There are interesting parallels between selling and driving a race car. Both are concerned with speed and of course with winning . For the driver the challenge is to get the race car across the line ahead of the competition – for the seller it is about getting the sale/key deal across the line. For both there can be any number of obstacles along the track and the risk of a crash is always present.
In this the first of a series called ‘Sales Manager Speed Secrets’ we borrow on the advice of racing greats, such as Ross Bently and Mario Andretti, to provide salespeople with valuable tips on how to accelerate the sale.
Sales Manager Speed Secret #1:
The Car Is Never Perfect
As seasoned race champion Ross Bently points out the job description for the professional race driver is a simple one: ‘To drive the car as quickly as you can’. That sounds obvious so lets explore a little deeper – that is where we will find an important nugget of advice for the sales manager and his or her team.
Ross Bently goes on to explain the driver’s job in more detail: ‘it is to drive the car at the limit, no more no less’.
The seller’s job description is to ‘drive the car at the limit, no more, no less!’ Such a job description would go a long way to easing the frustration faced by many sales managers and teams who must do their job in circumstances that are often less that ideal.
The words ‘at the limit’ are key to the definition of racing success and should really get the sales manager thinking. Here is why: The reality for race drivers, as well as sellers, is that there is always some limit. The challenge is to perform as close to the limit for as much of the time as possible while on the track. The problem is that in racing, as well as in selling, we often stop short of what that limit is (be it real or imagined).
The Real Limit Is…
Just as race drivers often have to work with a car that doesn’t always do what they want it to do, sellers have to work with or within a sales machine that has its limits too. However, the important point is that: it is not the limit(s) that defines the level of performance, but rather how the driver or seller responds to it.
‘The limit’ is important – after all if it it did not exist there would be no test of the driver’s determination, agility and skill. Despite the increased used of standardized sales processes and systems, it is the skill and adaptability of the salesperson that is still the primary factor in selling.
It’s A Test Of Agility, Determination & Skill
For the driver ‘the limits’ may be mechanical in terms of what the car can do, and in particular how it is bound by forces such as gravity on a tight corner. There is no such thing as the perfect car and even if there was it can easily malfunction.
For example the UK’s Daily Mail reports that Lewis Hamilton of the Mercedes Team has mechanical problems 4 times in the first 11 rounds of the 2014 championship.
For the seller ‘the limits’ can take a wide range of forms, including:
– Messaging or materials that are lacking
– Target marketing or target lists that are off
– The absence of a sales / CRM system to provide the salesperson with easy access to customer and prospect data.
When things are not working out as planned the normal tendency of the driver/salesperson is to blame the car. In general however this is not a productive strategy.
Two Ways To Respond
Either the ‘challenges relating to the performance of the car’ can be; a call for individual ingenuity and creative problem solving among sales teams, or simply an excuse to start blaming others. The later is divisive and counter-productive, besides it is unlikely to boost sales or win friends. The former, well it is positive, constructive and can actually help to drive sales.
The ‘limits’ or constraints exist to test the driver / seller’s agility, creativity, determination and skill. Perhaps the steering is not as responsive as the driver would like, or the suspension appears a little soft for the track conditions. The driver has no choice mid-race than to compensate for these factors and adjust their driving style accordingly.
Nobody Has The Perfect Car!
In racing there is no such thing as the perfect car – just as there is no such thing as the perfect sales strategy, or sales organization. Race cars are always being improved, modified or tweaked from race to race and season to season. However, dreaming of the perfect car won’t win today’s race.
Even teams with millions to spend on new cars and engines face limitations. There are modifications that Formula One rules and regulations don’t allow, for example; turbo charging, traction control and active suspension are or were subject to FIA bans. In addition teams are now limited to a set number of 4 propulsion or engine units per season.
All this means drivers have to make the best of what they have got for each race. They are prepared to live with imperfection. For example despite some of these incidents costing Lewis Hamilton a place on the starting grid during 2014, his language was muted to a reported ‘it has gone beyond bad luck!’
Drivers must console themselves with the realization that ‘there is no such thing as the perfect car’ and that car-performance issues are challenges that are likely faced by competitors too. It is helpful for sellers to think likewise.
Don’t Just Blame The Car!
Don’t come out and blame the car for your lack of speed. Yes, it’s impossible for all cars to perform identically, and it’s possible your car is worse than the others. However, most times it is not just the car, it’s the driver’s ability to adapt to the car (that means you) that affects performance.
Here is Ross’s advice for drivers: ‘Sorry, but it’s a fact. If you feel your car is not performing well, focus on adapting your driving to overcome the problem’. The parallels for sellers are very real. We have to adapt to compensate for the performance of the sales machine.
You Are Not Powerless!
Too much time and energy is wasted by sales managers and salespeople on issues that they cannot control. It robs them of motivation and sense of being in control. Despite complaining, the salesperson is left feeling helpless and frustrated.
The question for sellers is: ‘When you blame the car are you giving away some of your power?’ Or more specifically: ‘are you making your success contingent on somebody or something else?’
