I was lucky enough to work for Xerox during the height of the company’s marketplace presence and power. I was even luckier to be selected to teach advanced selling at the firm’s international training center.
This was a prestigious selection. For two years I worked to further develop the firm’s greatest performers. I played my cards smartly and trusted my audiences to teach me even more than I shared with them.
In that regard, I was lucky. I emerged from that role a far better salesman than I’d been going in.
That role taught me how Xerox methodically churned out a motivated army of skilled professionals. None of what the company did was left to chance; the culture was built by design.
There are five keys to a high-performing, self-sustaining sales force. They are:
- Talent Development
- Reward & Recognition
- Strategic Retention
Hiring. Xerox was picky about who it selected. Powerful brands draw forests of resumes and job applications. Since sales is a competitive profession, the company was very choosy. It wanted competitive people. If an applicant had a track record of competitive involvement, the candidate was placed in the consideration queue. If not, he or she had no shot.
Since sales turnover is disruptive and expensive (directly and indirectly), the interview process was thorough. By the time an offer came through, each candidate had been thoroughly vetted. The company was comfortable it could quickly teach and test the knowledge required to sell the line. And it certainly knew how to develop professional selling skills. What it weighed most were the intangibles of the individual. Winning had to matter. Therefore the search was simplified. Xerox looked for winners.
Onboarding. Once hired, the company put everyone through a very methodical onboarding process. Nothing was left to chance; every day of the onboarding process was by design. The road to basic school was clearly mapped. When the day came for the new hire to arrive at the northern Virginia training center, everyone took a test. If he or she passed, they stayed. If they failed, he or she was immediately airmailed back to their city of origin.
What the company did very well during this phase is manage the emotional experience of the new hires. Enthusiasm is high early on; it dips when the hard work begins. The road to competency would take awhile but the company knew it was in everyone’s best interest to raise the competency levels of their employees as quickly as possible and pursued that goal with a great sense of urgency. Once new hires reached the “effectiveness stage,” where they were paying for themselves and more, morale and enthusiasm again were high. In other words, they managed the downward dip.
Most companies are not that great at hiring (they overestimate past experience) and mediocre or worse at onboarding. Both are integral to a high performance culture.
Talent Development. Xerox, like IBM and other sales powerhouses at the time, did not throw money at training. They invested in talent development. They wanted their salespeople on skill escalators and invested in an infrastructure to enable motivated people to excel.
They were always relevant to the business and changing needs of the field because they kept sales talent development tethered to the sales organization.
Less skilled organizations often toss “training” over to Human Resources or Organizational Development. HR and OD are support mechanisms, not sales enablers. The best sales cultures know that.
Reward & Recognition. Dissecting the annual comp plan was a January ritual. The company knew salespeople would do what they were incented to pursue. Those objectives varied from year to year but Xerox never strayed from an implied doctine of fairness: If you sold a lot, you made a lot. If you didn’t, you didn’t. Fair is good. Fair is all a professional salesperson expects.
As the year unfolded, every salesperson knew how he or she was doing. The company posted monthly stack rankings. If you were having a big year, you couldn’t wait for them to come out. If you were really struggling, you despised their publication. But the stack rankings were consistent with the culture. Xerox consistently treated sales as an objective profession, and key to that is measuring performance. In sales one of two things happen: You win or you lose. The winners topped the charts. The losers were embarrassed and worked hard to move up.
Strategic Retention. I was with the company twenty years and had a great career. I worked with, and taught, hundreds of terrific talents. Many are now scattered about, doing great things for other companies or running their own businesses.
Why did that happen? The company made a big mistake and that big mistake changed the culture. In the late 1990s six senior executives got caught goochie-fudging the books to try and fool Wall Street. They got caught, the stock plummeted, and cutbacks were required. The six ended up paying $22 million in fines, which was a paint chip compared the the wreck they caused when they totaled one of America’s most prestigious brands.
The talent that watched all this suddenly had a career decision to make they never expected: stay or go? Legions chose to exit. Top talent bailed like paratroopers and who could blame them? Talent, after all, has options.
High performance cultures start at the top, typically driven by marketing-oriented leadership, not bean counters. Company leadership usually pendulums back and forth between the two. Marketing visionaries build the business and then they are replaced by CFOs who tighten the P&Ls.
Why this matters is simple: A marketing culture sees sales talent development as an investment. To a CFO, “training” is an expense. Since it’s ROI is tough to measure, some CFOs don’t believe it exists.
Sales can be a wonderfully lucrative profession and should be. It is hard, big deals sustain companies, and companies are nothing more than a collection of people ostensibly chasing a common good. There are two keys to sustaining a business, growing top-line revenue and containing below-the-line cost. Great salespeople drive the top line. They subsidize the entity. When they sell a lot, they deserve to make a lot. They have earned it. And it’s not the company’s money that’s paying it, it’s the customer’s.
Great cultures are proactive, consistent, and waste little motion. Because of that, they usually don’t waste a lot of money. They operate with a cohesive, well-oiled efficiency and efficiency minimizes waste. Reactive organizations don’t. Reactive organizations waste way too much.
Strong sales cultures also do something most companies do not: They have no fear of hiring better people.
There is an axiom in the talent business that says, “A players hire B players and B players hire C players.” This is why the best candidate often does not get the job. He or she is perceived as a threat. They are “too good” or “too hard to manage.” Mediocre cultures seal their fate by proving this axiom true. In the eleven years I’ve been consulting on my own, I have seen this play out dozens of times. There are a lot of insecure people out there.
A winning culture operates way above that insecurity. The need to win must permeate an organization. It must be systemic and not depend on one or two individuals. It’s a team game, with the team committed to winning.
In closing, remember that companies are like people — they have life cycles. They are born of an idea, grow through energy and hard work, are susceptible to aging, and vulnerable to dying. The length of a company’s life, and the vibrancy of its heritage, depends on the five things we’ve talked about.
Respect each and you’ll experience a rich, full life.
Alex Hanna saysJanuary 24, 2012 at 6:43 pm
Lack of training & attitude with there people!