Don’t Stumble: Seize The Teachable Moment

Executive teams around the world work hard to achieve the expectations inherent with their status as leaders for their companies. In sales, as leaders and coaches alike, we use a frequent term to describe a common phenomenon: stumble. Managers can “stumble” from not being alert for the best opportunities to help their sales teams find success, and as such, sales executives stumble in closing the best opportunities available. The result and equal responsibility lies in the collective efforts of both, which brings about a teachable moment. How can sales leaders and coaches train their sales managers to get the best work out their sales executives?

A good leader and coach must be a good listener, and value his managers’ intelligence, drive, and understanding of the sales environment. Still, many stumble when driven by a mind-set that tries to fix problems in their sales force, even when their sales team posts substantial success. Go figure! These managers are stumbling over their own management model. They are missing the forest by seeing only trees.

It is perhaps the most overlooked truism in sales that the door to the most productive learning opportunity is opened by success. Corporate culture too often trains sales management to ignore success and instead focus on identifying problems to fix. If a salesman under-performs, find the problem. If a sales person exceeds expectations, there must be a problem somewhere holding back conversion of sales in the pipeline: find that problem.

A Eureka Moment

Good sales leaders know that the most valuable learning opportunities in sales are missed by focusing on – look for it – a problem that needs fixing. The most difficult rule to coach is how productive learning opportunities come when sales goals are met – quite the eureka moment this is! Take a moment to consider this revolutionary concept. A successful sales team does not depend on problem-solvers {sales managers} with job descriptions that require them to perform post-mortems on sales staff performance.

When the culture in a sales environment is obsessed with problem solving, that culture needs to change. Managers looking for the optimum coaching moment need look no farther than the success in their sales force. When a sales person who is learning the rules for success, converts a sale, that is the opportunity sales managers should build on. Success is a teachable moment managers need to be seizing. Indeed, success is THE eureka moment that comes on a sales person’s path to exceptionalism.

It’s a Top-Down Solution

Managers get marching orders from the top of their corporate food chain. When they understand their job description and performance evaluations center on how many problems they solved today, guess what, that is what they will be focusing on: problems.

For example, let’s take the promising sales person who closes a huge deal, with all the bells and whistles management likes to see in the package. The sales person runs to his manager to share the good news, and reinforce his achievement expecting praise from the culture.

The manager’s response to him is, “congratulations. That is what we like to see. Now let’s talk about those sales in the pipeline. What is holding those prospects up?” The manager’s intent is good, of course. He wants to help his direct report, but he has stumbled and missed that eureka moment for that salesperson. He also missed an opportunity to build a positive relationship within his sales force.

Success follows culture. The best sales managers shape their culture so that the team environment supports sales success. Evaluations that emphasize negative elements in the sales process are ultimately counter-productive. It should not be a surprise that negative karma generates negative results. Morale suffers and negative relationships come to define the manager-sales relationships.

Pivot To The Positive

A friend of mine, a vice president of sales for a global corporate giant sought advice recently from me on an issue he was having with one of his promising sales teams. The VP shared a litany of deficiencies from his evaluation report detailing this struggling team’s performance. His takeaway was that his team was on a downhill spiral, and he was stymied on how to turn things around.

Listening to this executive’s story, it was clear that he was the problem, much more than the team. They had an abundance of admittedly smaller sales successes, but management was tearing them down and constantly criticizing for failing to reach their top numbers.

Through several trusted and direct conversations, the vice president was persuaded to take a positive approach. During his next evaluation of the sales team, it was suggested he direct his comments in a positive way at the outset. Start by asking:

  • What has been going well in this sales period?
  • What has been an important, specific team accomplishment this week?
  • During the past month, what has been the team success you value most?
  • What has encouraged you the most about your sales team relationships?

The next time I spoke with the VP, a few months later, as we typically go back and forth to learn from each other, I asked him to recap his relationship with the problem team and describe recent interactions. He admitted he was both surprised, and energized. The team reacted to his positive comments and supportive evaluations and produced their best results the following sales period. He said the meeting was the best he ever had with any team, including his top performers.

The team showed a higher morale, and a new word began to be heard around the office: empowerment. The team felt their sales expectations were do-able, and they displayed an energy that transformed their managers into a support structure for success, rather than a source of disapproval.

Look For A Teachable Moment

Effective sales managers know that their most important relationship with sales teams is built on positive reinforcement. The alternative is to find fault, and that is counter-productive. To create a world-class sales force, the best advice available is to turn the binoculars around. Look for good habits and use them as a foundation for success. Trust and confidence comes from positive reinforcement. Sales teams welcome constructive engagement and criticism. Most importantly, they will look for teachable moments as guidance they can embrace.

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