Tag Archives: sales_productivity

The Hundredth Monkey Effect – Or, Why I’m a Skeptic

Several years ago, I discovered a curious statistic: “ninety percent of all salespeople never bother to ask for the business.”

If it were true, I thought, I had the key for fixing almost every sales productivity problem. I’d simply embed an admonishment into my sales training sessions. Something like, “If you take away one thing from today, it’s ask for business! Voila! Problem solved!

The instant I read the stat, I began checking job boards, expecting to see gobs of help-wanted postings from companies seeking closers. Nothing. I looked elsewhere, seeking start-ups exploiting this massive void. Zero. I perused listings of independent reps, searching for “heavy hitters” whose primary skill was moving a skittish buyer from the threshold of ‘I accept,’ into the transactional end-zone. Zilch, too. Something was amiss.

Like dandelion seeds driven helter-skelter in the wind, the 90 percent assertion quickly spread. I found it cropping up everywhere. Mentioned in conversations, bulleted in PowerPoint slides, and pounded home emphatically during sales keynotes. I surmised that this factoid had taken root because it seemed so plausible. “Yeah, I’ve worked with timid salespeople. I just had no idea it was that many. Wow.” Perhaps through its ubiquity, nobody questioned the assertion, or how it might have been derived.

Eventually, I learned that the statistic was a fabrication – created by Lee Iacocca as a catchy synthesis for why companies don’t win orders. Many took his quip literally. I understand why. Society has a ravenous appetite for statistical fact. But with that hunger comes a suspension of skepticism. A dangerous foible, because statistics impart gravitas and trust, even when the numbers are rancid. Enter the purveyors of informational snake oil, armed with an awesome arsenal of social media tools. A person who wants to goad others into a desired action only needs an online presence, a clever imagination, and the ability to construct a good sentence. Here’s a useful template:

[Panic-inducing adjective], research shows that [specific percentage] of [generalized noun] never [vague outcome that most people want really, really badly].

By filling in some words, a la Mad Libs, one can construct a basic persuasive statement: Amazingly, research shows that 38% of B2B salespeople never achieve a second meeting with a client.” Or, Astonishingly, research shows that over 84% of entry-level marketing staff never get promoted into a senior management position.”

My goal isn’t to malign research. It’s to illustrate how easy it is to concoct credible-sounding statements to make something sound bad, or seem insufficient. Without appropriate skepticism, assertions of fact that are patently false or illogical can flourish, corroding our understandings, and undermining our decisions.

People learn skepticism in childhood. My earliest memory was an Aesop’s fable, The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. The message was clear: things aren’t always what they seem. Discover the truth, or suffer the consequences.

But what is a skeptic? “A person who questions the validity of a particular claim by calling for evidence to prove or disprove it,” wrote Michael Shermer, author of Why People Believe Weird Things, and founder of the website, Skeptic.com. Shermer writes that healthy skepticism means balanced thinking. “The key to skepticism is to navigate the treacherous straits between ‘know nothing’ skepticism and ‘anything goes’ credulity by continuously and vigorously applying the methods of science. Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, which involves gathering data to test natural explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent that it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement.”

My skepticism antennae seldom stray from high alert. Almost daily, I find something that causes me to ask, “really?” Many readers will find this example familiar: “Fully 60 to 70 percent of content churned out by b-to-b marketing departments today sits unused,” according to a Sirius Decisions survey. Using Google Search for this exact quote, I found almost 3,000 references. A sampling of the titles:

13 Stunning Stats about Content Marketing
Wanna Get Your Content Manager Fired?
Content Marketing Is Still Failing to Drive Sales

“When you’re telling a story, it’s natural to pick the most vivid and persuasive detail,” Jordan Ellenberg, author of How not to be Wrong, wrote in an article titled, The Tricks of Lying with Data. “But providing the impressive number without conceding the existence of the unimpressive ones is a kind of numerical malpractice.” Clearly, Jordan never held a job in B2B sales, or as a trade association lobbyist. But he nailed an uncomfortable truth: few professionals in those fields can attest to achieving success without having engaged in such computational artifice.

