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It’s a duck…

Managing people can be a challenging; rewarding; and sometimes messy business, true?  For all the talk about employee engagement, front line “supervision” seems to remain a consistent phenomenon in our business world.  Are employees just incorrigible?

As one IT Professional put it; “We’ve been reorganized, restructured, re-engineered, right-sized, down-sized, up-sized, TQM’ed, and MBO’ed, and if I hear the word empowered once more, I swear I’m gonna scream!” 

Geoffrey James

What happens to us when we get promoted to a manager?

Man-a-ger (man-i-gir) n 1. Coach, Teacher, instructor, Leader 2. Mr. Know-It-All, Ego with Legs 3. One who has or will have an ulcer 4. One who apologizes to subordinates for the stupid actions of superiors 5. One who apologizes to superiors for the actions of subordinates.

What’s the key to being a successful manager?  Hall of Fame baseball manager Casey Stengel had this philosophy:

The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided.

With all the animosity and bad jokes about management, many of us still seek that big promotion, don’t we?  In some companies (mine included) a sort of artificial environment is created where employees adopt the feeling:

If I’m not moving up; I must be moving down.

My friend and former colleague, Adam, had this affliction.  Truth be told, I’ve suffered from it myself.

Experienced; skilled; articulate; professional; I can’t say enough about Adam’s talents.  And I think I know the cause of his “moving down” affliction.  We were observing other, less talented colleagues at our company get promoted into front line sales manager roles.

We see it all the time, don’t we?  Those that can do; while those that can’t perfect the internal politic of wooing their boss to promote them.  I was so afflicted early in my career that when two of my best friends were promoted, I could not share the joy of their success.  Nope, in my mind I was “moving down”.  I needlessly quit a great job because of it.

So when Adam caught that bug, I knew the early warning signs.  I tried to offer a little “elderly wisdom” to no avail.  He was going to take a promotion into a bad job come hell or high water.  Which would it be you ask?  Hell or high water?  Well, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

Sure enough, within 10 months of total emersion into his managerial assignment; facing  innumerable obstacles; receiving little support from his superiors; the man who promoted him to begin with called one day.  When needing to deliver bad news, managers often “tip their hand”, hoping to soften the blow I suspect.

Ten months into his role, the discussion was about returning to a front line sales rep role (aka a demotion).  That’s not exactly how his superior said it.  The conversation was less direct; more vague.  Adam called me to relate the exchange and ask for a little “elderly wisdom”.  “Were they really demoting me?”  he asked.  I suggested it might be a good move; a better fit for him.

A new area manager was flying in to meet with him the following week.  To me, all of the signs indicated he was being demoted.  I said to Adam, “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…”  I asked him to let me know how the meeting went.

Adam called me that following week – he left a voice mail, “It’s a duck”.

GAP

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We used to…

I was thinking the other day about all of the things “we used to do”.  Remember “back in the day”?

I used to balance my check book each month.  I’d receive my paper bank statement in the mail; sit down with a calculator, my check book; and balance.  Ever since my wife took over as Chief Household Officer, things have changed.  With online banking and mobile phone apps, she manages our checking account balance near-real-time; electronically.

Think of all of the things in 2015 that in 50 years we will look back on and say, “We used to do that”.  Of course, “I” won’t be part of the “we” 50 years from now – I’ll be long gone by then.

We used to write letters with pen and paper.  In fact, much of the history about the Civil War we learned from the letters written by the lowliest soldiers all the way up to Abraham Lincoln and the country’s leaders.  As we all know, pen and paper have long since been replaced by electronic devices many of which we can simply speak to and the device converts our words into electronic text.  Writing letters with pen and paper?  Long gone.

Speaking of electronic communications, we used to interact with people face-to-face; have team meetings at work; conduct on-site sales calls; host bridge parties at home.  Remember playing card games with playing cards?  Today, many of these face-to-face business and social interactions have been replaced by instant messaging; webcasts; Instagram; and phone apps; true?

You know you’re living in 2004 when: 

1. You accidentally enter your password on the microwave.

2. You haven’t played solitaire with real cards in years.

3. You have a list of 15 phone numbers to reach your family of 3.

4. You email the person who works at the desk next to you.

5. When you make phone calls from home, you accidentally dial 9 to get an outside line.

6. You’ve sat at the same desk for four years and worked for three different companies.

7. Your boss doesn’t have the ability to do your job.

8. Leaving the house without your cell phone, which you didn’t have the first 20 or 30 (or 50) years of your life, is now a cause for panic and you turn around to go and get it. 

Unknown Sage

And that’s 2004; imagine 2054, or 2065!

