My first job as a professional sales representative for a major computer company was more like a roller coaster ride than a career step. During the first 12 months I had five different sales managers. (The first one was committed to a mental health facility by his family, which led to second guessing everything I learned from him.) The subsequent managers were never in the role for more than a couple of months for a variety of reasons.
When number six showed up, the entire team released a collective sigh of frustration. Bob was a former clothing textile sales professional, not the normal profile for this computer company of 60,000 employees. I’m sure all of us drew some opinions about his ability to survive as a square peg in a round hole.
Bob spent the first few days asking a lot of questions. He wanted to know what was working and what wasn’t. He showed a lot of interest when I complained about the call reports we were required to fill out every Friday. I explained that each of his predecessors followed company policy by holding us accountable for the weekly report. It would take a couple of hours to fill out, and for the most part, the previous managers wouldn’t even look at it. They would just file them in the row of filing cabinets in the hallway. I wasn’t the only one frustrated by this valueless activity. He heard the same thing from most of the sales staff.
(The information I left out of my complaint was I had been occasionally photocopying the same report and altering the date, just to see if the last manager would catch it. He didn’t.)
When Monday morning rolled around, we all showed up for Bob’s first 8:00 am staff meeting. We could all see through the glass wall into the hallway. Bob was talking to a couple of men with hand dollies. When he wrapped up with them, he came into the staff meeting and started with a summary of what he had learned the previous week: The team hadn’t achieved quota for three quarters in a row, the technical support team felt under appreciated, and we had failed to land a single account for a new product that was showing promise with other sales teams within the company, among other things.
What happened next caused all of us to gawk. One by one, the moving crew began to cart the filing cabinets out of the hallway and out of the office. The person to my left and the person to my right both simultaneously nudged my shins with their shoes under the table as if I was missing the spectacle. Bob, paused for a minute to let the vision sink in, and then announced that he was putting an end to the weekly report. Instead, he said, he wanted to join each of us for three sales calls a week to have some fun and learn the business.
As the meeting progressed, the filing cabinets were completely removed. Bob wrapped up the meeting with some positive comments about how much he was looking forward to working with each of us.
No less than four people stopping by my desk that morning to comment on how much they liked the new boss. “I think he’s exactly what we need around here”, was the common sentiment.
When Bob joined me for a sales call on a new prospect the next day, I was actually surprised that he didn’t say anything the whole meeting. The previous manager would have taken over the sales call by minute five.
When I got to the point in the discovery meeting where I asked about stakeholders who should be included in the dialog, I took my pad of paper and slid it across to my prospect with a pen. I asked if he could outline them in an org chart so that I could better understand where they fit in the organization. The prospect nodded his head and proceeded to draw the org chart for me, adding notes on relevant character attributes of each stakeholder as he went along.
I wrapped up the meeting after building an action plan with the prospect. Bob and I shook hands with the prospect on the way out of the building and silently walked back to the car. When we got in the car, the first thing Bob said was that he learned something very valuable from me during the sales call. I was a little taken aback, being used to sales managers that started a debrief with a critique. However, my curiosity was piqued, so I asked what that would be. He said he wouldn’t have thought to hand the pad and pen to the prospect to write down the org chart, but witnessed how naturally the contact accepted the task and added even more insight into the story.
When I asked if there was anything I could have done better, Bob said he thought the sales call was really productive, and asked if I minded sharing the story about the the org chart with the rest of the team. He concluded by observing that he might have missed something while he was taking notes. He asked how much money the problems I uncovered were costing this company. I replied that we didn’t explore that subject, so he just nodded his head. I thought it was a good question so I made a mental note to myself to follow up with that subject in my next meeting.
Bob continued this process with everyone in the office. As I found out from hallway chit chat, he didn’t take over calls, and started each debrief with a compliment. My org chart example wasn’t the only positive example he shared during the next staff meeting. Everyone received a compliment about something that went well during their sales calls.
During my subsequent sales calls with Bob, I never missed the opportunity to uncover the value proposition associated with each problem set. That’s when I learned something powerful about asking, rather than telling. I took ownership for the question since I didn’t have the answer. Had Bob told me what I missed, it was likely that I wouldn’t have taken ownership for the question as much as I had.
Bob continued with this pattern of listening, asking questions and complimenting success. He also engaged on other activities that further cemented our loyalty to him like removing obstacles, brainstorming on strategy, and breaking bread with us. The team would stretch their achievements for Bob on a regular basis, accomplishing quota that quarter and every quarter thereafter until I departed the organization for my first start up experience.
Although I learned even more from Bob, here’s a summary of what Bob taught me about winning the hearts and minds of your sales team in just a couple of weeks:
- Be a good listener. It doesn’t mean you have to take action on everything. Part of the process is allowing the venting to occur and strategically picking roadblocks to remove or assignments to cull based on context and payoff.
- Symbolism. Take action on the team’s behalf in a demonstrable way. I label the filing cabinet removal as “symbolism” of change. The more visual the symbolism of change, the more profound its impact.
- Coach by asking, not telling. Bob demonstrated how to coach by asking good questions to help me uncover the holes for myself, not by telling me what I missed. In my own leadership roles, I’ve noticed the more a sales person takes ownership for a hole in their process the more likely they achieve a higher result in the future.
- Catch them doing something right. A small compliment shared in front of others goes a long way to building trust and rapport.
Kevin Temple guides sales teams to be more agile and improve revenue outcomes. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Enterprise Selling Group is a leader in delivering sales training, coaching and project oversight to improve the agility of sales teams around the world.