What Is Time Sensitive about Your Next Sale?

You know face of selling has radically changed.  The profile of the salesperson has shifted to consulting and educating.   Customers expect expertise.  Unless you are proactive with insights and ideas you have less time to consult and educate because your customers are zooming along in their buying process without you.  Protracted sales cycles are attributed to risk aversion, decision by consensus, financial pressures on customers, poor quality of leads, and absence of qualifying—all valid points.  But where do closing skills come into play?  Closing is time sensitive.

I have never been a proponent of “closing techniques” from the assumptive to the alternative close to the now or never close and so on.  I will always remember early in my career the client who asked me if I would teach his people the “Raccoon Close”.  Not only hadn’t I taught it, I didn’t know what it was. That question led to our talking about the multiple phases of closing and how it is not a bag of tricks or the big bang at the end of the sale.  With all the focus on the new selling today, building industry, client, and customer knowledge, generating demand, bringing insights, focusing on outcomes, there seems to be less focus on the block and tackling of closing.  Maybe it is because closing has been belabored for so long.   Not so fast.

A few months ago a long time colleague and friend shared with me that she was moving from her role as V.P. of Client Services to sales.  Seven months later she questioned that decision.  “I’m just not meant for sales.” she confided. Knowing her I was skeptical.

As she explained her disappointment it was clear she was remarkably successful at reaching prospects who took her follow-up calls and spent time with her, she knew her industries and product offerings cold, and I know first hand she is natural at building warm relationships.  But none of that was helping her close. Delay after delay was the course of every opportunity.  We analyzed the average length of the sales cycle, the quality of the leads, how she was qualifying, her proactive reaching out to prospects.  We could identify only a small gap in qualifying which we worked on.

Then Eureka!  She asked for an introduction to one of my contacts.  The referral went well and the contact immediately sent her an email requesting she call him the next day.  Copying me on her reply almost knocked me off my chair.  Her response was enthusiastic and warm but rather than setting a time and sending an invite she padded in an unnecessary extra step that extended the sales cycle and risked losing this busy executive’s attention.  She made extra work for the client and could have set herself on a path of delays.

This drew my attention to the role of “old fashion” closing skills play in inaccurate forecasting, missed quarters, and personal frustrations.   What do we mean by “a closer”?  Certainly not the disturbing image created by Alec Baldwin in Glengarry, Glen Ross.  Closing is a mindset to do everything possible to ensure every contact ends with the best possible customer action to meet the customer’s goals and move the opportunity forward.  And it is your job to plan for and make it happen.

Certainly having a sales process in which moving to the next stage in the process is triggered by the customer’s actions ties deals to the customer’s buying process and moves the sales to the close.  But there are numerous micro opportunities within in each stage that demand a go-getter mind set, radar to pick up on the opportunities, and solid closing skills.

In the past closing meant the activities that salespeople took to gain agreement to move forward with the sale.  Today it is more collaborative and is the actions you and your customers take together.  But it is still your job to lead the trip and to do so in the most economical way that achieves the objective.  It is asking yourself what is the realistic action I will ask my customer (as well as you) to take at every small and big juncture.

To close:

  • Recognize closing is time sensitive.
  • Set a measurable objective and the action the customer must take.
  • Close incrementally by checking for feedback each time you present key ideas and information. For example after you present an insight ask for the customer’s perceptions or experience.  Effective checking helps you know where things stand at all times.
  • Ask pre-closing questions about the desired outcome, what has to be in place for that outcome to happen, those impacted by the actions, decision makers/ users/influencers, competitors, questions customers are asking themselves, concerns about their risks to achieving the outcome, funding, projects you are competing with, board approval … Always thinking what you can do to make it easy for your customer take this action? For example, if the customer says, “I will put together and outline of what we have discussed and present it to my team.” ask if you can prepare a draft (which of course will be as perfect as possible) for the client to work from.
  • Gain consensus.
  • Prove value by showing the financial impact of changing the status quo compared with current costs and cost of doing nothing.
  • Know what is on your customer’s “to do “ list to give your reasons to follow-up and be of help, including what you don’t get paid for.
  • Give first.
  • Ask for the next step whether it is gaining access to an executive—To ensure we … so we can … would it make sense for us to meet with … to …” or asking for the business—“We can be begin … and … on Monday start…. Do I have your go ahead?”

The new profile of the salesperson is shifting to that of a teacher, consultant, and advisor.   This may seem more passive but it actually demands more active closing process because education is not traditionally associated with the assertiveness of selling.

This shift has raised the game and for many professionals it is a stretch.   It is in my view not just the new face but the best face of selling.   It is great when customers say, “How do we get started?” but when they don’t it was and is the role of sales to move the customer to the close and close.

Shakespeare offered some good advice on this:  “There comes a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune…And we must take the current when it serves or lose our venture.”

February 1st, 2015|1 Comment|

Woman Interrupted: Not for Women Only

At the start of each sales course at the Wharton School, when I asked students for their personal objectives, a few women, invariably not native to the United States, consistently requested that I help them “speak up”.

