Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Motivation: Men at work in motivated selling

I seldom talk about work. I have spent most of my life working with computers, but on more than one occasion I've found myself in a sales position. I dropped out of high school when I was in the 9th grade. My parents struggled to motivate me to go back to school, but I stubbornly refused to do it. When I turned 16, they said, "Get a job or get out of the house." Well, the "job" turned out to be a 16-month excursion into fruitless direct sales in a depressed economy. I sold soap, mostly to businesses. My customers went out of business faster than I could find new customers.

I attended weekly sales meetings and motivational seminars for over a year. I listened to senior salespeople talk about their successes. I watched people rise to become "top sellers". I saw the same people burn out and fade away. Some of them were driven off in shame and fury because they couldn't produce anything and were always negative.

"Negativity" is one of those business buzz words I have always hated. The sales world fixates on negativism and positive attitudes like drowning people grasping for lifelines. You are expected to buy motivational books that tell you to wake up every morning and greet the new day as a vista filled with opportunities. The indoctrination in some sales organizations never ends. One of the reasons why I left sales eventually was that I wanted to regain my humanity.

When I turned to technical work as a career (after returning to school and getting a tech school diploma and two college degrees), I found that salespeople could be the worst enemy on the planet. Computer systems salespeople especially left me with a foul taste in my mouth. I often found myself having to fulfill contracts where the salespeople appeared to have just blatantly lied to the customers about the capabiliies of the systems they were selling.

I remember one sales guy, Landy, coming in to an office on a weekend and blasting me for not completing a project on time. According to the schedule I had been given, I was doing fine. Another programmer walked up to me and said, "Don't worry about him. Rumor has it he's upset because he's about to lose a $25,000 bonus over this deal. But he never should have promised a conversion in the short time frame he gave the client."

When I became an IT manager for the first time, I had to buy a computer for my office. It was just a PC but this was still back when buying PCs was a considered expense. Dell and Gateway were just starting up and most people still turned to Compaq and IBM for their office computers. I called a local PC distributor and asked for a quote. My supervisor told me to get some competitive quotes. Rolling my eyes, I solicited the competitive quotes and found another supplier offering the same machine (an Everex 386) for several hundred dollars less.

"See?" my supervisor said sagely. "That's why you get competitive quotes. Salespeople are always padding their commissions."

Hm. Well, in the end, we went with the first company because I had proposed installing a multiuser DOS operating system on the PC. We wanted to try a product which I think was called MultiDos by Western Digital (or Western Something). The company with the lower-priced Everex ignored me when I said, "I don't want PC-MOS. I can't remember the other product's name, but that is what I want." They called me back and said, "What you want is PC-MOS."

Salespeople who don't listen just don't get my business. The guy who got the business was named Joe Brown. He told me he hadn't heard of the product but said he would make some calls. I said, "If you cannot find anything other than PC-MOS, please don't try to sell me on it."

"I won't do that, Michael," he promised. An hour later he called up and said, "I don't know if this is what you want, but how about MultiDOS (or whatever it was called) by Western Digital?" He had, in fact, found the real product and he ordered it for me. I got approval to switch the order from the lower-priced vendor to Joe's company.

It's important to build trust and rapport with your customers when you're in sales, and the one thing you don't want to do is come across like a smarmy sales guy who is only interested in earning a commission. Don't ever tell me I want PC-MOS if I specifically say I don't want PC-MOS. It's a simple rule. You'd be amazed at how often people violate it.

When I left the IT field a couple of years ago, I had a pretty foul taste in my mouth again. It wasn't because of salespeople, though. I had inherited an IT management position I didn't want, and I inherited a new boss I didn't know, whom I hadn't interviewed and hired, and who turned out to be (in my opinion) the most incompetent decision-maker I've ever had to deal with. He was easily swayed by anyone's opinion other than mine, regardless of how few credentials and how little experience they had. The ex-boss whose position I inherited told me long afterward that my opinion was disregarded because I was honest about not wanting the responsibility.

You know, if you're going to distrust people because they are honest, there is something seriously wrong with you. Get therapy immediately if you are a decision-maker who doesn't want to hear the truth from your IT guy.

So I eventually settled on sales. I'd actually had to bring in my own business while working for a small software firm after leaving my first IT management position. I didn't like being responsible for my own paycheck and having to solve people's problems. But here I am, invested in sales again.

Now I'm a licensed insurance agent. There is a lot to learn about insurance, which is pretty much the ugly step-child of business. When you become an insurance agent, the first thing that happens is someone says, "Congratulations on making the best decision of your life!" The second thing that happens is they hand you a phone book and say, "Go sell insurance."

