Tag Archives: sales_coaching

Lazy, Uncoachable Sales Rep Produces Record Revenue

Search for the phrase top attributes in sales performers, and you will get about 400,000 results. A harvest that includes blogs, magazine articles, research studies, and white papers. Many of them describing archetypal qualities similar to ones that Kendra Lee, a sales author and strategist, posited in an article, 5 Telltale Signs of All-Star IT Salespeople: work ethic, effort, coachability, sales intelligence, and problem solving.

Hard to argue with that list. If you subtract sales from sales intelligence, you get a set of desirables for every occupation. Try it with me! I swapped out IT Salespeople for dentist, lumberjack, and talk show host. Yep, yep, and yep. These are telltale signs for All-stars, alright.

But another list, Key Qualities of a Great Salesperson, by Flip Flippen, offers an entirely different set: driven, confident, outgoing, assertive, funny, structured, relational, and focused.

These attributes don’t have the universality of Lee’s list. That’s a plus. A competent lumberjack does not need to be relational, except when a heavy branch is about to land on a co-worker. A talented dentist does not have to be funny. Better, actually, when he or she isn’t. If you’re seeking the skills toolbox that predicts whether a rep can “just crush it,” maybe Flippen’s list brings us closer to that nirvana.

But why is funny important for a salesperson, and why does it receive mention over other essentials, like honesty and empathy, which are absent from Lee’s list as well? I can offer no answers, other than it leaves room for future iterations.

Lee had five success attributes, and Flippen had eight. What did others think? Once again, my interrogative journey spiraled to new heights. Tweaking my search, I discovered sets of attributes with as few as three, but topping out at eighteen. Eighteen! Some were from well-known thought leaders like Brian Tracy, others from people less famous. A random sampling of articles, listed in ascending order of the number of essential traits needed in top sales producers:

3 traits
5 traits
6 traits
7 traits
8 traits
10 traits
12 traits
13 traits
14 traits
18 traits

Hiding behind these superficial views of success are serious logical distortions. If putative success attributes explain rep achievement, what explains reps who succeed despite having some – or none – of these qualities? What explains reps who have these qualities, but don’t succeed? And what explains reps who have roller-coaster revenue results – sky high one year, and deep in the tank the next? Surely their skills did not spike and recede in tandem.

People are wired to identify patterns even where they don’t exist, creating what author Nassim Taleb describes in his book, Fooled by Randomness, as hindsight bias. According to Taleb, “past events will always look less random than they were,” a rampant myopia that infects marketing and sales. Example: Tomas just closed a big sale. We retroactively call out the positive reasons, carefully enumerating the salient elements of his “skillset.” The opposite for the deal he lost. We explain, point by point, what makes him a buffoon. If you’ve never experienced this, please enter a comment below (caveat: you must have worked in a sales organization for sixty days or longer).

Three elements play huge roles for determining a sales rep’s success – a quality frequently conveyed through a simplistic, over-used numerical proxy called percent-of-goal:

1. Luck. People need to “take knowledge less seriously,” Taleb writes at the outset of his book. “The role of luck [in outcomes] is something that few people understand, but many think they understand.” Hence the breadth of opinion on what portends a sales rep’s success.

2. Corporate strategy. Which rep is likelier to make goal – an average one working for a company executing a great strategy with great products? Or an excellent one struggling with feckless leadership and failed marketing? I’m betting on the average rep. “All we really had to do was answer the phone!” an account executive who sold DEC VAX’s in the 1980’s once told me.

3. Quotas. The denominator of the percent-of-goal metric that every executive wants to know, but few bother to investigate. How was the number derived? Many quotas are created without mathematical or logical rigor – only a simple parsing of the corporate revenue goal onto individual revenue producers. A mediocre rep who achieved 140% of a low quota will always appear more skilled than a great rep who achieved 88% of a goal that she didn’t have a snowball’s chance of making. When the 140% achiever was lauded at the annual kickoff, which “success attributes” were mentioned? Most assuredly, someone voiced an opinion.

