SPIF Tip #43: How To Double Your Sales Productivity Watching Your Kid’s Aquarium

When she started working

at PetSmart, Kira, my college-age daughter, got interested in aquariums. She now has five including a 60-gallon masterpiece in the family room.

Aquariums have never interested me too much. They are messy. The paraphernalia create a chronic shortage of wall plugs. And, in return, you get to watch some beta fish fluttering in slow motion, or a blue gourami darting around. Big deal.

So I didn’t expect to learn a lesson in management from her experience.

Management Power Is Not What It’s Cracked Up to Be

Like Zeus, king of the gods, Kira delights in watching what happens when she changes things. Recently, she dropped a new creature into the big tank. A weird, alien-blue colored crayfish she named “Lobby the Lobster”.

“Why would you want to put that thing in your tank?” I asked. I soon found out.

Lobby was by far the most active animal in the tank. He had spindly legs. He did things fish don’t do. He crept up the drift wood until he couldn’t go any higher. He waved his antennae. Then he jumped off, gracelessly falling to the bottom. He made a break for freedom!

Lobby explored restlessly. He climbed the underwater plants. He pull some of them down. He ate them. He hid under the rocks and driftwood. He chased the other fish. He played dead. He molted. I enjoyed taking a break to stroll into my daughter’s room to see what Lobby was up to today.

One morning after about six weeks, Lobby was still. Was he playing dead, or molting again? We poked him and got nothing. After 12 hours we removed him to a plastic buttercup coffin buried in the back yard.

Other fish had died under Kira’s watch, but Lobby was the most painful. She wanted to know what went wrong. She followed best practices she learned from more experienced people. She purchased all the paraphernalia. Why were her creatures dying?

Kira was realizing the limitations of her “god-like” position. Her dilemma forced her to become more scientific about her ecosystem. Was the problem in the water? The food? The lighting? The filtration? The fish? How could she know?

She would have to form her own theories and learn by experiment.


Corporations Are Ecosystems Too

Locating the cause of problems is vital to an aquarium’s occupants. Likewise, locating the causes of problems in a corporation is vital to its employees and stakeholders as well.

Are problems caused by the market? Or the marketing? The selling? The servicing? Or in the product? How can they know?

When managers and executives are untrained in scientific approaches, they tend to approach things in a manner similar to the owner of an aquarium.

They focus on the results they want. They rely on “best practices” they learned from others. They purchase all the right paraphernalia, such as CRM systems and sales training. They go on on seat-of-the-pants assumptions, or “tribal knowledge”. For example, “You can’t know which half of the marketing budget is wasted.” “Salespeople are coin operated.” Or, ” 60% of deals at stage four will close.”

Unwittingly, their assumptions turn the job into a lottery, a numbers game for individual contributors. “The more activity you generate, the more deals you’ll have going, and the better the chance some will stick.” This is why sales and marketing executives work so furiously to “rev up the team.”

The way they see it, their job, is not to reason why. Their job is to generate more sales calls, demonstrations, proposals, and “face time.”

This is why problems repeat, regardless of the “solutions” applied. The critters in Kira’s aquarium had to keep their heads down when she dropped Lobby in the tank. Likewise, when executives operate in this manner, the employees in a corporation hope “this too will pass.”

Of course, a corporation is far more complex than an aquarium. Fish have no possibility of contributing to baseline measures or definitions of a problem. Employees can contribute valuable insights to these things. They can see things the executives can’t.

And it is vital that the executives understand what employees are thinking, and why. When employees are ignored (or overruled), how can there be any wonder that improvement is difficult or unsustainable?


Symptoms of Corporate Stagnation

Many businesses struggle with sales productivity, high turnover, and poor forecast accuracy. They have to “get the bulldozer out” to push the unclosed deals into the next accounting period. They try initiatives such as “selling solutions,” “shortening the sales cycle,” or “account manager KPIs” with no measurable impact. The “cost of sales investment” their income statement remains stubbornly high year over year.

These are symptoms of a problem, like the green-tinged water and morbidity rate of an amateur aquarium.

The root causes of such problems can be found and improved. However, that can only happen when leaders are willing to give up their “god-like” status. They must replace it with the humble self-awareness of a scientist.


Improving Performance, in a Way Salespeople Love

Most salespeople are acutely aware they are part of a mutually-interdependent system. They tire of a lottery-like environment. They starve for more rational approaches, where everyone is trying to make selling easier.

The best leaders leverage this ambition, which is latent in their sales teams. They engage their teams in conversations to define their observations precisely. They gather data that make deal flow – and bottlenecks – visible and measurable. They encourage employees to learn how each element of the system works.

Sometimes, these are the first honest conversations on the subject. They can reveal the common, high-impact problems of the business. They enable leaders to seek improvement ideas from individuals and teams themselves. This drives a natural, incremental, and relentless realignment of the organization’s resources. The performance of the entire enterprise is systematically enhanced.

Instead of focusing on internal issues like product or sales training methods, the focus becomes helping customers solve their problems, and move along their journey. The sales funnel starts to contain fewer, higher-quality deals. Forecast accuracy climbs. Close ratios increase. Deal flow accelerates. Margins increase. Sales productivity and return on sales investment climb.

This kind of sustained effort creates powerful competitive advantages. The resulting productivity is as radical as the leaning out of any manufacturing floor. Often more so, because input (customer) quality increases the profitability of the enterprise.


Principles of a Healthy Management System

For the Greeks, “The Three Fates” ruled Zeus’ destiny. Modern business leaders who manage by results instead of by process are ruled by destiny also. Their destiny is to ignore the keys to productivity in their business. These keys can be summed up in Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge: understanding variation, systems thinking, the method for learning, and respect for people.

Why are these principles the keys to productivity? Because they create an ecosystem which rewards critical thinking and cooperation. It leverages individual people’s talents, and nurtures their ambitions. It enables people to thrive as individuals while contributing to the purpose of the business. Such an ecosystem is the ultimate sustainable competitive advantage.

Achieving this is a far greater accomplishment than any aquarium. That’s because it enables its human inhabitants to adapt and thrive in the real world.

When executives change their mindset, surprising successes can happen. I’d love to learn some examples of success you’ve seen 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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