SPIF Tip #40: The Last Thing a Fish Discovers is Water

A few years ago I received

the following email from a reader. The issue may take a slightly different form today, but I’ll bet you’ve run into it yourself:


I was recently fired from my sales job, because I wasn’t on the road “cold calling” enough …

Instead, I had been working to set up Google alerts for research as well as trigger events that Jill Konrath (www.sellingtobigcompanies.com) refers to. I was trying to set up an automated way of attracting and nurturing contacts through email, phone follow up, etc. They told me I was being fired for not doing the sales.

It is frustrating enough to be told to do things you know don’t work anymore. But, to get fired for trying something you know could work! It is just incredible.

Your articles touch all those things that companies still either don’t understand or don’t want to do…Do the research, create the value … all they want is more cold calls or send that proposal out …

You pointed out the reasons why the sales process is messed up and how it needs to improve … that the whole company must organize around researching the market, creating value, etc. It must deal with the “whole process,” not just what salespeople do.

It really gave me hope that maybe some of the old ways will be flushed out with this recession.

By the way, I got lucky: I start a new job in two weeks.

But I’ll be careful not to bring these new ideas to my new employer too soon…I need a job…

Bob Smith (not his real name)

The same thing has happened to me, Bob. More than once, actually. Sometimes, the hardest thing isn’t getting customers to cooperate. It is getting your own company to recognize they might be missing something.

Everyone wants to improve sales productivity. And of course, employers have their own opinions about how work should be done. After all, they most likely succeeded when they were doing the sales job! (Things may well have changed since then. Yet the evidence might seem more real to you than to them.)

The problem comes in when an employer decides employees are the problem. They start stamping their feet and demanding compliance rather than listening, respecting the thinking of their employees, and supporting reasonable experimentation.

Unfortunately, many executives have been taught a circular kind of reasoning: “People are the most important thing. Get the right people and everything will be alright. If the numbers aren’t coming in, there must be a problem with the people.”

That’s bullshit.

The greatest people in the world cannot overcome a broken system. And most managers today are not even aware that they are part of a system. Instead, they assume the solution to their problems is for the marketing department to market better, the sales department to sell better, and the service department to service better.

It has been said that “The last thing a fish discovers is water.”

Bob’s message is evidence that these managers are unwittingly damaging their companies. They are running off talented salespeople like Bob – people with the initiative to create new approaches that respond to today’s environment and technologies.

These management teams need to come up for air. They need to take a look at the world from a broader, more accurate perspective.

There is a widely held belief that an organization would have few problems if only their employees would do their jobs correctly. As Dr. Joseph Juran pointed out years ago, this belief is incorrect.

As Bob and I can attest, most of the problems companies have in sales and marketing can be resolved only by improving the sales and marketing “system” (which is largely determined by management). Few of the problems are under the employee’s control.

Only when a management team understands this can they can begin to leverage the people they do have to their best advantage.

Have you seen this kind of thing in your career?

Please tell us your experiences in the comments below.

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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Mike Allen - August 10, 2017 Reply


I have been delighted to work for several companies who did encourage experimentation. Test marketing pharmaceuticals in the 70s and developing psychographics. Innovator marketing when nobody understood how. Key account management of medical buying chains when others were filling tender forms. Light pen and barcodes for sales reporting via PCs to cut wasted sales reporting. Business simulations for sales territory management. CRM on Windows 2 (!). Tracking PROFIT response per each advertising medium used to optimise and justify expenditure.

In each case it was the Company managers who were alert to the potential in their employees, and they let us try. Their reward was new, rapid growth and very happy clever employees. There is little point staying in a company which does not allow employees to experiment.

    Michael Webb - August 11, 2017 Reply


    That is encouraging to hear! I think lots of salespeople find themselves in a situation where they have to be creative sometimes. They have to decide whether to “ask permission or forgiveness”. Plus, the biggest potential improvements are not just around individual contributions by salespeople. They are around the insights that enable cross-functional changes to the customer’s experience. For example, self-assessments on web pages can help prospects diagnose their own causes for problems, countermeasures, and urgency. The best leads would be funneled to sales reps, the not ready ones are placed in nurturing campaigns.

    In industries with regional trade shows, there are lots of opportunities to organize events where the local salesperson can engage in something useful for prospective customers. All it takes is a marketing department with the right email marketing software to set things up for salespeople.

    Alas, such experimentation requires awareness and support from executives responsible for increasing deal flow across marketing as well as selling functions.

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