How not to manage a sales team: two rules about feedback

I was a half hour from starting my training program with a California-based bank, when one of the senior managers informed me that I wouldn’t be starting at 8 a.m., but at 9 instead. “Today is the District Manager’s sales meeting and everyone must dial in. We have a phone here in the room so we’re going to do that first. Once she’s done, you can start.”

This was fine by me as I wanted to hear how the sales meeting would go.  It was the most interesting, although possibly the worst meeting I ever heard. In fact it wasn’t a meeting at all, as none of the attendees got to participate. Instead, the meeting consisted of sixty minutes of an unrelenting rant by the District Manager.  Sure put a damper on my program I can tell you that.

The theme of the meeting if I can call it that, seemed to be that 1) the sales team weren’t hitting their goals and not bringing in enough new business, and 2) the business that they were bringing in was not of good quality.  Not once did the manager offer examples of the new business that was bad, or a prototype of the kind of good business that the bank was seeking.  I learned later that this monthly meeting had the same tone every time, and always left people feeling discouraged.  Not a surprise.

I mention this story because on today’s Fable Friday I want to return to Ferdinand Fournies’ “Why Employees Don’t Do What They’re Supposed to Do” and his chapter 8, “They think they are doing it.”

Imagine if you are doing a job and all seems to be going well. You get little or no feedback about it, so you rightly assume you must be doing it right.  But if you are not, your manager should be giving you feedback about it and that feedback has to have two criteria.  First, it has to be timely.  You should get feedback about your performance immediately after you do something well, or if you do something poorly.

Second, the feedback should be highly specific, using descriptive behavioral language. If you are a sales manager, do you ever find yourself using vague metaphors like “heads are going to roll, people need to step up to the plate, we’re not cutting the mustard?”

If one of your people makes a poor business call, it does no good to say, “You have to do a better job of picking up on the prospect’s signals.”  Instead, you should offer, “When the prospect shakes his head while you explain how the service works, that’s the time to stop and ask about his concerns. He was giving you a signal that something was wrong. Tell me if you noticed this.”

If your team is not meeting its goals, it does you no good to remind them of their non-performance and periodically berate them. They think they’re doing the best they can.  So you need to change your managerial approach.  Speak to them individually about what they’re doing well and not so well, and make sure you have these conversations immediately after performance in very specific language.  Then they’ll listen to you.

Think Like Your Customer

Catch them doing something right: The SeaTac Marriott story

In stark contrast to its often dreary weather, the people of Seattle generally have a sunny disposition, and nowhere do you see friendliness and cheer more than in the SeaTac Marriott.  Everyone’s in a good mood at this hotel, not just the staff.  Late in the week the road warriors stay there before the morning’s flight home, so the general mood is upbeat and convivial.

On today’s Fable Friday I’ll share a story with you of my most recent stay there in May. I finished my work earlier in the day, drove to the hotel and went down to the restaurant to eat my dinner.  I ordered a beer at the bar and in response to the young bartender’s question about how my day was going, I replied that all was well, except that I didn’t have a crossword puzzle to do.

Let me go off on a tangent here.  I hate the idea of being one of those losers who sits at a bar staring at his phone and texting, so whenever I eat alone I have with me a Sunday NY Times Magazine so I can do the puzzle.  Except that this day I forgot to bring one.  So the guy leaves to wait on someone else and a few minutes later back he comes with the NY Times. He had run out to the gift shop to buy me a newspaper.  “I hope this helps,” he said.

Well, it sure did!  This was a Friday, and the Friday Times puzzle is the 2nd hardest of the week, so I had plenty to keep me occupied. I said to him, “You just hit the jackpot because I’m going to write to your boss,” and I did.

Now Jeff Hart is a really good guy and a great General Manager for the Marriott, and I did in fact write him.  Jeff told me about Marriott’s program which attempts to find people doing right by customers and nominating them for a valued recognition award.  Jeff was only too happy to nominate the bartender, sharing the story and thanking me for passing it on.

I tell you this story today because it follows up on our last two “Steak and Beans” posts, on how to reward people for doing the right things.  And since I’ve been discussing Fournies’ “Why Employees Don’t Do What They’re Supposed to Do,” you should know that chapter 7 is entitled “There is no positive consequence to them for doing it.”  As the great behavioral scientist B. F. Skinner once noted, “People don’t work to get a paycheck. They work to keep it from stopping.”

