Archive for April, 2013

‘It could only happen to a salesman’

I began my sales career by joining Xerox UK as a trainee salesman.  As a trainee salesman, I received the same money as a Centre Group Economist for Viyella International which was taking over much of the English textile industry at the time.

The Xerox office was in Great Portland Street, a modern 4 or 5 story building, just north and to the left of Oxford Circus.  Between Great Portland Street, and in and around Berner Street, lay the heart of London’s cut-and-make garment industry, small blocks with a myriad of fashion shops on the pavement side while behind them the infill of cut-and-make, low level sheds with sloping, black-felted roofs.

As a trainee Xerox salesman you were only allowed into the office on Friday afternoons to hand in your call reports and orders and to chat with your managers & sales colleagues.  Salesmen tend to be very good buyers.  They see the value benefit in all kind of things; so a lot of the jokey conversations was around ‘what did you buy this week’ followed by screams of laughter as the humourists pointed out the disbenefits.

So there I was in the office every Fridays afternoon, usually after 2.00pm.  With time to pass until the pubs opened, I would look across at the higher rise offices the other side of the block and look down at the sculptured effect of the shed roofs as they interwove with each other.  One day I looked across to the adjacent office buildings and` noticed something rather strange.  It was a low, narrow window with sight obscuring glass.  What was strange about it was there was a blob of purple pressed against it with what, as I focused on it, seemed to be shoulders.  Now I could see, above the colour, the longer hair of a woman.  Yes.  It must be a woman with her back pressed to the window.  There must have been a basin under the window for her to sit on.  Then, as I looked, a face appeared over her left shoulder; and, yes, the whole thing seemed to be moving up and down, not a lot but definitely moving.  It is difficult to remember how long it took until it went away – maybe 10 minutes, maybe more.

I didn’t say anything to my sales colleagues but, when I came into the office the next Friday, the same thing happened.  The blob of colour was there, sometime purple, sometimes blue.  Always about 4 o’clock. And the next Friday.  Obviously someone was collecting seigneurial rights before returning home for the weekend and the wife.

This went on for about four Fridays before I told my colleagues and, for a couple of Fridays, the office picture windows overlooking the sheds were filled with Xerox employees enjoying the break after a hard week.  Obviously people in the cutting sheds became aware of everyone looking out of our windows and they too came out onto the shed roofs to see what was going on.

I will never forget the last Friday.  It was a beautiful English day, clear, blue skies with the sun turning golden towards the later afternoon.  It looked like a scene from the Sermon on the Mount; or the Feeding of the 5000.  At 4 o’clock precisely the roofs were covered in people, hundreds of them,  looking up at the magic window.  They were dressed in vivid colours with a preponderance of black and the very white, white shirts and the white of their cutting aprons. A magnificent sight. The stars took their position. Slowly and purposefully the purple jersey and the 2 heads gathered and began to move rhythmically together. But clearly, for the face looking out the window, the colours had changed.  Instead of the sombre black roofs, there was a kaleidoscope of colour, of people laughing, pointing and talking with each other, drinking drinks and eating the odd leftover sandwich.

Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was gone.  No more Fridays. Only the memory.  On both sides no doubt.

Instituting the right reporting process is an absolute key to fast lane sales success; and the key document is the Hot Prospect List. The rigour with which the information is gathered is a must in forecasting accurately the seller’s monthly turnover as well as the demand on production. The definition of the candidates for the list is critical too.  They must be decision makers who have said YES they will buy but haven’t signed the order for a reason out of their control, for example a meeting for Board approval or budget allocation.  So the list will include the company name, the decision maker’s name and telephone number, the item to purchase and its value and, finally but critically, the date of final approval  i.e. the day after which the seller can phone to confirm the order. Unromantically and rigorously run (i.e. excluding the temptation of wishful thinking) 60% of the value on this list will come to fruition.

The second most important list is the Good Prospect List which is the feeder to the Hot Prospects.  These are candidates who have been met, have expressed a strong interest and who, the seller has a strong ‘feeling in the water’, will develop through to a final decision. The list will contain much the same information as the Hot Prospect List except it will also show future actions to be taken by date and expected date of order.  Again, unromantically run and with strong criteria, 35% will come through to fruition.

