and other “brain science.” Sales writers often reference brain science because doing so adds gravitas and sagacity.  The assertions can get comical:

When the brain overloads, it produces cortisol, a stress hormone, which reduces the tendency to buy.

Or,

The brain typically does not retain information in the hippocampus, which is where memory lives, until it hears something three times. Savvy salespeople create a repetitive loop by telling the customer a key piece of information, looping back a little later to remind them again and then looping back a third time to seal the deal. What’s weird about this system is that telling a customer four, five, six or seven times doesn’t enhance that memory, says Robb Best, author of an article, Minding your Sales. “Three is the magic number,” he says.

Fair enough. Three it is! Then, a different finding that upends three: The Rule of 7. This article informs us that “a prospect needs to see or hear your marketing message at least seven times before they take action and buy from you.” Then, the writer backpedals, sharing that the number seven isn’t “cast in stone,” but that “you can’t just engage in a marketing activity and then be done.” Here, I’ll call a foul: you can’t proclaim something a rule and weaken it at the same time.

Does learning such numbers, or the “science” behind them, matter? And what about the cortisol-producing stress hormone purported to reduce the tendency to buy? Does this factoid contradict the widely-held belief creating buying urgency can be useful for marketing and sales? Imagine a salesperson who says, “. . . Sure, if it means less cortisol travelling to your brain, please – take as long as you need to decide . . .”

“There’s no such thing” as a magic number, Chip Heath and Dan Heath wrote in their book about persuasion, Made to Stick. So, to me, packaging stuff as brain science amounts to pseudo-intellectual silliness. Better not learned, or at least, not learned this way.

What to learn instead: Empathy. Harder to teach, and for some, harder to learn. Start by not obsessing over numbers. Three? Seven? 148.7 Gazillion? The number of times a customer should see a marketing message before succumbing can’t be generalized. And if the message stinks to begin with, well . . . then let’s agree the magic number should be zero.  Next,  question the conclusions others make about cognitive research, especially those made by non-scientists, or people whose top listed attributes are “internationally-known speaker” and “sought-after seminar leader.” Self-credentialed, of course. Those gratuitous accolades should make any person’s BS antennae glow brightly.

When salespeople educate themselves about how to see and feel the experiences of others, they can also learn how their own actions are perceived. That insight produces powerful competitive advantages in any sales situation.

2. ‘Success traits’ for salespeople that other salespeople report. They’re all over the map: Work ethic, effort, coachability, sales intelligence, problem solving, and driven, confident, outgoing, assertive, funny, structured, relational,and focused – to name just a few.

Those conclusions are tenuous because they often infected with hindsight bias – the tendency to see a particular outcome as being predictable, even when there’s little basis for predicting it. Mostly, success trait assertions are little more than mom-and-apple-pie platitudes. (Who can dispute that problem-solving skills are crucial for every occupation or profession?) Yet, there’s a constant appetite for such lists. Maybe because they’re paragons of behavioral perfection. No mortal can achieve all of the characteristics, but few want to throw in the towel while pursuing them.

Sometimes, success traits can be deceptive when they are based on narrow circumstances, or drawn from situations others rarely encounter. I hold no doubts that being funny could be helpful for a salesperson calling on an executive at the Comedy Central Network. But I’ve known some decidedly un-funny sales reps who clobbered competitors while producing impressive revenue.

For the recent article I wrote on this topic, Lazy, Un-Coachable Sales Rep Produces Record Revenue, I examined success-trait lists ranging from three elements to eighteen, and discovered a curious pattern: honesty and integrity were absent from every one. A curious scarcity for a profession that pridefully promotes the power of being perceived as a Trusted Advisor.

What to learn instead: traits, habits, and characteristics that customers want in salespeople, or discovering What Customers Value .

3. How to forecast accurately. A common preoccupation in selling, but one that’s unproductive. People have written gobs of articles on this topic, and presenters have devoted countless Powerpoint slides to making a case for its importance. But I’ll consolidate a Forecast Accuracy How-to into three easy-to-follow steps, simple to remember:

Step #1: Select a sales opportunity that you’re really, really, really, really sure will close.

Step #2: Close the opportunity.

Step #3: Forecast the revenue just before submitting the order.

Congratulations! You have produced an accurate forecast. Just as important, you have avoided being wrong. Best of all, management will actually reward you for this feat! The problem is, an accurate forecast isn’t necessarily a valuable one. For example, if I close a contract with Customer X to provide 10,000 widgets per month for the next 12 months, I will, accurately, forecast sales of 120,000 widgets in monthly releases of 10,000 each – assuming that X doesn’t terminate the contract. But my accurate forecast provides little value to Production and Finance. They already know, so what I provided has no impact on planning.

Learning how to create accurate forecasts is more an exercise in manipulating sales information than in developing quality predictors, situational awareness, and useful insight. It’s an educational pathway that’s counter-productive for forecast quality.

What to learn instead: How to create a quality forecast. The point of the above exaggeration is to underscore the fallacy of pursuing forecast accuracy as a goal. The process of developing a quality forecast focuses on making the best assessments possible using logic, under conditions of uncertainty and limited information. That means selecting the right measurements and other input information, discarding what’s not meaningful, and constantly refining the inputs based on experience. It also means not just relying on past events to predict outcomes, but monitoring new, developing forces, and including them in the forecast model when appropriate. The goal of a quality forecast is to approach accuracy, but the forecast will never be accurate. In the forecasting world, accuracy means actual results = predicted results. And we came close is not the same.