If the content churned out by marketing departments is defined as communication to attract, acquire, and engage a defined target audience or market, with the objective of driving profitable customer action, that material could be a . . . Tweet, blog, YouTube video, podcast, website, web page, landing page, telemarketing script, brochure, advertisement, pop-up ad, white paper, trade journal article, spec sheet, spreadsheet, ROI calculator, corporate profile, Facebook post, LinkedIn share, competitive analysis, success story, snapchat, email, text message, and more . . . That’s a lot of content creation – or, should I say, innovation, which normally has a pretty high failure rate. Hmmm. Now that 60 – 70% finding seems less stunning, and more down to earth.

And we still haven’t peeled back the remainder of the statistical onion! What about the definition of used? When the stat is bandied about, nobody clarifies the threshold. One view, or share? Ten or more? Thousands? These questions remain unanswered amidst the breathless hype about unused content. So if you’re a CMO, which would be a more reassuring indicator – 90 percent of your marketing content getting used perfunctorily? Or 30 percent of your department’s production getting widely shared and distributed across multiple industries? To me, the latter sounds just peachy.

Other examples: The Sirius Decisions finding that “67% of the buyer’s journey is now done digitally.” And a related finding from CEB, “57% of the purchase decision is complete before a customer even calls a supplier.” Each one merits similar scrutiny, in particular because the terms are slathered with semantic fuzz. Which activities define a buyer’s journey? What distinguishes a buyer’s journey from a procurement or project implementation? Which steps comprise a purchase decision? These meanings vary not only between companies, but within them.

Hundredth Monkey Effect. At least Sirius Decisions attempts a clarification. “The 67 percent statistic in no way says that no one talks to a salesperson before getting halfway through the buying cycle, but this is how some have interpreted it.” Sounds like the famous Hundredth Monkey Effect – a situation when someone misrepresents or misinterprets a study, story, or finding, and the error becomes promulgated.

The Hundredth Monkey story was recounted in a forward that Lyall Watson wrote for a 1975 book, Rhythms of Vision, by Lawrence Blair. In his forward, Watson references research on a colony of macaque monkeys in Japan. The two scientists who conducted the research had observed that young monkeys in the troop learned how to wash sweet potatoes, and that the washing behavior spread to other young monkeys through the practice of observation and repetition. Hardly a breakthrough discovery at the time.

But Watson warped the scientists’ original interpretation by concluding that “the researchers observed that once a critical number of monkeys was reached, i.e., the hundredth monkey, this previously learned behavior instantly spread across the water to monkeys on nearby islands,” according to Wikipedia. Strange as this “spontaneous generation” of learning sounds, others latched onto Watson’s version, and from there, it spread. “Author Ken Keyes, Jr. titled his book about the effects of nuclear war The Hundredth Monkey. The book presented the hundredth monkey effect story as an inspirational parable, applying it to human society and the effecting of positive change.”

So, a research finding about how macaque monkeys use observation and repetition in learning to wash sweet potatoes mutated into erroneous statements and extrapolations. A phenomenon well-known in marketing research and other social sciences. *

Another popular finding leads decision makers down the wrong highway. “A whopping 45.4 percent of salespeople miss their quota.” (There’s that template, again!) The problem here is not necessarily that the statistic has flaws, but that the interpretations can be very misguided. Mostly, people assert a litany of salesperson shortcomings, or tactical breakdowns. Or, they over-simplify, as in proclaiming insight into its “Number-One cause.” Few cite a different basis for the problem – one that is equally likely, and similarly deleterious: horrible planning. Even fewer dissect it. Easier to run down the If-we-just-had-better-salespeople pathway, and it ruffles fewer C-Suite feathers.

As Jordan Ellenberg wrote, “In the era of data journalism, truth is not enough. We need [writers] who can check not only a number’s value but also its meaning. Unless we ensure that, we’re going to be reading a lot of data-driven stories that are true in every particular – but still wrong.”

* Note: It was not until 1985, when Elaine Myers published an article, The Hundredth Monkey Revisited, that Watson’s interpretation was debunked.

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.

Can Sales Productivity, Ethics, and Shareholder Value Coexist?