Even the concept of “interactions” being bi-directional has long since been replaced with the propensity of a one-directional approach (aka “spewing”).  Email in the business world; posts in the social media world; tweeting; texting.  We used to bi-directionally converse; now we spew.

I wonder if 50 years from now we will say we used to drive cars.  Of course, we drive cars today but it seems the folks at Google are deciding that the value of a driver behind the wheel of a vehicle is over-rated.  Are they engineering out the driver and replacing us with global positioning systems and computer chips?

Speaking of computer chips and engineering, I wonder if 50 years from now we will say, “We used to think?”  Will computers do the thinking for us then?

Will we reflect, “You know we used to write; we used to think; we used drive cars; we used to play bridge…?”  If this and more comes to fruition 50 years from now, I wonder what will be left for us to do

Of course, it won’t be “us” – “I” will be long gone by then.

GAP

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Differentiate or die…

Read it?  It’s the title of a business book that’s been on my “To Read” list since July of 2007.  Maybe I should get around to reading it!

You see, I’m finding myself discussing pricing and discounting tactics with my clients a lot lately.  Are you finding yourself in frequent pricing; discounting; deal-approval activities too?  No?  Well then please teach us how you are differentiating.

OK, while waiting for our Teacher to arrive, permit me to offer further opinion on our dilemma when differentiation is absent.  Preface:  I admit I am the owner of the statements, “Never lose a deal over just money”; and “I’m not too proud to discount”.

However, I try to balance this thinking with the off-setting viewpoint:

In absence of differentiation, the only thing the client has to talk about is price.

If this reflects today’s reality, than pricing (and discounting) actions should be our tactic of last resort and employed only after we have executed everything in our power to differentiate, yes?

But exactly how do we differentiate?  Exactly?  Oh Teacher – chime in whenever you want.

Well, while we’re waiting for our Teacher, permit me to offer additional opinions about what is, and what is not, differentiation.  Let’s start with the old, “walking the walk; talking the talk” wisdom:

Men are all alike in their promises.  It is only in their deeds that they differ. 

John Baptiste Moliere

In the movie Batman Begins, the lead actor echoed this when revealing his identity to his heroine – remember?

It’s not who you are inside but what you do that counts.

So, how are we at the “doing”?  It could be the key differentiator our prospect is looking for.  But “doing” what?  What’s the key?  What’s the secret?  Where’s our Teacher?  Is it in one of the many business books I haven’t read yet?  Perhaps not.

When I’m on the buy-side working with a sales-person, the difference maker to me is all of the little things vs. one big secret.  Are they prompt; courteous; articulate; helpful?  Do they follow-up before I buy; after I buy; when I’m having an issue? Proactively?  All the little things:

If we oversold or under delivered, then it wasn’t a sale; it was a lie.  Lying is easy; selling is hard. 

Rick Page

Look I get it – if I’m buying something that requires me to interface with a sales representative vs. just transacting online, then what I’m buying probably has a degree of complexity (and corresponding risk) associated with it.  I’m seeking the sales professional’s clarification skills; her problem-solving skills.  It’s how she helps me think; helps me make an informed decision – not “closing me”.

I’ve noticed my clients are so busy they only want to interact with me when they believe I can add value.  In my world, absence of value = “gone dark”.  So every time I’m interacting with my clients I’m seeking their value – and sometimes it’s simply the little things within our interactions:

That Mary is the Under-Vice President of Expectation Deflations for the western semi-region tells you nothing.  That Mary is wicked smart, totally frank, and a trip to work with tells you everything. 

Rick Levine

You know – their job is tough enough; when my clients call me I try to lighten their load not add to it.  I may not be the smartest; most technical; most skilled resource at my company.  But I do try to be a trip to work with.  And sometimes that’s differentiation.

How about you?

GAP

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Business card titles…

As a professional salesman, I can get pretty self-absorbed in the examination of business card titles.  Usually, I’m fixated on the business card titles of prospects.  

However, I’ve noticed when I’m coaching other sales professionals; they don’t get into this topic as enthusiastically as I do.  For instance, when they say they’re working with the CFO, I’ll ask, “Is that the title on her business card or email signature line?”  I typically get a blank stare in return. 

There’s one tendency about “Chief Financial Officers”, or any other “Chief” for that matter: Chiefs have Executive Assistants; middle managers don’t.  In the above example, when I respond to the sales rep’s blank stare by continuing, “Have you identified the CFO’s EA?”  Their blank stare usually continues as well.  It’s then that I can tell they aren’t much into the concept of business card titles.  To them, any old voice on the phone will do I suppose. 