But I also noticed during each class, where high-achieving women made up half of the class, it was the men who participated the most.  And in each class, I made a point to encourage women to participate, which seemed to get them more involved. I realize now I should have done more.

Study after study shows that women hold back because they don’t want to be perceived as aggressive, and they expect to be interrupted or shut down.  New research by Yale psychologist Victoria L. Brescoll supported this in a recent study comparing patterns by rank and gender. Her study found that male executives with more power spoke more than their junior male associates.  But in the case of women, women with more power did not get more speaking time than their juniors. Professor Brescoll looked deeper into these findings with additional studies in which male executives who spoke more often than their peers were rewarded with 10 percent higher ratings of competence. But for female executives who spoke more than their peers, both men and women punished the women with 14 percent lower ratings.  These data showed that women who worry that talking “too much” will cause them to be disliked are not paranoid!

The taboo surrounding female expression even extends to the entertainment industry, generally considered to be more progressive than others.  While producing the hit TV series “The Shield,” Glen Mazzara noticed that two young female writers were quiet during story meetings. He pulled them aside and encouraged them to speak up more.  They told him if they spoke they would be interrupted or their idea would be put down or trumped.  The conclusion was that experience is not unusual.

Adam Grant, author of Give and Take, University of Pennsylvania professor, and a HB top rated international thinker, says that “When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea. As a result, women often decide that saying less is more.” He points out that data also shows women’s suggestions are less likely to be acted on compared with the same suggestions by men.

You may be shaking your heads now. After all it is 2015!  This is painful to hear, and even harder for most of us to believe…  Yes there are many professional women not in this “interrupted” group.   But research confirms that many women are holding themselves back in an effort to get ahead.

Data from a recent McKinsey study of 60 corporations shows that the percentage and number of women drop off dramatically in higher ranks of organizations. This seems to indicate the “holding back” strategy is not working.

Adam Grant points to research that shows that women excel at leadership when given the chance.  Wooley, Malone, and Chabris saw this in two studies with Pentland and Hashmi of M.I.T.. They sought to define the characteristics that distinguished smart teams from the rest and were surprised that they did not find things like I.Q., being extroverted, or being more motived.  They found that smart teams were distinguished by three characteristics:

  • first—members contributed equally
  • second—members scored higher on a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes, which measures how well people can read complex emotional states from images of faces with only eyes visible
  • third—teams with more women outperformed teams with more men, or equal numbers, and this was tied to mind reading (emotional reading skills).

With such data, I cannot help but think about how this impacts women in sales in their own organizations and even with their customers. Or even with the treatment of female customers.  The problem is that silencing not only hurts the women involved, but also their organizations that lose the benefit of their ideas.

All of this data points to need to recognize and do something about gender bias in the workplace. In thinking about women in sales – many of whom are the top producers – we must ask to what extent are they holding back consciously or unconsciously internally for additional success, because they feel their ideas will be hijacked, their contributions will be shut down, or they will be interrupted or worse seen as too aggressive, which will hurt their careers?

So what can we do to remove any bias that exists?  Certainly when more women fill senior positions, the more they will be heard.  Leaders can take steps to encourage women to speak up. Adam Brant suggest things such as ideas competitions, where ideas are submitted anonymously to eliminate gender bias.  During a presidential news conference, when eight women reporters were called on at the exclusion of any men, it was so unusual that it made national news.  Similarly, on an individual level, sales managers can make a point in meetings to encourage women to contribute and they can facilitate respectful listening by not tolerating interruptions.

But I think the solution exists within women themselves to bravely silence the voice that is silencing them.  Preparation is key. The mantra should be  “Speak up.”

I have found that by doing things such as waiting and listening first to others in a group, a person sets a foundation for her or his ideas to be heard. Confidence in delivery is as important as the thought itself. For example, avoid diminishing words such as “just”, qualifying expressions like “You probably won’t agree,” or body language with excessive nodding and tilted head. Not accepting being interrupted (with a comment like  “May I continue?” which is both polite and grammatically correct) and reclaiming an idea when someone runs with it (by saying, “So glad you agree…”) are not aggressive but are assertive.

Although I have developed and delivered programs for companies to empower women, and also worked with companies to help them attract and keep women, in my writings I have pretty much shied away from gender issues.  As a woman in business, I have experienced both the detractions and advantages of my gender.  I have never wanted to be a part of pitting genders against each other, and that surely is not the intent here.

Rather, my call to action is for women and men to first become more aware of gender bias and then to take steps to fix it.  When gender doesn’t hold anyone back, we all benefit.

January 23rd, 2015|3 Comments|

What Do You Have for Your Customers Today?

A short time ago, when customers asked “What do you have for me today?” and salespeople answered, they usually talked themselves out of a sale.

