I am a product of Xerox’s sales talent development machine, lucky enough to learn from the best during the height of the company’s greatest success. Xerox and IBM were among the true elite during discussions about America’s most admired sales forces. Here are five secrets how Xerox built such a strong, self-sustaining sales culture.
1. They hired competitive people.
2. That had (and executed) a disciplined development process.
3. Their value message was consistent.
4. The sales force was ego-driven.
5. They utilized a talent escalator.
Competitive people. Sales is an objective business with winners and losers. The company understood that; and they wanted to see a competitive track record when sourcing talent. They also liked teachers. Teachers have patience, are good explainers, comfortable speaking to groups, and appreciate the chance to earn multiples of their previous income. Because Xerox understood success predictability, they were able to hire smartly and minimize mistakes.
Disciplined development. In exchange for a great career and income opportunity, the company expected its people to drink a special toner-based corporate elixir. Everyone went through a structured development process and he or she was expected to grow in relevant professional areas. If you did, you stayed. If you didn’t, you were drummed out. The company was hard but fair. Because of it, culture fits grew loyal and flourished. Misfits fled. This was fine; everyone knew the ground rules.
Consistent value messaging. Xerox knew it was a value provider and not a cheap, low-price commodity supplier. If a salesperson couldn’t (or wouldn’t) justify the value of a hefty premium in an increasingly competitive market, he or she would not stick around long. Xerox was very clear about this; the company made no pretense about being all things to all people. Nor did it have a long fuse for salespeople who argued price positioning. By drumming into everyone the value of the brand when selling to the big leagues of business, customers experienced a continuity of expectation that followed beyond the sale, past delivery, and well beyond post-implementation. Then as now, customers will pay a premium for a better way of doing business. But they will not be fooled twice. Xerox respected this and staked its reputation on protecting high road, value-driven relationships.
Ego-driven sales force. Xerox kept score. Stack rankings measuring objective sales results were posted monthly. Big hits were trumpeted and celebrated. If you sold a lot, you made a ton. There was a very strong alignment between performance, pay, recognition (formal and informal), and reward.
But the company didn’t overcompensate rapport. You couldn’t cash rapport. If your customers loved you but didn’t buy anything, so what? You had to ring the register, which was ultra-consistent with the culture. The culture was about doing deals—about winning. Second place in selling is the same as fiftieth place. It’s for losers.
Though ego-driven, sales leadership was very smart and invested a lot of time dissecting losses in order to figure out to how to reconfigure strategy and minimize the chances of being beaten the same way twice.
Talent escalator. In their sales heyday, Xerox and IBM had bench strength—white-collar clones ready to take any assignment if given the opportunity. This veiled but omnipotent, over-the-shoulder threat of potential replacement helped keep folks motivated in the field to hustle. There’s less temptation to slack off if you know someone is waiting in case you do.
Good hires became good workers and eventually great reps because they worked hard and smart, but also because they were coached for success. I had great teachers throughout my career. Xerox’s best sales leaders were inspiring leadership coaches who worried less about activity tracking and more about smart winning.
Sustained selling excellence is never an accident. It’s the result of a lot of things, large and small, that add up to something important: a greater command of the success elements than those you compete against. Different alternatives perceived to be somewhat equal are usually decided based on the work efforts of those involved. Better, more professional talent wins. Sales is very fair that way.
A winning culture creates an environment of winners. Winning cultures can be built. If you’re part of one, be grateful. Make it even better. If your organization doesn’t fire with the admiring efficiency you wish it did, do not accept deficiencies as unchangeable. They are quite changeable. Have the courage to champion change.
Sustained excellence comes from the disciplined execution of productive habits. The smarter a sales force operates, the luckier it gets. It’s a beautifully poetic result.
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