What this means to you as a manager is that you have to constantly catch people in the act of doing something right and spontaneously offering praise.  And even if you think you are doing this now, I can prove to you that it is not enough.  If you have six team members and you pay a compliment six times a week to the team, that means each person hears from you just once. In other words, you think you are offering praise six times as often as you really do. It matters, so by all means add this trait to your daily practices.

No blog post here on Tuesday, as that is the day my June newsletter goes out. It’s a sales management case and quiz for you on coaching, and I hope to hear from you with your answers. Meanwhile…

Think Like Your Customer

“Sorry, I just haven’t had a chance to get to it yet”

I’ll bet that if you’re a manager you’ve more than once given someone a task or project to do and when you check up on it sometime later you hear, “I haven’t gotten around to doing it yet, but it’s the next thing on my list.” I know it’s happened to me and we should accept that when it does, it’s our fault.

Fournies, in chapter six of “Why Employees Don’t Do What They’re Supposed to Do,” states one reason as being, “They think something else is more important.”  Why do you think that is?  Why would your employee decide that some other tasks are more important than the one that you assigned?

There are a number of reasons, and they pretty much all begin with you.  Let’s start with good managerial technique.  How often do you state a deliverable time when you assign a task?  If you have employees who always complete their work in a timely manner you usually don’t have to worry about it, but if you have team members who are poor at prioritizing, then it’s useful to tell people when you want it completed. 

Good technique is to facilitate this conversation:  “This is a relatively high priority, but I want to be sensitive to your workload and other tasks. When do you think you can have it back to me?”  And then lead the employee through a discussion to help him prioritize and manage his time.

As a consultant, always working from outside an organization, I’ve often witnessed “the next new thing” syndrome.  You’ve seen it too.  Executives will declare that some project “is of top priority” in the company and that this year it will be our total focus.  Then a few months later the “next new thing” appears and everyone is told to devote all their energy to that.  It’s no wonder some people aren’t sure what they should be working on.

This brings up a rant I have about a word with a bad connotation:  “micro-manager.”  It’s a word that has gotten a bad rap because it conjures up an image of the manager constantly looking over his employees’ shoulders to make sure they are on task and not making mistakes.  But if you look at it another way, you could say that the micro-manager may simply be one who is constantly guiding, observing, coaching and praising his team to ensure that people do the right things at the right time and do them well, which is admirable management behavior.

So for you as a manager, do you often let people work on their own? Or are you a benevolent micro-manager who explains company priorities, allocates work based on strategic priorities, tracks progress and rewards effort?  If the latter, then you are quite unlikely to have someone say to you, “I didn’t know you were in such a big hurry for it.”

Try being a bit more of a micro-manager for the purpose of treating employees with kindness and respect for their efforts.

Think Like Your Customer

What happens when the employees think their way is better?

More often than you might think, you’ll run into situations where your employees don’t do what they’re supposed to do, simply because they think their way of doing things is better than the way you would like them done. This doesn’t mean they think your way won’t work, just that in their minds they know more about it than you do.

Fournies writes of this non-performance issue in chapter 5 of “Why Employees Don’t Do What They’re Supposed to Do,” and gives a number of examples and ideas for solution, but today I’d like to offer a couple of my own that come from the training world in which I work.

The professional training designer knows that a proper needs assessment must take place in order to deliver optimal training, and this TNA (training needs assessment) includes a number of key tasks, including interviews with incumbents, managers and others affected by the learners’ performance.  It may also include observation of the performance, an analysis of the job descriptions, and of course the obstacles in the way of performance, so that certain training may be eliminated as a solution.

But that is not always the way training is designed.  Whether because of time constraints, budget limitations or just plain stubbornness, many training departments when told that some training is required, will immediately begin constructing a course map and agenda for the training, without conducting any formal TNA.  This is a dangerous practice. 

So why do they do it this way?  In my experience it’s because they feel they know the job, they have “been there” and they understand what the learners need.  And as a result, training is developed that does not meet the needs of the organization.

Now let’s take it a step further and see what happens when the learners go back to the job.  In the field, they are often told, “Forget what you learned in training.  This is the real world, where we know what is best to do.”  This frustrates the trainers no end.  I have often heard from the field, “They don’t know anything in that ‘ivory tower.’”  I’ll bet you’ve heard this too, and it’s another manifestation of people who simply believe their way is better.

