Category Archives: Sales leadership

How to Spot a Bad Sales Position before You’re Stuck

Collette, a former sales colleague, has a problem. She’s tenacious, poised, and highly motivated, but when she asks questions, she goes right for the jugular—and that’s where she gets into trouble. Collette doesn’t tiptoe around topics.

Collette recently interviewed for a technology sales position. “Their CEO said that they were going to grow their market share by 40% in three years,” she told me over lunch, one week after her meeting. “I asked him ‘How are you going to do that?’ and do you know what—he couldn’t answer my question!”

Oops. Collette chose not to pursue the opportunity. I’ll add that she did not get called back for a follow-on interview, either. I suspect the CEO was put off by the disarming simplicity of Collette’s question, or he was embarrassed by his own lack of preparedness. Maybe he just didn’t like Collette.

Regardless, had she received an offer, Collette saved herself at least six months of solid frustration. Her chances of making her number were as likely as Jonathan Sanchez winning this year’s Cy Young Award. Why? Companies that lack a plan for achieving challenging goals have little recourse other than to simply shovel quota onto the sales force. “Here you go—and don’t forget that quarterly bonus waiting for you, if you make your number.” Faux strategy, supported with weak tactics. If only their bankers knew.

That situation often means lower-than-expected compensation, no bonuses, and moving the Achiever’s Club venue from St. Thomas to Daytona Beach. Nobody’s disappointed, because nobody made Club. I’ve seen it happen more than once. And by using just one bang-on question, Collette smoked out the problem from a mile away.

Whether or not you admire Collette’s style, she did manage to quickly cut through shaky facts and piles of assumptions built on flimsy predictions. Go Collette! What else might she and other sales candidates need to listen for to uncover hidden risks? Here’s a short list:

“At plan, here are your expected earnings . . .” The operative words, at plan, need close examination, because not all plans are created equal. Some plans are achievable. Others, after you peel away the covers, are not. Find out what are the key assumptions, and ask historically, what percent of the sales force achieves plan. If it’s 50% or less, figure out whether that risk comports with what you can accept–even if you think you’re really, really good. On the other hand, a company that can substantiate that 75% or more of its sales force consistently makes goal can probably tell a positive story about what they’re doing to achieve it. That might include using sound methods to formulate quotas, making good hiring decisions, equipping salespeople with useful resources, using effective processes, and providing effective professional training and development.

“As Sales VP, I’ve led multiple teams.” True, VP titles carry a certain gravitas, but it’s not always well placed. Being tasked with leading a team doesn’t make one a leader. An effective sales leader will be able to share how, more than once, he or she has created a winning environment for people to reach goals and to achieve an equitable financial reward. A confident leader will share names of direct reports—present and past. Contact those references, and ask the questions that come naturally: “Would you work for her again?” “How does he resolve issues when they occur?” “Was she an effective coach?” “Do you think he is/was fair?” “Is/was she well-regarded by her peers in the company, and by customers?”

If the Sales VP or manager has a LinkedIn profile, look for recommendations from direct reports. If there are few or none, that’s cause for concern. One Senior VP of Sales I know has held similar titles for multiple companies over 21 years, but only one of his nine recommendations was written by a person he managed.

“We really need the person in this territory to hit their number.” That’s good. But your curiosity should drive you to learn whether the predecessor salesperson in the territory was promoted out of the position, quit, or was canned. Ask “how have people performed to quota in this territory in the past?” It’s great when positions open through promotions or growth. But if the predecessor—or predecessors—“just didn’t work out,” find out why.

A recent survey from Baseline Magazine (Talented Workers in Demand) indicated that 43% of hiring managers are concerned that top workers will leave their organization this year. Ironically, 71% of job candidates seek longevity in considering a future employer. For recruiters, this discord portends a robust sales year. For salespeople, it’s a reminder why it’s important to know what quicksand looks like, before you step into it.

CEM: It’s Not Just for Customers Anymore

Customers are notorious for beating up salespeople. So if you want to know whether a job candidate has the backbone to handle the abuse, inject a dose of stress into the job interview. “Particularly in the first interview, your strategy should be to make the candidate uncomfortable,” one blog advises. Amen. Top-performers don’t get tongue-tied or act weird when situations get ugly.

I recommend putting a thumbtack on the candidate’s chair before the interview begins. But that’s a waste of a perfectly useful thumbtack. You see, it’s easy to forget that the interviewee left a colicky baby at home with a frazzled spouse because the nanny didn’t show up. That he just learned a close relative was diagnosed with cancer.  That she made a harrowing U-turn into the parking garage so she wouldn’t be late. Oh, one more thing – it is a job interview.  Throw in some more stress just for good measure? It’s not worth the precious time and effort! Instead, offer scotch and water.  Johnnie Walker sounds good.

