Early in my career I spent two years in the field as a commissioned salesman prior to moving into corporate to management when I worked for Timberline Software. I had no formal sales training other than a Dale Carnegie sales training course years prior, but read everything I could put my hands on and watched closely the best sales people I worked with to discover how to be successful. My hard work paid off because at the end of my first full year in sales I had won the award for top sales volume. Looking back at my ten years with that company, I can honestly say the time I spent in sales was the most valuable career builder move I could have made. The funny thing is that when I first interviewed with Timberline I told them I wanted to be a manager, but the president said that all they open was sales positions so I decided to start there because I really wanted to work for that company. I had prior experience with the product and had been impressed.
John Gorman, the president of Timberline Software at the time was a very wise man. The lessons I learned about business and customers helped me to both lead sales and marketing for the company years later. I knew firsthand what it took to sell our products, and I had a keen awareness of both the strengths and limitations of our product in the market. And while the specifics changed over time, I never lost a healthy respect for what is involved in serving a customer.
What are you doing to create opportunities for everyone in your business to deeply understand what is involved in serving customers and growing your business? Quite possibly the best thing you can do is put everyone close to the customer and the market for a period of time, and make the time count. Make them responsible for something involving the client or the market, so they really feel the importance of that role.
There are seven keys to success in sales for any business. The first two are embracing the truth (which will help bring accuracy to the way your products meet the needs of clients) and the power of purpose (when everyone is serving a purpose larger than just profits, good things happen. Here are the remaining five keys I learned as a result of my years at Timberline and the work I’ve done with CEOs for the last twenty plus years.
3) Focus on Profits. People only buy your products if they will help them become more profitable. Having a focus on profits involves first thinking about the customer and how your products or services cause them to become more profitable, and if you do this well, your company will do the same. Today the requirements for intense ROI (return on investment) is more critical than ever. Most every company in America is working on getting themselves out of debt, and as a country we need to do the same. We all won’t be able to provide the tax revenue and sustain the standards of living we have come to expect in this country if we don’t focus on profits. Remember, reducing costs is focusing on profits. Look for ways to cut the cost out of what your company delivers, and do the same for your clients. When you can demonstrate this, it lubricates the sales process in a very nice way. Your sales will eventually line up with your plans if you operate this way on a daily basis.
4) Build process into everything you do. The recipe for success is consistency and quality. Variation causes waste and hurts your reputation in the market. I’ve worked with hundreds of CEOs over the years and each has their own genius and creativity that enables them to establish and grow a business. Unfortunately that same creativity can bleed into operations and become an obstacle to growth and sales success. Consider the success of franchised businesses. McDonalds does not have the best products, but their success stems from processes that produce a consistent product that people want. For high creative types building process into the business can be difficult. It makes sense to get outside help if needed so the creativity brought into the company has a way of being consistently and profitably delivered to clients. Creating a process for how sales happen was a keystone of the success I created at Timberline Software when I recruited and built the dealer sales channel. It also provided the backbone for ongoing improvements. “Wire in success” by identifying and documenting the recipe for serving your market with your products or services.
5) Be practical. Similar to the point about creating reliable processes, being practical in the way you run the business and approach sales is valuable. Innovation and creative ideas are absolutely critical elements of staying competitive in the market today, but is someone asking about and challenging each new idea to make sure it is practical and can be executed reliably and profitably? Developing a healthy balance between the creativity in the business and the practical reality of it will help ensure you minimize failed attempts and profit eroding ventures. Develop a habit of asking everyone “is it practical that we do things this way?”
6) Position for success. What’s the difference between Wal-Mart and Kmart? Kmart went into bankruptcy in 2002 and now is owned by Sears Holding Company. Today Wal-Mart is the world’s largest retailer with more than 4,300 stores in the United States and over 8,000 worldwide, with global sales topping $400 billion in 2009. Kmart (SHLD – Sears Holdings) has a market cap of 8.9 B where Wal-Mart has 182 B. The real difference between the stores (other than a string of poor management leaders at Kmart) is that Wal-Mart is clear about how it is positioned in the market and how they understand their formula for success. In the 2002 book Kmart’s Ten Deadly Sins by Marcia Layton Turner it is explained that “Wal-Mart is a large factor of why Kmart is in the position it is in,” says Retail Forward’s Sandra Skrovan. “Whereas Wal-Mart invested in infrastructure—the systems technology and business processes—to really drive cost efficiencies in its business and drive prices down for consumers, Kmart just didn’t make the same investment. So for Kmart, I think the key issue is the lack of competitive infrastructure, systems technology, and supply chain management that would give it the ability to play on a level field with Wal-Mart says the author.
In this book Good to Great, my friend Jim Collins introduced a concept known as the Hedgehog. If you didn’t read the book, or of you don’t’ exactly remember a hedgehog is an animal quite well prepared for survival, but in business the Collins hedgehog is comprised of three things: What you are most passionate about, your economic engine (how you make money – your recipe for profits), and finally what you can be the best in the world at. The secret to positioning is: Being all of what you can be the best in the world at. Then make the investment to bring that vision into reality.
