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Lessons from the Lion Tamer (Part 5 of 5): What Happened to Me, Lessons in the Company's Power vs the Salesperson's Power

by Michael Webb | Comments (0)
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Last week I argued that salespeople have power to improve how a company sells, even in an RFQ environment, provided management has set up its sales process to leverage new thinking and adopt the changes required. This week, I'll tell you a story about a company I worked for years ago who failed to understand this issue, with consequences for me and them.

My Shiny New Job
The president of an engineering services company had been persistent in trying to hire me as his director of sales and marketing. He liked my sales and marketing track record. I felt weak on the technical background he needed. He didn't care about that (I had been in a related industry). His revenue had been stuck at the same level for three years, and he believed his primary need was sales and marketing savvy. So I said yes and dived in.

The customers needed quotes to determine feasibility, develop budgets, and select suppliers. In effect, quoting was a service where we provided very specific and important information, usually free (though not always). It was not easy to develop that information as often it required the best, most experienced brains in the company to visit the job site, assess the situation, and figure out how to do the project.

The Quoting Dilemma
If you've been in this kind of a business, you understand the dilemma: the quote is one of the primary selling tools. You want to show off what you know and give enough detail that the prospect feels confident in you (especially when you are trying to land new prospects). Of course you don't want to give too much away, so they take time and thought to do well.

The service level we provided on quotes was a big deal to me. The ability to consistently deliver professional quotes on time created trust and enhanced our "branding." It gave me a degree of power and made it easier to maintain the proper bearing with prospects. As we learned to target and prioritize leads better early in the "Find" part of the sales process, the number of quotes we pursued per month declined steadily while the quality (target market, reusable engineering, size and profitability of project, etc.) was increasing. I felt I was improving the system and making the company perform better. 

As I had feared, my lack of a technical background made me dependent on the electrical, mechanical, and drawing departments to get the quotes done. If you've ever worked in a company like this one, I don't have to tell you about the friction this caused internally. Quotes were fill-in work, and nobody liked to do them. Getting orders was supposed to be the sales department's problem (my problem), not their problem. They were helping me out of the goodness of their hearts, but their real job was to get their billable work done on time and on budget.

I couldn't deliver quotes on time. I turned summersaults to get them written and reviewed. When I needed to promise a prospect when a quote would be ready, my company didn't back me up. I had to make excuses, back pedal, and anything else I could think of to avoid committing or when we were late on the date a client requested.
 
To make matters worse, the president who had worked so hard to hire me for the job didn't see the problem. He would come back from a sales call, tell the chief engineer and the design manager what he needed, and the next day it was done. (Of course, if they were overloaded, he could stay late that night and do it himself.) When I came back from a sales call and asked for similar things to be done, it was extra work they felt they shouldn't really have to do. If they were busy, it could take days (or weeks) for them to get to it. They begrudged the fact that I couldn't (or wouldn't) do it myself.

The quote issue distracted the president from the bigger picture and the larger results I was getting:

  • Revenue had nearly doubled.
  • Non-billable time spent on quotes had fallen to about 11% of revenue compared to over 20% of revenue before I joined.
  • The size of the average project had doubled.

The Fall Guy
You can't blame the engineering departments for the way their job roles and performance expectations were set up. If anything was to blame, it was the disconnect between the ears of the company's president. What he wanted when he recruited me seemed inconsistent with what he wanted when the rubber met the road. He was a very bright fellow. He just didn't know how to look at his company (and his sales process) as a system in this way. He didn't see the alternatives a process approach would have provided. He got swept up in the emotion: I was the culprit, the cause of their problems, the wrong guy for the job.

Now, those results could not have happened if they weren't good engineers to begin with; I didn't accomplish those things single-handedly. In fact, in the time I was there, I accomplished exactly what they had hired me to do.

But there I was looking for a new job.

Fast Forward: The Rest of the Story 
Nine years later, long after I had left the company, the president called me in my office to ask a few questions about how I was doing. He apologized indirectly:  "You were way ahead of us, Mike." That was good enough for me.

This kind of situation will probably have a familiar feel if you have been in a technical industry. Sometimes people think these are personnel issues: After all, it is difficult to find people with both technical and business/selling savvy.

My view is different. Solving the problem requires first that leaders of the company be explicit about what their prospects and customers need in their Customer's Journey, and second, that they be consistent in their strategy for delivering it.

That strategy, of course, is best expressed in process terms. Being the president of a company is no picnic. If you haven't been trained in how processes work in sales and marketing, it is pretty convenient and quick to find a "who." Yet, the result of getting the process wrong is thinking your problems are in your people rather than in the process.

If you've replaced a salesperson or VP more than a few times, it is a cinch that you've fallen into this trap. The salient feature of a good process is that average people, not super heroes, can succeed with it. The salient feature of a poor process is that the very best people with the best intentions probably won't.

Next week: I'll have more comments about the role of the chief executive in making sales processes successful.

Michael J. Webb
July 22, 2008

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