Skip to content
Nov 20 17

Proving Math Works, Flawed Coaching Arguments

by David Brock

There seem to be no end of articles on who and how managers should invest their time in coaching.  Recently, I read another, with lots of people piling on with their opinions and proving it with numbers.  As is usual,  most of these discussions that prove little more than math works.

Many of the arguments go something like this:  “Assume an A player is doing $250K, a B player is doing $150K.  If we raise the performance of each by 10%, clearly the incremental $25K from the A player far exceeds the increment of $15K from the B player.”  With that argument, we are all supposed to see that we should be investing in our A players.  Clearly, if we have only 2 people to manage, that makes sense, but then one wonders, why not coach both?

But usually, we have more than 2 people on our teams.  The average span of control is 8-14 people.  So let’s re-rerun the math.  Let’s assume a “normal distribution.”  We have 2 A players, 6 B players, and 2 C players.  We can still play the math games, but this time with a different conclusion.  With a 10% improvement in the A and B players (we’ll get to the C players later), the net improvement driven by A players is $50K and the net improvement driven by the B players is $90K.  Using the same math and logic, we have a completely different conclusion.

Let’s then think about the assumptions, is it realistic to assume the same 10% improvement in each category of sales people–which all these math arguments assume?  If an A player is playing at the top of their game, is it reasonable to think that we can get a 10% performance improvement, just because we say so?  If they are highly effective, impactful, and productive, certainly they can improve, but 10% might be a stretch, or it might take much more time to get to that level.

As much as I hate sports analogies, think of a top performing athlete.  While they continuously improve, the rate of improvement tends to decline because it becomes more and more difficult to find and achieve those levels of improvement.  It’s the same with our top players.  They will and want to continue to improve, but the increments will decline because it’s much more difficult to find those improvement opportunities.

Likewise, with the B players, why have such low expectations of them with only 10% improvement?  Clearly, at the original baseline, A players are performing 66% better than B’s.  So we have the opportunity to improve their performance to match the A players by as much as 66%, why are we setting arbitrary assumptions limiting ourselves to 10%?  And the path to that improvement is pretty clear, we model the A player approaches and coach the B players on those already proven approaches.

But again, I’m just playing with numbers and since I am setting the rules, I can do anything to prove my point, and math always works.

We always tend to ignore the C players in these discussions.  (Yeah, we want to ignore them, they are such a pain to work with and coach.)  Let’s say our C players are producing $100K.  Sure we can use the same arguments, let’s improve their performance by 10%, getting them each to $110K.  It’s far less than the $25K improvement from each the A players.  Less than the $15K improvement of the each of the B players, but usually, we apply this same logic.

But then, we think again.  Because they are C players, how easy is it going to be to get them to increase their performance by 10%?  (This is actually the same challenge with increasing the performance of A players by 10%).

On the other hand, what we miss is the devastating impact they have on revenue.  We are losing a minimum of $100K on those two C players (They are each performing $50K less than the B players), or possibly $300K when compared to the potential that A players show we can achieve.  This would argue, we should be investing the majority of our time in the C players because of eliminating the lost revenue they create is far better than the investments we make in either the A or B players.

We can play these numbers games all day.  In this short discussion, we’ve gone from saying, our highest leverage is the A players, to the highest leverage is the B players, to the highest leverage is the C players.  But all we’ve really done is played games to prove math works.

When are we going to focus on the basic responsibility of Front Line Sales Managers and stop playing silly math games?

The job of the FLSM is to maximize the performance of everyone on their team.

We can’t work with just the people we want to work with, we have to work with everyone.  We can’t invest equal amounts of time in each person, we have to invest the right time in each person.  Because each person has differing needs, each has differing strengths and weaknesses, we have to adjust the time and coaching approaches to each individual.  The rate of improvement of each person will vary, but we have to maximize each the performance of each person.

The job of the FLSM is, also to maximize the share and growth of the territory.  As a result, we have to continue to look at the mix of our people to determine if we are doing everything we can to get the most out of the territory.  If we can’t raise the skills of our people to achieve our goals in the territory, we need to look at remaking our teams, building them with people that enable us to achieve the full potential of the territory.

I suppose it’s human nature to want easy solutions, but simplistic arguments aren’t helpful.

Let’s stop playing silly math games, let’s start focusing on the jobs of FLSMs, coaching them, giving them the tools necessary to maximize the performance of their teams and their performance in their territories.


Be Sociable, Share!
Nov 20 17

How Many Times Are We Going To Have This Discussion?

by David Brock

Sales is an interesting function, we seem to be caught in a perpetual “deja vu” or one of those scenes in the movie “Ground Hog Day.”

Having been involved in professional selling for most of my career, I’m at the point where I hear the same conversations all over again, and again, and again.