Customers typically asked this question at the beginning of a sales call. It seemed like an invitation to sell, but in fact it was a trap. Intentionally or not, it bated salespeople to start pitching before they involved the customer and asked the questions they needed to ask to connect and be relevant. Customers expected to and were pleased to answer discovery question after discovery question after discovery question! That was yesterday…

More than ever, the question “What do you have for me today?” is on today’s customers’ minds. The big difference is today you must be ready to answer it or your sales conversation will be short-circuited. At the same time, there still is a trap.

Insights have all but replaced features and benefits. The insights that you share start to answer the question, “What do you have for me today?” Customers want expertise, and your answer must show that you know your customer’s industry and business as well as provides them a signal that there is value in continuing to talk to you. For instance, a software business can provide an insight into how their product has helped other companies to grow. The information might convince a potential customer to go further and buy the software. Similarly, there can be other SaaS sales models (check this site to learn more) which can be employed to improve the business of an IT company.

The insights you share can add value in two ways. Some insights add a new perspective around a business challenge that is already on the customer’s agenda. It causes the customer to see other possibilities and leads to your strengths. Other insights, often the more valuable, introduce an issue that is not on the customer’s agenda or an issue the customer has underestimated.

A challenge most salespeople face is how to develop insights. Where do insights come from? It is not an easy question to answer. There isn’t even a universal definition. But we know for sure that knowledge, research, experience, creativity, and intuition feed it. While there is a mystery about where insights come from, insights cannot be theoretical or vague. You must translate them to how they solve business problems and achieve business outcomes. Professor Theodore Levitt famously made this point to his Harvard Business School students when he told them, “People don’t want quarter-inch drills. They want quarter inch holes.”

Your plate is already full, but relevant insights are within your reach. First, best-in-class sales organizations have enlisted the support of their marketing teams to provide insights to their sales forces in the form of research, analysis, specific customer profiling. You may seek the assistance of a consumer insight agency if your marketing team finds this challenging. Second, technology makes it possible for you to conduct research quickly and deeply. There is no excuse for not being prepared with insights to spark your customer’s thinking and disrupt their status quo.

For example, during a three-hour new sales conversation workshop, I asked participants to take 5 minutes to use their iPhones to source an insight relevant for a customer described in a case study. Within those few minutes excitement filled the room as participants found relevant data, etc. and shared results with one another. As each salesperson reported his/her findings, others scribbled down notes. And soon they were shaping the data into relevant insights they would share with their real customers.

But as invaluable as insights are, there remains a trap. While so much has changed in selling, what has not changed is the need for collaboration with customers. Customers still want to be involved and, despite all your preparation, there still are questions you must ask early – for example, how does the customer feel about the insight you shared or what outcome does the customer want to achieve. So how do you reconcile the need to share a relevant insight right up front, but also gather the information you need?

An insight can be used as the platform for engaging your customer in a dialogue. The insight heat maps a business challenge you want to explore. After you present the insight, volley it to the customer by asking, “What has been your experience with this?” or “What is your perception?” Then, explore the business challenge the insight has raised.

Insights open the door to change. They start the kind of conversations your customers value. Insights set a path to closing.

January 13th, 2015|Comments Off on What Do You Have for Your Customers Today?|

2015 Sales Lessons from It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Like some of you I watched the movie It’s a Wonderful Life over the holidays.  Growing up that was a family tradition.  James Stewart plays the part of George Bailey, a compassionate but desperate banker who has given up his dreams to help others.  He is broke and about to face criminal charges.  When he is ready to end it all he is saved by his guardian angel Clarence who shows him the amazing impact he has had on the lives of others. Critically acclaimed as one of the 100 best movies in American cinema, It’s a Wonderful Life, has always been a message of hope and love.

But Wharton Professor Ed George sees the movie as even more.  He sees it as a reminder of the essential role character and reputation play in a good businessperson, particularly in today’s customer centered environment. His lesson doesn’t so much focus on the sacrifices the James Stewart character makes but rather in the social capital gained as a result of his decisions, even those that cost him dearly. The social capital is accumulated as George Bailey puts his customers needs before his own.  Because of the reputation he has established the town people, customers, friends, family, all rally around him and follow him.

It’s not surprising that Professor George would bring out the message of character and reputation.  Reputation has never been so visible.  Just think about things such as consumer scoring and reputation optimization strategies.  In their new book The Reputation Economy:  How to Optimize Your Digital Footprint in a World Where Your Reputation Is Your Most Valuable Asset, Michael Fertil and David Thompson, provide tips on how to managing online images for individuals and companies.  As the title underscores, reputation is your most valuable asset.

It is hard to think of a profession where reputation is not king. Certainly sales is high on the list especially when you factor in the new paradigm in sales and the shift from “selling” as we knew it to teaching and giving advice. Salespeople who succeed in getting customers to follow them will be the ones who show concern and take care of their customers.  The expression  “client first” has been around for decades.  The control of that was in the hands of salespeople—today the power is with clients and client first is not an option.

Only when customers believe we place their interests first will they trust us enough to listen to our insights, be moved by the value we bring, and take our advice. 2015 may well be the year of the reputation.  What is yours with your customers?  What do they think of when they think of you?  We all have multiple talents but when customers think of us they think of one thing first.  And we should be the one who curates what that is.

