Why A Lying Salesforce Should Scare Leaders To Death

By: On October 16, 2013

“Here’s the truth: I lie.”

It was a moment of startling honesty from a salesperson I met a while back. Her job was to cold call mid-level and senior executives to set up sales meetings for her company. That’s a really tough job, so I had casually asked her how she did it. And that was her answer.

“Tell me more,” I said, which is my go-to line when I’m not quite sure how to proceed in a conversation.

“Well, I tell them that I’m new to the company and that I have a file on their organization in my notes. In that file, it says that my predecessor had talked with them six months ago but I can’t make sense of the notes. I was hoping they could help me by answering a few questions.”

“And how much of that is true.”

A pause. Then, “Well, I’m kinda new with the company…”

Now before all of you non-sales types chuckle and say to yourselves, “Yup, another ignorant sales slug,” spare a thought for this young lady. Why does she do this? Simply because it works better than anything anyone in the company has suggested. She gets people to talk. She gets appointments. They make sales. She gets a paycheck and keeps her job. She might even walk the stage at sales award time.

And apparently telling the truth didn’t work so well.

Salespeople play fast and loose with the truth not because they’re morally inferior to folks from other functions. They do it because the company hasn’t equipped them to explain the real value of the product or service they are selling. So they have to solve their personal problem – i.e. keeping their jobs – somehow. And they’re creative.

When sharing “best practices” like these with managers and colleagues, the initial response should be, “What???? Stop that right now!” Instead, too often it’s, “Hmmm… Very interesting. Maybe we should try that.”

To which we should all say, “Yikes!”

Here’s why:

  • This kind of misrepresentation takes a sledgehammer to the brand. Don’t think for a second that your salespeople can compartmentalize their lying once they get started. A relationship founded on a lie can only go one direction – more lies and bigger lies. So now salespeople will feel free – even compelled – to lie about how well your product or service works or how fast things will get done or how painful easy it will be to do the implementation.

  • Eventually – tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year – those lies will come home to roost. No, it may not affect that salesperson or even the immediate revenue from that customer. But it will definitely affect your company’s reputation over time. People talk, and information about less-than-noble company practices spread quickly in our highly connected society. See also United Airlines and Bank of America.

  • Lying – or anything that takes advantage of customers – also damages the brand internally. People know whether their company does things on the up and up or not. Sure, they can pass bad behavior off as salespeople being salespeople. But what it says to our organizations when we ignore bad behavior – or even condone it with a sly wink – is that we’ll do anything for a buck. We’re not really about doing the right thing. We’re not really all that noble. All of our high-minded rhetoric about being customer-focused or a great company to work for will begin to sound hollow. We might be proud of producing results. But we can’t be proud of who we are.  Over time, the kind of people who you want on your team – the ones who do the right thing even when no one is looking – will find another place to invest their talents. Prepare to have all sorts of fun times with your HR and legal team with those who remain.

Whenever you see questionable behavior in the front line, start by looking at these actions to get things back on track.

  • Clarify the value the company provides to different kinds of customers. When a salesperson talks with a prospect or customer, the thought bubble above that customer’s head reads, “Why is it a good idea for us to spend time together?” Without a clear answer to this question, no matter what the salesperson says, the customer will hear this response: “Because I have to make my quota.”

  • Put together a convincing and authentic reason potential customers might want to talk to your front line people. Your reason for customers to speak to your front line can be marketing fluff or it can be a tangible hypothesis. If the salesperson I described above was equipped to say, “Based on what I know about your company, my rough guess is that by working together we can help you save $250K – but I’d like to check my assumptions with you before going any further,” I think she’d have a better shot at gaining access without having to lie. Of course, that hypothesis had better hold water. But it’s the company’s job to provide the salesperson with a credible model for shaping those hypotheses.

  • Instill the mindset that we only engage when we can provide a remarkably valuable experience for customers; that we’d rather walk away or wait than get a customer who won’t get that value; that there are plenty of viable opportunities out there if we keep looking for them; and that we respect our customers and ourselves enough to only accept healthy business for both parties. While this mindset matters in sales and service, it needs to permeate every nook and cranny of the company for it to smell genuine to the outside world.

Creative sales behavior is just a symptom of more fundamental issues in any company. Addressing those issues is hard work.  But that hard work is what separates healthy, exceptional companies from those that just achieve short-term results.


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The Simple Reason So Much Coaching Is A Waste Of Time

By: On June 3, 2013

We all know that developing the talent in our organizations is a fundamental role of leaders. Yes, yes we know that we should be adding to the bench strength of our organization constantly since one key to long-term growth is having enough talented, switched-on people available to turn ideas into action. We know we can’t delegate the development of people to the HR department. It’s their job to provide top-notch candidates and tools. It’s our job to wield those tools with skill and dedication.

We even put our managers through mandatory training on how to coach people. And I’d bet you’ve been to quite a few of these sessions on coaching. You know the drill:

  • Coaching is about observing someone else doing their job.

  • Your job as a coach is to focus on their behaviors instead of your judgement of their behaviors.

  • And immediately after the observation is done you should offer your team member some feedback. And yes, yes, you probably even know that it’s best if team members give themselves feedback before you offer yours so that they grow in their ability to self-correct when you’re not around.

