Bill Blair | The Sales Management Myth

Bill Blair, founder and CEO of Blair Business Solutions, helps his clients work through issues with leadership development, sales coaching, employee retention, and more.

Every business has its own issues, of course. But, says Bill, there is definitely a common thread he almost always sees… a misconception about what an effective sales culture looks like.

We shatter that myth and talk about the alternative: a unique assessment tool that identifies the best role for each employee, including your salespeople.

We also talk about…

  • How to address the difference between personality and behavior
  • Identifying the people who always do well in sales, even in recessions
  • Why best practices can’t be exported
  • Capitalizing on Emotional Intelligence
  • And more

Listen now…

Episode Transcript:

Michael Webb: Hello. This is Michael Webb, and this is the Sales Process Excellence Podcast. Some people focus on getting to senior level decision makers and professional selling practices, other people focus on data and cause and effect, and process improvement. In this podcast, we focus on both, and my guest today is Bill Blair, of Blair Business Solutions, and I have done some work with Blair in a client, and we’ve had some discussions that led me to think, “You know, there’s some interesting stuff here,” so Bill, I’m really looking forward to this conversation. Thank you for being here.

Bill Blair: Michael, thanks for inviting me. I appreciate it.

Michael Webb: So, I think it would be best to start off if you could tell us a little bit about your background, where you came from in your career, and what does Blair Business Solutions do?

Bill Blair: Okay. I have spent over 35 years in the printing and graphic communications industries, in a variety of senior management roles, and if you know the printing and communications industries, it’s manufacturing, and talk about an industry that’s very process oriented. So, in those roles, my top three problems, no matter what the role was, my top three problems were always people related, and those are typically how to attract, develop, and retain top talent. So in recent months, I’ve been at a crossroads and really decided to create a consulting practice that helps clients with leadership development, with sales coaching and mentoring, and with employee engagement and retention issues.

Michael Webb: Okay. So, the thing that we were working on was a management coaching project, and one of the things that caught my attention was this assessment that you use, because this Harrison assessment, I was not familiar with it. But I was intrigued, and I was skeptical because the point of view I take on solving business problems is that, as Deming said, 95 or 98% of the problems stem from the system. And only management can control the system, and I know that’s true from my personal experience as a salesperson and a sales manager, but there’s so much in the sales culture and in traditional sales management that says, “No, you got to pick a salesperson with the right personality,” and so I’m always skeptical of these assessments, but yours caught my eye, and what you told me about it was interesting.

So, tell us a little bit about how this works and why you like it, and how it has helped you in your leadership career.

Bill Blair: Well, the Harrison Assessment, I found it 10 or 12 years ago when I was looking for a process to help evaluate and motivate, at the time, salespeople. And so what really differentiates the Harrison is that it, unlike some of the “personality” assessments out there, it assesses behavior, and the thought process is that personality can’t be changed, but behavior can. So if we can collect the data from you on the behaviors that you exhibit, and we can match those to a given position, some behavioral tendencies that we want in the workplace that fit our company culture, we can come up with a better fit. We can use it to help select and coach people. We can use it to develop our next set of leaders.

So, I like it. It’s a data-driven process, and I also like the word process. If you think about my background in manufacturing, in particular, we had a process for almost everything, but we didn’t necessarily have processes for how we hired and developed people, and that’s what I really like about the Harrison. It works with data that we collect from the individual, and it becomes a personal awareness journey for them, and then we can drive development and coaching from that data.

Michael Webb: A lot of times, in assessments where you’re trying to select the right kind of salespeople, my impression at least, is that they’re looking for the salesperson who has right personality traits, the right … they’re willing to put up with a thousand doors slammed in their face, and doesn’t matter, they just keep on doing it, as if those are the key things that are going to make a salesperson successful. What were the traits, or the behaviors that you were looking for in salespeople, and how did the assessment help you find them?

Bill Blair: Great question. One of the first times I used the Harrison, I was looking to expand the sales force and trying to figure that very question out. So I had three salespeople that I thought, well, didn’t think, I knew were top performers, no matter what the economy was, no matter what they were selling, they always seemed to come out on top. But looking at them personally, kind of from the outside, you would say they have nothing in common. They are very different personalities, in this case. They had very different selling styles, but maybe there were behaviors that they exhibited that allowed them to be successful, regardless of their outward personality, and so I used the Harrison, gave the assessment to the three of them, and then compared their reports and their data.