January 4th, 2015|Comments Off on 2015 Sales Lessons from It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)|

Heart of a Lion: Scrappy, Thrifty, and Forward Thinking

Liongate with its 27 person-marketing department has the hefty Hollywood studios aspiring to copy its model.  Its “scrappy, thrifty, and forward thinking” culture is the formula for success as evidence by its campaigns for The Hunger Games.   It is also a formula for success in sales today.

Tim Palen, chief marketing officer, credits the success of the company to the culture set by Jon Feltheimer, Liongate’s president.  He has empowered his chief marketing officer to make “snap decisions.” The extent to which Tim Palen exercises this power has earned him the nickname “The Cobra”.  And as you likely know cobras strike with ferocity and bring down opponents one hundred times their size.

Liongate pretty much bypasses research and sheets of data.  It moves fast and flexibly to seize opportunities and leverage resources such as YouTube.  At Lionsgate  “Bureaucracy is death.”

That sentence alone is cause for pause to think about the role of snap decisions not only in marketing but also in sales.  The digital world is fast.    While we need process, standards, and policy, we also need autonomy. As we must find a way to be flexible, to seize the moment, to strike when the iron is hot or be left behind.

I worked with a client recently who rejected a free and simple marketing opportunity that would complement and strengthen his prospecting plan. He lacked the flexibility to make a small shift because it wasn’t part of the original plan!  It was a combination of a lack of agility and maybe the  “NIH syndrome”—where an invention must come from inside the company or it gets rejected that cost the company an opportunity to increase visibility and support its efforts.

The challenge for 2015 is to find a way to be “scrappy, thrifty, and forward thinking” and remain professional and as a colleague at Lionsgate says, “still have the trains come in on time.”  This is far from easy but it is a formula for success in this fast and digital world.

Tim Palen points to a lack of corporate layers and an overall culture of risk-taking for the amazing success of Lionsgate.  In looking at Lionsgate it is clear it is also a culture of collaboration.

January is a month when many of us make resolutions.  Mine will be to trust more snap judgments and take more risks.  What about you?

December 23rd, 2014|Comments Off on Heart of a Lion: Scrappy, Thrifty, and Forward Thinking|

Rapport: A Disappearing Act

Sales has become data driven.  For decades, sales was thought of as instinctive, intuitive, genetic. That is no longer the case and, for the most part, for the better.  Sales organizations now use sophisticated tools to mine data to set their strategies, prepare their sales forces, and reach their target markets.  But despite sales becoming more scientific, and the availability of illuminating research, fewer than 50% of sales forces achieve target.  The economy, increased competition, globalization, and self-directed clients all contribute to the decline—but that’s not the entire picture.

Data fed knowledge, sharper skills, more advanced tools, and the support of marketing teams and sales leadership are a given for competitive organizations.  Without these, salespeople cannot succeed.  But these alone simply are not sufficient  to motivate clients to change the status quo.  The missing element is trust, and I have found that rapport is the gateway to trust.

Customers are plowing ahead in the buying process without salespeople, and even at the point in the buying process when salespeople get involved, thanks to technology, cost cutting, and preferences, salespeople get to spend less time face to face with their clients. More selling is being done on the phone and on-line. And of course, there are efficiencies and benefits to this across the board.  But the substitution and reliance on technology as the connector comes at a cost too. The phone is warmer than email or texting, but none of these approximate effective face to face.  Of course, meaningful relationships are formed without the advantage of personal meetings if, and it is a big if, rapport is a central element to the contacts.

Over-relying on data to make a sale is not proving viable. Data is far from destiny.  The problem with most data is that it generalizes clients.  The combination of impersonal data-driven messaging and technology in the place of touch, makes it is easy to omit rapport.  It also makes the need to build rapport with clients even more essential.

We hear so little, if anything, about rapport today.   It is almost hard to write the word, and not have it sound old. It is an old concept—yet one that is more vital than ever. Rapport is the vestibule to relationship. It is a basic first step toward establishing the trust essential to clients taking action.  Rapport is the beginning of knowing your clients at a personal level and helping them know you.

Whether it is a phone call or an email, video conference, or a text … take a moment to start and end each contact with rapport.  I see the lack of rapport almost daily. Recently, I was asked to contribute some ideas to a magazine article.  The writer sent me questions to prepare me for the phone interview.  I decided to answer the questions in writing first to give the author a head start, I offered times for the interview, and send a wish for a Happy Thanksgiving.  I got an immediate response:  highly efficient, friendly (use of an !) point to confirm a time.  There was no inclusion of my name, no thank you for taking the time to answer the questions,  no wish for a happy holiday, and no signature.  The author didn’t even take the cue from how I responded.  Part of effective rapport is noticing how clients and colleagues address you, and making a decision about  how you respond.  I asked myself why there was no human element in the writer’s reply.  I have my suspicions about this situation, but I will do some detective work…

I do know too often rapport is being pushed to the wayside.  In a way that is fantastic news for the salespeople who take a few seconds to make rapport a part of how they communicate— just a few words can have psychological impact and start threading a personal connection.