You’ve heard all of this. You know it. And you probably know something else too…

Everything you just nodded your head to is solid.  But it doesn’t work. Here’s why.

You’ll work with Team Member A on Monday. You’ll follow the four-step (or three-step or ten-step) coaching process you were taught in class. At the end of that coaching interaction, you’ll move on.  After spending Tuesday and Wednesday keeping corporate happy doing reports and forecasts – and getting stuck in the Tulsa airport during a freak snowstorm – you’ll get another coaching opportunity on Thursday with Team Member B. Again, you’ll coach your team member based on that one snapshot, following the recipe in the cookbook. You’ll check that box and go home feeling like you’ve done your leadership bit.

This pattern goes on for a few weeks through a parade of events – off-sites, report writing, presentations to senior management, your kid’s illness – until you find yourself watching Team Member A again several weeks later. You do the coaching drill again, check the box again, and go your merry way.

Someone please put me out of my misery!

Someone please put me out of my misery!

But if you stop long enough – maybe during your next flight delay – you know that things aren’t really getting better. You’re busy. You’re following the coaching cookbook. But Team Member A’s progress isn’t all that obvious despite your efforts.

More disturbingly, despite your best efforts, the performance of the entire team isn’t improving. You know that in the end, you won’t be judged on how many coaching interactions you’ve had. You’ll be judged on results. So you’re tempted to blow coaching off entirely.

Coaching one team member, one situation at a time seems like the obvious way to begin. But if one coaching interaction doesn’t connect to the next one – and if your team’s performance as a whole isn’t improving – then it’s a waste of time. And that’s because you’re taught to do everything backwards. It’s like you’ve just signed up to coach your kid’s soccer team and they’re getting hammered each week but you’re spending most of your time helping Aidan learn to dribble. If the goal is better results for the team, coach the team, not just the individual.

Here’s one way you can coach a team to better results over time:

  • Observe the team as a whole. Don’t be satisfied with one day of observation. Watch long enough that you’re seeing the performance trends. Choose the trend that has the biggest impact or is the most fundamental. Say you lead a sales team.  Maybe you notice that they’re having a hard time getting appointments because they can’t explain what your company does in a simple, credible way. That means they get fewer shots on goal and obviously fewer goals.

  • Find the behavioral key. Ask yourself, “What change in mindset and behavior would help us overcome this hurdle? How can we keep our promises to our customers better and deliver better results for our company?”

  • Track business indicators that would tell you when the team is starting to improve in your selected focus area. In the case of our imaginary sales team, maybe we would track the ratio of calls we make to appointments we set. Bring people’s attention to this ratio over and over.

  • Start to teach and highlight that theme – improving our appointment ratio – repeatedly with the team, both in group settings and in individual conversations.

  • Ignore other stuff. When observing individuals, watch everything but pay special attention to the aspects of their work that affect your thematic focus. You may even choose to ignore other coaching issues for the short term – like that annoying joke John tells to break the ice when he tries to close the sale –  to help the group get traction. While it’s difficult to ignore the other eight things you see in a coaching interaction, there’s nothing like laser focus to get things moving.

  • Note progress and areas for continued improvement as you observe each person so that you can connect what you see in each coaching interaction. It’s powerful to say, “When I watched you try to get appointments a few weeks ago, I saw you struggle to articulate why the customer might want to meet with you. Today, I heard three crisp reasons – and I saw customers’ eyes light up as a result!”

  • Be relentless. Continue in this vein until the team makes solid progress on your focus area – as shown by the indicators you’re tracking.

  • Celebrate. Learn. Choose a new focus area.

  • Repeat.

Ah, that's better!

Ah, that’s better!

I could leave you there, but I’d be doing something that really annoys me – giving you the cookbook answer without providing the underlying rationale that will help you morph the approach to work for you.  So here’s the rest of the meal. If you want to use the approach I outlined above, you need skills.

  • You need to be a keen observer. Obviously, you have to be an astute watcher of your team members as they perform. But deeper than that, you have to be a student of the game  – whether your game is sales, leadership, consulting, or something else. You have to know what good looks like and why good matters. You have to see nuance and subtlety instead of formulas.

  • You need to be an effective communicator. That means that you have to be expert at helping light bulbs go on. If your team members are giving you blank stares, it doesn’t matter how brilliant your insights are.

  • You have to think critically. It’s no easy feat to sift through all of the potential areas of focus, find the vital ones, and link those focus areas to performance indicators.


But don’t stop at skill. You also need a different mindset. Great coaches don’t come to their team at half-time and shout about the score. Even the dullest member of the team knows the score. It’s there on the freaking scoreboard. Great coaches see their roles as helping teams unlock the secrets to performance.

Then go beyond mindset. Great coaches operate from a different motivation. They want to win, but their real buzz comes from seeing light bulbs go on and enjoying the success of others. Tap into that and you’ll start coaching winners.

Be bright.Noonday Sun


Can’t Find The Right People? Maybe Your Business Model Is Busted

By: On May 22, 2013

You’re sitting around the conference room table with your fellow executive team members staring at a list of symptoms. Sales are flat or even falling. When you start to dig into root causes, you immediately notice that your company has promoted star salespeople to new areas of responsibility. Now those stars’ shoes seem impossible to fill.

