Category Archives: – Real Life

Football, Sales Management, and The Peter Principle

Big Shoes to Fill 1


This is what I shouted at the radio and to no one in particular when I first heard about David Moyes’ sacking. As a non-follower of football, the fact that I am aware of the recent drama at the top of Manchester United shows the impact of this story.

Alex Ferguson was always going to be a hard act to follow, but in the main, pundits responded warmly when Moyes’ appointment was announced last year. With a string of notable achievements it seems that Everton had prospered under his twelve years of leadership. For what it’s worth, my own observation is that Moyes was simply promoted beyond his capability. He isn’t the first and he won’t be the last, in any industry – and another example of the Peter Principle.

Having worked for the redoubtable John Madejski I understand that running a football club is not like running a ‘normal’ business, but how confident would you feel about appointing a frontline executive to a business four times larger than anything he’d run before? Putting to one side assets such as players* – this is the approximate ratio of the two clubs I’ve mentioned in terms of their gross turnover. Okay, it’s not a watertight comparison and every team has to have eleven players, but to me, the analogy is stark: the problem with much sales management is that too many sales managers and sales directors have been promoted beyond their ability and/or experience; typical reasons being they were appointed either by default (remember that sales staff turnover often has a grievous record) or because they are ‘good at selling’.

For anyone unfamiliar with the Peter Principle, it’s a concept in management which originates from the eponymous book published in 1969. In it, Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull suggested that employees will be promoted to the point of their own incompetence:

“In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence … in time every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties … Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.”

Deliciously insightful, eh?

The thing I love to remind myself about the book The Peter Principle – Why Things Always go Wrong is that it was never intended as a piece of management theory at all – but as a satire; a mocking observation of the pyramidal structures in private and public organisations which are still so familiar to us today. In the course of duty, I try to keep abreast of the latest sales and management textbooks (so you don’t have to) – the majority of which try to reinvent wheel – and an enjoyable consequence of the book’s parody is that it reads like an actual pompous management textbook – redeemed of course by its astute perception.

But back to poor Moyes. Dismissal is never nice to witness, and is even worse for the employee. However, as a professional football club manager he would have known – and accepted – the rules of engagement. Similarly, career sales managers understand that their team must perform consistently or they could be for the high jump. Of course, in the professional sales arena staff should be supported and trained properly. Promotions need to be given responsibly too – nobody benefits from a manager who’s out of his depth.

In a future blog I plan to look at why so many sales appointments fall into the Peter Principle trap so easily. In the meantime, feel free to contact me with your experiences.

* Source: Forbes-Manchester United ranked 2nd most valuable sports team in the world (March 2014)



The Non-Graduate’s Revenge


A young man has been hired by a company and turns up for his first day at work.

His manager greets him with a smile and then hands him a broom. The young man looks puzzled.

“Your first job will be to sweep out the office,” explains the manager.

The young man is indignant. “But I’m a university graduate!”

“Oh, I am sorry, I didn’t realise that,” says the manager.

“Here, give me the broom. I’ll show you how…”



Just Say No


Long before bookshops had entire sections devoted to ‘Mind & Spirit’, my mother had a self-help book (American, of course) with the title of Don’t Say Yes When you Want to Say No. Seeing this lying around the house I couldn’t understand the point. Why read a book about saying No? Surely grown-ups get to say what they like, whenever they like? For most young children, articulating the word No is not usually difficult.

Despite this early introduction to the ‘I-Don’t-Really-Want-to-Say-Yes-Issue’, like most people, I was a while into adulthood before I fully grasped the ‘obligation trap’ of saying Yes. In the big, bad world of work, I came to see those constant appeals for favours outside of my main remit as annoying distractions, robbing precious time and derailing previous plans. In an attempt to stop the constant nagging, an exasperated “Ok, yes!” was often potentially fatal: it meant having even more to fit in and made me a time-management dummy.

Whether for work, domestic or social, we’ve all submitted to something only to end up regretting it and then getting tied up in knots when we try to extricate ourselves later. Typical situations range from dealing with children who are strong-willed (the experts’ term, not mine), to requests for help from friends and colleagues. We are pulled by client demands too – and don’t get me started on that prospect or lapsed customer you’re carefully nurturing but who has you running around on fact-finding missions, free advice or revised proposals/quotes. “Time waster!” many a hard-bitten sales rep will mutter, but for most of us, our better nature will respond, with motives varying from wanting to be liked, appearing a dynamic and capable multi-tasker, through to just being helpful.

So, what to do?

As ever, it can be down to the right words. But the right words are no use if you are caught unawares and start umming and ahhing, and then, embarrassed at the awkward pause have to say yes, alright, it’s really no problem. Practice to yourself (or the dog) phrases such as “I would love to, but…” or “I’m about to start on a big project/assignment/proposal/pitch, there’s no time to do it.” And try to sound assertive. Requesters of the trivial or social variety will most likely get the message without you needing to explain further. Only the most crass will wait to hear you out before going into full persuasive mode – in which case stand your ground with a smile and a sorry. Remember, you have a life whose purpose isn’t for spur of the moment requests. You are busy with commitments: your own, as well as work.

Client, customer or prospect demands are of course harder. Business is precious and the lure of a potential sale makes cowards of us all. For these reasons I always advise to play along and don’t lose your ‘sales hat’. By this I mean that you should never forget to sell the killer USPs of your company, product or service, reminding prospects of the benefits of becoming a fully engaged customer. Appropriately pitched, some humour can go a long way, e.g. saying something with a smile along the lines of “We could also do this for you, as well as x and y once you’ve come on board with us, of course… ” Or “Well, x is a strong area of expertise for us and you’re always welcome to join our many satisfied customers!”