A very good friend helped me make the transition to insurance. He enrolled me in a series of insurance selling courses, took me to a seminar in Dallas, and basically walked me through the process of knocking on doors and learning how to open up to business people. He risked a lot to help me out. I've tried not to let him down, though I have since moved on to work for another (much larger) brokerage. There was one rough spot, when I became very ill last year, where my friend took me aside and gave me the dreaded Sales Responsibility Talk.

salespeople who are selling don't hear this talk. But I'm pretty sure every sales person hears it at least once in their career. I heard it more than once when I was selling soap as a teenager. Basically, you hit a slump. Things go wrong. You stop selling, or don't get started selling. Someone who has invested a lot of time in training and motivating you gets frustrated.

I was doing okay, but I got sick. I got really sick, and I stopped going out on cold calls. This went on for a couple of weeks and suddenly I had no more appointments and no one to call back. My pipeline broke, and I was back at square one. Now, being very ill, I was in no position to be driving around Houston, knocking on doors. When my friend accepted that I was that ill, he said two things: "If you're really sick, you need to see a doctor. And just because you cannot drive doesn't mean you cannot pick up a telephone and call people. In the worst case, I'll handle your appointments for you."

And he was right. So I saw the doctor and I spent two weeks hammering the telephone from home. Those were the two most productive weeks of my insurance sales career up to that point. I set up lots of appointments and I overcame what my friend calls "phone call reluctance".

He says he suffers from it himself. Many insurance agents hate to make cold calls on the phone. I don't understand why, but I watched myself and have watched myself ever since. I recognize when the reluctance sets in. I force myself to pick up the phone and call a stranger and say something pleasant and as compelling as possible.

Now that I'm with a larger brokerage, which hired me in part because I got to the point where I made 50 calls one day and set appointments, I've learned that getting appointments is actually the easy part of the business. I switched from selling voluntary benefits to selling commercial insurance. I was hungry to build up my book of business. Every new agent needs 2-3 years to build a solid book of business. There are a few occasional exceptional people who walk in the door with tons of personal contacts that help them get started right away. They become fast burnout star performers because after they run through their friends and relatives they have nothing left but cold calls, and they don't know ho wto make them.

Placing commercial insurance requires a lot of work. And decision-makers don't make the process easy. They are always asking for "competitive quotes" (sound familiar?). If you are dealing with three mid-sized brokerages, getting competitive quotes may actually make sense because none of them can get to all the markets. I work for one of the top ten brokers in the world. There are no markets we cannot get to.

When you deal with a company like ours, we can do the quote negotiating for you. But many business people don't trust insurance brokers to provide the truly best deals. We're supposedly padding our quotes with extra commission. Actually, that does happen, but the law requires that the agent/broker disclose all additinoal fees.

So far, I haven't seen anyone in my office do anything but bust their butt trying to get the most cmpetitive quotes for prospects. When we have to talk about fees, we're up front with them. I'm working with the largest group of honest salespeople I've ever met. There is relatively little smarm in my office, and I have yet to get up in the morning with a dreadful "I wish I wasn't working with these people" feeling.

However, there's a sob story in every crowd. My sob story turned out to be frustraton at the slow pace of building my book of business. My sales manager and the office President kept telling me I was ahead of the curve. I hit the phones every day and filled up my appointment list. That took several months, but at one point I had more new business in marketing than any of the experienced producers. Unfortunately, we didn't land most of those accounts in large part because we were too expensive (for small startup companies) or because it was taking too long to get quotes from wholesalers and underwriters.

Why does it take so long to get quotes? Because every insurance agent in the world is constantly asking for quotes. Underwriters pick and choose who they will provide quotes for. In commercial insurance, the power of the relationship is important. I was a new entity and the underwriters apparently didn't like the quality of the companies I was bringing in. So I made adjustments and started calling larger companies. Quotes started coming a little faster, but I was still frustrated.

I'll call anyone. I don't care how large or how small they are. But top ten brokers have business plans that call for customers who meet minimum requirements. Easy as it was to learn to qualify small companies out of the competition for my high-powered resources, I now found myself calling on companies that were too big. Hey, if the president of a $1,000,000,000 corporation is going to pick up the phone and return my voice mail about insurance, why should I not take his call?

Sadly, I've been told to drop more than one prospect because they were too big. We just don't go after that kind of business. We specialize in "the middle market" -- companies that make $5,000,000 to $500,000,000. But it's not easy to find these companies (don't even mention Dun & Bradstreet).

Well, this is getting long (as usual), so I'll cut to the chase. I switched to telemarketing. That is, my company uses an outside telemarketing firm to set appointments. When I heard what that firm was being paid per appointment, I told my sales manager, "I'll set appointments for that kind of money. I can get appointments, dude."

I was half-joking but we were having a Michael-is-frustrated-because-marketing-cannot-keep-up day. He went back to his boss and pitched the idea. They liked it. So now I telemarket for the brokerage and I set appointments for the other producers. Technically, if a prospect wants to meet me I'm free to go on the appointments, but I can't make phone calls when I'm doing that.