This stage might not last...

This stage might not last…

The company has brought in person after person but all of them crash and burn. The pattern is the same no matter what you try:

  • New people come into your company full of energy and optimism. You tell them they’re going to be rock stars. They believe you. After all, they were high performers elsewhere.
  • For the first six months, the new folks drink from the fire hose. They learn your products and services. They get to know people. They settle into their territory or account base. Everyone is still in an optimistic version of “wait and see.”
  • For the second six months, you get the distinct impression that these previously successful people had been donors in a confidence transplant surgery. While they try to disguise it, you can tell that they’re now quietly questioning whether they were ever that good after all. Their activity levels drop as their fear and uncertainty rises.
  • This stage, however, may stick...

    This stage, however, may stick…

    For the third six months, they’ve moved to a new mental place. They blame the company. It’s not their fault that they’re struggling. The training isn’t that good. Their manager stinks. The compensation rewards the wrong things. The product is weak.

  • The new salespeople quit or get fired. After a long enough period, the leader gets fired too. And so the wheel turns. You’ve just wasted a couple of years and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Any time a job defeats a succession of otherwise qualified people, not only is something busted with the job, something is probably wrong with the company’s business model. If you look at why you keep failing to fill your star spots, you’ll see the following:

  • The business model is built around the heroic efforts of a certain group of people, who have to figure out how to attract, win, and retain customers in spite of the company. Because the company hasn’t made it easy.
  • A few stars – maybe up to 15% of the people in those roles – have actually figured out how to be those heroes. This gives the role and the model some face validity since someone’s figured it out. After all, if no one could figure it out, the company would be forced to change or go bust immediately.
  • You’ve made those Freaky Few the template for success. “Hey, Brandon can do it. Let’s just look for more Brandons!!”

But it doesn’t work. If you want to grow and if growth requires more people playing this critical role, you simply won’t find enough of the Freaky Few who will want to come work for you. Even if you do, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll find yourself hostage to them. They’ll know they’re the Freaky Few and whether they’re senior executives, hot shot programmers, or front-line salespeople, they’ll know that they have you. Get ready for a regular series of offers and counter-offers from other companies as the geniuses exercise the power of being in demand.

So if you find yourself stumped by the question, “How come our salespeople (or developers, orwhatever) keep failing?” stop playing around with the stuff on the edges. Ask the more fundamental questions:

  • What is it about how we do business – how we attract, win, retain, and grow customers – that makes it so hard for normal people to do this job?
  • What changes would we need to make to our overall model to make this job – and all of our jobs – fit for consumption by normal human beings?

Addressing those questions isn’t the sales leader’s job or heaven help me, the recruiting team’s job: it’s the job of the whole leadership team. Holistic problems require holistic solutions. And that’s the job of the leadership team – to see the whole, own the whole, and manage the whole. When you do that, scale can happen. Until then, you’re at the mercy of the geniuses.

Be bright. Noonday Sun

Four Ways To Spot A Hidden Genius

By: On March 13, 2013

I heard with some sadness about the death of a legend the other day. One of my hobbies is wilderness camping and this grand old lady was a fixture in the Adirondack mountains near where I grew up. She had rich brown hair, perfect teeth, and piercing dark eyes.

And large claws.

The mountain legend’s nickname was Yellow Yellow and she was a black bear. While her obituary said she was of modest stature, I can tell you from personal experience that she was plenty big when she was 20 feet from me a couple of summers ago. We were squaring off over who was going to eat my dinner. She won the argument, though I later realized with smug satisfaction that the packet of freshly mixed freeze-dried spaghetti was so hot that she discarded it with only two tooth holes punched through the foil wrapper. She had stolen the meal but couldn’t use my spork, leaving her the tortured choice between a singed tongue or raiding a different campsite for dinner. Score one more point for opposable thumbs.

Yellow Yellow, Genius

The next day, I sheepishly admitted to a ranger that I had lost a meal to a bear. After I described her to the ranger, he laughed and said, “Hey, don’t feel bad. We’ve all lost food to that bear. That’s Yellow Yellow. She’s a genius.”

He went on to tell tales of how Yellow Yellow had stolen food being used to bait a different problem bear right from under the rangers’ noses. Of how she had found ways to beat every single “bear-proof” canister invented by man by jumping on them, rolling them down hills, even sending them down rapids. Only one brand had a decent record against her, and even that brand wasn’t foolproof.

Yellow Yellow was a master of learning. Other bears were bigger. Other bears were more aggressive. But she learned and adapted and figured out ways to get free dinners over and over for 20 years. That’s an impressive record of mooching.

Most companies have at least one Yellow Yellow hanging around. They’re often out in the field, coping with problems posed by customer or technical problems that people at headquarters haven’t even considered.

I met a salesperson last year who is a total Yellow Yellow. No matter how challenging the sales environment he was thrown into by his company, no matter how little training he received – and sometimes in spite of the training he received – he figured out a way to be successful. He studied his colleagues and customers. He experimented with things as mundane as what clothes he wore when he went on sales calls. He refined. He puzzled. He mastered. And properly leveraged, he’s worth ten normal high performers because he helps his employers chart new territory.