 Use tools such as LinkedIn and Twitter to help you plan rapport.  Personal rapport doesn’t have to be chit chat about the game, or family, or a holiday – although these are fine.  There is also business rapport – for example, a conference in which the client spoke, or a new facility important to the client, saying “happy holiday!”, or as basic as asking “how was your weekend?” or forwarding an article of interest with a personalized note.  Rapport can be as small as a gracious comment in a quick email – for example, in an email in which a client has asked a question or made a request. “I am happy to get…to you…  I’ve researched …   and end with I’ll follow up on … to check if you have any questions. Thanks for contacting me.  Rapport can fit in a text or twitter. Using a person’s name can be rapport.  Thanks is only six letters.  You have the gift of rapport.  Be a part of the movement to bring rapport back!

December 1st, 2014|1 Comment|

Stop the Churn

Retaining customers is a complex issue.  I worked last week with a client, new to his role.  He described how his new firm’s customer retention rate had been on a steady, steep decline for the past few years.  His solution to curb churn based on some customer feedback and experience was to change the current sales strategy from product focused/meeting a specific customer need to a relationship and continuous improvement strategy by selling a broader solution. Certainly selling the broader solution to clients that need it is ideal. But as we spoke I recognized two potential problems in this thinking:  1) the assumption that the current sales strategy was the primary reason for the exit of customers (vs. other things that had to be corrected such as a sales process for expanding relationships though cross selling, relationship skills, expertise, leveraging the team, positioning solutions against what customers value, relationship management tools) and 2) the challenges around making selling the broader solution at one fell swoop a primary strategy.

Assumptions around Churn
Clearly, retaining, not only acquiring, customers is critical to achieving goal. Retention is a part of most sales organizations’ business model. Some say it is five times more expensive to gain a new customer than retain a current one.  I have always somewhat questioned that figure when I take into account the difference in customers, especially the high level of expectations of all customers today, and shifting customer needs etc.  But without a doubt a critical goal is to minimize churn and maximize retention.

To do this many sales organizations focus on data to help them predict and prevent customer loss.  Data is invaluable but from my experience it usually results in few insights into the actual reasons customers defect.  I often see information such as pricing, switched to competitor, decision to use in-house team, a new decision maker or life cycle of the product. But these tell little. The question is why:  why did they choose in-house etc.  What was the root of the decision:  was it solution dissatisfaction, service issues, the salesperson, culture miss match, the wrong sales strategy?  The first step in stopping churn is finding out why your customers are leaving.   Dig really, really deeply to truly understand why every customer chooses to end the relationship. Once you understand what impaired the customer experience and why customers are leaving you can begin to make changes in every area you control. If you do that fewer relationships will end.

Selling the Total System
Of course when you have the advantage of the total solution you can benefit both your customer and yourself by presenting the big picture, putting the specific solution in context, and going for the deeper sale to create the best chance of solution success.   I fully understand the value of selling the total system.  For example, you can enlighten customers who have progressed far through their buying cycle before speaking with salespeople by being the one to add to customers’ perspective to help them achieve their business outcomes or to plant the seed for future modular parts to the solution.

The question is how to sell the total solution so it doesn’t feel like force-feeding to a customer who may need it, but is not ready for it yet and how to play your hand without over playing it.

Preventing customer churn is as much mind-set as sales pitch. When your goal and sales activities are directed to owning all of your customers’ business in your provenance, churn will be much less a problem. In a risk adverse environment it is important to approach customers where they are or where they should be without making the decision bigger or more difficult than it needs to be. Selling the relationship and the total solution does not have to happen in one fell swoop.  When the broader solution is needed and can be sold all the better but when it can’t you can make it happen incrementally.  Many organizations stop the sales process at the point of negotiation and closing when in fact the business of retaining and expanding relationships demands a defined cross selling process as important as the sales process, along with creativity, a resourceful and committed sales team, and tools.

If you commit to knowing what is going on in your customers’ businesses, industries, and with them personally you will know what they value so you can fulfill their needs and drive demand—often before the need is on their agendas. One of the finest sales leaders I was lucky enough to work with was possessive about customers. He had a steadfast expectation of his sales team: they were to know what their customers valued and always at a minimum be on the short list.  Not every deal was won but it was a very big problem if his salespeople learned that their customers were already in the market and much worse if they learned about a customer purchase after the fact.  With this mind-set the leader created a proactive customer relationship sales culture that paid off with repeat business year after year. He defined a relationship as a “series of transactions”.  Transactions was not the key word—the word series was and it served as the enemy of churn.

The first sale, whether selling the full solution or a small part of it, gives you the opportunity to build trust, strengthen the relationship, bring value through ideas and insights, and expand the relationship. To keep customers listen to them.  Care about their businesses and be a part of how they achieve their business goals. Think about each customer. Positioning a total solution strategy can be very effective with some customers but not with others.  A defined and implemented cross-selling process should be a part of every plan.  Turning churn into earn requires sales leadership and sales force that understands that it takes as much, and sometimes more, to keep a customer as it does to win one.