“We need to purge our minds of the notion of intellectual certainties,” Taleb writes. Do attributes like intelligence, work ethic, tenacity and focus contribute to positive sales outcomes? Probably. The same for good personal hygiene, punctuality, eye contact, and a firm handshake. But contribute and causality are not the same. People would laugh if I said that popping a breath mint before the contract was signed caused me to win the deal. But they wouldn’t be disturbed if, ex-post-facto, “tenacity” was pinpointed a causal factor.

An opportune time to question an idea is when it appears glaringly obvious. For example, a strong work ethic seems a reliable progenitor for sales success, but some argue that it causes people to get mired in detail, to lose creativity, and to miss big-picture problems. A situation no company would want for a sales rep.

Be skeptical about what others profess as causal in sales success. A lazy, un-coachable rep who produces record revenue might not be the anomaly people think it to be.

Senior Moment: What Our Elders Can Teach Us About Sales

Originally published 01/30/09

Yesterday I received a sales letter that hit me like a breath of fresh, un-digitized air. I wanted to share it with my readers:

Dear Friend:

As we enter the new year, conditions are not very good for purchasing new supplies and equipment. However, there are some signs that this may improve as the year progresses.

Your responsibility as a department manager or property manager is to maintain your facilities in the best possible manner. I have three things to offer:

Excellent products
Good service
Fair prices

If the need arises this year for you to replace or add to your equipment, please don’t hesitate to give me a call. I will be happy to furnish you catalogs and written quotations for your consideration.


My friend Stanley’s name follows below his hand-written signature.

Three paragraphs, two sentences each. There’s purity of form and a sincerity that rarely emanates from today’s marketing communications.

Stanley began his sales career before most of us were born, and he hopes to achieve the milestone of entering his ninth decade this year. He’s a retired CEO who is passionate about selling. He’s never stopped. When he started working, ‘personal selling’ meant . . . personal selling. Telephones, “snail mail,” appointment books, and cars were the indispensible tools of the sales trade.

Most of all, face-to-face dialogs created the trusted bonds between buyer and seller, and were an inextricable part of the sales process. Little wonder that Stanley’s letter says “I care” so clearly, without using those two words. He perfected that skill in the trenches, by looking at his customer in the eye.

In our Twittered, Blogged, and Web 2.0’d sales world, Stanley’s selling talent has become rare. The forces of information technology, product commoditization, and cost reduction have pushed legions of salespeople from the prospect’s office to the deep innards of the call-center cube farm. Millions must make their quotas using far more sophisticated tools than Stanley had—but without ever physically shaking hands with a customer.

As Stanley approaches his 80th birthday, he has become rare in other ways as well. He’s part of a shrinking population that will all but vanish in twenty years: a self-selected group of senior citizens who choose not to use a computer. He doesn’t use email or a have website for his company. He puts up with my e-marketing hubris when I rib him about not being able to accept orders online (FAX and phone work fine for him). The few times he needs Internet access, he taps an eager pool of web-savvy grandchildren. It would be easy to dismiss his knowledge as outdated.

Stanley has taught me how courtesy, respect, and sincerity have great power in sales, and the wisdom contained in his letter reminds me that when it comes to selling, seniors have a wealth of knowledge for the rest of us. I wish Stanley many more great years in selling. I still have much to learn from him.

Defanged, Declawed, and Emasculated. Meet Your Next-Generation Sales Rep!

Self–loathing. It’s not the breakfast of sales sales champions, but salespeople sure receive a plentiful daily dosage:

“Telling is not selling.”

“Stop selling!”

“Shut up and listen!”

“Don’t act like a pushy salesperson.”

“Be interested, not interesting.”

On a LinkedIn discussion, one manager wondered whether it was good to use sales in a job title, given the word’s negativity. Another LinkedIn discussion asks whether the Internet is turning salespeople into dinosaurs. Recently, a tech CEO posted a widely-read blog in which he crowed about his company’s revenue successes, sans any sales force. He’s clad in spandex, astride his bicycle. Hmmm . . . .