So here’s a thought. Rather than sitting in rooms hoping you’ll come up with brilliant solutions to persistent problems, why not get out to visit your Yellow Yellows? Study them. Watch them searching for the keys to cracking open that pesky challenge. Try to understand how they think and work. Figure out what they’re doing that others could easily adopt. Enlist their support.

How do you find a Yellow Yellow? It’s deceptively simple:

  • Look for the high performers in your organization. Yellow Yellows may not be at the absolute top of the list every year, but they consistently rank in the top 10%. That’s a good starting pool.
  • Set to the side those who have been successful but have essentially had a stable environment or have been plowing the same furrow for ages. Look for the people who have been thrown into all sorts of situations and still succeed. Now we’re getting closer to the Yellow Yellows.
  • Talk to the people on this short list. Listen carefully to how they think about their work. Are they students of the work or are they purely instinctive? If they can put their finger on what makes them successful in a given assignment – and better yet, you can tell they get completely jacked by cracking the code, you probably have yourself a Yellow Yellow.
  • Throw a new way of thinking at these people. Ask them to experiment and give it a shot. If they’re open and curious and courageous enough to put themselves out there – to risk their precious reputations for the sake of the thrill of discovery and learning… well, you have yourself a Yellow Yellow.

Who’s your Yellow Yellow?

Three Mindsets of Long-run Salespeople

By: On August 16, 2012

After a 3-month unpaid internship, I got my first job as a salesperson.  I was perhaps the most unlikely salesperson in the world.  My dad was a doctor and all five of his sons had been subtly indoctrinated to think that sales was a dirty word. In no way had I been groomed for sales.

Or so I thought.

One of my first assignments in my new job was to fly out to see one of our company’s customers who was well-known for being a bit of a pickle.  He was a middle manager at a very large telecommunications company and was an old hand at dealing with… vendors. I was just the latest in a parade of account executives this guy had seen – and an exceedingly green one at that. I didn’t know the precise reason for our visit that day. He had called the meeting, but I had a feeling it wasn’t going to be a banner day for the new kid.  Mentally, I was prepared for just about anything.

After the bare minimum of chit-chat, the customer gave me the bad news.

“I know you’re the new guy and I don’t want to ruin your day, but I’ve decided to take my business to your competitor.” He went on, brusquely explaining his reasons. But I couldn’t help noticing that he kept semi-apologizing for what he was doing, like he was in a position of strength and was perhaps enjoying a moment of guilty pleasure as he dealt with a young sales guy.

I remember that moment well.  I remember sitting there in my brand spanking new double-breasted suit. I remember the cramped, windowless office. And mostly, I remember feeling unusually calm.  I had prepared myself. I knew this might happen. I had told myself many times that the outcome of this meeting wasn’t going to determine the rest of my life – so much so that I truly believed it.

As a result of that preparation, I felt really strong. I said with a smile, “Hey, I appreciate how you keep saying that you don’t want to ruin my day.  And I want to reassure you about something – you won’t.  Of course, I’d rather you kept your business with our company. I’ll be disappointed if you leave us, no doubt. But it won’t be tragic. You have to do what you have to do.”

My unconscious ability to manage my mindset – and especially my fear – changed the whole dynamic of that conversation.  Suddenly, we were peers talking about a business situation instead of a groveling young sales rep dealing with a powerful customer. The outcome of the meeting was the same.  The customer left us. But the outcome of my sales role was actually strengthened by the experience.

I started to study mindsets that work for long-run salespeople – and influencers of all stripes – and mindsets that get in the way.  Sales is a mental game – maybe one of the most mental games you can play. All of the best techniques and tips and tricks mean little if you can’t manage your mindset.

Here are a few mindsets I’ve observed:

  • Curious vs. Judgmental – While observing a high performing salesperson do cold calls on small businesses, I saw a sharp exchange with an office manager that led to us being shown the door.  As we walked away, the salesperson muttered “I knew she was going to be a bitch from the beginning.” It didn’t take long for him to realize that his mindset – that office managers in general and this one in particular were bitches –  led him to feel and act… well, bitchy.  His whole approach to an office manager’s understandable reluctance to allow him into the office changed when he shifted his mindset from irritation to curiosity about what he was doing to provoke a bad reaction. Mindset matters.
  • Friendly vs. Adversarial – Another salesperson surprised me by saying over breakfast, “I really love figuring out how to beat the customer.” He must have seen me choking on my scrambled eggs because we had a lively discussion on which is a more effective mindset: seeing customers as opponents to be conquered or as potential friends whom we may be able to help.  My argument: you do have opponents. They’re called competitors.  Potential customers will smell it if you’re trying to beat them. And they will not want to lose. How much better to have customers believe you have their best interest at heart? Mindset matters.
  • Proud vs. Ashamed – What’s the first thing a prospective customer asks a salesperson? “Who do you work for?” The hidden question: “Is your company any good?” Salespeople who are proud of their company answer that question fearlessly.  Those who think their company is shoddy or shady wind up mumbling. Next time your senior leadership team is wondering whether it’s worth it to treat customers and employees well, think of that poor salesperson answering that question every day: “Is your company any good?”  Make them genuinely proud vs. having to win Emmy Awards for acting proud when in fact they’re ashamed. Mindset matters.

