Category Archives: – Something to Think About

Bullsh*tters Need Not Apply – Part 2

CV Lies

Having banged on about how too many sales people are let out into the field without adequate training, I’ve also long felt that our managers are untrained in recruitment. Sure, at the end of the day it usually comes down to 3 basic questions:

– Can the applicant do the job?
– If offered, would they take the job?
– Will they fit in?

But, prior to any interviews will be at least one shortlist and this will be down to CVs. Even if HR are involved, the CV and/or application form will be the basis of interview questions.

The most immediate advice I can give is for directors to instruct any managers who are recruiting to put some serious time into looking at CVs: marking them up with notes, queries and questions to ask. Tell them to be aware of anything which ‘just doesn’t look right’. Secondly, it should go without saying that if particular qualifications are essential for the job they must be checked. Finally, in keeping with the best sales technique interviewers should ask open-ended questions (ie questions beginning with who? what? where? when? who? which? or why?) These will enable the nervous-but-honest to open up and talk about their experience – but make it harder for liars to lie. In short, a closed question can be batted away easily by the bluffer with just one word – “yes” or “no”. The burden then quickly falls back onto the interviewer to ask another question giving the liar valuable time to coolly prepare himself. Instead, asking a question such as “In what way did your responsibilities change in your eight years with British Airways?” will make it far harder for the liar to answer convincingly, because it requires a more detailed answer. If (s)he is genuine – and any good as a potential candidate – they will explain what they did during that time, giving you useful information in understanding how that experience is relevant to the vacancy in mind. Following with further open-ended questions will continue to pin down the bluffer.

Recruiting new people always carries some risk. Entrusting your company’s sales to someone without basic checking and unprepared interviewing can be foolhardy. To quote Albert Einstein, “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with the truth in important matters.” However, business owners can’t be expected (nor will they want to) to micromanage every vacancy which comes up in their organisation, but they can – and should – alert their management team to the fact that a significant number of applicants are happy to present themselves less than truthfully.



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.



Dear Diary

Mobile Phone Diary

Every year, for retailers and their suppliers, the customary seasonal countdown seems to start earlier and earlier. But for the rest of us in b2b sales, it will begin proper after this weekend. At least this year – because December 1st falls on a Monday – workaholics and the conscientious will be pleased to see that at least they will be able to fit in a good three weeks’ worth of sales activity before the break.

Focusing on a practical but vital aspect of sales management, whether your sales people use analogue or digital means to schedule their appointments, follow ups and call backs, now is the time to establish good diary habits ready for the early part of 2015.

As you all know, I regard motivation (and self-motivation in particular) as one of the main cornerstones of sales success – and a busy diary must surely be a key feature. Or to look at it another way, who is going to feel a greater compulsion to perform next year? The salesman with a full diary or the one with a blank one?

Don’t hold back from asking your sales managers and reps the following question: “What’s in your diary for January and February?”  If you get a blank look, it’s time for some very tough love…



Bullsh*tters Need Not Apply – Part 1

CV Lies 1

At its broadest, sales is a chain of relationships based on trust. A company places trust in its salespeople to sell its goods or services persuasively and professionally, with relevant departments meeting orders accurately. In turn, salespeople need to trust their company: that the orders they’ve sold will be fulfilled according to what they presented; that they will be paid their salary and any commission due. Both salesperson and employer need to trust that the customer will honour payment on time. Meanwhile, customers will have based their buying decision on information and/or technical data given by the salesperson; they will trust that any promises, special requirements or other expectations are fully met.

Last month, HR Review published an article – ‘The 7 Most Common CV Lies’ – and it struck me just what a breach of trust it is when someone applies for a sales vacancy on a false basis; the sales function is too important to be put into the hands of deceivers. There cannot be many employers who would knowingly allow their product to be sold by someone who fabricated their qualifications or experience. After all, if someone has already lied about themselves, undetected, to a new employer, what kind of standards are they going to apply when dealing with prospects and customers?

These are the seven most common lies – according to employers – which HR Review listed:

1.  Embellished skills set (57%)

2.  Embellished responsibilities (57%)

3.  Dates of employment (40%)

4.  Job title (36%)

5.  Companies worked for (32%)

6.  Academic degree (27%)

7.  Awards/recognitions (15%)

To any employer who never thought about questioning the veracity of a CV claim before, this list will make sobering reading. For the more experienced, it’s a reminder not be too complacent when assessing candidates.