Forecasts that involve human decision making will almost always be wrong. Judgement is always embedded in a decision forecast, and with judgement comes the possibility of error. So insisting on accuracy represents a fool’s errand. Forecasts are subject to mistakes, new conditions, unanticipated events, and the likelihood that some variables that could be meaningful will be omitted. Developing quality forecasts requires not fearing inaccuracy.

Human learning and machine learning are often compared, and there are many parallels: make a model, develop parameters, make adjustments to bring actual results closer to those that are planned or desired. But with human learning, we’ve become careless and sloppy. In marketing and sales, we too frequently squander time and resources on learning things that are unimportant or distracting, and sometimes encourage others to follow suit.

And thanks to Trump, ignorance has been anointed a new halo of acceptability. How ironic that if he were talking about robotic automation, we’d be screaming about compromised quality and defective products spewing off assembly lines. We’d vow never to buy ever again until software has been corrected, and processes improve.

How much better off could our economy be if we maintained similarly rigorous expectations for human learning, too?

Mental Health for Salespeople: A Topic that Needs a Discussion

When you visualize a top sales achiever, what comes to mind? A well-dressed, polished professional wearing a starched white shirt accessorized with a Mont Blanc pen, clipped to a conspicuously stain-free pocket? Someone with a winning smile who always seems proud, confident, and fit?

These trappings often mask an insidious reality. The day-to-day experiences that salespeople encounter are emotionally stressful and can jeopardize mental health.

“I am trying to get out of sales, but seems so hard to change fields because I have been in this for so long, so only way is to continue to be in sales and minimize the effects of depression on my job. Boy, let me tell you how tough that is. Along with depression comes low self esteem — but a good salesman should have too much confidence, not the other way,” a commenter, Jake1777, wrote on Healthboards.com in 2008.

There are millions of Jake1777’s. They go to work every day. They cold call. They talk with clients. They close deals, too. People don’t like to read about them, let alone empathize with their angst.  They get brushed aside in a cold sales culture that venerates quota-busting men and women who bring in the revenue bacon.

Blogs and articles spew idealizations of top producers as “superheroes” who are relentlessly positive, tenacious, and goal-driven. People who don’t make excuses, and never quit. The others? Get rid of them. Sayoonara. Adios, pal.  Business is business.  “Oh yeah, I used to be a salesman, it’s a tough racket.” Blake’s mocking sarcasm in Glengarry Glen Ross. Everyone knows how resilient salespeople are, even the bad ones. No need to be cordial.

It’s time to dump the sales superhero archetype. Not only is it grossly misleading, it subverts the mental health risks that salespeople must manage. Difficulties of any magnitude can overwhelm the best salespeople. I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it. And many highly successful peers have confided it to me. Among the professions surveyed in the recent National Survey of Drug Use and Health, Sales ranked #11 for jobs that can lead to depression, with a rate of 6.7 percent. I don’t know a single sales veteran who hasn’t slammed hard into an emotional wall somewhere. Superheroes? Not at all. I call it being human.

People often self-select into sales because they like the simple calculus: make your number, stay on the team. Fall short, you’re a bum. There’s no ground in between. Even top-producers can be unceremoniously churned from their jobs when revenue attainment goes south. For many, the send-off “ceremony” is held in a sterile room or office. It begins with a formulaic conversation capped off with a terse handshake, and an escorted walk to HR for the obligatory exit interview.  “Sorry we had to let you go, but don’t let the door hit you in the rear on the way out. Oh, before I forget – here’s a box to carry your Achiever’s plaques.” If you want to retain a tiny ego in sales, it’s best to start off with one that’s over-sized.

On the other end, those prone to living quarter-to-quarter at the bottom echelons of revenue production have a different, but no less humiliating, outbound experience. They are regularly reminded of their failing through corporate programs deceptively called Performance Improvement Plans, or Plan, for short.  A better term would be slow-path-to-“you’re-fired.” “What percentage of the staff put on Plan become productive employees?” I ask clients. The frequent reply: “Zero.” I usually advise them to drop the program.

People like Jake1777 who clearly need help will find a dearth of compassion and earnest interest. Managers take the toughness that salespeople are expected to have as license to dish out condescension, and even abuse. “What have you done to justify your existence?” one sales manager I worked with asked a colleague who was below goal for the quarter.  She was the top producer in our group, and though normally stoic, the question brought her to tears.  In another situation, when I discussed with a senior executive who oversaw a division of 3,500 people about her decision to lay off most of the sales organization, she quipped, “I’m not worried about it. Salespeople can always get jobs.” If she had added “let them eat cake,” I would not have heard through the steam blasting out of my ears.

Not everyone thrives as a salesperson. Not everyone can thrive. And not everyone thrives all the time. Senior managers must first stop regarding salespeople as unfailingly resilient. That’s a harmful myth. They must acknowledge that significant emotional strains and hazards accompany selling, and understand that they carry deleterious mental health risks for high producers and low producers alike. No one is immune. They should care enough to learn and recognize the warning signs. The website for the National Institute of Mental Health offers more information.

Above all, companies must recognize that good mental health for every individual is a crucial part of sales readiness. Culture sets the tone. “Only one thing counts in this life. Get them to sign on the line which is dotted!” Blake said in Glengarry. A great motivating statement. One that might produce short-term revenue. But not one that preserves mental health.