What I found is yes, there were quite a bit of differences in some of their outlying behaviors, but they had several things in common. They were outgoing. Of course, some of these are, intuitively, we think all right, this is what a salesperson has to have, but it confirmed some things and then reinforced others. So, outgoing, they have a very high behavior towards persistence. No matter how many doors are slammed in their face, they keep rolling. They have a fairly large ego, so when they hear, “No,” it doesn’t really affect them. They’re organized. We tend to think of some salespeople as not being as organized as they should be, but the high performers that I’ve worked with are all organized.

They work very well independently. They’re highly motivated to improve themselves. They’re typically doing a lot on the side of reading and self-development, because they want to improve, not just their performance, but themselves individually. And that’s just a handful of things that those folks, those three that I assessed, all had in common.

Some of those, again, are intuitive. Some are not, but-

Michael Webb: The Harrison told you that they had lots of reading going on the side and that they-

Bill Blair: No, great question. The Harrison has a behavior that is desire for self-improvement, basically, and it gives that a score, and it says this person’s desire for self-improvement is on a scale of one to 10, is a high number. Seven, eight, nine, or 10. And so they are going to figure out how to improve their performance on their own. Do you ever wonder why some salespeople, regardless of what they’re selling, or what the economy is, or what the size of their territory is, or account base, they always seem to do well. Why is that? Well, they’re always, in old terms, sharpening the saw. They’re always trying to improve themselves. They’re always looking for ways to persevere, to get a win.

Michael Webb: But is that unique to salespeople? I mean, I would think anybody who has that trait would be a better employee than someone who doesn’t. So it’s not a sales trait.

Bill Blair: That’s a good observation. It’s very true. Particularly in management, someone that is highly interested and highly self-motivated is a much better employee, I’ve found.

Michael Webb: Well, and I’m … The other trait that’s so often mentioned is, you know, the stick-to-itiveness. The willing to overcome resistance.

Bill Blair: Right.

Michael Webb: I’m recalling a time in my career where I was working for a company, and their products had fallen behind the market, and they weren’t really keeping up, but it was an interesting work, and I liked the industry, and I wanted to learn how to do it, and so I stuck with it. Most the other salespeople didn’t. There was lots of turnover. And so I was kind of bullheadedly believing that I could make a success of it, and for like four years, five years, and I never really, never made any money there, and the other people who were there either had big accounts, so they were getting commission off of that … It just wasn’t, it was, I would have been better off to try something different, right?

Bill Blair: Right.

Michael Webb: It’s common for sales managers, particularly with young salespeople, this was a long time ago, “You know, Mr. Salesperson, young pup, you’re responsible. It’s up to you. You make the calls, and if you get too much time spent on closing your deals, you’re not going to fill your sales funnel up, so you’ve got to manage yourself and manage your time,” and to a degree, that’s all true.

Bill Blair: Yes.

Michael Webb: But after a while, when you’re working 60 hours a week, and you are competent, and you’re one of the best ones in the office, and things aren’t going so well for anybody, it makes sense to pick up and stop, right? You see what I’m saying.

Bill Blair: Yes. Yes.

Michael Webb: I don’t think that stick-to-itiveness is necessarily, I mean it is, to an extent, but I don’t know. I would just be curious about your comments.

Bill Blair: No, I think it’s, there are some keys to … and we’re talking about salespeople right now, successful salespeople, and we haven’t necessarily talked about the sales process yet, but let’s assume there is no process, like a lot of companies today.

Michael Webb: Right.

Bill Blair: You know, those attributes of organization, time management, self-starter, self-motivated, perseverance, are very important, because that’s all you really have. And so if you layer on a definable sales process, it doesn’t diminish those things. It probably adds to, and so I would say that same salesperson that’s banging their head on the wall making those calls, because they are persevering, becomes more effective with a sales process.

Michael Webb: Yes, I agree with that. Which is … That’s what kind of the key point, is it’s better to spend some energy trying to figure out how to do things in a manner that makes it easier to succeed, than it is continuing to do the same thing over and over and over again.