Are you exuberant? Smack! . . . Not anymore!

Oh. I see you still have your sales mojo. Now this: your ego isn’t welcome either.

As the late comedian George Carlin said, “it’s all [prevarication], and it’s bad for you.”

Want a kinder, gentler sales rep? Bambi with a business card? Be careful what you wish for. As much as we don’t need manipulative and deceptive sales practices, we don’t need apathy. Or bland, either. It’s easy to slap a newbie rep and say “shut up and listen,” but a salesperson who can’t engage in persuasive dialog can fail as surely as one who can’t refrain from talking. Did you ever buy an expensive item from a poor communicator, or from a person who seemed disinterested? Me neither.

What can motivate one person’s exuberance can appear to another person as claws and fangs. Sales commissions create buying pressure? Eliminate them, like Best Buy. Sales pitches reek from overblown claims? Stop pitching—buyers have information power anyway. Job titles containing the word sales create buyer fear? Soften them with meeker words like Associate and Partner. Remove fangs, and improve outcomes, the reasoning goes.

Such changes are important, because for vendors, creating an environment where vendor and customer can collaborate nicely has become a valuable strategic differentiator. But they’re also emblematic of a profession in an identity crisis. We’re concerned our image isn’t good, but we aren’t sure exactly what it needs to be.

As with other thorny problems, subsidiary discussions blaze new trails. Are salespeople sufficiently humble and empathetic? How can salespeople bring “real value” to the buying process? In sales, how does one distinguish between coercion, manipulation, and persuasion? In a social-selling world, do salespeople need to excel at persuasion or facilitation – or both?

Back in 2010, Ogilvy’s World’s Greatest Salesperson Contest (in which contestants pitch prospects on buying a single brick) generated controversy as some people felt the premise drags the sales profession back to the Neanderthal, when “getting the prospect to say ‘yes’ three times” was the penultimate step to signing on the dotted line. Others found it little more than a self-serving gimmick for Ogilvy. “We thought it was time to reassert the importance of sales, honor the timeless craft of persuasion, glean wisdom from the best, and highlight the new tools and platforms which are re-shaping it for customers,” said Mat Zucker, Executive Creative Director of OgilvyOne in New York. If Ogilvy decided to continue the contest past its inaugural year of 2010, they’re keeping it a secret.

Still, given the preponderance of sales self-loathing, and draconian forecasts about the demise of the sales role, it’s nice to see the craft of sales and selling recognized in this way – even if for a fleeting moment. Attempts to de-fang salespeople will backfire. Effective buying requires persuasion: “Convince me that your product is the best one for my needs.” That requires sharing information, making a business case, building rapport, fostering trust, creating shared visions, leading change. Until persuasion becomes an unimportant selling skill, we should laud it when it’s done well.

Will the emerging social and business environment favor Bambi-like salespeople versus ancestor quota-driven predatory sales hunters? I’m not sure. But before we methodically defang and de-claw individual sales contributors, we should understand what capabilities enable salespeople to eat, and what causes them to get eaten.

Asking “Where Are We In This Deal?” Won’t Give You a Clue

Ever participated in a conversation like this one?

Sales Manager: So, where are we in the MegaCorp deal? What do we need to do to get them to the next step?

Salesperson: We’re in good shape. Based on our last meeting there, I think their VP Operations will recommend a pilot project using our product.

Sales Manager: That’s great! We really need this one to close! What are our chances?

A sales cliff hanger! Do you think MegaCorp will buy? How much will they spend? When will the transaction occur?

Hard to tell. But based on the manager’s questions, I’m not bullish. She’s more worried about conforming to her sales process than about getting a clue about her rep’s situation. And based on her questions, she’s not on track to find out, either. Without situational awareness, her rep is just another weak-kneed, wobbly, vulnerable fawn, unprotected in an open field. The deal they’re discussing is prey for opportunistic competitors.

