Bill Gove was a legend as a salesman at 3M. He used to tell this story in his motivational talks to the troops.
“I was just starting out in sales when my boss called me in and said, ‘Bill, I want you to go to New Orleans and see our fieldman, Harry. You’ve never met anyone like him. He’s about 60 pounds overweight, his clothes look like a bulletin board of whatever he ate for lunch, he garbles his words, and he writes his orders on the back of a napkin.’
“So I said, ‘Sure, I’ll go down there. What do you want me to do? Buy him a copy of Dress for Success? Put him on a diet? Fire him?’
“ ‘Hell, no. Find out what this guy is eating and make sure he gets all he wants. He’s our biggest producer. And while you’re down there, you’d better get some for yourself.’ “
That story always worked. Maybe because it was so close to the Abe Lincoln version: “But Mr. President, Grant drinks!” “Find out what his brand is and send him a case. I need him. He fights.”
Could a curmudgeon like Harry or a boozer like Grant be successful today? Of course. You see it all the time in sports. The basketball player who averages 20 points a game is on a longer leash than the backup guard. It isn’t fair, it isn’t right, but it’s the way of the world in a world where results often matter more than how you get them.
Bill Gove and I used to tell young salespeople, “If you can sell, don’t worry about the paperwork. We’ll get someone to take care of it.” All kinds of people can fill out forms… few can really sell.
These days, with everything so techie, there’s less tolerance for the klutz, even a mad demon of a salesperson klutz, because a screwup on-line can cost the company zillions. Harry’s mustard-stained napkins might not pass muster, no matter how big the order.
Earl is the opposite of Harry. The word that fits him is “bearing.” He walks around like he’s on his way to chair a board meeting. Earl’s paperwork is perfect, his desk is neat. He’s on time for every sales meeting, and without having to be begged, he automatically takes a seat in the front row. Earl would be the perfect salesperson except for one thing: He couldn’t give away envelopes to Publishers Clearing House. Customers just don’t warm up to him.
Most salespeople fit somewhere in between Harry and Earl, not daring to be as nonconformist as Harry, but able to avoid setting people’s teeth on edge, a la Earl.
Smart companies have come to realize that salespeople need to be rid of duties that have nothing to do with sales. They know that the most productive time salespeople have is the time they spend with their customers, not with their fellow employees. They—and their salespeople—are externally focused. Totally.
Dumb companies remain enmeshed in structure, processes, and politics. They tend to be internally focused on the company culture, the company rule book, the company dress code, and the company haircut. They have meetings to see if they should have meetings.
Company committees? Internal planning projects? There’s Earl in the front row again, his hand raised, volunteering for the job. Earl knows his future isn’t in sales; it’s in getting into the bureaucracy. When the Earls of the world get promoted as their reward for doing the grunt work that successful sales people hate, guess what happens? The regimen of regular sales meetings, new forms to fill out, and mandatory attendance take a big leap skyward.
Will Harry’s production go up when Earl gets through with him? Of course not, but Harry might make less noise when he eats.
Many of you reading this may work for Earls. Don’t toss in the towel. Just keep your own priorities straight. Try not to let Earl waste too much of your time, and just keep shaking and baking.
If you’re going to be different, you’d better produce. Most managers hate mavericks, but all managers love results.
* Excerpted from Pushing the Envelope: All The Way To The Top