If you’re a sales manager or trainer, think of the number of times you see this problem in your work:

 “The blade guard on that machine slows me down.” 

“There’s no sense spending a lot of time on pre-call research.  I like to just get in the door and play it by ear.” 

“I never bother to get them to sign that waiver. It only turns them off from the sale.”

The way to overcome this is to facilitate the discussion by getting the employee to consider the possible outcomes of non-performance:

“What if you lose a finger? How would you work then?”

“How does your prospect gain confidence in you if she feels you know nothing about her company?”

“Suppose someone sues us because we failed to disclose possible loss scenarios?”

And in my training scenario above, “Why do you think this step was incorporated into the training?”

It is never right to allow an employee to do the wrong thing just to prove you are right. A better management practice is to help your employees self-discover the right way of doing things through discussion, in just the same way you sell to your customers.


Think Like Your Customer

Follow-up on “They think your idea won’t work.”

I promised last week I would answer the question of what happened at the bank when I directed the branch managers to ask every customer, “How are we treating you?”  Or, “What’s been your experience with our service?”  The managers had complained, assuming that the customers would dump their complaints on them and take up too much time.

In fact the opposite was true.  Although the bank was not generally noted for excellent customer service, most customers were so pleasantly surprised by the question that they were disarmed and simply stated that everything was fine.  And those customers who did have problems or complaints responded in a positive, agreeable manner, thus making it easier for the bankers to address the issues without rancor.

One regional manager told me he received a letter of praise from a customer, who wrote that he had been doing business with various banks for many years, but that in all that time he had never once been asked by the bank what he thought of their service. That’s the kind of letter that flies around an organization as evidence that the bank is doing the right things, and so it did.  Asking customers “How are we doing?” is a great retention tactic.  Why don’t you try it at your company?

My newsletter went out this past Tuesday which is why I didn’t post here.  Here’s the abbreviated text, so you can use the exercise in a training session or sales meeting:

“We’ll pretend you’re a life insurance salesperson and your job is to sell me a policy.  Write down the first five questions that come to your mind that you should ask me.  I’ll give you 2 minutes.  Go!

Here are the top questions the learners offer:

“How much insurance do you need, or what assets are you trying to protect?”

“What medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, do you have?”

“How old are you?”

“How many children do you have?”

“Do you engage in any dangerous hobbies such as sky-diving?”

“What’s your annual income?”

These are all useful and necessary questions, and I scribe them on a flip chart.  Once I have a good list, I remind the learners, “I asked you for questions to sell me a policy, but you’ve given me questions to qualify me.  Do you see the difference?  Which of your questions will help you advance your sale, and which questions simply help you to know what kind of policy to sell?”

So we do the exercise again, and there’s a big “Aha!”  Here are the new and better questions:

“If you were to die unexpectedly, what financial circumstances would your family be in?”

“How qualified is your spouse to return to the workforce, or could your family survive on your spouse’s existing income?”

“What kind of education do you want for your children?”  Nobody ever answers this question with, “Oh, I don’t care.  Let them fend for themselves.”

These selling questions help prospects through their own self-discovery process and conclude, “Gee, I really need to protect my family!”

So you see the idea don’t you?  If you’re not thinking like your customer, you’ll ask questions that you need, rather than the ones that the customer needs.  Bankers in particular do poorly at this exercise because they think like lenders and ask questions that qualify the borrower rather than selling. That’s why customer-centricity is always more effective.”

Next week I’ll address another reason why employees don’t do what they’re supposed to do:  they think their way is better!

Think Like Your Customer

Fable Friday: “That’s the worst idea I ever heard!”

Three years ago I was conducting sales and sales management training for a regional bank in the Midwest, and we stopped the sessions at the beginning of the summer because of vacations.  The plan was to resume in September, and since I wanted to keep the training momentum, I gave them this “field assignment” for the summer months.

“Every time a customer comes to your desk,” I said, “begin by asking them how we’re treating them.  Just say, ‘what’s been your experience with us so far?  How are we treating you?’”

Well, you would have thought I’d asked them to walk on hot coals.  The pushback and arguments went on for over an hour.  I gave everyone a chance to speak so that we could talk it through.  The consensus from the group was something like this:  “This is going to open a whole can of worms.  People are going to dump a whole bunch of problems on us that we can’t help them with. It’s going to take up too much time and we have sales goals to meet. This is a terrible idea.”