OK, let’s turn towards our prospects.  Does the business card title of the sales rep they work with make a difference in their decisions?  I mean, in the sales profession we have a plethora of preferred business card titles, true? 

Who do you think your prospects prefer: a “Manager” (and are you of the District Manager or Area Manager variety)?  Do you think your prospects ever wonder: exactly who or what you manage anyway; People? Accounts? Areas?  How about being a Business Performance Advisor?  Or a “Consultant”? 

Do the business card tiles of “Systems Engineer” or “Solutions Architect” stimulate buying preference; or blank stares?  I’ve noticed not many sales professionals use the business card title of Soothsayer anymore.  I guess that one fell from grace sometime after the first century: 

It seems to me that no soothsayer should be able to look at another soothsayer without laughing.

Cicero 

Today, in my industry, “Account Executive” is the title of preference; even better, “Senior Account Executive”.  (Implying others are what, “Junior”?)  Have you ever observed how our prospects react to our business card title positioning?  In my experience, outside of Japan, blank stares are the common prospects’ reaction.  I don’t think they are very much into business card titles either. 

So if all the time and energy invested into business card title creativity generates more blank stares than substance, what do our prospects value when sizing up an introduction to their next, new sales rep? 

Well, let’s take fixing our cars for example.  I prefer an experienced auto mechanic over a Solutions Consultant, Area Manager, or Senior Account Executive.  How about you?  Of course, as the “prospect” I don’t really like being so dependent on my auto mechanic to begin with.  They can speak in such complicated and technical terms, yes?  Puts blank stares on my face. 

Although a Do-It-Yourself alternative is not a practical option, I try to participate in the decision-making process.  Unfortunately, it seems the only sense of control I have over repair decisions is whether to have them done now – expensively – or procrastinate and wait to have the repairs done later – even more expensively!  I should heed the advice of our favorite, Unknown Sage who has coached us on auto repair rates for years; 

            Labor Rates    

Regular                                 $ 24.50

If you wait                                 30.00

If you watch                                35.00

If you help                                     50.00

If you laugh                                      75.00                      

BTW – what business card title to do suppose our favorite Unknown Sage carries on his or her business card? 

GAP

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Titles…

Question: If we added clever titles to our Situation Reports and Progress Reports, would it make for better reading by our managers? 

Yes, yes, I know… you can’t judge a book (or Report) by its cover.  Which according to Wikipedia originates from the English idiom “don’t judge a book by its cover” a metaphorical phrase which means “you shouldn’t prejudge the worth or value of something, by its outward appearance alone”.  But I digress. 

One of my favorite book titles is Hope is Not a Strategy© by Rick Page.  I like the title because it can be applied to so many of life’s challenges, true?  I liked the book too, within the context of the sales profession – where we have to go out and find business vs. hoping business will somehow find us.  

The other day I saw a book titled,  How to Work for an Idiot © by Dr. John Hoover.  WOW!  That may say it all, right?  Question:  If I’m a Manager, do I buy that book for my people?  Alternatively, if they but it for themselves and I see it on their desk, what do I do?  What if they have dog-eared several pages?  It brings to mind words from our favorite, Unknown Sage:  

Owen’s Theory of Organizational Deviance:

Every organization has an allotted number of positions to be filled by misfits.  

Progress Reports, and Situation Reports – do you put titles on these for your manager?  It can be amazing sometimes how out of touch a Manager can be with his/her staff, don’t you agree?  Question:  Is the objective of your Progress Report to keep your Manager informed of your progress?  Or, is it to help your Manager show his Manager that he really isn’t uninformed?  Hmmm 

Another aspect of Progress Report writing is when we write our report; then (and sometimes, only then) we get a call from our Manager.  Now, she wants to discuss what’s in our Report.  Question:  If we are going to talk about it anyway, why did we have to write it in the first place?  Back to our Unknown Sage: 

Sweeny’s Law: 

The length of a Progress Report is inversely proportional to the amount of progress. 

Yes, I find titles often influence my reading priorities.  Of course, not every book (or Report) with a catchy title is a great read.  But at least it gets me started.  How about you?  Do book titles influence your reading priorities?  Here’s one that’s on my to-be-read-list,  What Got You Here Won’t Get You There © by Marshall Goldsmith. 

If you are interested in catchy book titles that, as it turns out, are petty good reads as well, I’m happy to offer these suggestions: 

Don’t Squat With Yer Spurs On © by Texas Bix Bender.  Cowboy logic applies very nicely to many of today’s business settings, don’t you think?  Henry Ward Beecher said; 

The common sense of one century is the common sense of the next. 