You know the conversations I’m talking about:

  • We have to stop pitching, start listening…..
  • We have to be customer focused……
  • We have to be account focused…..
  • We have to create value and provide insight……
  • We have to focus on our customers’ problems and provide insights….
  • We have to segment and target our messages and sales efforts….
  • We have to use our sales process……
  • We need to get people to use the tools…..
  • We have to plan and prepare for our sales calls….
  • We have to prospect……
  • We have to manage our time more effectively…..
  • We have to coach and develop our people……

I could go on and on, but you get the point.  It seems we go in always repeating the same conversations and cycles.  Each time, we seem to invent a new vocabulary or overlay it with a new technology.  We’ve gone from consultative, to solution, to customer centric, to customer focused, to solution (again), to challenger, to insight, to account based.  We’ve gone from door to door, to direct mail, to telephone, to email, to messaging, to mobile, to digital/web enabled, to AI, to…

Innovation seems, primarily, to be based on applying a new vocabulary and technology to the same old concepts and problems.

Ironically, we don’t seem to improve or change things.

Customers are saying the same things about why they don’t like sales people.  Performance actually isn’t getting better, it seems to get worse.

At some point, one begins to think this is madness.

Recently, I was speaking to a few colleagues, like me, they’ve been around the block a few times.  We reflected on other functions or professions, including engineering, development, manufacturing, research, engineering, finance, etc.  While they tend to face the same type of problems they always have–how to innovate, how to reduce product design cycles, how to improve quality, how to improve manufacturing process, how to reduce cost, the nature of these problems is very different than they were in the past.  Somehow, it seems the state of their professions has advanced far more than sales.

For example, engineering and development have moved far beyond drafting boards and slide rules.  Lean/agile is standard practice in manufacturing.

It seems the state of their practice has progressed much further than the state of practice in sales.  The conversations are different, yes they have problems, but they aren’t talking about the same problems and same stale solutions they applied 5, 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago.

What is it about selling that is different?  Why are we talking about the same things we have been talking about for decades, yet making no progress?  Why are we reliving the exact same issues year after year, decade after decade?  What keeps us from making substantive progress in our profession?

Without a doubt, our jobs have changed, but more driven by changes in our customers and how they buy, less so in changes and innovations driven by sales.  Technology has enabled new things, new ways of buying and enables us to create value in new and different ways–but we struggle to leverage these effectively.

I’m really interested in a conversation on this.  What is it, that causes sales to be trapped in the same conundrum, are we destined to live the same cycle year after year, or can we change?

What are your thoughts?



Be Sociable, Share!
Nov 17 17

New Ideas Don’t Have To Be “New”

by David Brock

We constantly struggle with innovation and insight,  whether it’s for our own organization or our work with customers.

To be honest, I think we make innovation and insight far too complicated.

I don’t know how many “innovation” session I see organizations conducting.  Usually, it’s a group of people sitting in a circle.   Perhaps they are surrounded by white boards, there are pads of different color “Post-Its.”  There may be a facilitator taking the group through a number of “mind-freeing” exercises.  Inevitably, they struggle.  The groups stare at each other, toss out some ideas, but struggle with really new ideas.

Likewise, we struggle with “how do we provide insights to our customers?”  We do research, we assemble groups, we try to discover new perspectives that might catch our customers’ interests.  But often we struggle in developing insights.

Part of the problem is our approach to innovating and developing insights.

We do it through some sort of groupthink process, perhaps getting our best sales people together, or getting marketing/product management together to come up with new ideas.

The problem is, we are all prisoners of our own experience.

If our source of ideas is from a group that has the same shared experiences, it’s virtually impossible to come up with something new.  Too often, it’s just a repackaging of the same old stuff, perhaps with newer/cooler words, a veneer of technology, or just better graphics.  But we really haven’t innovated.

It’s similar with insights, our perspectives are limited by our experience and those of our customers.  When we look at similar things over and over, we are blind to those things we don’t look for.

In addition to being prisoners of our own experiences, I think our concept of innovation and insight may limit us.  Too often, we think it has to be something “new.”  Perhaps, not solving world peace or world hunger, but at least in our domains something brand new.

In reality, I think much innovation and insight doesn’t really have to be new, it just has to be new to us or our customers.  Something we’ve never seen or considered before.

If we’re doing our jobs right, if we are researching our customers and their markets, of we are looking at competition, it becomes very difficult for us to see something new.  Copying our competitors is not innovation, it’s just following.

So how do we make innovation simpler?

We have to look in different places, we have to source our ideas from areas we’ve never looked at before.

It can be as simple as looking in different places in our own organization.  Perhaps, it’s sales and marketing looking at engineering and manufacturing, seeing if there are ideas, methods, and approaches we can learn and adapt to what we do.  (I happen to believe there are huge lessons sales can learn from these areas–here’s a series of articles on that)

Or maybe it’s looking in completely different disciplines or markets.

Some years ago, we ran an innovation workshop with a couple of clients.  One client was a giant in sophisticated electronic components, the other was a fashion company, specialized in motorcycle apparel.  On one side of the table were a row of people in powder blue shirts and khaki’s, on the other were people in leathers, full sleeves of tattoos, gang colors, and the visible piercings were in very interesting places.

As we started, both groups looked at each other, then they looked at me.  The same look was on each person’s face, “WTF???”

