The 1849 California Gold Rush, Learning to Sell, and the Voice of the Sales Force

This has been a great summer so far–I hope it has been for you too. Plenty of time in the last two weeks to re-think and re-write, a breather before the busy fall season cranks up.

In any business, it takes time (and effort!) to reflect, discuss, and articulate value. Language is everything, because prospects and customers have no other way to determine your “prince-ness” or “frog-ness.” If you’ve been following my blog articles and wondering about what we do, the new copy on should help.

Once again, I want to thank my associate Robert Ferguson for his insightful contributions to this week’s article. We’re always on the lookout for simple and painless things executives can do to improve their organization’s revenue results, and this week we’ve hit on a biggie:  


An obvious, but overlooked way of getting facts and data from your sales force while delivering powerful value to them.


Let me know what you think!


Michael J. Webb

August 26, 2008



Do you have what it takes to sell? To lead people? To make your mark in your industry?

Early in their sales careers many salespeople wonder whether they can make it in sales. That feeling nagged me early in my career, partly because I was unlucky enough to land some pretty tough sales jobs.

Here is a simple lesson I learned early on but did not appreciate until years later.

The company where I learned it was MAI Basic Four, a (now long gone) mini-computer company. In the late seventies, they were hot: the first to market multi-user interactive (with keyboards and CRT screens) systems, surpassing the old batch-processing computers sold by IBM and others.

In the days before I worked there, selling Basic Four was like finding gold nuggets in the mountains west of Sacramento in the Gold Rush of 1849. Prospects seemed to be lying around almost everywhere in the market. I remember a slide from the first sales training course I attended there: It showed bubbles rising to the top of a pot of boiling water. Those floating bubbles were the opportunities we were supposed to prospect for. “If you find someone who is going to buy a new computer,” they said, “it is easy to get them to buy ours.”

By the time I was on the scene, it was much tougher. IBM and other rivals had been offering similar systems for a while. Most companies had already upgraded to the new technology. Some of the old timers continued to find and close big deals. But new guys, like me, struggled. We did mailings, held seminars, dialed-for-dollars. Our sales training shifted to hard-ball telephone prospecting (“If we could show you a way to …. would you be interested in …?). 

The base salary was low, so making money required that we sell hard. I was feeling those self-doubts again-in a big way. Finding daily motivation was a challenge. Lucky for me I had a smart boss who understood this, Larry White.

Larry’s Big Board, Finding Some Intrinsic Motivation
Larry had this big board on the wall, where he tracked our progress making phone calls, getting appointments, doing demos, and making proposals. Everyone could see everyone else’s stats – not just percent of quota, but the details of our activities leading up to it. It was the weekly “Voice of the Sales Force” in unvarnished truth.

I didn’t realize what effect that board was having on me at the time. I was only trying to survive in a tough market, trying to figure out why some of the other salespeople’s numbers on White’s scoreboard were better than mine.

I remember walking by the cubicle of one of those old timers. We called him Brit-that was his last name. He was on the phone with a prospect. Whatever Brit knew how to do, I needed to learn it. So I slowed my walk and listened in.

“So what did you think about what you saw there?” he was asking.

“… And what did Norm think about it? … I see, well that makes a lot of sense … You know, when Consolidated    Packaging did their upgrade they had a problem converting from EBSIDIC to ASCII. How do you think you might handle that? … OK, well that will be an interesting meeting. Why don’t you call me back when you find out. … OK, bye.” 

Hmm. Not much to go on. But I kept thinking about it.

I tried to interest my prospects in things that I thought would be important to them (spinning my wheels all over the place, of course).

I was new. Britt had been in the industry for ten years. I thought that meant he had a lot more knowledge he could share. What he really had was a lot more knowledge of what people’s problems were than I did. He could ask questions like, “You know, when Consolidated Packaging did their upgrade, they had a problem converting from EBSIDIC to ASCII. How do you think you might handle that?” 

Looking back on it I realize the differences between Britt’s conversations and mine at the time. His first-hand experience gave him an advantage in building rapport. His conversations were more about them. He was skilled at finding the gold nuggets of motivation intrinsic to the people he was dealing with. They responded by confiding in him.

I listened to the Voice of the Sales Force and learned where to go for help, where to find my own gold nuggets.