Then there is Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun © by Wess Roberts.  The book description on amazon.com: 

Attila the Hun-the man who centuries ago shaped an aimless band of mercenary tribal nomads into the undisputed rulers of the ancient world, and who today offers us timeless lessons in take-charge management. 

Aimless band of nomads – has he been reading our Situation Reports? 

And to help you with your Situation and Progress Report writing, might I recommend, Only the Paranoid Survive © by Andy Grove? 

GAP 

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Coincidences – scary!

Coincidence:  During a breakfast meeting with a group of very experienced and successful executives Friday, I was chatting with a fellow I enjoy listening to (and learning from).  He was discussing a technology idea he is working on – when the conversation moved to the Internet and Cloud Computing.  The company I work for is a leader in the Cloud Computing space, so I was particularly interested in hearing his perspective. 

“The Internet is an unsecure environment that will never be safe for business applications”, he said, and he went on to cite that SAP and General Electric have both gone on record stating they will “never” move to the Cloud.  The “context” was so striking that it reminded me of the 1980s when IBM went on record stating that the personal computer was a nice little device and all, but it would “never” be a business computer.  (Although I didn’t bring this up – my friend is a retired executive from IBM and I saw no reason to take our pleasant conversation down the path of an historical debate.) 

“Context” and “never” – Coincidently, later that morning I finished reading the book Strengths Finder 2.0.  Check it out: 

http://www.strengthsfinder.com/home.aspx  

The author is a Gallop researcher that studies actual data before deriving conclusions (now there’s a concept!).  One of my strengths according to Strengths Finder is “context” – I use past experiences to better understand current circumstances.  Hence, the above comparisons relating to the PC; Cloud Computing; and the word “never”. 

Coincidentally, that same day, I was discussing the topic of compensation plans with my colleague at work.  It seems that our company believes the only “carrot” that motivates employees is money.  Anything else would “never” work.  My colleague found this You Tube link based on, you guessed it – actual research: 

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc&feature=player_embedded 

And coincidentally, on the exact same day my company took all of the employees to an afternoon matinee to see “Money Ball” starring Brad Pitt.  It’s a movie based on the real-life experiences of Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team who applied a new and different way of thinking to compete in the early 2000s.  The traditionalists of baseball said that his approach would “never” work.  Of course, until it did: 

            Everything looks like a failure in the middle. 

                                  Price Pritchett 

In the business world there are all kinds of opportunities for breakthroughs; new ideas; and failed attempts, too (do you remember Apple’s Newton?).  The best way I know of to deal with clarifying and understanding what’s going on today is to seek some degree of “context” from my past.  It’s not a fool proof approach, but it seems to work for me.  And when I hear that word “never”, in the “context” of a corporate setting, I often wonder exactly how long is “never”?  Is it 2 or 3 consecutive, down quarters or market share losses for companies like IBM, GE, and SAP?  

By way of “context”; the 2004 Boston Red Sox applied Billy Beane’s concepts to help them win their first World Series in 86 years.  And, earlier this year SAP re-released SAP by Design, a Cloud Computing implementation of their business software.  Guess “never” came to an end for them both; one sooner – the other took a little longer. 

And coincidentally, I’m getting a new compensation plan today.  But the variable-incentive portion will “never” be based on the research of what motivates employees.  Will it? 

GAP 

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Good Judgment…

Selling is (or should be) a skill-based game, true?  Recently, I constructively criticized some of my sales brethren for their lack of follow-up on trade show leads; and worse, for being judgmental toward their prospects.  They insulted the decision-maker by thinking she wasn’t the true decision-maker.  (It’s hard to close a deal when you insult the prospect, don’t you think?) 

Sooth Sayers say there are many pitfalls in the sales profession.  Here’s another one:  the “Money Flinch”.  Sales professionals usually learn how to handle questions about money the hard way.  Addressing an early, “How much?” from the prospect requires good judgment; and it has been said that: 

Good judgment comes from experience.  Experience comes from bad judgment.

                                                                  Unknown Sage 

Inexperienced sales people often use bad judgment when dealing with the money question.  They flinch, and (to use horse-speak) accidentally “spook” their prospect.  Here’s how it happens:

  • Early in the very first conversation the prospect asks, “How much does something like this cost?”  (Prospects always seem to ask this question early.)
  • The inexperienced sales rep flinches and says, “Oh, I will need to do a thorough analysis before I could give you a quote.”
  • And – Boom!  Just like that, the prospect is spooked! 