After a bit of a rocky start, they really started engaging each other and learning.  The electronic components people started seeing things the motorcycle people were doing.  While they were old and, perhaps, stale in the motorcycle industry, adapted to electronic components, they were new and innovative.  Likewise, the motorcycle people were discovering things the electronic components people were doing, tweaking them to work in their industries and markets.

None of the ideas were new, but they were new to each group.  They could be tweaked and adapted to each different industry/market segment.

Likewise, look at wildly different disciplines.

Recently, I was talking to a nephew.  He’s getting his PhD in Microbiology from Harvard (says the proud uncle).  We started talking about his research, which involves mice, rats, and insects. As we discussed what he was doing, what he was trying to learn, I started seeing some ideas that could be interesting to explore in business.  I would never have thought of these, but for that 30 minute discussion at the breakfast table.

Again, the ideas weren’t new, they were just new to me.

As we look at some of the “break through” innovations we read about all the time, for example SaaS, the Cloud, even Smartphones, Uber, AirBnB, much of it is really not new, but artful synthesis of ideas from a variety of other disciplines and markets, packaged in a way that is new and innovative for our markets and customers.  For example, the concept of subscription based software is an adaptation from newspapers, magazines, and media.  Cloud existed as timesharing decades ago, but has been made more powerful by innovations in networks and software development.

Innovation and insight don’t have to be that difficult.  We just have to look in new places, taking ideas and methods, adapting and tweaking them for our markets and customers.


Be Sociable, Share!
Nov 17 17

Stop Reading (Just) Sales Books!

by David Brock

Reading is important to our professional development and growth (not to mention the scientific evidence of how it improves our cognitive capabilities).  Far too few business and sales professional actively read as part of their personal and professional growth.  (Perhaps, that’s part of the reason we consistently see the stunningly poor data on results.)

Every week, however, it’s gratifying to talk to sales people and executives who’ve made reading part of their daily professional development.  It’s not just blogs or trade magazines, they are actively reading books, doing deep dives into their own professional development.

I love learning what they are reading, partly to help me identify books I need to read.  (By the way, I’m super thankful when they list Sales Manager Survival Guide as a book they’ve read and value.)  But I get concerned when I hear they are just reading books on selling if they are sales professionals, or marketing if they are marketing, or leadership…

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of very good books on each of these topics.  But, to be honest, it’s hard to make big break through’s in your own professional development if you just read books from the same genre.  Honestly, most of the books offer different perspectives, new data, and different ways to think about the same ideas.  They are valuable, they help us think about different approaches, perhaps incorporating some into our own work.  But it’s hard to get real innovation or new ideas.

We won’t find the break through’s we need by reading the same subject matter, we have to look more broadly to find ideas in other disciplines or subjects, figuring out how we can adapt them to what we do.

Recently, this lesson was vividly reinforced in a conversation with a client.  I walked into their offices.  Normally, I turn right heading to the executive offices or the sales/marketing teams.  On this particular morning, I turned left (I think it was because the coffee machines are on the left side on this particular floor at the customer).

As I was walking through the open workspace, the EVP of Operations saw me and yelled, “Dave, I need to talk to you!”  I knew Peter from having participated in executive meetings, but he and I had never had much more than passing interactions.  The client is a construction company, and Peter is responsible for the construction of $100’s of millions of buildings.

Peter started walking to me and I noticed he had a copy of my book in his hand.  “Dave, I wanted to talk to you about some of the ideas in your book….”

I was a little startled, “Peter, I’m very flattered that you are reading my book, but why?”

You could probably guess his response, “Dave, I’m reading it, because there are some good ideas that I can adapt to what we are doing in operations.  I want to learn how we can leverage them to improve our own performance.”  We had a 90 minute conversation about a lot of the things I had written in Sales Manager Survival Guide, exploring how they could be tweaked to help his organization be more effective (He also gave me a lot of new ideas–at least new to me).  At the end of our meeting, I asked him what other books he was reading and managed to add a number to my own reading list (many that I never would have thought of–or that Amazon would never have recommended.

At the moment, I’m reading Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo Da Vinci.  One of the things I’m learning about Leonardo Da Vinci’s genius was his insatiable curiosity about a wide range of topics, whether it was anatomy, geometry, astronomy, engineering, how light works, materials, drama, music…. Leonardo was constantly learning about the widest array of topics, incorporating what he learned into what he was doing at the time, whether painting, staging a play, designing a machine.  In everything he did, he blurred the lines between disciplines, incorporating ideas from many into each project.  Part of his genius was even blurring the boundaries between fantasy and reality.

I believe our greatest source of ideas and innovation in sales (or whatever function you choose), comes from outside our discipline.  I believe the break through ideas come from the artful adaptations of ideas in other fields to what we do, I’ve coined the phrase, artful plagiarism.

Don’t stop reading books on sales, but make the majority of what you read something outside your professional interests.  Study those books, thinking, “How can I take these ideas and apply them to what I do?”


Be Sociable, Share!