Sales Management

The First Thing You Say.


Two weeks ago in this space I wrote about the general malaise and episodic funk that many in our industry seem to be suffering under.  (The New Normal, February 7, 2019.)  As a manager, I believe one of your greatest callings is re-framing situations and market conditions for your sellers and returning them to a centered, productive mindset.  In confusing times, that’s not easy.  OK, it’s never easy.

In both private manager coaching and management workshops, I tend to elevate one truly vital piece of advice.  Without it, all of your logic, strategy and motivation will end up going nowhere.  It goes like this:

Pay close attention to the very first thing you say.

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When stressed or challenged, sellers and other team members tend to (1) come to their manager interactions very hot, (2) come seeking immediate answers and gratification, and (3) they want to dump the problem or situation in your lap.  And as managers, we tend to walk right into the trap by responding immediately and factually.  We believe that if we just answer the question or supply the information right now, then the situation will magically resolve.  But it just doesn’t work.

Your strategy shouldn’t be about dispensing answers, but rather posing questions.  You shouldn’t immediately assume the responsibility for the situation, but instead transfer the responsibility or resolution back to the employee in an empowering way.  That’s why the first words out of your mouth in these situations are so critical.  Next time the heat gets turned up, try rolling out some of these phrases and see what a difference they make in the quality of your interactions (and the quality of your life!)

  • I know what I’d do, but I really want to hear your thinking.  Give me two alternatives on what you think we should do in this situation.
  • Let’s slow down and make sure we’re solving the right problem.  Tell me what we’re not considering right now?
  • Let’s break this down into the things we can and can’t control. What do you think we can really change?
  • Tell me how I can help you get refocused on the things that are going to help you succeed.
  • I can tell you’re struggling with this.  I’m more than willing to let you blow off steam for a little while.  Then I think it’s time for us to break this situation down together.
  • I believe in you and I know you’re better than the conversation we’re having right now.  Tell me how you think this turns into a victory?
  • I’m not sure we have all the information we need to make the right call right now. You’re closer to the situation:  What else is important here that we haven’t looked at?

Spit back answers all day and you create dependent followers. Push the responsibility back to them – put the authority where the information is – and you empower confident leaders.  Every one of us wants to have great conversations with our employees and team members.  And we will.

But only if we start them the right way.


When Nobody is Watching.


What if there were no bosses? If there were no office hours, no vacation policy, how would the people make decisions? If there were no one watching, what would lead them to make good decisions that cared for the business and your customers? What if the ultimate responsibility were theirs?

This may sound Utopian – or foolish, depending on your perspective. But it’s increasingly the reality of business. In our industry, it’s here.

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The combination of big territories, big employee-to-manager ratios, distributed locations and the raw speed of business means that employees are making their own decisions much of the time. Your policies and caps and meetings and policy reviews simply can’t keep up with the pace of business. Control-based top-down rules and approvals end up looking foolish and bureaucratic.

So, what then?

This is not to say that policies and rules are obsolete (a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment, for example, is an excellent one). But regardless of how much you elaborate on the rules, you need your employees to make judgments… sound, moral, positive judgments. And the only way to get there is to establish a culture of values. Here are the four values that I recommend to my customers; each is personally controllable by the individual and helps him/her make better decisions both internally (with team members) and externally with clients. Share them, talk about them.

Be Curious. Healthy, appropriate curiosity leads one to ask more and better questions of customers and coworkers. It generates true empathy. It builds trust and connection. Curious people want to know how things work, more about the customer’s business…more about their co-worker’s role and queue.

Be Generous. Those who are generous don’t keep score. They continue to treat customers like customers even when there’s no big jackpot in front of them. They give coworkers the benefit of the doubt. They don’t infer motives that are not there. They help others.  They focus on making a difference while also making a profit.

Be Tenacious. Tenacious employees go the extra mile for customers and coworkers. They don’t accept the easy, obvious answer.  They stay with the conversation, the project or the problem – that much longer. They take the time to examine the situation fully.