Call it Candidate Experience Management, or CEM.  According to a survey conducted by The Talent Board, and reported in The Wall Street Journal (Angry Job Applicants Can Hurt Bottom Line, March 13, 2012), “A negative job-application experience may hurt a company’s sales and reputation among customers.” Job candidates, too, wear multiple hats, and one of them is customer—or future customer.

The Talent Board’s Candidate Experience Survey contained some disturbing findings. “Negative comments far outnumbered positive ones among the nearly 12,000 candidates who participated . . . A sampling of the responses shows that applicants felt they were treated without respect for their work experience and largely ignored. ‘I have never felt like such a non-person in my whole life,’ wrote one participant.”

Hard to imagine that person becoming a raving fan of her former prospective employer.  Raving, maybe. But a fan? – not so much. “On average, 8% of job candidates come away from their applicant experience with enough anger or resentment toward the company to affect their relationship as customers of that firm,” according to The Talent Board. It would be disingenuous for hiring managers to offer every candidate encouragement and compliments following an interview. But a person who walks away feeling disrespected and angry represents a failure on the part of the company that interviewed him or her.

Stress-testing job candidates has gone over the top. “Make them uncomfortable” is a recurring theme I’ve read lately on Q&A forums. There’s a pungent odor of condescension that wafts through the fiber-optic connection into my office. Whether people are describing important qualities in sales candidates, or recommending best questions to ask them during interviews, the writers rationalize that customer sales calls are merciless and tough, so intentionally creating discomfort is a sure-fire way to separate sales-talent wheat from chaff.

I understand that sales meetings can be merciless and tough. But finding the people who can handle the stress doesn’t require disrespectful behavior. Creating discomfort is a zero-sum game. If I learn the candidate is unsuitable, but he leaves my office feeling venomous toward me and my company, have I gained anything? And what if I decide to hire him? “Sorry I behaved like an imbecilic jerk. That was just to find out if you could handle it. Before I explain our offer, I’d like to sell you on our fabulous company culture . . .”

“The Sales Force is not the whole company, the Whole Company is the sales force.” Within these confusing semantics lies a valuable lesson:  the experiences that people create with others outside the organization – including prospective employees – matter.

“Not every rejected candidate will feel positive about an application experience,” says Elaine Orler of the Talent Board, “but companies should at least aim to make the experience emotionally neutral for job-seekers.”

In Like a Lion, out with a Scam! Sales News in March Has Been Anything But Boring

Keeping up with the latest developments in sales and marketing can feel like running a marathon. This month, I’m flat-out breathless!

1. Apple announced the new iPad, and sold three million units in its debut weekend. You already knew that, so I’ll move on.

2. Stop Kony! made social media history by becoming the most viral video at 100 million views. But the social media numbers behind the video’s success are the only transparent part of the story. The whereabouts of the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony are as murky as the financial records of Invisible Children, the organization that produced the video. According to an article in The Telegraph, “most of the money donated to Invisible Children does not go towards countries affected by Kony, but funds Invisible Children itself. It is estimated that only around 30 per cent of donations go to Uganda.” On March 19th, The Huffington Post revealed that the organization has accepted substantial funding from groups whose agendas might not comport with those of its new-found donors.

Meteoric success brings tribulations. Jason Russell, the video’s director, was hospitalized on March 15th under circumstances that are still not completely clear. According to Ben Keesey, head of Invisible Children, “The past two weeks have taken a severe emotional toll on all of us, Jason especially, and that toll manifested itself in an unfortunate incident yesterday.” he said. That incident, it was reported later, was Mr. Russell allegedly running into traffic and yelling while in “various stages of undress.”

(For more information, see Five Reasons the Kony Video Went Viral.)

3. Homeless hotspots at SXSW proved once again that one person’s inventiveness is another person’s “blunt display of unselfconscious gall. Ad agency BBH Labs gave homeless people t-shirts emblazoned with their name and the words, “I’m a 4G Hotspot.” According to an article in The Huffington Post, the company “created the program as a trial at the Austin, Texas festival, during which concert-goers were encouraged to donate $2 for every 15 minutes of Internet usage. The agency’s plan was to set up a similar program in New York, but those plans have been halted” in response to the controversy the campaign generated. The next time a BBH employee plaintively asks “how will this be perceived?” he or she won’t be shushed out of the room.