7) Be in Action. And it finally all comes down to this. The secret is execution, the ability to take the necessary action to do what is necessary, invest what is necessary, learn what is necessary to make your plans a reality. There is a big difference between thinking about it and doing it. All of us begin not able to accomplish our vision, and through a process of what we call “the game worth playing” investing and doing what is necessary to make it all work.
According to the 2008 small business economy report to the president – in 2005, more than 12 million people were involved in trying to start new businesses. For 90 percent of those beginning entrepreneurs, it takes more than five years after the process has begun for an outcome to be determined.
By that time, about one third have implemented a new firm, one third disengaged from the process, and one third is still continuing the start up mode.
Successfully launching a new business can be a long and painful journey. Wouldn’t you want to know that you will have success by the end?
In our observation of highly successful companies we note they all share seven common characteristics that both cause them to grow their sales and retain loyal customers.
1) Embrace the Truth. In V2A Leadership, we have a saying: (it is actually a leadership axiom) “You can have no influence over that which you are not in relationship with.” Simply what this means is that if we are in denial of any aspect of how things really are – we will not be effective in changing them.
This rule is particularly valuable when it comes to building sales success. You have probably observed businesses going to market with a solution that people “ought” to buy or interacting with the way people OUGHT to be, rather than the way they really are. A quote that has become well used to the point of being worn out is: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. Success lives in avoiding insanity at all costs.
Embracing the truth can be a dark experience. Realizing we have had our ladder of success up against the wrong wall can be a painful realization. However embracing the truth about ourselves, our market, our products, and our employees is absolutely powerful.
2) The Power of Purpose. Knowing why your business exists and modeling that purpose daily is the key in building trust and confidence in the marketplace. The true purpose of a business is revealed in a set of elements:
a. Vision – Reveals what success looks like, all true and inspiring vision is outward focused, aimed at making a contribution to others.
b. Values – Corporate values are more important than we often think. It is the lived values of an organization that actually bring value to clients. In fact, shared values are at the heart of the added value process because customers are actually attracted by what they value, and if your offerings match their values it is possible to ‘add value’ in the process of serving them. By contrast, if you land customers who don’t share your values, you won’t ever be able to please them.
c. Goals – Knowing what you want to accomplish, claim you will accomplish and then deliver represent the stepping stones to success. Being goal driven, and public in goal setting and attainment helps fuel the value delivery process.
d. Agreements – Agreements drive action and velocity. Making and keeping agreements with customers drives both results and satisfaction. Aren’t brand promises actually offers to make an agreement with your customers? Keeping these agreements will build loyalty and repeat sales.
Next, learn what successful companies focus on to maintain sales growth and sustainability.
One of my early heroes is Buckminster Fuller, the inventor who among other things created the geodesic dome. Bucky found himself as a failure at a very early age, after being fired from a company he started with his father-in law. He was so depressed he considered ending his life, thinking it might be the best for his wife and their young daughter, as Bucky had failed so miserably. In the dialogue and debate between Bucky with the author of the universe, Bucky came to the conclusion he did not belong to himself, but had a duty to the universe and was here for a purpose. He then reasoned that the cause of his failures had to do with his pursuit of his own needs and interests, and that he would from this point on live his life in service to others and the planet.
Bucky accomplished much in his life. He was welcomed everywhere he went even in Russia during the height of the cold war. There was something about how this man lived his personal purpose, making a contribution to others that enabled him to have positive influence in areas that were closed to other leaders.
What is your Game Worth Playing? Why do you do what you do? What gets you up in the morning? What causes you to persevere through difficult times?
Your capacity to lead in your organization will be enhanced when you get clear about your Game Worth Playing. Understanding your personal purpose and honoring the reason you exist will provide you with a source of energy and strength that is important to your well-being.
Today we have technology that can assist in living out our Game Worth Playing. Check out this video of Dennis Crowley, co-founder of foursquare, at a recent TED talk. Notice the Game Worth Playing message in his talk, and how software can enhance and enable the game. Some have suggested that Crowley, a serial entrepreneur could be a good replacement for Steve Jobs when it is his time to step down. Creating a Game Worth Playing is the tenth stream of leadership influence in the V2A Leadership model.
Dennis Crowley, TED Talk, Technology and Game Worth Playing
I’d like to hear your thoughts about the what Dennis says about how technology can enhance a personal Game Worth Playing.
I’ve said that the short definition of a leader is “someone that makes things happen that otherwise would not have occurred” as a way of explaining how to think about the essential nature of leaders and leadership. This saying begins to aim at one of the essential characteristics of a leader which is a focus on the results.
If the measure of a leader is in the results produced, then we as leaders must continually examine what is occurring as a result of our efforts. Making this examination can be the driver of the humiliation process for the leader with the right heart. If we are truly honest in examining our results we will see what has and has not appeared to work in our leadership practice and we can discover what we can do better. If done properly this continual examination of what we are causing in the circumstances and in others is humbling. The ability to rightly examine the results of leadership is a critical skill to developing leaders. If we are too harsh with ourselves we will weaken our resolve and confidence, if we are too self-critical we will overlook the necessary work that must challenge others which can cause them to struggle and do their part. What I have noticed for myself is the process seems to generate more questions than answers in the way I lead and this may be the most valuable aspect of the process of continually assessing my results.
