Monthly Archives: January 2015

Cracking the Whip

Cracking the Whip 1

Probably early days yet, but Whiplash (2014) seems to be one of those film titles which people can’t quite place until you say “It’s the one about drumming”.

Whiplash is an excellent film on all fronts: script, acting, music. What’s more, it has a thrilling pace – and a seat of the pants ride to boot, as you cheer for Andrew (played by Miles Teller) an aspiring jazz drumming student against his talented but terrifying and cruel conductor Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons). The film, which focuses on this tense relationship between teacher and student addresses the question of just how far do you drive for excellence and is it true you won’t get excellence if you don’t push?

Fletcher is hectoring, taunting, bullying and spiteful – all in his belief that only by driving performance will he breed a musical genius (he’s looking for the next jazz legend). He ponders that nobody ever seems to reach his high standards: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’ ”.

The film’s pace doesn’t really allow the viewer to drift off and think about something else, but at the back of my mind were recollections – both witnessed and anecdotal – of ‘psychopathic’ sales managers whose methods of ‘motivation’ would make Fletcher proud.

Such managers justify their actions in the belief that their staff are inherently lazy; that without cracking the whip they won’t do their job. And so, their alarmed staff try to work on in misery: in an atmosphere of rages, ritual humiliation and bullying of hapless individuals picked-out and picked-on. I’ve seen one such environment all the worse in the afternoons owing to the after effects of one particular manager’s liquid lunch…

Everyone who’s worked in sales knows it’s rarely an easy ride and sales people need to be resilient. We are at the mercy of external factors with so many ‘known unknowns’: the market, the economy, competitors, at times even the weather. Internal factors such as self-motivation play a critical part too. A good sales manager will have an armoury of techniques to keep up team spirit and motivate individuals. Armoury such as encouragement and praise when it is due – as well as games and incentives to sustain interest and focus. Additionally, they will communicate standards of professional behaviour and procedures, setting clear parameters of what is not acceptable. A sloppy sales force never gets very far. However, the minute a manager has to resort to insulting individuals in public, that manager is less in control than he may like to think. This doesn’t mean that targets should not be strived for, or that problems should not be confronted. I’ve often had to remind sales managers ‘there’s a time and a place for a rollocking’ meaning that if a shortfall in performance needs to be addressed, it should be done one-to-one and follow company/employment law procedures (sorry to be boring). If an individual is not cut out for the role they’re in, they should be let down gently. If they are in the right position, but experiencing difficulties or a crisis of confidence (it happens – even to the talented) the manager has to be prepared to do some work and provide appropriate training/support. Sometimes, all it takes is a ‘fireside chat’. Sure, no manager goes to work to make friends, but it’s a sad and common fact of office life that some (and I don’t exclude women) see it as an arena to inflict fear and intimidation in the belief that it’s the only way to get results.

It does not. And if it does, it won’t be for long.

Rather than start preaching about the legal requirement of ‘duty of care’ (which in my experience, most employers are usually good at understanding) let’s remind ourselves of the potential damage to profitability when staff are put under unreasonable and relentless intimidation. As well as weakening productivity, quality of sales can suffer: for example, reps functioning in ‘survival mode’ will be more likely to go for quick, but lower value sales. Furthermore, these examples of consequential costs should make any business owner blanch: compensation and/or legal costs, staff turnover, re-recruitment and re-training costs – in addition to the resulting loss of investment in training and experience. I’m not advocating that business owners lie awake at night paranoid about keeping their organisation’s name out of the law books – but it is for individual employers to weigh up whether such financial risks could ever be worth the indulgence of one crazy manager’s ego.

Postscript: 23rd February 2015 – last night Whiplash won three Oscars including one for J. K. Simmons (Best Supporting Actor). The film was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture.



John Parmenter 1951-2014

Between Christmas and New Year I learned of the unexpected passing of a much respected colleague who was my second in command when we worked together in the 1990s.

The first blog of this year is a tribute to his memory.

John, or JP as everyone knew him was an outstanding sales rep, building his territory through the 1980s and 90s into one of the highest grossing areas for the organisation. In his time, he was the only salesman to win the company award for salesperson of the year, twice. He made a successful move into sales management and applied a range of exceptional skills. JP was a larger than life character, one of life’s one-offs with bags of ability and a cracking sense of humour. Rather than go into cliquey anecdotes from that time (of which there are many) there are some of his personal qualities I’d like to share with you which are relevant to successful sales management.

Because he was so positive, without effort, JP was a good motivator of people. His sole drive was to achieve results for the team – proving that to motivate you need to be motivated yourself. (Think about it – who ever followed anybody who was demotivated?  Whether middle managers or political leaders, who wants to be led by someone who doesn’t care or isn’t interested?) Without needing any reminder he practised my sales management mantra of “There is no such word as ‘Can’t’.”  With this in mind, together we challenged long-established practises and codes to further improve a thriving sales department.

Another of his qualities was that if a plan or proposal had a weakness or flaw he would spot it – giving lie to the popular myth that only people who are thick go into sales – because they probably aren’t fit to do anything else. On the contrary, the best people in sales never stop thinking at least one step ahead. Furthermore, two heads are always better than one, and in such aspects JP’s insight was invaluable. People I’ve worked with have laughed at my insistence for a ‘sanity check’ before anything important goes out; whether it’s a set of numbers, a piece of promotional copy or a sales proposal. Better safe than seriously embarrassed later on.

He was also a good communicator. I have no doubt that under-performers felt very stung by any frustration or disappointment he expressed in them – but managers have to address shortfalls in performance – supportively – before it’s too late. In any sales campaign, time is of the essence: problems don’t go away they almost always become worse. Too often, by the time I have been called in to help, any critically under-performing sales people will have escalated into an HR issue – the resolution of which ends up costing far more than a bit of remedial training.

JP was also one of those people in sales who looked the part: he was always immaculately turned out. From their cars to clothes, holidays to home improvements I’ve long pondered just why so many people in sales enjoy quality stuff. Is it because they appreciate a good sales pitch (because they didn’t have to make it themselves?) Or are they so immersed in their bubble of commerce that they’re drawn to goods which, slickly marketed, tend to be at the higher end? Whatever the psychology, it all points to being passionate about high standards: it’s likely that anyone who cares about the impression they make on others will have standards, and professional sales means aiming high in all aspects – whether it’s the calibre of the people you recruit, the impact of your sales presentation or the design of your marketing materials.

Finally, I must pay tribute to JP’s wit. I have always said that sales has got to be fun – alternatively go and do something easier but boring instead. In staff management as well as in sales, we all recognise that people buy people – the clue’s in the cliché. Few of us would choose to deal with a misery guts. Whilst understanding when the game needed to be serious, JP would lighten the atmosphere with a joke; if there was a double entendre waiting to be uncovered, JP would find it. We’d all crack up laughing and an otherwise tedious meeting would zip along.

And this sums him up all over: whether it was a joke (and god knows these were sometimes ripe), improving an established practice or over reaching a target – he loved to push the boundaries. This is what sales management is all about: striving to become better and achieve more.

My heartfelt condolences to his many friends as well as to his family – in particular his wife and son.