While mindset is partly each person’s responsibility, companies have a big impact on the mindsets their people show in the market. So as a leader of your organization, think about the mindset you build into your people.  Ask yourself a few questions:

  • Do you talk about mindset as much as technique? When is the last time you told stories and taught people to take a higher road in how they think so that they can pull off great behavior when it counts?
  • Have we studied the moments in customer interactions when our people are most likely to be under stress – the moments when a customer pushes, challenges, or dismisses? Have we helped our people to think about those situations differently so that they can actually behave in a way that really represents our brand on its best day?
  • What do you notice about how your company talks about customers? Listen, we all have difficult customers who haven’t been to Supplier Appreciation School. But do we talk about our average customers like we would talk about our best friends – full of genuine interest and a desire to make a positive difference to them – or are they simply means to our paycheck. Or worse yet, an inconvenience?
  • What do we allow or even encourage in our company that might undermine the pride of our people in our company? What can we do to arm our people with rock solid confidence? I’m not talking about hype here, the stuff we so casually throw into sales meetings to get the troops fired up. Salespeople quickly figure out what’s real and what’s hype – and hype deals a blow to real pride.

What examples of winning mindsets – and the organizations that foster them – can you share?

Six Shortcuts Salespeople Are Tempted To Take

By: On June 19, 2012

A while ago, I had the opportunity to shadow a top-performing salesperson who sells an innovative service to small businesses.  We spent a high-energy day visiting business owners to see if this service was a good fit for them.

It wasn’t easy to get past the receptionists. They sized us up as one of two things: a customer or an inconvenience. They went from smile to sourpuss the instant they realized we were selling something. And even if you get past the gatekeeper, the decision maker isn’t usually too happy to see you either.

Staring down grumpy receptionists and business owners for one day is a fun challenge.  Engaging in these unfriendly interactions every day for weeks, months, quarters, and even years can be a grind. But you have numbers to make so you take shortcuts to close the sale. Unfortunately, shortcuts often lead to a trap door right out of the sale as well. Here are the usual shortcuts:

  1. Be vague and evasive – Some people in my high-performing client’s industry don’t tell receptionists who they work for, even when asked. If you’re asked a direct question (especially one as basic as “What’s your name and who do you work for?”) and you dodge and weave, there are only two natural responses: confusion (bad) followed by suspicion (worse). It’s better to have credible answers to legitimate questions.
  2. Pitch first, ask questions later – We often forget that customers are really profoundly disinterested in our stuff until we understand them.  Oh, they’re endlessly fascinated with themselves and they love to know that you’re interested in them – and better yet understand them too. You’ll get to share about your products and services eventually. It’s better to ask questions first and really understand your customer. If nothing else, it will reduce the time you spend answering objections.
  3. Exaggerate about your product or yourself – We’re all tempted to try to look impressive. But while lying about your product, your company, or yourself may get you through the door, it will eventually get you kicked right back out. “But I can’t sell our product if I tell prospects the truth. They wouldn’t say yes often enough for me to hit my goal!” As one of my clients once said, “If the truth about our product doesn’t sell at our price point, then we have a product problem – not a sales problem.” It’s better to tell the truth and face the fact that you won’t win every sale, but you will build a strong reference stream with those who do choose you when you’re straight.
  4. Commit the sin of omission – There’s bad news about almost any product or service we sell. There are situations where it just won’t work. Even when it does work, we often serve up pain along the way with our solution. But we rarely tell prospective customers the bad news up front. “I don’t want to scare them off,” is the reason salespeople give. So you’d rather have them freaked out after they bought from you – and then tell all of their friends and colleagues to avoid you like the plague? It’s better to acknowledge that your product/service isn’t a panacea.
  5. Avoid objections/blow through objections – One of the toughest moments for any salesperson comes when a customer voices an objection.  It takes legendary self-control and a very focused mindset to not give in to the temptation to either avoid objections or blow right through them.  But everyone has legitimate concerns and questions about a buying decision. It’s better to be curious and helpful instead of defensive about objections.
  6. Create false urgency – “I have to close that customer on the spot or they might change their minds after I leave.” It’s a classic plea of a desperate salesperson – but it belies a failure to really get the prospective customer to understand and own the decision to solve their problem for themselves. If you need to create an atmosphere of false urgency, you’re really trying to create an “impulse sale.” But as my friend, Rick Gibney, says, “Impulses go away; problems don’t.” It’s better to help your customer see if she really has a problem you can solve.

Here’s why shortcuts make a difficult sales job even harder: customers (that’s you, me, and every person on the planet) have highly tuned BS detectors and don’t like the smell of it. So the bad news about shortcuts is that customers sniff them out. The worse news is that once you have the stench of shortcuts on you, you can’t get it off. In that person’s mind, you will be a pest perpetually.