Bill Blair: So if you look at the Harrison, and I used it first to try and figure out why those salespeople were successful, and then think about an assessment that gives you the ability to predict how people will behave, and then you can overlay it on a job description and whether that’s a salesperson, a manager, a CEO, if you can have a tool or toolkit that helps you predict, in advance, how they will behave, or their behavioral tendencies, you can use that data as part of your process, your hiring process, to drill down, figure out more about their behaviors during the interview process. It helps you after the hiring process to onboard and coach, and get them off to a fast start. So that’s really the second part of the Harrison that I kind of fell in love with was the ability to predict some behaviors, and then get those folks up and running quickly, once they were hired.

I do have to say, the Harrison, as in the hiring process, there’s typically three parts of the hiring process. The interview, which is very important, first there’s eligibility, do they have the qualifications, education, experience that we want, as a minimum, and then the Harrison really talks about the data collected shows suitability. In other words, do they exhibit the behaviors that will make them successful in this position?

Michael Webb: So, I once did some work with another consultant, and one of the really, he’s a really smart guy, and one of the clever and valuable insights he had about salespeople was that a lot of companies want, they’re looking to hire somebody, and there’s plenty of salespeople out there who feel this way, that hire me and I’ll prove how good I am. Right? And what companies really ought to be looking for is someone who will improve how good they are, and that’s a … It seems subtle, but that’s a big difference, and he thought if there was an assessment, and it would allow managers to hire this kind of salesperson, then everything would get better.

And I was like, “Hang on a minute,” if you … Suppose you did that, and you start bringing in people with a higher potential, and higher desire to improve themselves, but if the management of the company isn’t really looking for that, or planning to reward that, or doesn’t have any … If it’s still going to be running in an old-fashioned mindset, that’s not going to solve your problem. If anything, it’ll increase your problem. Would you agree with that?

Bill Blair: I agree with that. You know, so much of it then becomes company culture, right, and does the person we’re hiring, salesperson or not, do they fit the culture? I think it’s easier to choose a person that fits the culture than change the culture to fit a single person. Now, that may be a whole different discussion, but one of the things we’re looking to do is help people get that fit that’s so necessary in the hiring process. You know, we’re all excited to interview, to have a job offer, but what does the fit look like? How can we determine that it’s a good fit for the company and a good fit for the person? Because the person being hired is going to be happier, and therefore do a better job for us.

Michael Webb: Does the Harrison have any tweaks in it or overlays in it that reflect the kind of culture the company is that they’d be hiring into?

Bill Blair: Well, what you can do is, with the Harrison, let’s just pick job descriptions, there’s 6,500 job descriptions in the database that were developed over time, but you can take any one of those and adjust it to fit your company culture, and what you really do is you put a preference or an order, a numerical weight on behaviors that fit the type of person you’re looking for, the type of job, and so in the same way, these are our company values. These are our … This is our culture. We value X, Y and Z. If you weight those higher in the search process, absolutely, it will show.

Michael Webb: Interesting. Interesting. I did some work this week with some executives in an organization, large organization, and especially in the beginning of the workshop, a lot of the people were saying, “So, tell us what we’re supposed to do. Tell us the best practices that will help us increase our sales.” That’s not what I was there to do, because you can tell them … Everybody likes to read about all these cool ideas, and all this neat stuff that might be working in some other company, but I told them I had never heard of an instance where a best practice was successfully imported to an organization. And after my workshop was finished, I would guess … It was a pretty good workshop. I guess about half of the people, they sort of, they had this idea, or they realized what I was really trying to get them to understand, and why that kind of an approach doesn’t work.

But there was a good minority, maybe 30, 40% of the audience, that … They just hadn’t thought it through far enough yet, and they didn’t get it. And their culture was still, “We just need to … Give us the five best things we should go do and we’ll go implement it.”

Bill Blair: Right.

Michael Webb: And then they’ll forget about it in three months, and they’ll be doing something else. Right?

Bill Blair: Right. Right. Well, a particular problem in the printing and graphic arts industry is that, for the longest time, we would go out and hire our competitor’s top salesperson, because they were successful, and had a book of business that they could move. They had client relationships, and they would come to us, and everything would be wonderful. Well, the recession came along, and we were still trying it, and it was a risky time for buyers, and for print buyers, and so we would poach these salespeople, and rather than 75% of their accounts coming along, 25% of their accounts might come. And what we find out in the process is … Compound the issue, these people had built this business over time, and really kind of forgotten how to sell. They weren’t exhibiting the behaviors that allowed them to be successful, and so then layer on lack of a true sales process at the company they came to, and it was kind of the double whammy.