October 30th, 2014|1 Comment|

Finding Your Creativity in Unlikely Places

All children are creative. But for most, creativity is repressed as a part of growing up. We often think of creativity as an innate, indefinable gift that a person is born with or not, something that is not teachable. Theresa Amabile, head of the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard, has dedicated her entire research program to creativity. She makes it clear that all people are capable of producing creative work. But she adds that most aren’t anywhere near reaching their creative potential.

Corporations are starved for creativity. Creativity in sales has never been more important. With the new focus on bringing insights to clients, there is a premium on creativity. Bringing products to clients is mundane compared to what it takes to bringing ideas. Success, in the new world of selling, hinges on the ability of salespeople to not only know what clients need now, but what their next needs will be, and delivering the right solutions.

There are hundreds of definitions for creativity. Creativity is hard to define-but it is very easy to recognize. I like Wharton’s marketing professor Jerry Wind’s definition of creativity, “The ability to challenge the status quo and come up with new and better solutions and new perspectives.” He makes it clear that being creative means breaking with the status quo to create a new dimension.

Yes, there are those that are born creative and stay creative. There are the extremes such as Einstein, Picasso, and Jobs. And there is also 10% or so in the normal curve. But far from being limited to this small group, creativity is in all of us waiting to be rekindled – and evidence shows that it can be taught.

It has been my experience, and it is borne out by research, that the critical element of creative work is the environment that either supports or squelches it. Creativity can be spurred on by many things – travel, adventure, relationships, drugs, etc. There have been cases of people who settle in a different country to jumpstart their creative process. There have also been cases of people taking magic mushrooms, which are now readily available via stores similar to Get Kush (, to have spiritual and creative awakenings. Before looking at behaviors that support creativity, let’s consider the environment. Unfortunately, most organizations, although they are hungry for creativity, undermine it.

In an IBM survey of 1,500 CEOs from 60 companies in 33 countries, creativity was acknowledged as the most important organization-wide trait needed for navigating the business environment. Yet it is crushed again and again and again, often unwittingly.

Jennifer Mueller, professor at the University of San Diego, explains the creativity can be turned off or turned on, based on the environment. Organizations create cultures that turn it off for a host of reasons. Creative salespeople (creative ‘’types”) often don’t conform. They are seen as trouble. They can be difficult to manage. Corporations often can’t tolerate failure, which is a part of the process. They see the risk, cost, or the time it takes for creative work incompatible with their need for predictability and control. The problem though is that, without an environment that supports creativity, transitioning sales teams to the new selling is a long hard road.

It takes determination and daring to create an environment where creativity can flourish. Sales leadership, ideally at the highest level, must institute methods and patterns that fuel creativity. But if it isn’t supported at the corporate level, each sales manager can coach and inspire creativity with his or her team. Jerry Wind looks at creativity as a muscle that can be developed and therefore taught. For sales leaders who think creativity means chaos, the good news that research brings to us is that, far from having to abandon process and methodologies, creativity demands discipline.

The latest thinking about creativity is it can’t be taught in the normal sense of adding knowledge. It can, however, be tapped into. Here are some proven strategies:

  • Work within parameters – Authors of Inside the Box, Goldenberg and Boyd reinforce how critical it is to work within parameters. A myth is that creativity is this immediate light bulb. But in fact, for most people to be creative, structure is the key. Muller sites IDEO, the multinational design firm, as exemplary. They begin the creative process with brainstorming (no censuring of ideas), but then shepherd it through a more structured route. The initial session is called “deep dive”, and that session is very short. Then they break the problem apart by assigning people specific pieces. Then comes the focus session. Their process shows the interplay between chaos and focus. One person is responsible for the structure. They test the idea, or solution, and then tweak it. Muller says that, unlike the stereotype, creativity has to be tightly managed and fostered.
  • Manage talent – Make decisions about the roles where creativity is most important. While some researchers suggest that certain positions don’t require creative people, I disagree. Certainly, some roles demand more creativity than others. You don’t want “creative accounting”, but that is different from not wanting a creative accountant. Where creativity is essential, incentivize people to do things differently.
  • Have faith in team members/yourself – Kaufman, Director of Imagination Institute at Penn’s Positive Psychology Center, believes everyone is creative. But if organizations want creativity expressed, there must be a belief that team members are capable of being creative. Sales leaders must support their team members with coaching and give them process and tool, but also give them room to use their judgment to be creative.
  • Daydream – Kaufman also says it is very important to give team members time for constructive internal reflection, and even daydreaming. Yes, daydreaming! He has found that most businesses are not aware that mind-wandering seems to be essential to the creative process. This gives workaholics a reason to smell the roses…
  • Take a walk – Stanford researchers show that walking boosts creative inspiration by 60%. Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are known for holding meetings on foot.
  • Allow time – Research discredits the myth that time pressure increases creativity. Making time and giving space for creativity is challenging in todays world, but it is essential. Longer term thinking feeds creativity. Levitin, author of The Organized Mind, makes the case that multitasking and Facebook, tweeting, and emailing throughout the day, sap creativity. He too promotes daydreaming as a way to increase creativity.
  • Intersect ideas – Maeda, of Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, describes the need for what he calls “plasticity” as key to creativity by allowing the joining together of ideas not thought of as related. He uses Airbnb as a perfect example in that its creators recognized the excess capacity available in people’s homes and designed a scalable service to enable anyone to access that capacity in a peer-to-peer economy. They used two unrelated things and created a new connection.
  • Create a repetitive, discipline, routine – This may sound counter intuitive, but it captures all of the above thinking. Even creative writers such as Maya Angelou, John Cheever, W.H. Auden and countless others, report their writing schedules are highly disciplined – for example 8:00 to 11:30 every day. They think like artists, but they worked like accountants.
  • Encourage peer review – Assemble diverse teams to get broad thinking and use the IDEO methodology. Amabile shows that collaboration is more conducive to creativity than competition.
  • Identify the real problem – Questioning is more important than ever, but the questions must be the right questions to solve the right problem. Understanding the real problem is the most important part of the creative process. As you think of ideas, keep asking “What else?