Shortcuts aren’t unique to salespeople. Anyone who gets things done through coercive influence versus building relationship blows their main currency – their own credibility.  No matter what or who you’re selling (a product, your IT project, your R&D brainchild), it gets easier when your credibility is high and just about impossible when your cred drops.

The guy I shadowed took none of these shortcuts but he’s not normal. And because so many salespeople do take shortcuts, the door is wide open for someone like him. Salespeople who build a sustainable career do it because they differentiate their products, services, companies – and most importantly themselves – by resisting the temptation to take shortcuts.

Which shortcut do you and your organization need to replace with a better long-run approach?

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Does Your Brand Have Integrity?

By: On June 6, 2012

Why do some brands grab our hearts while others leave us looking around the room to see who else is there? Don’t blame (or credit) the marketing department. At least, not entirely.

Take my recent visit to a Blockbuster store. Like you, I rarely visit the blue and yellow branded stores anymore. But for reasons I don’t fully understand, Midnight in Paris is currently unavailable for streaming or rental through iTunes or even Blockbuster’s website. My wife and I had heard great things about the movie and with a long weekend road trip in front of us, it sounded like fun to take it along. So I trooped off to one of the few remaining Blockbusters in my area.

Yes, they had the DVD in stock. But where Blockbuster used to trumpet “no late fees,” now their rental program was for 1-night rentals with additional charges of $.99 per night.  When I had that disappointed look on my face, the cheerful cashier said, “It’s just like Redbox!”

I don’t think that’s the message the marketing department intended for Blockbuster’s brand. What they blast out in their ads is, “Total access.” What I heard from their employee is, “We are an obsolete company that can be replaced by a box outside your grocery store.”

Normal brands are built in the marketing department.  While they may be flashy, funny, or sexy, they pretty much stay in the marketing department.  They represent what a few people wish were true about the company or how they hope customers, competitors or investors will see them. But in the end, they have no integrity. They’ll collapse under their own weight.

But brand isn’t advertising or logos. Brand is behavior. It’s the cashier equating this once-dominant player to a box that sits outside your grocery store and making me feel like they don’t care about my experience of their service.

Here’s another example: A United Airlines flight attendant confided at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, “Oh yeah, we used to have a great reservation system. But with the merger [with Continental], we’ve totally ruined that and no one in management cares.” This is behavior a customer internalizes. And instead of seeing the United brand as being a great way to travel from point A to point B, it turns into a bad marriage: “I used to love you and I committed to flying you, but you don’t care about me anymore and if I can find an alternative I will.”

For anyone whose company provides a service–and I’d argue that nearly every company has, or should have, a service element included in its offering–your brand is whatever a customer would say about you if she didn’t read your marketing materials.  If your front line sales and service providers believe you’re sacrificing customer experience (and therefore their daily dignity as they get reamed by customers) for the sake of profits or ego, good luck selling your brand. Brands that are plainly at odds with reality do more damage than good, which makes me glad that United no longer sells itself as the “Friendly Skies.”

Some companies actually get this.  They invest in the hard work required to sync their behavior with their brand.  As a result, their brand has integrity. It holds together. It’s solid and believable.

Take one of my personal favorites: Icebreaker merino wool clothing. I own an embarrassing quantity of this insanely expensive outdoor gear.  What started out as a lone hiking shirt has turned into a cedar chest full of high performance wool.  If merino wool garments were shoes, I’d be Imelda Marcos. (Though I deeply regret it, Icebreaker is not a client, sponsor, or supporter of Noonday. Consider this both full disclosure and an open invitation to the fine folks at Icebreaker to call me any time.)

Why do I love Icebreaker? Icebreaker’s brand Integrity Quotient pegs the scale. Not only do their products do what they say they will do, they have a commitment to sustainable agriculture.  They use merino wool from New Zealand because of its superior performance qualities, but they go beyond performance. They partner with local sheep farmers to provide a steady supply of merino wool and a sustainable business model for farmers.

So when you get an Icebreaker garment, it usually carries a Baa Code which allows you to trace the wool in your product back to the actual farm where the wool was grown.  When you plug that code into their website, you can see more about the farmer and the operation where the sheep live.  A lot of us who use high performance wool outerwear (i.e. outdoor geeks) would care about local and sustainable agriculture.

But don’t stop with the website and what might be an attempt to pull the wool over our eyes. When I’ve called Icebreaker’s US service office, my interactions with them totally match their brand. I usually confess (sheepishly) how much of their stuff I own. They have my record in front of them, after all, so it’s no secret. And in a very understated Pacific Northwest way, the person on the other end of the line says, “Cool!” These people dig the outdoors and have a natural connection to someone who is preparing for their next great adventure. And yes, they’re helpful too.

So if the way you’ve set up your company gets people to behave in ways that actually reflect the brand you’d like to have, advertise away.  If not, maybe it’s time for a re-think of your strategy, what drives your behavior, or your brand.  Otherwise brand is hype. And no amount of advertising can cover up cracks in your brand’s integrity in the stark light of reality.

