When Salespeople Regress: Turning Whiners into Winners

corp_whinersMy best friend is a national sales manager. One of the things she likes least about her job is the constant barrage of phone calls and questions about seemingly inconsequential problems from certain members of her team. “Why can’t they think for themselves?” she asks. “They’re smart enough to do the work; that’s why I hired them. But whenever there’s any complication, they come running to me. Do I look like their mother?”

Her complaint is a common one. A recent Selling Power survey revealed that many managers feel they are saddled with “babies” and the day-to-day hand-holding this relationship implies. Most resent the time as well as the emotional toll extracted from their own productivity and privacy.

Eileen Brownell, president of Training Solutions in Chico, California believes managers spend 80 percent of their day communicating, and, of that, 60 percent actually listening. “People will come up with umpteen excuses for not getting the work done,” she says. Most are of the “dog ate my homework” variety – it was the client’s fault, the salesperson had a bad day, the other guy beat him to the punch, she’s swamped and can’t manage her workload.

Don’t Let Them Get Away With It

But according to many experts, scratch a workplace “baby” and you may find a puerile environment. The manager must gain control of the quality and quantity of discourse from his or her employees. “People become babies because we let them, ” asserts San Jose-based Hank Trisler whose “no bull” selling techniques has spawned two books (NO BULL SELLING, NO BULL SALES MANAGEMENT) and a Web site (www.nobullselling.com). “They’ll kick up a fuss so we’ll do whatever they want.”

But the path of least resistance is often the road to failure. Bob Davies, a Lake Forest, California consultant who, among other techniques, uses skydiving for performance enhancement and overcoming fear, believes that backsliding behavior is a matter of internal conditioning. According to his bell curve theory, 2 percent are top performers, 70 percent are average, and 2 percent are very poor, with the rest falling between the extremes and the middle. “Most of us are driven to avoid pain and seek comfort, which is why sales people complain, shuffle papers or do other busy work instead of making calls,” he explains. “They’re afraid of rejection.”

However, elite performers “recognize that sales is a numbers game and welcome the challenge of making and even beating the odds.” He compares their attitudes to flying a plane, which, due to the physics of aeronautics, naturally drifts to the left. “I must compensate by pressing down the right rudder pedal to keep it straight. It’s the same with people; they need to modify their perceptions to counteract their built-in limitations.”

Although elite performers know they’re going to be turned down like everybody else, they “make specific declarations regarding a course of action and are accountable to someone outside themselves,” which is where the boss or manager comes in. Activities involve goal setting; for instance, making contacts until you’ve lined up a particular number of clients. If objectives are met, the person is then rewarded with, say, an afternoon off. “It’s a matter of taking responsibility and recognizing that for every action there is a reaction.”

Larry Schulz, a Huntington Beach, California marketer and author of SELLING WHEN YOU HATE TO SELL (CEP, 1991) likens the relations of managers and “babies” to that of parents and kids. “A child is quick to blame someone other than himself. So it’s up to the manager to point the employee in the right direction. For example, if Sam think his territory is better than Joe’s, tell Sam to make five more sales calls a week and give it another 60 days.” Chances are the reason Joe’s territory is so profitable is because Joe made it that way.

WAC ‘Em Upside the Head

Barbara Pachter, who’s written a book THE POWER OF POSITIVE CONFRONTATION (Marlowe, 2000) has developed a formula for dealing with contrary crew members. Basically, the WAC approach involves finding out (W)hat’s really bothering you, the manager (A)sking the other person to do or change something and defining what would solve the problem, and (C)hecking in to see how the individual feels about the proposed solution

Before doing this, however, “managers need to look at themselves,” she adds. “Are they confrontational or bullying? Do they tend to avoid problems? Neither approach produces good results, so it’s important to be honest with yourself.”

And although employees may seem to be jerks — or babies — “there are a lot of other reasons why people behave the way they do,” she says in the book. “”Culture, gender, personal experiences, individual expectations and priorities, age, nonverbal communications, religion…I could keep going.” And sometimes workers do need to be nurtured, at least in the beginning. Pachter sites an instance where a manager took a new employee into his home, pointing out wardrobe items that would help him thrive in the corporate culture and coaching him as to proper table manners and which utensils to use during meals. “The employee now knew how to act and dress and has been with the company nine years. He’s one of their most successful performers.”

Another way of preventing dependency is to be specific. Rather than reprimanding workers like a stern parent, gently point out the problem areas, she continues. “Are they not calling on enough people? Not closing? Speaking too softly or quickly?” Other issues might include failing to provide enough or giving too much information, not following through or being overly aggressive, or poor utilization of body language. An example of the latter includes a man whose customers complained that he had a harsh and off-putting appearance. “Once he softened his facial expression and starting blinking, he was able to establish rapport.”

Managers also need to understand that each employee should be dealt with according to his or her frame of reference. “Some like the direct approach: you simply sit down and explain what can and cannot be done,” points out Brownell. “Others need more coaching — you work with them closely, in increments, and monitor their progress.” Also match the solution with the problem. If time management is an issue, have the person get an electronic notebook or personal organizer and help her prioritize.