So a lot of companies in the print and graphics industry are really looking at how do we find our next generation of salespeople? What behaviors do they need to exhibit to be successful within our process? And it’s a big discussion right now. I’m sure it’s outside the print industry, as well, but that’s just a fresh example in my mind.

Michael Webb: Well, yeah, and behaviors are driven by values. Whether you have correctly articulated your values, whether you’re aware of your values or not, your behavior is going to reveal what your values are, right? And that’s particularly important to recognize, the higher up management you go. It’s the presidents of the companies, and the sales VPs, and the top level people, they’re revealing what they value. It’s just oozing out of them. They don’t have to say anything, people are always watching.

And so, when we are doing process improvement consulting and we’re trying to help a company to incorporate process improvement ideas, and you have to face square head on the issue that if you introduce ideas and methods to other people, you’re going to get resistance. And much better to recognize that the people who do the work own the responsibility for creating the results. You need to expect them to improve. You need to expect them to give you their ideas of what could be improved, and you can challenge their thinking, right? But you have to let them learn. That way they develop ownership.

Now, that’s a set of behaviors that especially first line and middle management, first line sales managers and middle managers, need to be conscious of, and need to cultivate within themselves, and many of them may not have developed the habits of being conscious of their own behaviors and the values that they’re broadcasting. So, I mean tell me about how the assessment would help them.

Bill Blair: Well, several thoughts. First, the assessment has a behavior category that it looks at called openness to change. Second, comfort with conflict, because change is conflict, in a way, right? And so we look for scores in those areas. Certainly, if you have somebody who has a very low score on openness to change, there’s a third that is tolerance of structure, so if you have somebody that doesn’t like change and doesn’t like structure, probably not somebody you’d want to put in a management role over a process improvement project.

Michael Webb: What if they’re already in the management role?

Bill Blair: You know, you have a couple decisions to make. You know, there is another behavior, of the 175 we look at, is openness to coaching and constructive criticism, basically. So are they willing to be coached? Again, if they have a high self-improvement score, they’re probably, but not always, probably open to being coached, and so one of the issues, you know, you’ve promoted somebody because they’re a great salesperson. Now they’re in management and they’ve got some issues. You can coach those, if they’re open to it, and so that happens quite a bit.

We’ve got somebody that we really value. They’re a long term employee, or maybe they have great relationships with our clients, and we don’t want to just throw them out, because we have options, and one of the options is let’s do the behavioral assessment, let’s take them on their own self-awareness journey, and then work on coaching some of these areas that are important to our culture as a company.

Michael Webb: Interesting.

Bill Blair: Question for you. When you’re dealing with these companies, can the senior managers in the companies always describe their culture?

Michael Webb: No. No, I don’t think they can. I think that that, at least I would be skeptical of it. I mean, I went to work for a company, and they told me what their culture was, and on the surface, it took me a year or so, it appeared to be true. But after you were in there for a while, you started to realize, “Wait a second-”

Bill Blair: So they were describing what they wanted it to be, not necessarily what it was.

Michael Webb: Right.

Bill Blair: So, in your role, you’re going to, what, the middle managers and the working folks, to find out what the culture really is?

Michael Webb: You mean in my work now?

Bill Blair: Yeah. Yeah.

Michael Webb: Well, in my work now-

Bill Blair: The reason I’m ask-

Michael Webb: Go ahead.

Bill Blair: The reason I’m asking, just is that if we know what the culture is, we can assess for it and try and either find the right folks or coach the right folks to fit well within the culture. That’s where I’m going.

Michael Webb: The position I’m taking is that there is a set of values and behaviors which are more or less ideal, and that if the, especially the leadership of the company, it may already possess some of those, or maybe a lot of them, okay? But then again, it may not, and so if you can show those individuals why those values are important, and why those behaviors have such broad impact on the end results that they create, then you can sort of sell them, if you will, or educate them about better ways to do their job. Better ways to manage, better ways to behave, better ways to encourage their employees to think more critically, better ways to avoid having the same problems occur again and again and again.

So the values and the thought processes and the behaviors is what I’m trying to help people see. But you can’t just go in and tell them what these are, that doesn’t work very well. You have to give them an experience, and ask them some questions that get them to start thinking down these pathways that they might not have thought before.