Here are a few questions to think about:

  • If our customers never read our advertising, what would they say we stand for based on our behavior?
  • What beliefs about our customers, our competitors, and our overall company drive those behaviors? Where do those beliefs come from – and are they helping us or hurting us?
  • Beyond intellectual beliefs, what’s the vibe in our company about customers? Do we get energized by them and display genuine curiosity about what makes them tick? Or do we see them as tools for us to achieve our goals – or worse yet, nurture contempt for them, rolling our eyes when they act like… customers?
  • What behavior should we absolutely not tolerate if we want to live our brand? What behavior should we celebrate?

Building a high integrity brand is never easy. But its value, while hard to quantify, is on display every day for the smart organizations who nurture them.

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Why Respecting Sales is One Key to Growth

By: On March 29, 2012
Planes are funny places. Through the roulette of arcane airline seating procedures, you can wind up next to all sorts of people.  For fun, I sometimes try to guess within 2 minutes which social group the person next to me ran in when they were in high school or college.  If I get lucky and get upgraded to first, chances are I’ll be next to a geek.
Geeks rule the world.  It’s not just Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerburg, and the late Steve Jobs – all celebrated geeks who are synonymous with some of the most influential companies of our time.  It’s the countless ex-McKinsey consultants who inhabit the C-suites of major companies. It’s the top-of-their-Ivy-League class MBAs who pull the strings of financial firms and consultancies. It’s all of those Harvard kids who proudly wore t-shirts saying “we are the 6%” to the Harvard-Yale game this past fall.
Let’s give it up for the geeks.  They took their licks in high school when the jocks ruled the hallways despite their often less-than-stellar academic performance. Geeks knew it wasn’t fair – that they worked harder, achieved more academically, and truly grasped differential equations while a kid who threw a perfect spiral got elected homecoming king.  They had a fair bit of contempt for those jocks mixed with grudging respect for their social and athletic skills.

Now that the geeks rule, they’ve found a useful function for the jocks. They stick them in sales. After all, many geek-execs have the same grudging respect  for salespeople that they had for the jocks in the past.  (Well, Steve Jobs apparently didn’t even have grudging respect but that’s another matter.) They see salespeople as not particularly smart, coin-operated (just give them money and they’ll run just fine), and replaceable.  They require academic pedigree for their technical and executive team positions. For sales, they’re happy with a glad-hander from a state school.

This can appear to work just fine for a while.  Sales roll in and the geek-execs get back to what they consider real work – inventing, modeling the numbers, fine-tuning spreadsheets.  But willful ignorance has a way of coming home to roost eventually.  In this case, it often happens when the sales organization needs a leader, either because of the organization’s growth or because a sales leader moves on. Too often, organizations then take their best salesperson and make him or her the head of sales.

It doesn’t take a genius (irony intended) to predict that this might end badly.  The skills required to sell something to a prospect differ dramatically from the skills required to run an organization.  But take willful ignorance and add a dash of contempt and you’ll do things that will make you scratch your head in hindsight.

After a while with a super-salesperson in a key sales leadership role, you’ll probably see some of these symptoms:

  • Sales success is talked about as a matter of personal style – there’s little consistent methodology across the organization.  Somebody can either figure it out or they can’t. They have “it” or they don’t.
  • Salespeople are idolized. Well, successful salespeople are idolized (because they “figured it out” and they have “it.”)  Unsuccessful salespeople are flushed out.
  • A lot of money is spent on hiring and training, but with little systematic approach.  One year (or quarter) we hire people with deep industry background and a strong rolodex. The next, we hire people who have transferable experience and have been big producers in different industries. Then we hire bright young things fresh out of school who have fewer bad habits to unlearn.
  • We have fabulous sales meetings and regular training sessions.  Each year is a different theme. Each year is a different sales methodology.  We worry about how much the salespeople like the training but can barely remember the content from the year before.

You get the idea. The details may be different, but the organization is lurching from one tactic to another, hiding behind a veil of activity. The fundamental issue is that the sales organization is a bunch of independent sales operators loosely held together by an organizational chart.

There’s a better way. A much better way. But it requires thinking of the revenue generating effort (notice I didn’t say just the “sales organization”) as a system.  That’s a lot harder – and yes, requires a lot more “smarts” – than punting the sales organization to a super-salesperson.  It may require combining the people smarts of the sales professionals and the systems/strategic smarts of technically-minded leaders.  It will definitely require dismissing all ancient contempt for sales, jocks, and the art of doing the deal.

So whether you’re a former geek working in a technical leadership role or a former jock running sales or a former whatever, maybe it’s time we set aside those prejudices.  Even more important, maybe it’s time we set aside willful ignorance in all its forms and become students of what works and why.  Here are few questions we could start to ask:

  • Do we have people in our key leadership roles who both understand the daily work of their function and have a systemic mindset?
  • Do those leaders overtly connect our strategy and brand to how we represent the company in the field?
  • Have we looked at our whole revenue engine as a system and made sure it’s running smoothly?
  • Can we point to the few aspects of the revenue system that most predict our success? How well can we connect those success predictors to the brand we espouse to our customers?

Only when we become learners can we take steps toward the kind of consistent success that will make all of us – geeks, jocks, and those in between – proud.