I have turned my accounts over to other producers. Some of them have required more attention than others. Insurance agents have to drop what they are doing and deal with client requests. Now that I'm setting appointments for other producers, I cannot afford to spend that time working on client requests. So my book of business is gone, but I'm making more money than I was last year. I have no complaints.

Still, not every agent is happy. There is always a certain amount of turnover in any sales group. Despite the fact that I'm seeing improvement in our marketing group (they have expanded and are hiring) and customer support group (they are also hiring), some of the producers are not happy. Some are happier than others. One producer in particular is having a hard time setting appointments and today she unloaded on me.

I don't take crap from people. I've tried to be a good office buddy, but in sales you have to promote a positive, outgoing attitude. When you're frustrated or angry or not feeling good, you have to dig deep and find something to feel good about. Otherwise, you project the wrong attitude to people. Even telemarketers have to adhere to this rule. I know when I blow a phone call because I listen to myself, and I take notes and write down, "Blew it. Sounded smarmy and cheap" or "Fumbled on the call. Sounded like a fool."

But the worst thing that can happen is for one producer to seek emotional support and rapport from another producer. Do you know what happens when you start sympathizing with someone who is having a bad day or week? You have a bad day or week. We instinctively take on the feelings of anyone we strive to build rapport with. While in a therapeutic situation that can help in the long run, in sales it's a disaster. I've seen salespeople who started spreading their toxic moods around be shown the door with the most unceremonious speed.

I'm not saying that happens where I work, but it easily could. If all the producers started feeling bad and complaining about how they hate to get on the phone and how they hate this company and don't want to bring their friends in as customers, you'd better believe the president will start handing out pink slips.

We are not liars. We don't go out and promise the moon to people. But we do look for opportunities to show people that we're willing and capable of going the extra mile. This one producer mentioned a former employer when we went to lunch. It's a company I tried to cold call and got nowhere with. She knows the owner. I suggested she call him.

She came back to me later and said she was trying to get his cell phone number. I said, "Just call the office."

"He's not always there."

Okay. I let that slide. But then she started saying, "Besides, he's happy where he is. I know I can get the appointment but I don't know what we can offer him. He self-insures in one area and I don't know what his business income coverage is like."

Now, understand that she and I are both relatively new to insurance. We got into it about the same time, although she has worked in Sureties (bonds) for over ten years. Still, I know that many companies are underinsured when it comes to business income. They don't understand that just because an insurance policy will pay for lost inventory, equipment, and ruined property when a tornado or hurricane strikes that they are still not making any money. Business income insurance replaces the income you lose while you rebuild.

I'm amazed by how many companies along the Gulf Coast cannot start up again because they had inadequate business income coverage. A lot of companies that did have it have long since exhausted their coverages. So I said, "Did this guy lose business when Houston was evacuated?"

She agreed he must have. So I suggested she go after the business income. "But first I want to check with marketing and see if we can provide any," she said.

While that is a prudent move, by this point in the conversation I was sure she was just coming up with excuses not to make the phone call. It is nothing to say, "Joe, do you have business income insurance?"

If he says, "Yes," then you know the coverage is available. If he says, "No," you say, "Well, let's get together and discuss it. Maybe I can help you in case Houston is evacuated again."

You don't promise anything more than an offer to do some research.

Unfortunately, the conversation tanked at that point. Why? Because she wasn't looking for advice. She was looking for rapport. And I don't give rapport to people who are feeling bad when I'm on the job. I have to write positive letters and make happy phone calls.

Could I have handled that conversation better? Yes. I could have remembered that women instinctively seek rapport and emotional support when they are feeling down, and that men just want to solve problems. I cannot be an office girlfriend, and to be honest I've learned not to be any woman's girlfriend anyway. Men offer emotional support and rapport to their close partners, not to co-workers. That may sound cold, but that is how men have had to be throughout history.

From a biological perspective, we are expected to walk into dangerous situations and bring home the food, fight off the dangerous enemies, and keep the women and children safe. We cannot stop in the middle of a crisis and say, "Frank, I'm having a bad day. You know how I feel?"

"Sure, Michael. Let's talk about it. We can fight the Zombie Demons after lunch."

That just isn't the way men are wired. I know some men try to be that way, but I don't believe that's what we're supposed to be like. We need to be polite, professional, and positively encouraging and supportive in the workplace.

But if a man is working in sales and a co-worker is having a bad day, he cannot afford to become that co-worker's girlfriend. The co-worker cannot afford to convert him to a girlfriend. It's harder for a woman to turn off the emotional support because they are so naturally good at providing it, but saleswomen have to be just as focused.

After all, if your salespeople aren't selling, where is your revenue coming from? They don't offer insurance for having-a-bad-day-at-work. And even if they did, how many companies would buy it when they don't have sense enough to buy business income insurance to take care of the real disasters?


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