How these two lists work together is simple.  The Hot Prospect List will show for each month the expected sales.  The seller will work out the number of names it takes to meet budgeted sales.  If the names are not on the list for this month and the next, the seller is unlikely to meet his/her target sales.  He knows clearly what he has to do to fill the list immediately to meet his budget. Maybe, in a normal month,  the seller will exhaust 6 names on the list to gain the 4 he requires.  These need to be replaced.  They will be replaced by names on the Good Prospect List or from the effort to build this list.  Let’s say he loses 12 good prospects to replace the 6 Hot Prospects he has lost. So the sales task is clear.  The seller has to do enough new calls to feed the Good Prospect List and well as find prospects who will go straight to hot or sold.  In this case he must find 12 new Good Prospects as well as 6 Hot Prospects to feed the order rate. So do the top sellers grow the stick they use to beat their own backs with.  Top sellers have one defining characteristic.  They have discipline, discipline in adhering to the framework of their sale; and discipline in the way they to plan and manage their daily activity.

The third equally important document is the Weekly Customer Contact List.  This will show the breakdown, by number only, of the range of calls he has made in the previous week.  These will be physical face-to-face meetings.  Likely categories are new calls, follow-up calls, demonstrations, customer calls, technical calls and so on.  The key call is the new call. This is the first call to a new or existing customer where new business is discussed for the first time only.  This is a key definition.  New business comes from new calls.  It’s where growth comes from.  The list will form the basis of the conversation between the seller and his manager. After the 3rd week of conversation, it becomes impossible for the seller to perpetuate any ‘white lies’ as to activity. If he/she is spending too much time shooting the breeze in the comfort of customers’ offices, it will be picked up and noticed.   The higher the number of new calls, the more successful the seller.  You should be looking for at least 6 new calls per week.

The final document is the Monthly Expenses Schedule showing expenses spend, with receipts, by day.  It gives important information like where the seller has been, how much time is spent travelling and whether he/she is using expenses to make up short-falls in earnings.  But be generous and open minded. Finance Directors who take off the cost of an umbrella bought to replace one blown away at a meeting causes annoyance for small value; and he can rest assured the charge will appear invisibly somewhere in the future!

You will see, looking at these lists, they are lists the seller should be producing for himself to manage his territory properly.  In conjunction with a diary, they will clearly show whether the territory is being managed well now and in the future. The view should be the seller is running his own business on the territory and needs the support of sales management to facilitate his success.  He/she doesn’t want the feeling of fighting for the company in the field and against the company on return to the office. Clearly, with a manger who is giving him this full support for his activity, he will only too happy to share and discuss the information in the search for different and better ways to close more business. If the manager thinks there are customers he must interfere with, it is better he makes these (few) house accounts and off-territory.






“It makes you want laugh…. & cry”

Selling in a foreign language is never easy, never easy when you have to feel your way through to find the words.  French is no different.  Maybe, like me, you have had French hammered into you for years.  You have an immense vocabulary hidden away somewhere. You can conjugate and decline endlessly. But the words you want just don’t spring to mind when you need them most. So you rely on different devices.  You can say the same thing again, but louder, in the hope that a glimmer of understanding appears on your respondees French face. You can search your memory for synonyms of the word you are seeking, often synonyms with a faintly ancient feel or sound to them, and say these with a heavily French accent.  Many English words ending –ation lend them to frenchific-ation; or you can go to the verb and remove the –r in the hope you find the noun. In this story, this is what I did.

I was running the sales operation for a UK based truck-mounted recovery equipment company.  We had grown rapidly and were setting out to conquer Europe. We were at the Paris Motor Show. We had already just been to the Barcelona Motor Show.  We were exhausted. It was the third week on the trot. Our inner tubes were burnt with orange juice and late eating.  We had had enough. Perhaps we had become flippant.  Humour doesn’t always translate well into different languages either.

Selling car recovery (depannage) equipment in French isn’t the easiest either.  There is no international vocabulary available in this market. There are words like winch (treuil) and bodies which slide back (glisser) to know.  And the French use different concepts to the English in the way they choose words (one French agent suggested it was better to translate the English into Chinese first before finding your way to the French) In English we have the word the word ‘light’ (lumiere). Then we have all the lights: we have traffic light, headlight, rear light, flashing light and so on.  For the French, they have different concepts and words for each – feu rouge, phare yet feu arriere; & rampe.  And so the amateur linguist’s vocabulary must extend with no obvious connects.