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Things we love to call salespeople: Heroes, Goats, and Magicians

By: On March 13, 2012

If you’re like me, you have a love-hate relationship with certain groups or products.  I love my Mac suite of products – except when I don’t. When they hum along with all of their elegant simplicity, sync’ing my information beautifully while looking and feeling eerily stylish, I love them.  When I’m right in the middle of a really important document and they give me the Mac equivalent of the “blue screen of death” (which means it’s a nicer interface in more languages telling me that I’m still screwed) I hate them.

The same happens with how a lot of leaders feel about their sales team.  In my last post, I wrote about the tendency we have to credit or blame the sales organization for revenue performance.  When sales are up, we love the sales team. When sales dip, we loathe the sales team. Why? I think it’s more complicated than just the numbers. I think it’s often because non-sales leaders often put the sales team into one of three categories – heroes, goats, or magicians.

  • Heroes: I once worked for a company that glorified sales.  When sales were strong, salespeople were the heroes and could get virtually anything they wanted done in the company.  Need to spend a little unbudgeted money? Done.  Need to take a pass on some corporate initiative? No problem. Want a little extra vacation? Go for it.  The firm knew that revenue was its life-blood. While many other people worked hard to win and bill the revenue, those few who had figured out how to consistently get deals done were special. They won the awards. They got limos to the annual meeting. They had their own suites at the hotel. They were the royalty.
  • Goats: Here’s the irony. At the very same company I described above, salespeople were also seen as the goats. If sales numbers stumbled, they were the ones grilled by senior execs. (My personal favorite was an “Account Review” where a senior exec tossed his reading glasses on the table in disgust at the numbers delivered by one account exec.) While a lot of people should have been accountable for dropping sales numbers (and should have contributed directly to getting them to turn around), it felt really lonely on the sales team when the numbers tanked as others gladly let the accountability fall on the unlucky sales schlubs.
  • Magicians: In some organizations, most people honestly have no clue how salespeople actually do their jobs or what separates successful ones from stragglers.  They see sales as a magical art that a few special people have mastered through an apprenticeship with a mysterious master.  Ask them how salespeople do it and they’ll usually say, “Beats me! But I sure hope they keep doing it.”

All of these labels are really unhelpful.  Great leadership teams and great companies see the whole and own the whole. Revenue is everyone’s responsibility. Whether you work in operations, HR, marketing, customer service, IT, legal, or finance, you should have an impact on your organization’s ability to attract, win, and retain customers – and that’s what makes revenue really happen.

When we share responsibility for revenue and help every single person know how they contribute, a beautiful thing happens: Salespeople are seen as valuable members of a the company-wide revenue-generating team who all roll up their sleeves and lift revenue every day of  every month. No more heroes, goats, or magicians – just team-mates who make a difference like everyone else.

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Revenue’s up? Revenue’s down? If you think it’s just sales, think again…

By: On February 20, 2012

Words matter.  I work with a company where people say that all of the time. They’re right.


What matters even more is the meaning we give to certain words.  There are certain words that, while innocuous enough on the surface, have become twisted or shrunken or blown out of all proportion.

Here’s one example: sales.

First, a confession: as a doctor’s kid, I saw sales as a dirty word.  Sales meant getting your money from your pocket into mine for something you didn’t want or need.  Thankfully, I met my first boss, John Grau.  He showed me that sales could be helping people get what they truly wanted and needed in a way that respected their right to choose. That was a mind-bender and led me to having a surprisingly successful sales career of my own.

But as I have worked with organizations over the years, I’ve noticed that my own upbringing wasn’t the only thing that had twisted the meaning of the word “sales.” Organizations use the word in all sorts of ways, often in the shape of questions:

  • Why are Sales  up (or down) this month?
  • Why does Sales want to discount and cut corners all of the time?
  • How can we get Sales to sell the value of our company better to customers?

Here’s the rub: Sales = revenue and revenue is the life-blood of any organization.  (It’s more precise to say that cash is the life-blood, but stay with me…) “Sales” appears on the Income Statement. “Sales” are reported to owners on a regular basis.  You learn this in basic business classes or when you’re staring at your own P&L as an entrepreneur.

Sales is also, unfortunately,  a department or an organization or the responsibility of a particular group.  Whether a retail associate, a partner of a consulting firm, or a national account manager, usually someone carries the bag of dirt for getting the revenue numbers.  (A friend of mine calls these people “quota carriers.”) And that’s where things can get really messy.

When they slow down and think for 3 seconds, most leaders would agree that their company’s revenue performance  is everyone’s responsibility – because it represents the sum total of the whole team’s work whether they’re in R&D, Marketing, IT, HR, Legal, Operations, or whatever. But we have these departments called “sales” and it’s very easy to say that revenue is their issue. It’s not. It’s everybody’s issue.

So let’s re-frame those questions:

  • Why is our revenue down this month?
  • What’s happening in our organization that tempts us to discount or cut corners to win customers?
  • How can we make what we all do so valuable to customers that they happily pay our fees and even tell their friends about us?

When we ask questions like that, we challenge ourselves to see the bigger picture. We all take ownership and we all get the – dare I say it – joy of making a serious contribution to our company’s success. Sales teams are just one part of the team – not heroes or goats – and we probably end up driving our whole organization to do its best work.

Ted Harro is Founder @ Noonday Ventures

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