Research and experience tell us clearly that discipline is the key to creativity, and this includes building-in room for “the trouble maker” and carving out time to daydream.

October 9th, 2014|Comments Off on Finding Your Creativity in Unlikely Places|

Terminating a Team Member without Being The Terminator

To terminate is to bring to an end.  If you have had to terminate someone you know things don’t get much harder or sadder.  Most managers dread this part of the job more than any other.  They are concerned for the team member—How will this person get a job?  What will he or she do? In fact, especially today, losing a job can be catastrophic.   Because of a sense of guilt, uncertainty about the decision, legal concerns, and excuse after excuse by the team member, many managers don’t let poor performers go.   And when they do take action almost every termination conversation is stressful.

Keeping poor performers on the team is a disservice to other team members, clients, and the organization—and to the salesperson him or herself.  Low performers often create resentment from other team members.  Lower standards are infectious and can bring down the aspiration level of other team members.  Taking action puts other low performers on notice.  And taking action help mangers meet goal and ensures clients get the value and care they need.

Time and time again I have been told by salespeople and sales managers who have lost their jobs that the worse part was not the termination itself but how the message was delivered and to quote a colleague how the message was dropped like a bomb.

When it is time to let a team member go the process you use while it does not change the result, significantly changes the experience and reduces chances of litigation.  Know how makes managers more confident and compassionate and team members more accepting.  The big enemy in a termination meeting is surprise.

DO’s and DON’Ts

Do:  Prepare. Review employee handbook.  Consult with HR and legal, inform IT and security.  Calculate final compensation and severance when appropriate, finalize all paperwork, bring all materials, and documentation. Prepare a package of what to do next to help with the unknown and provide direction.

Don’t have the termination conversation alone.  Ideally include a colleague from HR or your peer as a witness.

Do:  Set an appointment, ideally face-to-face in a private setting.  Set the tone with a serious voice.

Don’t share the reason for the meeting when you set the appointment.  If asked say that you prefer to have the discussion in person or if the discussion will be by phone when there will be adequate time.

Do:  Start with the end in mind.  The first message you deliver should let the person know that he or she is being let go.  This is non-negotiable.

Don’t change the decision  (unless new and compelling information is presented which is not the norm)

Do:  Lead coaching sessions, a final Consequence Coaching meeting (session in which you clearly spell out the objectives to be accomplished, the time frame to accomplish them, and most importantly the CONSEQUENCE if the objectives are not met—i.e. the person will lose his or her job), and document in writing all along prior to the termination meeting. If you do not have documentation meet with HR and consider putting the person on a 30, 60, 90-day performance plan.

Don’t surprise the team member. In fairness to the person this should never come as a surprise (unless it is a immediate egregious act or part of corporate downsizing). When there is any element of surprise there will be resistance and resentment.

Do: Keep your explanation SHORT but specific to the driving reason—for example, “We set x objective to be accomplished by … and it was not met.  Your performance has not …” Detailed feedback should have been given in performance reviews and short falls worked on in coaching sessions.  There are two reasons to keep the meeting short: 1) you do not want to get into an argument or big discussion—the decision has been made and is non-negotiable.  While clear feedback is very important for growth it should have already been given.  2) There is no need to further hurt the person’s feeling.  The person may vent and ask questions. Listen and repeat your concise message.

Don’t give a long list of all of failures.  It will only put salt on the wound, create hard feelings, and provoke an argument.

Do: Follow company policy.  Clearly set out next steps, clarify the effective date (in many companies this means clearing the person’s desk immediately as harsh as that sounds), communicate severance, email access,…  Identify who will accompany the team member to his/her desk.   Offer any resources such as taking calls for the team member, whether or not you will provide a reference.