(For more information, see Marketplace.org, Homeless Hotspots Program Sparks Debate.)

4. The hilarious, hot-selling $19.95 John Wilkes Booth Bobblehead was pulled from the shelves at Gettysburg Battlefield Historical Park. According to a story in The Los Angeles Times (Banished John Wilkes Booth Bobblehead a Solid Seller, March 14th) “. . . the Booth doll is apparently a strong seller, according to the Bobblehead company, which produces the item. The company sells the 7-inch-tall doll complete with a box that, ‘resembles the inside of Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated.’ Other selling points of the doll . . . include ‘Only one on the market!’ and ‘Booth is holding the gun he killed Lincoln with in his hand.’

However enticing that may sound, the dolls became a cause for concern, said Dru Anne Neil, a spokeswoman for the Gettysburg Foundation, which runs the park visitors center and museum. Still, (Bobblehead Company sales manager) Matt Powers says, ‘there’s a market there’ for the assassin bobblehead. ‘We like to let the customer decide if it’s a good item or not.’”

How true! When there’s money to be made, who needs to be encumbered with how to define bad taste? Hey! I have a great idea! With every John Wilkes Booth Bobblehead, offer a coupon for one scoop of Ben and Jerry’s Linsanity Frozen Yogurt with fortune cookies.

5. Speaking of Ben and Jerry’s, the company announced this month that it’s supporting same-sex marriage in Britain by re-labeling an existing apple pie flavor, and selling it as Apple-y Ever After. The attractive packaging shows the requisite red apples and a three-tiered wedding cake, topped with a figurine of a happy couple—both wearing tuxedos.

6. After 244 years of selling a great product produced with paper and ink, digital forces caught up with Encyclopaedia Britannica. The company finally threw in the towel and gave up on its print edition. According to an article in the USA Today (Encyclopaedia Britannica turns a page, ends print edition), “The last, 32-volume print version, published in 2010, weighs 129 pounds and sells for $1,395. Only 12,000 sets of the final edition were printed, company President Jorge Cauz says, and 4,000 remain in its inventory. In an increasingly digital world where the online Encyclopaedia Britannica — which is much larger than the printed version — is updated every 20 minutes, Cauz says, publishing on paper no longer makes sense.”

It wouldn’t be a digital story without a freebie. “To celebrate its news, Encyclopaedia Britannica is making the entire contents of Britannica.com available free for one week.”

(For more information, see Death of the Salesmen, The Wall Street Journal, March 15th, 2012.)

7. Greg Smith, a Goldman Sachs salesperson, resigned after an epiphany that securities salespeople are in it for the money. In a New York Times op-ed he wrote of the company that employed him for 12 years, “I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.” He didn’t say “scam,” but he probably thought it. “I attend derivatives sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients . . . It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off.” Which prompted Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. to quip in his March 16th Wall Street Journal column, (Greg Smith is Too Sexy for His Cat) “Professions of honesty should invite skepticism in any case, but especially when peddling a sentence so clearly designed to say nothing while appearing very much to say something.” Adding, “His claim that (Goldman) executives in London referred to unnamed clients as Muppets left most Americans mainly puzzling over whether and how Muppet could be construed as pejorative.”

In a March 18th column (Goldman’s Long History of Duping Clients), William D. Cohan, author of Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World, wrote “Smith could have saved himself grief if he had only used his Stanford education to examine Goldman’s DNA before crossing its threshold.”

Yet, for all the well-placed criticism, I admire Greg Smith when he said “I knew it was time to leave when I realized I could no longer look (prospective summer interns) in the eye and tell them what a great place this was to work.” Securities firms can never have too many ethical people, even when they’re naïve idealists.

(For more information, see Goldman Sachs Response to Greg Smith’s Op-ed)

Seven exciting stories, and we still have ten more days in March!

In a recent blog, Why Social Marketing is So Hard, Nilofer Merchant wrote, “. . . many organizations still find marketing in the social era ridiculously hard to do well, if at all. . . We want innovation, but without experiencing failure. We want to embrace the new, but without risk. We want to act fast and fluid, but to maintain tight controls. We want to empower everyone but retain decision rights for ourselves. We want to experiment, but we also want predictability. We want to be flexible to customer input, but remain ruthlessly efficient. We want to adapt, but we fear the death of familiarity. . . But remember, it is making mistakes — and the ensuing forgiveness — that give relationships their resilience. Vulnerability begets trust. And though they are difficult to forge, such robust relationships are more likely to endure the ups and downs the market inevitably deals any organization.”