Ross Bently puts a motoring spin on this; ‘if it is going to be it is up to me’ motto of personal responsibility:
The message is switch the focus from what you cannot immediately control (i.e. the mechanics of the car) to what you can (i.e. your own efforts). To stay focused, positive and empowered, the racer/seller should ask him/herself: ‘have I done all I can do and tried all I can try before consigning defeat in the face of a less than perfect car?’ The message for many sellers is that ‘the real limit is not where you think it is.’
Fix Now, Or Fix Later?
There is a limit to what you can fix on the track, or mid-race. That is another principle from racing that applies to how salespeople deal with the challenges that they face:
You can’t redesign an airplane mid flight and you can’t redesign the racing car mid race. This has implications for sellers: there is only so much that you can fix mid-race without falling behind.
A pit-lane, where all the competitors are passing you by, is not the place to be discussing plans for next season’s new engine. The focus has to be on optimizing the car and getting it back on the track fast.
When it comes to the performance of the car what happens back at the factory and what happens at the side of the track are two very different things. The people at the factory need feedback from the driver and the racetrack, however the driver can’t simply wait for the engineers and designers to solve a problem. The race must go on.
So, if somebody told you that you were stuck with the car that you have got for the next 3 races, or the remainer of this year’s championship season, what would you do?
Why Blame Is Counter-Productive
There is another reason why blaming the car is a counter-productive strategy: it creates internal tension and disputes. In too many large organizations internal competition – that is territorial spats, political game-playing and back-biting between teams or department’s – distracts attention from the external competition – the companies and suppliers who are vying for the organization’s customers.
What is the real source of competition for your sales team? Does internal competition unnecessarily waste time and energy and hinder your teams attention?
The question for managers is ‘What percentage of your time and energy is spent battling internal issues and constraints, rather than focused (where it should be) on beating the competition?
Complain Less – Sell More?
Managers often tell us that they wish their teams could accept that things are not going to be perfect and simply get on with doing the best with what we have got. They suggest that ‘if they complained less they could sell more’.
However what many managers don’t realize is that they un-wittingly foster the complaining by reinforcing ‘them and us’ divides within their organizations. They too are to be heard saying ‘marketing should’, ‘operations must’ or ‘if only credit control or product development would’ do ‘this’ or ‘that’.
Patterns easily emerge where sales blames marketing for poor quality leads, marketing blames sales for wasting leads, finance blames sales for failing to deliver on its projections and on and on it goes.
Although differences will inevitably arise from time to time between managers and functional leaders – they should never let them show to the ranks. Managers from the different functions should strive to show an outward image of cooperation and mutual support. In so doing they set the tone for their team.
It’s Time For Some Creative Problem Solving
While the engineers are designing a solution for the next race, or the next season, the driver must improvise and work creatively with what he/she has got.
Managers will be surprised how their teams can (with a little encouragement) find creative solutions to most sales challenges. That is provided they can be enabled to take a few risks. Just like software geeks they can demonstrate a remarkable ability to ‘kludge it’ – that is to find a quick but functional fix, or workaround to a problem.’
In so many sales organizations salespeople are waiting to be told that they can experiment and innovate with solutions to their sales challenges. This is particularly important in organizations where any of the following are heard:
– ‘that is not the way we do it around here…’
– ‘it has to be approved…’
– ‘just don’t mess it up…’
– ‘it has to be perfect before we can trying it out…’
Many sales teams are just waiting to be freed from a state of learned helplessness where they have worked for some time in a ‘that is not my job’, ‘that is not my problem’, or a ‘them and us’ culture.
Here are some examples of such ingenuity among salespeople:
Car Problem: Don’t have good marketing materials to send
Traditional Reaction: Blame marketing. Start complaining.
Creative Solution: Some of the steps might include:
- Discuss and agree on the message first – often when salespeople say they need materials they are really saying they are not clear on the message/proposition.
- Pool all existing materials into a central folder – when materials are put in one place people typically see that they have more than they thought.
- Ask your team to come with suggestions for materials that could be sent to prospects. Vote on em and give a prize!
- Go online and find some links to articles, conference papers or press releases that you could use to prick your prospect’s interest, or find some customer’s success stories that you can share. If you start rummaging around it is amazing the sales or marketing aids you will find; webinars, old whitepapers, etc.
- Tailor existing material to specific customer / target market segements.
Look Out For: Prohibitions on using material not generated or approved by marketing. Ensure people have some support in terms of checking for typos, etc. in any material they create.
Be Constructive In Discussing ‘Car Problems’
Everything that has been said above does not mean you should ignore a problem with your car. Rather the track side advice is to make sure you communicate any problems you have, but take care to do it in a constructive manner.
Remember you are not criticizing anybody, rather you are talking about the car and unlocking more of its potential.
Part of being a professional race driver is conveying issues with your car in a constructive manner. It is also to develop a good relationship with the mechanic(s) and the pit crew/team. These people have the potential to really help you.
Chances are that at times that they feel that their work is under appreciated so make sure you show appreciation for their efforts – start by discussing what is working, rather than just what is not working.