Don’t apologize but say you wish things had worked out differently and extend best wishes for the future.  Avoid Friday terminations. Monday is actually better because the team member can start making contacts more easily during the week.

It is nice to believe that you are doing the person a favor because he or she can pursue more appropriate work or take inventory of his or her strengths and weaknesses.   And while this often is the best thing for the person it’s hard for most people to recognize at the time of termination.

I have always favored models as a way to put a more simple frame around things that are complex.  A model to follow:

Prepare for the conversation/prepare your organization.

Set an appointment.

State the decision at the start of the meeting.

Give a short specific reason based on previous feedback and objectives set in the consequence meeting.  Avoid a litany of the person’s  failures.  Listen and repeat as necessary.

Clarify separation terms and next steps. Provide necessary paperwork.

Express best wishes and hope for the future.

What the model does not include is the approach you take.  Be as considerate as possible. Compassion combined with making sure nothing in the meeting is a surprise to the salesperson or you are the keys to avoid burning bridges.    It is your obligation to have provided feedback and the team member’s obligation to have made the necessary improvement.

Concerns about litigation has tempered termination conversations and added another dimension of stress to these already challenging conversations.  Nevertheless I think it is important to express at the conclusion that you regret things worked out as they did and wish the person success in the future.  Always keep your content objective but your tone collaborative and human.

Maybe it’s the movie The Terminator but the word termination seems unnecessarily brutal to me. You are terminating the job, possibly the relationship but not the person’s future.  Never be harsh or angry. It is not the time for you to get things off your chest.  It is not about you.  It is about and for the person being let go. Prepare yourself mentally and stay calm and caring.  Keep it brief but not rushed.

I started with the definition of termination—to bring to an end.  Behaviorally that is what you are doing.  But the emotional tone you set, one of caring and respect will make a difference in the short and long run.   Your team member is walking out without a job.  Do all you can to make sure it is with dignity and hope for the future.  No matter how bad the team member has been show you have heart.

September 16th, 2014|Comments Off on Terminating a Team Member without Being The Terminator|

Cyber Bullying

It’s bad enough that one in three teens have experienced on line bullying, but recent Pew Research shows that three time that percentage of adult social media users have witnessed this mean and cruel behavior to others on social network sites (“Dealing with Digital Cruelty,” New York Times, August 24).

While cyber bulling is not rampant in the field of sales performance, several posts among professionals in our world have concerned me deeply.  Clearly cyber bullying is not just a problem for teenagers.  It has entered our world.

So what is cyber bullying?  It is repeated harmful and hurtful comments posted on the web.  The common elements that distinguish it from whistle blower exposes are the attacks are cruel, rude, personal and additive and often unrelenting. They substitute insults for an argument that is well reasoned, documented, and fact checked.

As an educator and coach I have tried to live what I first learned at home:  if you have a problem with someone go the person directly and first to discuss and try to work it out.  It is wrong to bring an issue and a reputation to a public forum without this human courtesy.   And even having done that, making the attack personally hurtful still crosses the line to cyber bullying.  And while I am a passionate proponent of free speech and grateful for frank feedback, name calling, half truths, questionable fact checking, rumors, personal attacks in the name of not keeping silent, sharing personal emails, and axe grinding all add up to cyber bullying.

We are in dangerous new territory here.  The ability of others to “pile on” to the initial bully blog or article adds to the destructiveness and the audience reach makes it more damaging.  The “pile on” then is used as the justification and evidence of proof.  We in the field of learning and development, communication, and sales are in a position to raise the bar on behavior, not to reach a new low.

Too often the cyber bullies and harassers go uncensored and rarely are they big or aware enough to apologize. But in some cases as mentioned in “The Troll Slayer” article (New Yorker, September 1) apologies are made and relationships formed. In some setting such as a university if a professor engages in cyber bullying by viciously attacking research or the researcher, institutional review boards can intervene to make an assessment and contain perpetrators. Without this kind of structure in our industry and with a forum to spew aggression and perpetrate harm with a simple click, we must be vigilant in policing ourselves.

The key question to ask in regard to what we write is what is the intent.  Is it to grind an axe, to embarrass, to retaliate, to discredit a competitor, promote ones self?  Or is it to right a wrong, to improve a situation, to bring about an important change? Under any circumstance cyber bullying has no place among professionals.

The responsibility on each of us is enormous because of the reach and permanence of the internet.  It far exceeds the schoolyard.  We normally think about teenagers when we think about cyber bullying, not adults or businesses.   As adults we should be stronger than teenagers and better able to handle unleashed aggression. But in fact that’s not necessarily the case.  The potential damage is so great that even the strongest can be hurt professionally and personally.  We can’t allow that for any age.

There must be a better way.   Some victims ignore trolls and others join the fray to not to embarrass but to educate.  Others respond privately to take the situation out of the public forum.  The answer is somewhere out there.   Let’s find it together.

August 29th, 2014|Comments Off on Cyber Bullying|