It’s a classic, non-answer answer.  The prospect probably didn’t expect a firm quote; a ballpark figure would likely have sufficed.  Yes, they may ask add-on questions to clarify how the money works, but they’re still just looking for an estimate.  However, the non-answer answer can have unwanted consequences.  It seems evasive, even irritating, and can imply:

  • That this thing must really be expensive (maybe too expensive) if an “analysis” is needed before I can get a ballpark figure.
  • That this thing must be complicated (maybe too complicated) if a “thorough analysis” is required.
  • That this sales rep must be an idiot if he can’t answer a simple, direct question with a direct answer! 

How do we in the profession deal with this?    Well, I like to bring to mind the experience each of us already has (the same experience that can lead to good judgment, if we’ll let it.)  You see, everyone has been in this situation before – as the prospect – remember?  We’ve all looked at something we’re interested in and asked, “How much does something like this cost?”  Remember your irritation when you got a non-answer answer? 

When we’re on the selling side and the money question surfaces, we can leverage this experience; display good judgment; and Viola – be sales professionals!  Here’s how: 

  • First, don’t flinch
  • Second, try something like this;
    • “Well, our typical client invests between $xx and $yy
    • Their average return is $zz.
    • And they also enjoy the benefits of A, B, and C.
    • Of course, to provide you an exact figure we should invest some time to understand your needs.” 
  • And finally close with;
    • “Is that what you had in mind?” 

It’s not foolproof, but it is simple, direct and professional.  I don’t worry about trying to get to foolproof: 

It is impossible to make anything foolproof because fools are so ingenious.

                                                                 Unknown Sage 

So when faced with the “money question”; don’t flinch.  Look them right in the eye and offer a number based on your “typical client”.  Add in the return-on-investment and benefits your clients enjoy; and then see if that’s what they had in mind.  

Anyway, that’s how I do it – how about you? 

                                                                    GAP 

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Now I’m no “consultant”

A friend of mine asked me to do a little consulting for him.  He’s trying to grow his company’s top line revenue and wants a complete sales/operations assessment.  He considers me an expert.  You see, in my career I have had the privilege to work for some of the finest sales organizations around and I’ve worked with terrific sales professionals, too.  I suppose that qualifies me for his project – but don’t call me a “consultant”, God forbid!

I usually poke fun at consultants.  I’m not the only one either.  Here’s what Norman Augustine, the former head of Martin Marietta said:

A consultant is an individual handsomely paid for telling senior management of problems, about which senior management’s own employees have told the consultant.

Asking your own employees what can be done to improve things?  Preposterous!  In Corporate America bringing in an outside consultant is the way things are done today, yes?  I’ve heard a consultant described as some guy from out of town, with a brief case.  Well, I guess that will be me when I step off the plane and visit his company.  Come to think of it, I’ll be chatting with his employees about their perceptions of the problems that need to be addressed.  (Uh Oh – if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck…)

It’s true that professional selling is both an art and a science.  However, selling is skill-based and unlike some folklore about being a “natural born salesman”, I believe sales professionals are made – not born.  They continuously reinvest in themselves; constantly seek improvement; and successful companies know that without sales excellence, they limit their ability to thrive. So I’ll take a look at how his company’s sales department operates and see if there are opportunities for improvement. 

Now don’t get me wrong.  There are many aspects a company must excel at to be successful.  Let’s keep the sales people’s contributions in proper perspective, shall we?  (Wait a minute – proper perspective?  Is that possible to do with those egotistical, sales maniacs?  Just kidding!) 

I suppose there are worse things than consultants, too; especially at large companies.  There is that notorious group called “Corporate”!  Back to Norm:

Corporate Staff:

Known in some quarters as Sea Gulls for reasons relating to their propensity to fly round the country leaving their mark wherever they have alighted.

                                 Norman R. Augustine

Many of us have been exposed to these Corporate Staff types, yes?  Yep – another opportunity to poke fun.  You remember; this is one of the “great lies” we have all heard.  It goes like this: “I’m from Corporate, and I’m here to help”.

I suppose it’s always easier to tell someone else what they have to do to improve.  The company’s problems are always in that other department, aren’t they?  It’s a bit harder for us to look in the mirror and ask what we should be doing better.  If we tried a little harder at self-improvement, maybe our companies would spend less money on outside consultants.  Maybe we could benefit from this cost savings – have a few more team-building events; more training to improve our skills; maybe even a few more company outings.  Here’s an idea from Rick Levine:

If you’re given a choice between bringing in a consultant or beer, choose the beer.

So wish me well on my project – but don’t call me a “consultant”!  (And please don’t mention the beer idea to my client, OK?)

     GAP

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