Those ideas are embedded in each of these stories.

Six Exciting Opportunities at the Edge of Sales

Travel on an interstate highway almost anywhere in the US during Spring break and you’ll see a curious seasonal motif. Late model car, dad driving. Next to him, mom, pondering a Sodoku or reading a map. In the back, a teenaged kid, wearing a hoodie, listening to music through headphones. If the painter Norman Rockwell were alive, he’d capture the scene down to the last, splendid iconic detail: the college tour road trip, circa 2015. Our second rite of passage will be coming up soon, to visit engineering schools.

The teenaged kid in the back seat barely knows that the best part of her past still remains in her future. To those of us now middle aged, that’s an enviable naiveté. For now, all the teenager has to do is endure twenty-seven hours in the car with her parents and younger brother. Four colleges in five days. i-Tunes playlists queued up, earbuds in place. “I think I can do this!” she says to herself, and bravely rolls north with The Fam. Younger brother has his earbuds in place, too.

Each school proudly touts its quirky uniqueness. At Tufts, students follow hallowed tradition by slathering paint on a landmark canon, while at Carnegie Mellon, they slather it on a fence, installed for that purpose. At MIT, traditions involve less paint, but offer other thrills, such as roof hacking, in which large objects such as police cars find their way to the dome of MIT’s famed Building 10.

Aside from these obvious differences, the same crystal-clear statement was embedded in every admissions office sales pitch: The most exciting work in engineering isn’t being done in traditional disciplines. “It’s at the edges—where you find the junctions between materials science and civil engineering, between medicine and mechanical engineering, between information technology and robotics,” said the Cornell admissions Dean, who also told us about his school’s breadth of programs for work and study abroad.

Inter-disciplinary studies are the new collegiate Red, White & Blue. Disparate academic concentrations become conjoined when the words majoring in and minoring in complete the phrase. “I’m majoring in Industrial Labor Relations with a minor in Asian Studies.” Today, companies value a workforce steeped in cross-functional knowledge, and higher education has heard their call. Inter-disciplinary curricula produce positive outcomes beyond simply protecting legacy liberal arts programs and tenured faculty.

“At Olin College, half the students create interdisciplinary majors like Design for Sustainable Development, or Mathematical Biology,” wrote Tony Wagner in a recent Wall Street Journal article, Educating the Next Steve Jobs. He added, “Though expertise is important, Google’s director of talent, Judy Gilbert, (said) that the most important thing educators can do to prepare students for work in companies like hers is to teach them that problems can never be understood or solved in the context of a single academic discipline.”

Another article by Melissa Quinn in FastCompany, What Both MBAs And MFAs Get Wrong About Solving Business Problems, points out “Marketing classes should teach a deep reverence for the user in context and the power of observational research methods. Finance classes should teach the art of storytelling and information design. Strategy classes should teach systems thinking and synthesis. If the goal is to create great hybrid thinkers who will have real impact, design should not be tacked on to existing business education, but infused throughout it.”

You would expect hybrid thinking to involve the s-word, selling, but it doesn’t. “Modern economies are built by people agreeing to buy and sell for mutual benefit, but there is near-universal disdain for the sales process itself—including the people doing the selling,” writes L. Gordon Crovitz in his Wall Street Journal review of Philip Delves Broughton’s book, The Art of the Sale.

He continues, describing Broughton’s observation that at Harvard Business School, “. . . as a category of business activity, sales were largely ignored. The curriculum focused on apparently less grubby topics, like finance and leadership . . . Many people in business ‘are clueless about one of the most vital functions, the means by which you actually generate revenue.’ Salespeople are viewed as some sort of breed apart . . . They must be ‘goaded to perform and reined in when they sell too hard. They are patronized as feet on the street by those who prefer to imagine that business can be conducted by consultants with dueling PowerPoint presentations.’” Plenty of ugly in that prose. But well stated.

This knowledge gap—call it an appreciation gap—that Broughton writes about so compellingly, spells opportunity. And, if nothing else, salespeople are unrepentant opportunists! Just as the excitement in engineering lives at the edges, so it does in sales. Inspired by our college road trip, I explored the edges of Sales, peered over, and found these exciting junctions:

1. Sales and uplift modeling Predictive analytics meets pick the low-hanging fruit. Uplift models predict the influence on customer behavior gained by choosing one marketing action over another. Using statistical tools to identify prospects most likely to change behavior opens great possibilities for increased sales productivity.