If you happen to be reading this in an airplane, you don’t need to ask your pilot about the importance of situational awareness, because the answer is apparent. It takes more than knowing the distance to the airport to perform a safe landing. Whether you fly a plane, command a tank, or sell complex products and services, situational awareness is mission critical. So why do so many sales executives take a process-centric view of managing sales opportunities, and fail to perceive what’s happening around them? I don’t know. Habit, perhaps?

But maybe my personal sales horror story will persuade even the most zealous process stickler to consider a different, more enlightened approach, which I’ll describe in a moment. Several years ago, I pursued a large opportunity, and met with the buying team for the final step—the closing call, as it’s commonly known. Everything’s fine, until from the back of the room, Frank (not his real name) raises his hand. “Does your solution work on token ring?” he asks. I respond “no,” and Frank exclaims “Over my dead body will this company buy any system that doesn’t work on token ring!” (true story). There was utter silence. None of Frank’s colleagues challenged him. I had never considered hiring a hit man to win an order, but for a moment, I confess  – that gremlin shamelessly landed on my shoulder.

Frank was a blind-side tackle. Frank had the wherewithal to single-handedly kill my sale. And he did. My token-ring touting competitor won the order. Ironic, because sales process-wise, my opportunity looked good—excellent, in fact. But before my closing call, I didn’t know that my prospect had token ring installed. I didn’t know about Frank’s influence. Heck, I didn’t even know Frank!

I especially didn’t know that my Ethernet-connectable hardware was a show-stopper, because I never experienced the issue before. In short, I had no clue about my situation! My experience is all too common. In a sales risk survey I conducted with CustomerThink, 43% of respondents reported that “unexpected situations” played a role in sales opportunity losses. Many are preventable.

There’s hope. If The Endsley Model isn’t a part of your monthly sales meeting PowerPoint, include it for the next one. The Endsley model has three components:

  1. the perception of inputs
  2. comprehending the inputs
  3. projecting outcomes

Subtract any part of this straightforward triumvirate, and there’s no situational awareness. Not surprisingly, it’s borrowed from the military domain where the Endsley Model is tested in the context of complex, dynamic environments. That describes sales as well.  “Your focus is on your competitor . . . the customer becomes the battlefield. You’re not trying to take down your competitor, you’re just trying to beat your competitor’s strategy at that particular time,” said Ryan Kubacki, CEO of sales training company Holden International.

In many sales situations, major risks come not from direct competitors, but other projects that vie for the same project capital. Situational awareness means understanding what those competing uses for capital are, along with some other important artifacts:

1. Forces. What conditions or situations are exerting impact on the prospect company right now? Which ones are perceived as having the greatest impact?

2. Changes and triggers. What’s happened since our last account review that presents a significant new opportunity or major risk to our strategic and tactical direction? Which issues have surfaced? How can we capitalize on the opportunity or mitigate the risk?

3. Competition. What other initiatives are contending for the same funding? What are their strategies for getting it? How do those strategies play against our strengths and weaknesses? What changes have developed in their strategies, and why? What new competitive vulnerabilities exist, and how quickly can we exploit them?

4. Biases, attitudes, and sentiments. What evidence have we received regarding changes in perception toward our company, personnel, product, solution, or proposal?

5. Communication channels. Which communication channels are available to us, and are they adequate for capitalizing on our strategic opportunities and mitigating our risks?

6. Networks and access. Are the people who are most important in our collaboration part of our network, and do we have access to them to share ideas? What changes are taking place, and what new risks and opportunities do they present?

7. Assumptions. Which assumptions are we making right now, if false, will jeopardize this sales opportunity?

Eliminating blind-side tackles like the one I experienced means being attuned to the right information at the right time, and knowing how to recognize and avoid distractions.

So go ahead and ask about how to get to the next step. Situational awareness  raises the odds of getting there!

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