Although I did raise an eyebrow at number 5 (of which more later), I wasn’t surprised by the list. There has always been a minority who embellish their credentials and/or who are economical with the truth. However, recent years have seen a tough job market and while sales jobs are usually plentiful, good sales jobs have been scarce. There’s a generation of young people who have never known a buoyant job market and in order to stand out, some are falling to the temptation to exaggerate. At the opposite end of the experience scale, some senior applicants will ‘reinvent’ aspects of their history in an attempt to improve their chances in a market which seems to favour the young and cheap.

HR Review’s survey also found that 41% of employers would automatically dismiss a candidate caught lying on a CV, while 52% said this would depend on what the actual lie was about.  Having thought carefully about this, there may be circumstances where a slip in ‘employment dates’ (at number 3 – 40%) could be excused, but to my mind the last three are indisputable grounds for rejection, with number 5 – ‘companies worked for’ (one in three have lied) an absolute no-no. By extension, somebody making up a company name is also likely to lie about their job title and the responsibilities they held there. And what about timescale and dates?  Whether a salesperson is working in an entry-level role, or is responsible for hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of business they are expected to act honestly and professionally.  Unfortunately, all too often I hear of dismissals for falsifying orders or because extreme claims were made in sales pitches. I used to say that it’s the 99% dishonest salespeople who give the rest of us a bad name, but then we had disgraced bankers and I thought it wise to drop the joke. As I’ve written before, working in sales is nothing to be ashamed of; it’s an essential role.  In the words of the great Richard Denny: “Nothing happens anywhere in the world until a sale takes place. And salespeople bring in the money that everyone else can eventually live off.”

So what can we do?

In the next part I will be offering some suggestions for how to minimise the risk of hiring people who are less than honest.



Sales Recruitment: Some Thoughts – Part 3

Merry go Round-B&W and Lilac

While we can never stop people looking for pastures new, employers should be doing all they can to minimise the likelihood of itchy feet among their staff. Predictably, better pay and bonus schemes are the causes most often cited by sales people for leaving but the reasons for staying never seem to get much exposure. I wonder why. Because bad news make better headlines, perhaps? Teams which, by and large, get on well with one another, who respect their line-manager and fellow colleagues are not as rare as after-work pub gossip would have us believe. Not surprisingly, in my largely peripatetic role I get to see and experience work environments which range from the genuinely positive to the downright negative, and it doesn’t take an in-depth academic study to recognise the ones where people are more likely to stay in their job for its own enjoyment, sense of purpose and the contribution it makes.

In-depth studies, however, do blame a variety of reasons why employees quit their job on employers. Aspects of the work environment, its culture, and how an employee perceives his/her job and its potential opportunities are commonly observed factors that the employer has failed to maximise or address.

Where studies have made recommendations, the majority advise organisations to tap into what their employees are thinking. Now, nobody is asking bosses to become mind readers – or to be best friends with their staff. But if management are to get the best out of their people, communication channels need to exist and to be open, clear, and two-way. But this also means that staff should take the initiative too. It’s a well-worn joke among HR managers that in any ‘exit interview’ departing employees will commonly moan “No one motivated me… No one gave me any responsibility… No one asked me to apply for the promotion… No one ever…” The list runs on and on. Of course, a good HR will gently point out, er, excuse me, but didn’t you – ie the employee – ever think to talk to your manager…?

Of course by this stage it’s too late. Any respect one side may have had for the other will by now have evaporated. Even if there is a new job to go to, at such times employees tend to feel aggrieved and/or disillusioned, while the employer simply wants them out as quickly as possible. What a pity when I think of the huge amounts of goodwill and enthusiasm both parties once had when the job offer was made and accepted.

Not for the first time or the last time either.

Because all this is another aspect of what I call The Recruitment Merry-go-Round; the one which keeps HR, recruitment consultants and headhunters in clover. (I’m sure there’s a joke in there somewhere about free passengers.) Only for the employer it never really ends all that merrily, does it? However large or small the organisation, recruitment costs are a drain on the bottom line. Every business should make every effort to learn something from such experiences and slow down the ride.



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)



Bank Holiday Fever


With numerous surveys appearing to show that the British work the longest hours in Europe, most of us look forward to our bank holidays. However, for sales-led organisations in particular, the resultant short weeks impact heavily on selling time. How then, do we make the most of what is left?

1.  Forewarned is forearmed. Remind your sales people and their line managers in advance and ask for constructive suggestions they could implement.

2.  Create ‘non-revenue’ targets to encourage and maintain activity: eg a minimum number of new prospect calls/contacts to be made in the month.