Be Worthy. Worthiness is about the journey, not the destination; about the quality and excellence of work and effort, not just about the score. It’s not about getting… it’s about deserving. Deserving the customer’s trust, deserving the best efforts of your coworkers, deserving the job you have and the success you crave. As John Adams said, We cannot assure success. We can only deserve it.

If you want your team to thrive, let them make the decisions within a culture where values are the dominant drivers. Then get out of the way.


The Interview That Doesn’t Suck.


If human talent is the killer app in our industry, why do we suck so badly at attracting, evaluating and retaining the best people?  And how does a flawed candidate manage to slip through the interviewing gauntlet that you and the rest of your management and HR team have set up?  Clearly these are huge topics worthy of books, not blog posts.  But I’ve never met a topic that I couldn’t try to oversimplify, so here goes:

Your interviewing process is misguided, your execution is awful and you’re focusing on all the wrong things.  But please, let me elaborate…

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Interviews are Not about Fact-finding:  Make your minimum standards on skills and experience clear to your HR team or recruiter.  Then leave the candidate’s resume in your desk.  Too many interviews end up being about the facts on the page (“…so you worked at AOL?”)  You’re wasting a lot of time confirming data points, which could be better spent on higher order discussion.

Focus Instead on Understanding the Candidate’s Process:

  • Tell me about an important deal or achievement at your last company:  what would not have happened if you hadn’t been part of it?
  • Tell me about the last time you had to deliver really bad news to a customer:  how did you handle it and where did things end up?
  • Tell me about a time when you’ve had to manage conflict with someone in your organization:  were you able to turn the situation around?

Seek Beliefs and Core Values:  The best hires and most-durable employee relationships are always built on the overlap between what a candidate believes and what the company stands for.  But we learn very little about what our candidates truly believe because we don’t ask.

  • Tell me something you believe in very strongly that’s not about religion or family.
  • Looking out at the next 10-15 years of our industry, what’s a trend or behavior that you’d bet your career on?

Stop Acting Like Lawyers:  (Please no hate mail from the Bar Association.) If you ask a dozen lawyers to review a document or agreement, each will find something to disagree with or object to.  Likewise, if you subject your candidate to a dozen different interviewers, each will only feel valid or whole if he or she finds a flaw.  First cut down on the number of interviewers; after a certain number, the evaluation doesn’t get bigger, it gets worse.  Second, make it OK for other interviewers to say “neutral” or “nothing to add.”

This is Not a Democracy:  Try to get everyone to agree on a candidate and you’ll end up with a very safe, very vanilla, compromise candidate.  No edge, nothing strong, nothing special.  Agree ahead of time who “owns” the hire and who he/she should truly consult with. (Hint:  who will be economically dependent or physically close to the new hire?)

Listen for Intent:  There’s one more thing we also fail to ask potential hires:  Do you want to work here?  Of course it’s probably not smart to signal your own intent to hire this person, but you can certainly find out whether they’re really into you – of if you’re just “one of their safety schools.”

  • We’re not there yet, but if it all came together tomorrow and the package and responsibility lined up, would you jump at the chance to work here?

Notice that this is the only “yes or no” question I’ve suggested.

I’ll be eager to hear how your next interview goes.  Happy hiring.

This post originally ran in 2014.  Unfortunately too many interviews still suck.


Tick. Tick. Tick…


When I work with managers and sellers in our business there’s one issue that almost always comes up: Time. Finding it, managing it, understanding where it goes. Our business may not necessarily be more intense or frenetic than many others, but it can seem that way. And the very tools that are supposed to help us control time and manage productivity often have just the opposite effect.

I can’t solve all of your issues with the calendar and the clock, but if you’re one of those who ends up asking “So what the hell did I end up doing all day?” at 6 pm, here are a few ideas.

Take Back the First Hour. Millions of American workers start their day on email. Tragic mistake. Instead of a plan for the day or some much needed creative time, we go north to south through the inbox. We prioritize communication based on who wrote to us most recently. 15 or 20 minutes in, we start seeing the replies to our replies. Most of us never recover. Instead, declare a moratorium for the first 60 minutes of the day (OK, a half hour for the seriously addicted.) Use that “pre-mail” block of time to set priorities, make a plan, or maybe just think about a problem or opportunity.