So here we are at the Paris Motor Show, Tony the owner and me.  Exhausted.  Slightly bored.  We had to be there.  We were not doing much business.  Our customer group was the French vehicle recovery industry.  They come in two sorts.  Short, fat, bald-headed men, with fingers like sausages and the black, oily grime of years staining under and around their nails, still wearing their blue overalls and their steel toe caps shining from their boots.  Or they are well groomed, with tailored hair, leather jackets and imitation crocodile shoes.  I was in an interesting and interested conversation with one of the latter.  He was accompanied by his overpowdered wife, spreading rather too far into her 40’s for the tight fitting black skirt and jacket she was wearing, dyed hair worn bouffant style to accentuate the height of her 6” stilettos.  She was accompanied by a miniature Yorkie with the liitle bow on her forelock.

My visitor in due course left the stand to look around. The routine of demonstrating the equipment to the ‘tyre kickers’ returned; and so, about a hour later did my friend with the wife and the crocodile shoes.  He looked like an interested buyer for the equipment on the stand. We were interested sellers.  We certainly did not want to take it back to England.  We regreeted one another.  The stand was full of smiles. We talked for a while, the specification, the chassis constraints, and so on.  Then he held his own counsel for a few moments before he asked (in French) ‘What will you give me if I buy one of these?’ This is what is called in selling is called a buying signal.

In the car recovery trade, as you can imagine, conversations can become very basic.  All men together kind of stuff. So I launched myself on to a humorous, sale closing response.  What I tried to say, when translated into English, was ‘I will give you a discount of 20% and maybe even a kiss’.  But, sad to say, in my French it didn’t work out quite this way –

‘Je vous donnerez un remise (discount) de vingt (20) percent et meme peutetre un…’kiss. What is kiss in French?  Baiser to kiss. Take off the –r. Baise.  That’ll be it …et meme peutetre un baise.’

With these words, his femme (wife) swung round on her 6” stilettos and was gone. He lent forward, looked me hard in the eye and was gone too.  Not a single word. Never to be seen again.

That evening I phoned my Belgian agent, Michel a Walloon.  I explained what had happened. He laughed. ‘You didn’t say what you intended, Philippe’.  ‘What did I say, Michel?’ ‘You said you would give him a 20% discount and, how do you say it, sex.’  ‘Does the word you’re hesitating to say begin with an  -f, Michel.  ‘Yes, Philippe. It does.’  ‘Oh dear’.

Well.  Let’s face it.  I didn’t take the order this time but I did learn a bit more French.



Setting up a successful speciality sales team means getting the working infrastructure right.  Creating territories is a matter of applying simple logic to a simple set of rules.  Territories must be neither too big nor too small, not so big that the area can’t be fully covered in the year and not so small that sales initiative is destroyed.  Territories need to the covered geographically and in terms of customer group, product range and decision cycle times.  You need to know enough to get this mix right.  Territory ‘shapes’ are likely to be determined by the direction of the motorways; and, ideally, you don’t want your sellers driving up and down the same roads.  Salesmen sell through face-to-face contact so you don’t want them spending too much selling time sitting in their cars either. If the area is big, they should be encouraged to work it in segments, overnighting in the area to improve call rates

The commission structure must be right too. I don’t like commission only.  Salesmen should not be asked to take on company risk.  Neither is salary plus commission the best way forward.  It averages down the better sellers and averages up the lesser.  It is even worse when commission is paid on annual target set by management.  This equates to management, who should seen to be supportive, punishing the successful seller for his success with higher targets next year.

Fast lane sales growth is about creating stars in your sales team who lead by example (and maybe in their new sports car) and show the path of success to their lesser colleagues.  The way to do this is indeed to pay commission only but support it with guaranteed earnings.  It is a matter of simple mathematics.  If you think a good salesman could produce 1.0 million/pa for you at a stretch and he would be worth 100,000 to you if he did so, then pay him 10%.  This is open ended. With luck and good fortune maybe he will find the way to sell 2.0 million/pa.  Then you’ll all be wealthy.  You want success, not a payment hierarchy where sellers can never earn more than their managers. Be a little careful though. Make sure the commission levels reflect your ambitions for sales for each different class of product.  One thing you can be sure of: the seller will and should be led by the commission terms to head for the simplest ways to maximise his/her turnover. He/she might, for example, decide it is easier and more profitable to sell 10 small ones rather than 5 of the big ones.