I am living this reality in my own practice of leadership. What I can tell you is by examining the results in contrast to the vision we are holding for the ‘ideal’ helps us see the patterns in our own practice of leadership that needs to be assessed for improvement or reinforcement. The best practice of developing our leadership style is to keep what works and change what doesn’t.
Launching the self assessment process begins by asking yourself good questions about the results that are showing up. Here is an example:
Is the ‘fruit’ of my leadership producing people who are more clear about the vision and the results we are wanting to produce?
|“A leader should continually act in a way that creates clarity for everyone about what is most important”|
A leader should continually act in a way that creates clarity for everyone about what is most important and the combined results we are all committed to producing. If the number one job of a leader is to create clarity (per Buckingham in the book The One Thing You Need to Know) then everything we do should build greater clarity for everyone involved. Here is an example from a client who has a small technology company that illustrates how this process can work.
This CEO took a long deserved vacation from his business and left it in the hands of his three employees to run over the two weeks he was going to be out of the country. For any entrepreneurial leader it can be a daunting proposition to leave the business and all that is involved in the hands of the employees, but how else do we ever know what they know they can do?
This CEO left instructions to his people on how to reach him if an emergency arose but encouraged them to not contact him unless it was necessary. With this, he packed his things and headed off for sun, sand, and a much needed time of relaxation and refreshment. While he was gone things back home began to unravel. A big client did not send in an overdue payment as promised which had the effect of telegraphing a message to the employees of this cash tight company that things were only going to get worse. At the same time a series of frustrations and failures among employees fuelled the surfacing of interpersonal and work related challenges that would have normally been salved by the leader were left to fester into doubt and concerns about the members themselves and what they had to do to make the company work successfully. You get the picture; the worst nightmare a CEO has is that things will unravel while he or she is gone and that what they will return to is far worse off than when they left. The buzz at the office had turned negative and optimism had faded into concern and doubt in the absence of the founding CEO. But, the employees wanting to hold down the fort in the absence of the CEO did their best to not bother the CEO on his much deserved vacation and with the best of intentions waded through the daily grind to hold things together until his return.
Then, just prior to boarding the plane on his return trip back from abroad the CEO decided to check in on the folks at the office to see how things were going. In a brief phone call he received the low-down. The expected payment from the big customer had not been received even though best attempts were made to encourage payment. People had held together as best they could but invariably doubts surfaced in conversations between employees and some were overtly questioning their roles and even their continued participation in the company. Clearly things had come undone and the rest and relaxation the CEO had accrued quickly dissipated as he boarded the plane home.
What did this leader do on the long flight home? What would you do? Jump into solution strategies? Begin to search for the culprits who clearly dropped the ball in stepping into the leadership role in his absence and either root them from the company or discipline them for their obvious failures?
Our CEO did none of that, although his first reaction may have been that. He looked at his vision for the business and the results that were being produced. In the language of V2A Leadership he examined the GAP by starting with his vision and passion for his business and then looked at the current reality results. In this examination what he realized was that he hadn’t been having much fun himself for the last few months and that at least one if not two of the employees were probably poor fits in the roles they have. The delinquent customer represented a type of work that the company should probably consider dropping or restructuring and a serious examination of the best utilization of the skills and passion of everyone in the business would be a healthy exercise. Finally he asked himself some questions about what he most loved doing in the business and realized that he was spending much energy on dealing with people and people issues and wanted to return to putting more time into employing his technical and creative gifts.
Upon return to the company he called an important meeting of all hands. He listened to the first hand reports from everyone about what happened and their interpretation of the events and then delivered the short presentation he had prepared on the plane home. He opened with his vision for the business and what he wanted for himself and everyone else on the team. This vision has always been a technology company making a significant contribution in the area of their expertise for clients who cared and having fun in the process. Clearly his absence from the day to day of the company made it clear that current reality was far from the vision. He then spoke his commitment to each and every employee that he wanted them to have jobs they loved where they know they were making the best contribution they could from the skills he knew they have. Then he ended his short presentation with the following request: Take the rest of the day off and think about what you and we are doing and come back with your recommendation for how we should precede. If in the process you decide that you aren’t having fun or you realize this is not the best place for you, then I want you to let me know what you will do about it.
In the meeting that followed all but one employee decided they should leave the company to pursue something different in their careers and personal visions. One technician said he was energized by his job and the conversation to sharpen the focus of the company. The decision was made to wish the two departing employees the very best and to move forward with a two person company focused on the initial vision and a restructuring of the work at hand.
What I noticed in this CEO after this happened was a renewed clarity about the vision he has for his business and a level of energy that wasn’t present prior to his vacation. Today his business is stronger and he and now has added a new member to the team bringing the total to three. What is noteworthy is his two other employees are having more fun than ever. Their clients are happy and payments are current. This is all because he had the courage to ask some good questions and stay focused on his vision.