Could you and your sales team stand a little disruption?  Want to take some new looks at seemingly-intractable sales problems?  If you’re a qualified media sales leader, request your invitation to Seller Forum on Wednesday March 7th in New York.  Better yet, sign up for a season’s pass and secure 1 or 2 seats at each of our 2018 Forums.  Go to TheSellerForum.com for more information.

Opt out of the String. People CC you on email strings unnecessarily for lots of reasons; sometimes just because they want you to know they’re ‘working.’ Unless you tell them otherwise, they’ll keep doing it. Respond to the string with a comment and they think you actually like it. So tell them already. “Thanks for copying me, but please drop me from the string now. I know you guys can handle this without me.”

Does it Have to Be a Meeting? One thing that kills the calendar and deadens the soul is the proliferation of meetings within companies. There are too many of them, they include too many people, and they almost always lack any productive framework or focus. People are late, they are distracted while there, and they end in confusion and ambivalence. Once you start to push back on meetings – “I’m not sure I need to be part of this?”… “Why do you need me there?” – you start to realize that much of what’s been drawing you into the perpetual meeting is nothing more than fear and inertia.

…and Does it Have to be 30 Minutes? Why do we always meet around a conference table in 30 or 60 minute blocks? Good question. Try the 5/15 meeting instead: A stand up meeting that lasts no less than 5 but no more than 15 minutes. The 5/15 must be centered on a question to be answered or an issue to be solved, and whoever calls the 5/15 must send the question in advance.

Account for Just One Day. It’s an old bromide, but it’s true. Write down everything you do for a single day. It’s eye opening. Only when you get some sense of where the time goes, you can’t begin to control it.

This Drift was originally posted in 2014. But hey….timeless, right?


The Front of the Jersey.


Welcome to the world of the free agent.

While the talent pool from which we draw is rich and talented, it is also ephemeral.  Even though she’s genuinely serious and committed about your opportunity, the new seller or account manager you’re interviewing today already has a foot out the door.  It’s not that she’s shallow or underhanded; she’s just always thought differently about her career than you have about yours. She expects short term assignments with many, many teams over the arc of her career.

And who can blame her?  The speed at which companies and strategies are launched today is eclipsed only by the pace at which they are abandoned.  Your rep is not thinking about ten years with your company because she can’t imagine your company thinking of ten years of anything.  Which leaves you, her manager, with the coach’s dilemma.

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A well-worn slogan in sports is “getting them to play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the one on the back.”  But can this even be done in a world where everybody keeps their resume polished and their LinkedIn profile up to date?  It can, but it takes dedication to a strategy.

Call Out the Elephant in the Room.  “We both know that you won’t necessarily always work here…” can be the phrase that really opens up your dialogue with your employees and shows that you’re treating them as adults, not assets.  It puts their time with you in the context of their careers and their lives.  And that’s a great place to be.

How Does Today’s Action Create Long Term Value?  Want your team members to get better at something?  Frame the discussion around their long term value in the marketplace.  Every rep has a stock price and that stock price is either going up or down.

Commit to Them.  Tell them that you want this to be the best place they’ll ever work, and that you’d like to be remembered as the boss who made them better at their craft.  Then do what you say.

Put the Relationships in Long Term Context.  Put their relationships with others on your team in the context of their “career network.”  Will there be a network of people out there who speak well of them in the future, or a network that’s felt slighted, overlooked or abused?  In the context of career growth, this matters.  And they’ll get it.

Foster a Culture of Presence.   Great managers are like parents. We don’t always like or do what they say, but we feel their absence.  Be present for your team, individually and collectively, and focus on what’s happening right now.  Be the boss who celebrates the outstanding proposal and the great example of customer service.  This makes the name on the front of the jersey mean something today, and makes those wearing it – even if for a little while – play all that much harder for it.