“As practiced today, capitalism too often becomes a race to the bottom. In low-growth economies, a focus on earnings-per-share (EPS) is leading to more unemployment and deepening inequality,” Mark Benioff of Salesforce.com wrote in The Huffington Post last week.

That’s a far different message from what I learned as an undergraduate, where I was indoctrinated with the ideal that what was good for investors was good for customers, employees, and the world. Ahhhh. Simplicity!

But as an account executive at a publicly-held company, the investor credo, revenue-uber-alle, translated into a slightly different message for the sales force:

“I don’t care how you make your sales number, as long as you make it!”

That was my sales manager’s guidance on how to achieve quota. Plenty of wander-room on that pathway.

My manager made assumptions that the sales team had the knowledge, motivation, and integrity to deliver the required results. He didn’t have the time or interest to micromanage anyone. At my company at the time, many salespeople got fat, dumb, and happy under such laissez-faire management. Ultimately, sales suffered in the face of unrelenting competitive pressure, shareholder demands, and product commoditization.

Policies changed. Not only did management measure results, they began to scrutinize sales activities as well. Thousands of other sales organizations facing the same forces created measurement spotlights under which few could hide.

Today, business needs and technology have converged, causing the productivity-management pendulum to swing even further toward Total Management Control. Are purveyors and users of sales productivity software tools telling us that salespeople are too stupid to figure out how to be productive? Are their managers too lame to manage? Pete Reilly, a senior vice president at RedPrairie, developer of the Ann Taylor retail labor productivity system ATLAS (see my blog, Please Buy From Me! The New Ann Taylor Shopping Experience) said “the [ATLAS] system will allow you to push [productivity initiatives] too far, but at the end of the day, it is based on business principals and how I treat my employees. That is really up to the retailer.” His statement reveals his ambivalence. But it’s clear that financial success depends on how businesses deploy productivity tools, and no one should assume that they understand what they are doing.

The most insidious dangers aren’t created by productivity rules based on flawed assumptions or incorrect information. They’re created when managers detach from the gut-wrenching ethical and personal conflicts imposed on the employees who are measured and managed. Scott Knaul, former director of store operations for Ann Taylor, revealed his own reasoning when he was quoted in the Wall Street Journal (Retailers Reprogram Workers in Efficiency Push, September 10, 2008) saying, “giving the [productivity] system a nickname, Atlas, was important because it gave a personality to the system so [employees] would hate the system and not us.” Yes, that creeped me out, too.

What Mr. Knaul might be alluding to are torn emotions caused by Ann Taylor’s institutionalized sales conflicts of interest—all in the name of productivity. To mention a few possibilities: “If I’m honest with my customer, I could lose this order, and possibly my job.” “How do I spend time with my ailing parent and satisfy the minimum number of hours I must work to keep my time slot?” “As a single parent, how do I plan my weekly food purchases knowing my work schedule can be cut or changed at a moment’s notice?” These poignant struggles are frequently the other side of productivity-improvement equations, unmentioned when numbers are bandied about at the quarterly management retreat.

If laissez-faire management contributes to complacency, and overbearing rules are tantamount to wielding a stick without offering any carrot, what works? For insight, I consulted a sales leader, Mark LaFleur, former VP of Worldwide Sales software developer GroupLogic. He tole me, “Understanding what causes sales to happen and managing metrics is critical to success, but sometimes it’s easy to get so caught up in metrics that you lose sight of the big picture . . . Effectively managing your team’s performance requires a balance between hard metrics and business instinct. I have found that there is no substitute for frequent, intensive one-on-one meetings with reps and sales managers, where you hold them accountable for understanding and articulating all aspects of their business and how they are tracking toward their revenue goals. Metrics are only one component of that discussion, and the key there is to develop practical metrics that really do lead to sales, communicate them clearly, and then hire disciplined sales people that are smart enough to understand their importance.”

It’s hard to find a starker contrast to the metrics-driven mindset at Ann Taylor. Still, it’s troubling to think about the future clash between productivity improvement, business value, and work-life balance. Effective managers recognize both the power and limitations of productivity measures, and that we have the opportunity today to build shareholder value without exploiting the people who help deliver the value we produce for our customers.

© Contrary Domino 2013-2016.
Website development by Crisp Point.