2. Sales and software usability User testing, eyetracking, and field research to improve the odds for online merchants that when a prospect sees “click to buy,” he clicks. And you thought customers had all the power.

3. Sales and social entrepreneurship Did I just pledge $250 because I was passionate about providing medical care for children who can’t afford it? Or because an organization had sophisticated processes in place that made it easy for me to do so? Only their Development Manager knows for sure.

4. Sales and Enterprise Risk Management Pipelines, funnels, and forecasts remind us there are loads of risks—known and unknown—on the road between Identifying a Prospect and Having a Customer. Strategic planning works best when sales risk knowledge is integrated into corporate functions.

5. Sales and Linguistics “Sales is like dating,” someone told me—or maybe it’s the other way around. “To predict dating success, the secret’s in the pronouns,” according to a story about a study that recently aired on National Public Radio. The Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count program “has an ability to peer into massive data sets and discern patterns that no human could ever hope to match.” Inside sales and telemarketing will never be the same.

6. Sales and higher education. According to the edx, a joint venture between Harvard and MIT, “It’s interesting to see technology being used to make teaching more efficient. But platforms like edx could also help institutions such as MIT and Harvard identify and nurture the smartest students from anywhere in the world.” Some of them will be salespeople.

SellingPower‘s Gerhard Gschwandtner wrote in a recent blog, Seven Steps to Sales Transformation, “to win in today’s environment, sales must be aligned with marketing, service, finance, HR, and legal.”

Alignment is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. Alignment doesn’t break sales from the black-hole gravity of its silo. As the Cornell Dean said, the greatest excitement—and opportunities—exist at the edges—where you find the junctions.

Are Companies Hiring Too Many Chiefs?

Call on the CXO!

Not long ago, that meant connecting with a small, select group. By simply substituting an E or an O for X, you could construct the job titles for any organization’s most influential movers and shakers. Later, when advances in information technology brought I and T into the mix, theCIO and CTO were allowed into the exclusive CXO suite. “They don’t speak our language, but why not? Welcome! Here are your keys to the executive washroom.”

Such titles are relics of simpler times, before popular fuzzwords spilled into job titles like alphabet soup. Want to become the first Chief Alignment Officer,Chief Engagement Officer, or Chief Experience Officer? Too late! These titles have already been coined!

What about Chief Growth Officer, Chief Value Officer, or Chief Synergy Officer? Sorry, taken. Yes, even Chief Visionary Officer. Hard to imagine any company surviving in this economy without a CVO on the payroll. And back in 2000, Palm had a Chief Competitive Officer. A puffy title, considering all the good it provided the company. On February 9, 2011, Hewlet Packard, which bought Palm, killed the brand.

If you instruct your sales team to call on the CCO, you’ll need to be more specific. A septet of job titles, plus a few more, share that acronym, including Chief Communications Officer, Chief Compliance Officer, Chief Consulting Officer, Chief Compensation Officer, Chief Creative Officer, Chief Community Officer, and Chief Content Officer. OK, I get Chief Creative Officer. But has Community and Content been around for enough time to earn this organizational gravitas?

Performance, Listening, Thinking, Innovation. It’s hard to call out a strategic corporate need that lacks a corresponding Chief. (I could not find a Chief Punctuality Officer, but wait a month.) Chief Happiness Officer? Yep. TED’s got one. Maybe the company’s on to something.

There are some up-and-coming CXO positions that make sense, including Marketing, Sales,Security, Privacy, Logistics, Procurement, and Quality. After all, managing these thorny issues requires specialized knowledge and tight corporate governance. I’ll make the same case for Chief Revenue Officers.

But Chief Digital Officer? Replace Digital with Strategy, Social, Diversity, Ethics, Trust,Learning, Globalization, and Opportunity, and you recognize that CXO provides organizations a near-inexhaustible number of title permutations, astonishingly simple to create.

These newfangled titles conjure images of unsmiling bureaucrats with thinning hair, inhabiting drab, windowless offices, painted institutional green. I never lived in the USSR, but for me, C-Anything-Officer designations helps replicate the experience. Bureaucracy ascending to new heights, and ossification stifling everyone below.

Go, us! Our capitalist economy enables us to invent titles at will. There’s no need to ask the Politburo for permission, and they look great on business cards and email signature lines. “Chief Decision Officer! Cool!”

Companies have hired Chief Customer Officers, Chief Customer Loyalty Officers, and Chief Brand Officers. Has the adoption of these grandiose titles yielded better outcomes for employers or customers?

Voila! I’m a Chief Change Officer!

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