Professional Capital, a sales training organization, offered a “knowledge seminar” in Rotterdam this week, “Effective ImageSales Management.” Even though I’m not a sales manager, and the last time I worked in a full-on sales position was back in 1990 when I worked F&I at Cypress Coast Ford in California, I wanted to gain more insight into more modern sales practices. As well as some of the challenges salespeople are dealing with in this brutal economic environment. The organisers were gracious enough to make a place for me and I attended the small gathering.

The first thing I noticed was how tall and good looking the other men were. Yes, all men. All tall and good looking. And white. All in their mid- to late-30s. That should have signaled to me what was coming. Even though they were from a broad variety of industries (construction supply, financial services, IT), they were dressed identically in the uniform of the urban Dutch professional: jeans or slacks, open dress shirt, good shoes.

It was a good session. An excellent and well-moderated format by Maarten Colijn, from the organization. Lots of good ideas exchanged, case situations explored and the challenges of being a sales manager in a tough economy the order of the day. But there was an undertone which disturbed me and it wasn’t until the drinks and informal session afterwards that I discovered what it was.

“Salesmen are born, not made,” stated one. “Agreed,” said another, “In fact, you can tell within 30 seconds of an intake interview whether he’s got ‘it’ or not.” I found myself initially nodding in agreement, but then caught myself. Hey, wait a minute! What is “it”? And why only “he”? Then I realized. What they really mean is, “When I find someone who is exactly like me, I know I’ve got someone I can work with.” Even though many of the problems, many of the challenges they talked about earlier, upon reflection, were a by-product of this “like searching like” procedure.

Good Looking Guys, v. 1.0

Today’s Sales Manager – an archetypical sampling

Their need for salesmen clones in their organizations, and their inability to tolerate diversity, were evident in the problems we examined:

  • Difficulty in developing new markets;
  • Difficulty in seeing new opportunities with existing clients;
  • Difficulty in finding “common” ground with which to motivate their charges;
  • Difficulty in motivating their people in a difficult economic environment;
  • Difficulty in accepting other ways, other than “my way,” to the client.

It was particularly this last point that later confirmed for me the value of seeing output, rather than input, as the only valid measurement tool.

Input/Output

Appearances are input. Method is input. Approach and planning are input. Individual behavior and reward systems are input. In the sales world, there is only one output, and that’s getting the customer to sign on the line that is dotted, to quote Blake in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. One of the participants said it well, “The sales world is binary: you either have the sale, or you don’t.” Yet these otherwise accomplished sales managers were racking their brains to find better and more efficient ways to manage their input. Not in the name of efficiency, but in the name of homogeneity. How to find more people just like me? How to get them to toe the line and do the job exactly as I’ve done it all these years? After all, my way must be the right way – it’s worked for me!

The challenge is getting them to reframe the problem. Instead of seeing it as a problem of control and with managing input, a question of letting go, accepting any input that their people attempt, as long as the outcome is acceptable. Getting them to focus their energies on defining targets that are purely focused on output (sales results), not on input.

In other words: do they have the courage to accept any input as long as it meets the agreed-upon criteria pertaining only to output?

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