I’m recalling this story for you today because it’s the subject of one of the chapters in Ferdinand Fournies’ book, “Why Employees Don’t Do What They’re Supposed to Do,” in which the author cites the many reasons for non-performance. In chapter four, Fournies identifies this reason:  “They think your way won’t work.”

How often has this happened to you as a manager?  You tell your team to do a better job planning their outside calls.  They tell you they don’t have time and that additional time devoted to planning does nothing to enhance the call.  You tell them to stand and shake hands when customers come to their desk.  They claim that some people refuse to shake hands, or their hands aren’t clean.  You can think of many examples I’m sure, but you’re in a tough place when your employees decide that your idea is a bad one.

When this happens there are only two solutions.  First, you must sell them on the idea by facilitating the discussion.  Let everyone state his reasons and continue to probe, “And then what will happen?  So what are the consequences of that?”  I did this with my group until they couldn’t think of any genuine obstacles.

“Look,” I explained, “if the person has no service issues with us, they’ll be delighted we asked this customer-centric question and you’ll be off on the right foot.  If the customer does have an issue, there are just two outcomes.  Either it’s water under the bridge, in which case you apologize for it and move on and the customer will be grateful you gave him an audience, OR it’s a live issue which you ought to address in order to keep the customer.  What’s the sense of trying to sell new products to customers while others are walking out the door because of poor service?”

The next thing you have to do is take ownership of the idea.  “If this does NOT work, and I’m convinced that won’t be the case, I’ll take full responsibility for it.  All you have to do is implement it.” The senior managers loved the idea and gave it full support, which helped.

So let me ask you, what do you think happened that summer when the bankers began asking people how the bank was treating them?  I’ll share it with you on Tuesday.  Meanwhile…

Think Like Your Customer

More on why employees don’t do what they’re supposed to do

Last May I wrote about a book I discovered that for me unlocked all the mysteries of worker non-performance, and how these myriad reasons were connected to the training industry and current training practices.  You can find that post here. I based the post on the first chapter of Ferdinand Fournies’ excellent book “Why Employees Don’t Do What They’re Supposed To Do.”

If you’re a sales manager and your team seems to have challenges in doing the things you want them to do, this book is a must read.  In my post last year I covered the first of these obstacles, “They don’t know WHY they should do it,” and I gave you some examples and remedies.

Starting today, I’ll share some other reasons with you, skipping over Chapter Two, which is “They don’t know how to do it,” because when your team doesn’t know how to do something, that is a very good reason to train them, which is what I do. 

Instead, I’ll focus on the other less obvious reasons that are not addressed by training, the first of which is discussed in Chapter Three and is simply, “They don’t know what they are supposed to do.”  Now you may think this is absurd.  Of course people know what they are supposed to do, but let’s look at some examples.

First, go look at the job descriptions of any given job in your company. Let’s suppose we have a sales position, and tasks for the incumbent include “prospecting.” If you were to sit down with a dozen employees at random and ask them exactly what activities are included in the task “prospecting,” you would be surprised at the variations.

When I am prospecting, do I call people on the phone, ask customers for referrals, make on-site visits to local businesses?  What are the actual, discrete tasks associated with prospecting?  When clients give me vague descriptions of job goals I always ask these questions because they help clients think through what they really want the salespeople to do.

If I tell my team that the work day starts at 8:30 and from now on I want everyone to be punctual, what does that mean?  Should they be at their desks working at 8:30?  Walking in the door at 8:30?  Getting a cup of coffee in the cafeteria at 8:30? The concept “punctual” needs to be defined by behaviors.

Another obstacle occurs when managers use tired metaphors to describe performance.  Starting tomorrow, I want everyone to hit the ground running.  Good.  What on earth does that mean?  What does it mean when I tell my people that in order to achieve our sales goals everyone must have “a greater sense of urgency.”  I know just what urgency is, and I can even sense it, but what on earth am I supposed to do?

Next sales meeting, when you challenge your team to a higher level of achievement, check yourself for vagueness.  Qualify every mandate with behavioral descriptors, so you get in the habit of saying, “and when I say ‘make more calls,’ here’s what I mean by more calls.”

If this sounds like a good idea, then go ahead and implement it ASAP.  Whoops!  Did you ask yourself what ASAP means?  Good.  That means you got something from today’s post!

Think Like Your Customer