Obviously people can’t live off commission paid every once in a while. Bills come in monthly; and there are Christmases, holidays and birthdays to be paid for.  So put each seller on a guarantee to reflect worth.  Let’s start, for simplicity, at with a guarantee of 48,000pa or 4,000pm.  Maybe you decide, because you want sales participation until the customer has the product in his sticky fingers, to pay each order 50% on order and 50% on delivery. These commissions build up and, when they surmount 4,000pm, you could choose to pay 60% of the excess, in effect in advance, so the seller can taste success for the current effort.  As territory sales grow, so individual guarantees can be increased; and, as they fall, they can be decreased.  In the latter case, the seller will make up his/her own mind whether it is better to stay or go.

You think “Well how do I convert my current sales team over to the new system”.  It’s simple.  Give them the current (only) sellers the choice:  the existing 50,000pa salary and 5% or 50,000 and 10%.  I know which one I would choose. There is usually some reservation based on conversations with the wife but, inevitably, they all join in and sales begin to soar. And, by the way, send the excess commission as a cheque to land on the breakfast table.  It won’t be long before the wife is kicking her seller husband out of the house earlier.


“They would make you laugh if they hadn’t made you cry.”


Management Consultancies love to capture the import of what they do in a single word or phrase.  They hold internal brain crunching sessions to find their way to the real ‘meaning’ of their consulting practice; and then to find the word or phrase that captures it.  Usually it has something to do with the wondrous depth of their analysis.  As with most internally generated ‘buzz words’, they mean more to the Consultants than to their client audience who, of course, were not part of the originating meeting.  Nor is any attempt made to adapt the concept for the listening ear.  Silence and misunderstanding are the usual outcomes, in this case sheer, unbridled amazement if not horror.

This story concerns a consultancy based on the South Coast of the UK.  They too thought their analysis was primus inter pares. Rather like an MRI scan, it revealed all, every detail including the unexpected.  That’s what they did.  They revealed all.  A bit like opening your dressing gown; or your kimono.  That’s it.  We open the client’s kimono for him to reveal all, all he needs to know to fully understand the length and depth of the issues facing him.

I again ran the sales operation for this consultancy.  It was a pleasure because the consultants really did deliver on time the project benefits and more.  On this particular day, we were visiting a small, medical equipment company situated in what are known as the Home Counties near to London.  We thought we were in with a good chance here.  We had already met with the Managing Director and he was interested in what we could do for him.  This meeting was with his Operations Director within whose responsibilities the hoped for project would take place.

We arrived in reception full of hope.  My colleague was a gruff, tough talking Scot, the type you would want to scrap with in the Gorbals. Let’s call him Hugh. He was one of our Directors.

The Operations Director turned out to be a woman.  She spoke aesthetically, sharply and directly.  Middle aged, pale and severe in appearance, the first impression was, if she hadn’t been an Operations Director, she would have been a nun.

The meeting went very well (though I say so myself).  We reprised the ground covered with the Managing Director and identified the areas he felt would benefit from our intervention. We sought her opinion and what she would like to achieve.  We discussed likely cost benefit outcomes and timescales.  She was clearly very interested.  The next step was the next step. How should we bring the programme together? Her thin, lined face was framed in fair, greying hair which accentuated the severe line of her chin and the paleness of her cheekss.  She smiled.  “Tell me” she said, “describe for me in one sentence the essence of what you can do for us?”

This was clearly Hugh’s moment.  He had been silent far longer than he would have chosen.  His face lit up.  He had just the line for her. “We will help you to open your kimono” he said.

For me the pale image of an aging nun standing there, rudely awakened from her slumbers and naked except for her kimono which was open, sprang immediately to the mind’s eye.  But I shall never be able to describe adequately the look on her face. Disbelief was soon replaced by a stoney stare. For her, humour had no part to play in such innuendo, sexual or not…  Clearly the last thing she wanted was to open her kimono publically.  In particular she did not want Hugh’s help to open her kimono.  That was it.  In a nutshell.

I tried desperately to return to the previous ground we had covered, to happier times.  She was just not interested.  The door was closed.

As we took the long road home, Hugh was unrepentant to the end.  Something like “Silly cow.  I wouldn’t have given her one even if she had begged for it”.

Another one for the history books.