Independence Day

Most salespeople are capable of resolving their own difficulties, but the rub is to teach them how to think on their own two feet. Hank Trisler spends at least 20 minutes a month with each worker. “I give them my total concentration. I want to know what’s going on in their world.”

Before they come to him with a situation however, “I tell them to ask themselves four questions. First, what’s the problem? They need to be able to understand it enough to write it on the back of a business card. Second, what caused the problem?” This allows the person to sit back and reflect upon the roots of his or her plight. Third, what are the possible solutions? Here they need to brainstorm about what they can do to get out from under it. Fourth, what is the best solution? “By the time they’ve answered these, they no longer need my advice. Instead they have come up with a recommendation and I usually say, ‘Go do it.'”

Jay Conner, CEO of Morehead City, North Carolina-based Leader Homes, has an open-door policy even though he supervises about 175 salespeople. “Even if they’re whining, it may be because they require some attention,” he observes. “When people have problems, they’re not necessarily looking for you to solve them. Sometimes they want a sounding board and to know someone cares.”

And “what they’re griping about may not be the real issue,” adds Schulz. “Managers need do to some deep listening and help the person look within” to find out the true cause of the unhappiness. “When they regard their work as job, they run into trouble. Sales is all about internal motivation and meeting goals” rather than putting in the hours and passively waiting for results.

Also, problems need to be taken care of quickly. Although Conner “tries to be slow to speak, even if I immediately know the solution, I think about it some more and get back with the person within 24 hours.” Similarly, goals can be set within a particular time schedule.

From Bug to Windshield

“Sometimes you’re the windshield and others, the bug,” asserts Willie Jolley, lecturer and author of A SETBACK IS A SETUP FOR A COMEBACK (St. Martin’s, 1999) Adversity is part of the sales process. “The negative bug flies down the street, doing the right thing, and bam! — smashes into the windshield” for example, losing a key account. “He then starts talking about how it isn’t fair and crashes and burns. The positive bug hits the windshield too, but he realizes that in life things happen, and he has no control over this particular situation. This gives him the resiliency to try again and the next day, he might be the windshield” and garner an even bigger client, winning over several competitors.

The savvy manager leads salespeople towards this type of thinking, “sort of like a mother eaglet who drops her babies over the chasm,” continues Jolley. “They may not fly the first time out, and she may have to swoop them up after a few more tries, but eventually they’ll get it.” Effective managers “will either fire their salespeople or fire them up, providing the tools and encouragement they need to make themselves successful.”

And certain people will never be satisfied, no matter what. “They can be a cancer on employee morale,” observes Thomas White, a sales manager for Signature Inn in Evansville, Indiana. If all else fails, they too should probably be excised.

But perhaps the most important realization by both managers and employees is that “their biggest competitor is not product management, pricing, or lack of advertising,” comments Davies. Rather “it’s themselves and human nature.” Only then can they go out and kick butt with the big kids.

Sidebar: Tempers Cease: The Marine Way

Before shipping employees off to boot camp — or giving them the boot — consider how the Marine Corps handles its raw recruits. Both former Marines themselves, Dan Carrison and Rod Walsh of Semper Fi Consulting in Sherman Oaks, California have built a management philosophy based on that particularly macho brand of the military. And it’s surprisingly gentle.

Forget about the in-your-face drill sergeant. “That’s Hollywood’s interpretation,”” insists Carrison. “You get nowhere by intimidation. And who in their right mind would go an extra mile for a tyrant?” Instead, “Marines are inspired to act courageously because they want to excel. They work together, and their leaders cultivate each individual’s resourcefulness and talents.”

Nor are Marines automatons who blindly follow orders. “The officers encourage solution-seeking,” points out Walsh. “They take them out of ‘babyhood’ and teach them how to handle difficult situations,” mostly by having them assume personal responsibility for each task and utilizing inner strengths.

Learning is also done in increments. “Rather than immediately rappelling down a 30-foot wall, recruits start with a small section,” explains Carrison. “That way, they build confidence by mastery of each step.” Everything is done as a group, “so there’s no chance of backing out.”

The instructor goes first, providing leadership by example, and the generals eat last with the lower ranks getting served initially, according to consultant Brent Filson of Williamston, Massachusetts, another veteran of that venerable branch. Higher-ups are also the first to rise and the last to go to sleep. “The Marines recognize the importance of small unit esprit de corps and how it can strengthen an organization from the bottom up.”

Like armies, organizations travel best on a full stomach, both physically and spiritually. “Rather then focusing on the individual, managers might do well to emphasize team players,” suggests Walsh. “That way everyone is given credit and it provides a sense of unity” rarely found in private enterprise.

Managers should share defeats, along with victories. Adds Carrison, “They need to be there during the bad times, too. Too often failure is interpreted as “the ‘other guy’s problem.'”

In the Marines, “officers do whatever they can for the team’s completion of the mission,” he goes on. “There are no secrets. It really is a brotherhood.” And we can all learn from that.