Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What’s the weather
like in your company?

Sunny and clear? Fair, or overcast and dreary?

Be objective before you answer, and understand this is a trick question.

Several years ago I was in a sales meeting with a client company leading a discussion about the difficulties the economy had imposed on revenue efforts and how the staff might respond, when the publisher spoke up. “Say what you want, but January and February are going to suck, we’ll be lucky if we’re only down 20 percent,” he said.

If I was sitting next to him I might have kicked him under the table, or worse.

Rather than say the company needed to be creative and work even harder, in effect he gave the staff permission to have two lousy months, and they did.

I can’t say he programmed it that way or things would have been different if he hadn’t made that remark. But by announcing his expectation he created the weather in that department. Break out the shovels. Heavy snow followed by sleet and freezing rain. And yes, January and February sales tanked.

In our frustrating economy and undoubtedly the most severe selling conditions the publishing industry has ever endured, you see managers creating a lot of bad weather when they need to be working on sunshine. I know because I’m the voice of experience. 

As a newly promoted publisher who came up on the news side with an unfortunate natural resentment for the sales department, I believed our weakening sales were a function of people slacking off. So I got on the sales director who in turn jumped on the regional sales managers and pretty soon our 28 member display department was in a tizzy and sales got even worse. 

As I dissected the issues, I was at least 51 percent of the problem. I had never sold an ad in my life, and I soon learned that managing a sales department was probably the toughest job in the company. Tell someone in the news department to cover a meeting or interview a Congressman, the assignment and expectations are generally clear for an experienced professional. Tell the pressroom and mailroom they need to be out two hours early to beat a predicted blizzard, they adjust and make it happen. 

You can’t demand sales. There is no silver bullet, you can’t push buttons, and there are too many variables. To be effective you must both lead and support and it’s a skill set that eludes many managers. Our sales increased when I better understood the conditions our sales reps were operating in and I learned to support instead of scold them. What I thought was “excuses” were conditions and obstacles the reps needed big help with.

Now before you jump to the conclusion that news guys are like that, take a good look in the mirror. Most sales managers got where they are because they were good salesmen not because they had tons of management expertise and experience. Great salespeople are not always good managers. Plus, the qualities that may have created sales stars five or ten years ago are in the trunk of your father’s Oldsmobile. It’s a whole new world, and sales challenges are constantly changing. 

I’ve done triage on battered sales staffs from coast to coast and the common denominator is the weather, the operating environment created by management. Call them lazy, dummies and incompetent (I don’t make this stuff up.) and they’ll begin to believe it. Keep shaking your head in sales meetings and you’ll get a response. The first sign is bowed heads, followed by quiet and most lijely even less production.

Good bosses lead, inspire and support. They should be there to help because good leaders and managers create an atmosphere for success and do everything they can to remove the obstacles. 

Style and execution will be driven by the situation but my first choice of management style is consensus. It’s WE, not YOU or I. You’re in it together and equally invested in the effort. The other side of the coin is the autocrat who demands and drives the staff and I’ve seen very questionable results with that style. When people feel they have participated in the discussion and plan, they’ve got a stake in the results. If reps believe, they sell better.

The good manager is upbeat and positive but not phony. Save the backslapping because any rep worth her or his salt will see right through it. They sell too, remember?

A good manager is close to his staff. Whether that’s a quick conversation on the run or regular weekly sit-downs or call reports, the manager is in touch with their daily activities, problems and victories. His or her door is open and they’re approachable. Asking for help should never be considered a weakness. Smart managers ride with their reps.

A healthy sales department has a team environment and that’s helped in large part with regular and constructive sales meetings. Ask reps to come to each meeting with a success story and see the dynamic that creates.

Good managers need to teach, but few of them do, and this is a common weakness amongst many companies I see. This is also confirmed by surveys I’ve conducted for several professional associations. Only an average of one out of five companies reported they had any training component, including for new hires and my guess was a good portion of them were stretching the truth.

The companies who think an inexperienced rep is ready for prime time after spending a week riding around with other reps will generally reap what they sow. Mother said you only get one chance at a first impression and we all know she was right. If you’re a prospective advertiser how much confidence will you have in a rep that can’t explain the rate card or discuss mechanical requirements? How soon will you be willing to commit thousands of dollars to any program he or she suggests?

I know of a company with a new rep who made 50-60 in-person calls his first few weeks alone but sold only a few ads. A significant number of the accounts were regular advertisers so it puzzled the ad manager. As we questioned the rep the answer became clear. On the majority of those calls he failed to see the decision maker. No one told him he should have an appointment or call ahead to be sure the key person was available. And yes, many of those accounts who wanted to advertise were upset.

Some companies will say they cannot afford training, but I maintain you can’t afford not to train at some level. Because I’m in the business I advocate the high road for professional customized training or seminars sponsored by a trade association. But at the very least companies need to include some element of training on a regular basis. Rotating that assignment amongst members of the sales staff is a good start. You can tap into the individual’s expertise and it can also be a great morale booster for the people involved to be recognized for their skills.

The good manager is also sensitive (but not weak), fair and consistent. The good manager has no pets and treats everyone equally. The smart manager nurtures morale and knows it’s not good to keep changing goals, commission and spiff plans.

The wise manager is one mindful that every word out of his or her mouth will never be forgotten and that everything they say or do or don’t do, contributes to the weather in their department.
Managers, good and bad, reap what they sow.

Next: Why do so many new initiatives and sales projects fail?


Anonymous Merja H K Lehtinen said...

You hit on all the right issues in your last column. As to why efforts still fail?

Because no one changes the paradigm early enough (the first 10% who change by adopting new technologies and solutions will thrive... the next 40% survive, the last 50% fail), they keep doing what they have been doing the same old way.

Physics teaches us if we change even one tiny thing such as the flap of a butterfly's wing -- one variable -- everything will change. But despite change agents at work, most folks figure out how to keep doing it the same old way, by getting around the system, hence no progress is seen.

Maybe if a company is lucky there is no drop due to natural increases and decreases in a market, but too often it is as your column stated: permission to fail is given by sounding defeat is inevitable; so, in fact, failure to sell becomes the norm. People, "the audience," want news, entertainment and valuable information as "solutions" more than ever. They want it faster, cheaper, smarter and in less distracting and annoying ways. We have to find a way to deliver information the audience wants through ads that will meet or exceed the same high epectations the audience has of news, features and entertainment.

5:34 AM  

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