Motivating the Sales Team
After moving on to a different industry to start the learning cycle all over again, I never forgot Larry White’s scoreboard. While the technique is still widely used, I don’t see it as often anymore.

What a huge mistake this is. 

The most powerful technique you can use to influence people is to find the gold nuggets of intrinsic motivation, and ask them what they think about them. 

“… And what did Norm think about it? … I see, well that makes a lot of sense … OK, well that will be an interesting meeting. Why don’t you call me back when you find out. … OK, bye.”

The same principle works with a group. David Maister, in his excellent book “Strategy and the Fat Smoker,” 
points out:

“If strategy is to be lived and achieved, it must be publicly tracked, measured and monitored. If you are trying to lose weight, you must get on the scales regularly. … Even if you weigh yourself regularly, but keep the results private, you escape accountability. How much more forceful would it be if you let your spouse see each time what you weigh! Or better yet, let your children monitor your progress?”   (page 10)

By posting our activities and results publicly, Larry was enabling us to be accountable to each other. Patterns emerged. Some salespeople found lots of opportunities, but didn’t close many. Others were the opposite. The board helped us face the realities and dissect what might be causing them.

Larry knew belittling people publicly would ruin the effect, so he didn’t do that. The result was a powerful private kind of motivation. We respected the guys who had proved they could do the job. We made up our minds individually to stick it out, to learn our craft, or we left.


Second Edition just released-completely revised:
Turn Your Sales and Marketing
into a Predictable Money Machine
(and do it in a way your salespeople will love!)

How to Harness the Voice of the Sales Force, the New Scoreboard
Most sales managers who agree with the idea of that scoreboard view it as a technique for optimizing local results, for getting the most out of their people simply by monitoring them.

In doing so, they and their companies overlook the ability to find the gold nuggets that are the game changers of your industry.

You see, if salespeople believe the right information is being tracked, and that someone is LISTENING TO THEM, that someone is going to actually use the information to face facts and solve the problems that can be solved, the motivation to provide that information becomes incredibly powerful.

One division of DuPont used this approach in the late 1990s to move its refinish paint business from a declining second place to industry dominance in less than four years. 

How can you do that?

By analyzing the numbers from those scoreboards, finding the gold nuggets, and reflecting the information back to the sales force. For example:

  • What’s the typical ratio of prospecting phone calls to getting appointments?
  • Is it the same in St. Louis as it is in San Francisco?
  • How wide is the variation across the sales force?
  • How does it compare between the “best” salespeople and the average one? The new ones and the old timers?
  • In what way has the ratio changed over the last few years?
  • What are the characteristics of deals that flow faster? Slower?

Inquiring minds (like the kind you want on your sales force) want to know.

Salespeople are constantly on the lookout for any kind of clue that might give them an edge. They want to know where they stand against the other top guns. They really do! Today’s computer technology makes this information sharing so much easier than ever before. There is little excuse not to use it.

If you want prospects to listen to you, to follow you, find the gold nuggets of motivation intrinsic to them. They’ll respond by confiding in you.

If you want your team to listen to you, to follow you, use the golden nuggets you find in this kind of data. Ask them what they think the data means. You’ll be surprised at the insightful responses they’ll confide in you.

From our experience, you’ll hear important signals from the market. For example, the declining yield of salespeople’s prospecting would have been visible to Basic Four long before it became a threat (giving them time to find a better strategy). DuPont learned about needs for new product applications, emerging new markets, sales automation, more innovative deal pricing and packaging, competitive intelligence, and much more.


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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Tony Cole - August 27, 2008 Reply

The Big Board doesn’t have to be big there just has to be a board. I remember hearing Mark Victo Hansen speak several years ago about the kids hall of fame in America. Maybe it takes place across the world but I don’t know. The hall of fame is the refrigerator door. Remember? Anytime you brought something home that was special: a star on a quiz, a new picture a report card with passing grades. Where did all of this go? The the refrigerator door. Momma and Dad where so proud and so where Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle Bill. And all this praise accomplished one thing, to spur us on to additional and higher achievement. Guess what? We really haven’t changed that much. We are still kids just in bigger bodies. Want to grow and succeed more as an individual or sales team? Break out the kids hall of fame.

Michael Webb - August 27, 2008 Reply

There’s definitely mertit in the “hall of fame,” Tony.

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