Final note: I checked to see if DSYWYWTSN still exists and, amazingly, used copies are still available, and there’s an unabridged audio edition too. It must have gone to a gazillion reprints since it was first published in 1975. Almost forty years on, there’s no question that the husband and wife team who wrote it were on to something which is still relevant for many of us today.



Wise Saws and Modern Instances

Quotation Marks

It’s always fun to come across a perceptive comment someone has made which I can quote. Whether attributed to Confucius, Socrates or a more contemporary figure, for me, a wisdom can inspire a blog, a tweet or simply be used to add interest to a training topic.

This week I came across a brilliant one from an unexpected source – in this case from the 20th century. Before I share it with you, let me take the opportunity to tell you about one of my long-held favourites – made by none other than the Queen (although not personally to me).

Many years ago, on one of those ‘fly-on-the-wall-but-not-really’ documentaries about the monarch’s everyday life, the Queen was asked how she manages to carry out such a unique and unusual job so supremely well.

She said her answer was exactly the same as the army officer to whom she had once presented an honour for an act of great bravery. Pinning the medal onto him, she asked a similar question: how did he know what to do? “Well, Ma’am” he replied, “I didn’t really stop to think about it at the time. I just did it. I suppose it’s the training.”

She completed her elegant reply to the interviewer by repeating: “It’s the training.”

But back to my newly discovered quote…

Last week, the death of a 91 year old Japanese war veteran was announced. Hiroo Onoda was the soldier who remained hidden in a Philippines jungle for 29 years, refusing to believe that the Second World War was lost. His story of survival is one of dogged loyalty to his commanding officer, self-discipline and endurance; his later years dedicated to inspiring Japanese children with outdoor activities. Reading his fascinating obituary, I learned that his first job – keeping the accounts for a trading company – came to an abrupt end in 1942 when he was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army. A capable soldier, he rose to officer rank and enrolled on a gruelling training programme. The army instructor leading it was as tough as the course itself and would repeat this motto to his men:

Better to sweat on the training ground than to bleed on the battleground.



A Sales Pitch too Far

An important aspect of successful selling is confidence. If a buyer can detect any hesitation or doubt in a salesperson’s pitch, he’s unlikely to buy. At the same time if the salesman has no confidence in what he’s selling, he won’t be able to sell it very well. Of course at the other extreme, we have the con-trick which is the attempt to defraud someone after gaining their confidence. Nevertheless, even for something that’s honest and authentic, whatever it is we’re selling, we have to be positive; to really believe in our product or service. But every now and again, when I hear about something unethical, unprincipled or simply just unfit for purpose which is selling supremely well, I’m reminded of the reasons why there’s so much cynicism about salespeople.

At the Old Bailey today, in a little reported story, a dishonest businessman who pocketed millions of pounds over ten years was found guilty of three charges of fraud.

James McCormick, a former police officer, made £55m over a ten year period selling bogus bomb detectors to governments all over the world. Let’s just hope he was paying his taxes. Priced at £27,000 a pop, the hand-held detector was based on a novelty golf ball finder and made out of cheap components in a factory on an industrial estate in the West Country. Preferred marketing channels were glossy brochures and a website. McCormick’s clients included the UN, Saudi Arabia and Niger – he made £37m from sales to Iraq alone. The QC for the prosecution said “The devices did not work and he knew they did not work.”

Devil-Doing Business 1

Although the precise figure can never be known, it’s without doubt the fraud will have been directly responsible for the loss of hundreds if not thousands of lives because explosive devices were not identified.

This case is depressing as it is shocking and sad. As if proof were needed that any bad product can be successful if you sell it aggressively enough.

However, do not assume for a moment that a fantastic service or product with a list of benefits as long as your arm will sell itself; believe me, there’s rarely such a thing. So what’s stopping you? Act now and talk to your sales people. Remind them of the myriad strengths of what they’re selling. Inspire them and invest in their training to get out there and sell with truth, passion and confidence.

Update-2/5/2013: McCormick sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.


Cold Callers are Human Too

Call Centre Bod 1

Whenever a quiet evening at home is disturbed by an unexpected phone call I’m as guilty as anyone at my impatient reaction to yet another tele canvasser.

Coming from a sales background, I always try and remind myself that these are ordinary people working the late shift in a difficult job. They are often young and blissfully unaware of how many of us regard their intrusion. In the way that a good call-centre trainer should incorporate some empathy training – in other words, to teach an understanding from the householder’s point of view – so perhaps should we remember that no tele sales operator deserves blatant rudeness, however badly timed their interruption.

I therefore found the following story which caught my eye in today’s news thoroughly heart-warming. It concerns a cold caller, Simon Shepherd who saved a pensioner’s life.

Simon, aged 25, was just two days into the job when he rang an 84 year old woman to sell solar heating panels. After a brief chat, Simon noticed that she seemed to be struggling to breathe.  Suspecting something serious he called an ambulance to her home in the West Midlands.

When paramedics arrived they found the woman face-down in her living room having suffered a potentially fatal stroke. Thanks to Simon’s quick thinking, she is expected to make a full recovery.  The woman said “I am very grateful to the young man. He was very good with me on the phone. He went above and beyond for me.” Simon said “Cold callers get a hard time from people but if I hadn’t called her she’d have probably died.”

I like to think that the majority in Simon’s situation would have done the same; call centre staff are only human, with feelings, insecurities, fears and aspirations just like the rest of us. Let’s also remember that whether they are working here or from abroad, all of them are doing one of the hardest things of all: trying to sell to the Great British Public.