Bill Blair: Right. Right.

Michael Webb: If you have someone who isn’t very self-aware, isn’t very … You know, all of us have grown up and our families may not have been ideal, and that’s what life is about is like learning what is good and what is not good, and what new possibilities are, and having a better perspective and more empathy for other people, and better able to communicate, and it all has to take place in the context of the kind of work that you as an individual enjoy and want to do, and what you want to do with your life. So, you got to help people to work through all that stuff.

That was the reason I was intrigued to chat with you, because as I’m working with clients, what I’m bringing is these exercises and ways of doing things. I collaborate with them, but it struck me as potentially quite valuable to also offer the client this x-ray into what their current behaviors or preferences, and therefore their values, might be, because it gives them a contrast. If they say, “Hmm, you’re right, I do have that attitude, and that does contrast with what I think I ought to do,” you’re helping them to realize, and perhaps to improve themselves, you know, more readily, perhaps. That what I was thinking.

Bill Blair: Right, and a lot’s been written recently about emotional intelligence and how important it is, particularly for managers, and I would argue for salespeople, too, but … And one of the first principles of emotional intelligence is knowing oneself, and then being able to control yourself and your emotions, particularly in the workplace. Some days it’s more difficult than others in the workplace, but you know, self-awareness is a huge part of emotional intelligence, and being a thoughtful, insightful, and effective manager.

Michael Webb: Yeah. In my years as a sales trainer and a field sales coach, we would ride shotgun with the salespeople who had been in our classroom, and help them make sales calls. Live sales calls.

Bill Blair: You bet.

Michael Webb: On their customers, and then we’d get out in the car and debrief. And a reason that sales training is a little different than a lot of other kinds of training is that issue of self-awareness. Often, salespeople need another person to help them reflect on their own behaviors, and how it was perceived by the client or the prospect, right? And whether it was effective or not. And so you, I’m guessing that in the work that you do in coaching executives, it’s a similar thing. Is that right?

Bill Blair: It is, and you know, we all have a view of ourselves, from the inside out, as it were. I’ve given the assessment, the Harrison assessment, to hundreds or more people, and have never had one person come back and say, “That’s not me.” So it confirms some things you know about yourself. It also points out some behaviors, and particularly behaviors that under stress can change, and makes you aware of them. We can talk about the effect on you and the effect on others of those behaviors, and then it’s really, again, since it’s not personality, which, depending on the debate, can’t really be changed after you’re a young person, six or seven. But if it’s a behavior, you can choose to allow it to continue. You can change it. You can feel it coming and make adjustments or not, and that knowledge is all very powerful.

Again, in view of the workplace, in view of your personal life, in view of emotional intelligence.

Michael Webb: That’s really cool. It’s a fascinating topic. I hope that we get to work together in some additional clients, where we can sort of see how this one-two punch, if you will, the x-ray that tells people a little more about what’s going on in their own mind, and the … I don’t know, the power tools of these rational principles that are authentically based on evidence and data, and the North Star about what’s really good for us, and what’s really good for our organizations and stuff. The two of them together, if we could help other people to appreciate and adopt it, I think that’s a really powerful thing.

Bill Blair: One last thought is that this technology also works with teams, and so you can assess a team together, and you think about the behaviors of each team member and how they mesh and what you need to compensate for, and how you need to behave as a team. So again, it’s another use for the tool. We think about it in terms of individuals, but it also works in a team environment, as well.

Michael Webb: Fascinating. Cool. All right, well we should do this again sometime. I really appreciate your time and your expertise, here.

Bill Blair: Thank you, Michael. I really appreciate it.

Michael Webb: And if someone would like to know more about what you do and know more about … Just to get ahold of you, how would they do that?

Bill Blair: You know, best place is by phone. My number’s 678-575-6306. Please feel free to call me. I’d love to talk to you if you have issues relating to the people side of your business.

Michael Webb: Super. All right. Well, I thank you very much. We will do this again, and take care of yourself.

Bill Blair: Thanks very much, Michael. I appreciate it.

Michael Webb

Michael Webb founded Sales Performance Consultants to create a data-driven alternative to the slogans and shallow impact offered by typical sales training, sales consulting, and CRM companies. Michael helped organize and delivered the keynote speeches for the first conferences ever held on applying Six Sigma to marketing and sales. Connect with me on LinkedIn.

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