3.  Alternatively, you can take the opportunity of a shorter, quiet week to do some serious forward planning. Again, make your management team and/or sales people do the bulk of the thinking by getting them to contribute.

4.  You can do this within the forum of a sales conference with a focused agenda which directs towards a series of measureable objectives. The format of the day(s) and venue can be as formal (and expensive!) as you wish: from using the company boardroom or installing yourselves in the corner of a nearby hotel coffee lounge, to a total no-expense barred ‘away day’. To keep everyone interested as well as involved, plan a mixed programme. For example, brainstorming sessions and pencil/paper business games can be used to vary the pace. Keep up a steady supply of snacks and refreshments to sustain concentration levels.

5.  To maintain productivity, consider getting sales people to swap sales territories or areas with one another. To keep any risk to a minimum, you can set the rule of ‘dormant’ or ‘dead’ accounts only. With nothing to lose, it can be surprising what a different voice or face can achieve. To get everyone focused, create a points system in addition to any targets such as one point for an effective telephone call to the decision maker, two points for a confirmed appointment, three points for a quote, etc.

6.  Finally, don’t underestimate the good old fashioned prize incentive, whether it’s a bottle of wine or a week at the chairman’s Tuscan villa. Again, you can get creative with a points system to keep everyone motivated.



Sales Recruitment: Some Thoughts – Part 2

Merry go Round-B&W and Blue

It’s widely accepted that recruitment is as time-consuming as it is costly, to say nothing of the ‘rock the boat’ implications once when someone has handed in their notice. Whether because of dismissal or resignation (don’t forget it’s illegal to revive a post you have already formally deemed ‘redundant’) the office rumour machine will have gone into overdrive often before you’ve realised you may need to assign someone temporarily to manage any accounts which look vulnerable.

There can be other consequences, too.

Owing to the essential responsibility of the job, a salesperson who’s given notice and still kicking around the building, will often have a greater negative impact on their team than an employee in a different role. Acting alone, sales reps on resignation period have been known to copy client records (and email them to their personal account), make moves to take valuable customers with them, mishandle clients by having lost the commitment to customer service or make approaches to other team members to join them in the wonderful career move they’ll be making. It really is not nice to have to make this list, but it’s not uncommon, and in the unlikely case that anyone reading this has never had such experiences, well lucky you, is all I can say; but that’s the reality. Forewarned is forearmed.

Regarding the wider team, sales departments thrive best as positive, upbeat environments. The imminent departure of one of their own can, rightly or wrongly, remind a team of a better life (and pay) outside. It may also depress morale, affect productivity and create general unsettlement; every single one a motivation zapper and not conducive to making sales. This is why I usually advise employers to just pay off the rep, take the hit, reassure the rest of the team that it’s business as usual and get on with finding the best replacement possible. Understandably, given the economic conditions of recent years this can be hard to accept, but the price of a de-motivated sales force in a still-difficult climate is likely to be far higher.



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.



Every Move They Make

Spy eye

As developments in technology continue to surge ahead, these days it’s never a great surprise to hear of new inventions designed to improve our everyday lives and which will soon be commonplace.

Every January, NGPLU’s (‘Non-Geek People Like Us’) get a glimpse of the latest advancements via news reports from the Consumer Electronics Show held every year in Las Vegas. As well as the usual unveiling of prototypes to tease and tempt (such enticement is known as ‘nerd lust’), this year’s highlights included televisions with concave curved screens (why?!) and a range of personal health gadgets.

One month on, a new technology just had its press launch, and depending on your point of view, will be greeted by NGPLUs with either enthusiasm or total horror.

The product in question is a new monitoring system designed to track employee movements throughout the working day. Just like a standard ID badge in appearance, the ‘Business Microscope’ device is loaded with sensors to record behaviour with the aim of improving employee and workplace efficiency. Hitachi explained that their invention will be able to judge the distance between people talking, and show “who talks to whom, how often, and how energetically”.

Just remember to leave your badge in a drawer next time you have a secret assignation in the stationery cupboard.

While I can’t be the only one to find Hitachi’s authoritarian language slightly chilling, I do see that if the price is right, this could be good news for bosses in some industries – though obviously, not so good for workers. Leaving aside the quip made by several wags that we should force all politicians to wear such badges, employers with, for example, pilfering problems in their warehouse, might see this as a good solution. However, thinking about this further, would the badges offer any more than CCTV cameras already in place?

It will be interesting to see where this – and its pricing – goes.