I had a really weird dream the other night. I was sitting with a group of salespeople, and they went around the room introducing themselves. The first one said, “Hi, my name is Tom, and I’m an underachiever. It’s mostly because I don’t work very hard.” Then the next person said, “My name is Ellen, and I’m an underachiever, too. In my case, it’s nothing more than a complete lack of product knowledge. I really have no clue about what I’m supposed to be selling” Finally, the third one said, “My name is Tony, and I’m also an underachiever. I could work harder, and probably be more knowledgeable too, but my biggest problem is that I’m totally disorganized and I haven’t made even the slightest effort to change that.”
I woke up thinking that these were very strange salespeople. Can you imagine actually accepting the responsibility for being a poor performer? The underachievers I encounter always seem to blame someone or something else. I thought you might be interested in learning how I respond to some of the excuses I hear all the time.
Our Prices Are Not Competitive
Price is without question the easiest factor to blame because it encompasses both the company and the buyer. With just one excuse, a salesperson can blame both the company for not having the lowest price, and the buyer for not appreciating the value that the salesperson and the company bring to the table.
I tell salespeople about an attitude I adopted very early on in my selling career. Whenever I got the order, my thought process was that I could have charged more for it. I always figured that I left at least some money on the table whenever I won an order.
The flip side to that attitude, I tell salespeople, is that I couldn’t blame price when I lost an order. If I could get my price sometimes, I thought, why couldn’t I get it all the time? The most likely explanation was that I must have done a less-than-stellar job of understanding the buyer’s needs and wants, or else a less-than-satisfactory job of selling my value proposition. The only other possibility was that I was pursuing someone I shouldn’t have been spending my time on in the first place—a “price monster!” Price monster is my term for people who make all their buying decisions based on price, with no consideration of value. I believe that you should let those people weaken your competitors rather than chasing their business and weakening yourself.
Either way, I tell salespeople, the failure was mine. And that’s acceptable, because you can’t sell to everyone. But you can learn from every failure and apply those lessons to the situations and decisions you’ll face in the future. If you really do bring value—and learn how to communicate that value effectively—you’ll win orders even when you don’t have the lowest price.
Here’s something else I tell salespeople who hit me with an excuse about non-competitive prices. First, I ask them what their company’s total sales volume is. (Hopefully they know. If not, I send them off to ask their employer.) Once I hear the figure, I tell them, “OK, what that means is that your prices are perfectly fine for X dollars worth of buyers. Go out and find me more people like those people. Don’t complain about the people who won’t pay your prices; go out and find more people who will!”
I Don’t Have Time To Prospect
I hear three variations of this theme. One is that “taking care of current customers takes up all of my time.” Another is that “I have to do all of my own estimates and write up all of my orders and even make my own deliveries.” The third is that “I have to watch over my orders and make sure they get through production. If I don’t watch them very carefully, things go wrong and I look bad.”
I address this excuse by asking the salespeople if they want—or need—to make more money. The answer is almost always yes. “In that case, it’s very simple,” I say. “If you want or need to make more money, you need more customers, because you’re not making the money you want or need with the customers you have. If you don’t make the time to develop some new customers, you aren’t going to make any more money. Now, if you’re serious about making more money, I’ll help you to make some time to prospect, and to do it effectively. If you’re not serious about making more money, you’re not the right person for this job.”
I think it’s worth mentioning that the majority of salespeople are probably not the right person for the job. Some of that can be addressed with training and better management, but some of it is uncorrectable. If you employ the wrong person for any job, I hope you at least have your eyes and ears open for a better candidate. I’ve always found it interesting that most companies are usually somewhere in the process of upgrading their equipment, but rarely in the process of upgrading their employees.
I Have To Watch Over My Orders
This common excuse is worth a little more consideration, because in addition to being a time management excuse, it’s also a way of shifting the blame for customer dissatisfaction. I address that element of the excuse by asking the salesperson where the problems come from, and telling them that, in my experience, the vast majority of quality and service problems originate at the point where the specifications are being transferred from the customer to the company. “So,” I ask, “Are you part of the solution or part of the problem? If you can assure me that you’ve giving your production people all the information they need to get the job done right and everything done on time, then I’m semi-sympathetic. If not, my advice is to do your job right and let them do theirs.”
Another thing I tell salespeople is that quality and service failures are simply going to happen in our business. Commitments made in good faith become impossible to keep, and sometimes hard decisions have to be made about which customer to satisfy and which to disappoint. “If you want to make X number of dollars,” I tell them, “you have to find X+ number of customers because you’re going to lose some of them to quality and/or service problems along the way.”
Don’t Tolerate Excuses!
That takes us to the bottom line. Don’t tolerate excuses from underperforming, underachieving salespeople! If you let them hide behind excuses, their performance will never improve.
Part of a manager’s job is to separate the problems from the excuses. If you identify real operational problems that are holding your salespeople back, those problems have to be corrected. If they’re only excuses, though, you have an entirely different problem which will also need to be corrected in order for your business to prosper.
Revised January 2018