5 Ways To Ruin A Good Sales Force

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We’ve all read countless cautionary tales about once-mights companies that lost their way.  The horror stories usually blame products that haven’t kept up, dumb acquisitions, weak marketing strategies, byzantine decision-making procedures, or overloaded debt structures.

There’s another major reason companies hit the skids, and I have yet to see the first word written about it: mismanaging the sales force.  Well, here is that first word and a few more besides.

1. Add more salespeople. – A car dealer in a midsize city has a very prosperous dealership.  He had five salespeople, and they all made really good money.  The owner was getting rich, but he wanted to get rich faster.  “If I can make this much money with five salespeople, I can make twice as much with 10.” Good arithmetic, bad idea.

2. Cap their earnings. – Smart companies take pride in their sales forces and believe strongly in the rainmaker concept.  They know and understand there are no jobs until someone makes a sale.  They establish a direct, specific, and absolute correlation between the business you bring in and the paycheck you take home.  The CEOs of these companies don’t get their noses out of joint if one or more of their salespeople ends up the year making more money than the boss.  If fact, they’re proud of it.

3. Boring sales meetings. – There must be a course taught somewhere titled “Show Them Who’s Boss: How Corporal Punishment Inspires Superior Performance.” This line of reasoning may work for motivating marine recruits when they have to crawl across the ground under a hail of machine-gun bullets or slog through a 40-mile forced march.  It does not work for experienced salespeople who are required to attend weekly three-hour sales meetings. Naturally, an appointment with a customer is no excuse for missing the fun.  Like an all-night party, it usually takes two or three days to get yourself going again after one of these beauties.  Good performers hat meetings, and the wimps that like them usually can’t sell anything anyway.

4. Promoting boneheads. – Many a good peddler thinks their boss is an imbecile.  Best solution? Quit or transfer. Who wants to work where they don’t want their customers to meet the boss?  They’re afraid the customer will think, “My sales rep can’t be as sharp as I though if he’s reporting to someone like this.” Answer: Don’t try to hide your brother -in-law in the sales manager’s job.  It could cost you your best salespeople.

5. Smother them in detail. – Show me a salesperson who loves paperwork and I’ll show you a bookkeeper, or a salesperson in the bottom half of the class.  Some companies load so much extraneous stuff on the sales force, it’s a wonder they ever have time to call on customers.  Here’s the acid test of that last wonderful project: How many others did it bring in?

Mackay’s Moral: Most companies today have similar products. That leaves one sure way to beat the competition–the best sales force.

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Your Ultimate (Web) Makeover

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Google yourself on the web. Put your name in quotation marks. If you have a common name, you may have to add a few other cues, such as company name, city of residence, or alma mater.

If the only hit that pops up is a Facebook photo of you in a toga guzzling a yard of beer or toking off a bong, you’re in trouble. If the only hits are a listing in the church choir’s roster for an Easter service three years ago and a mention in the news that you witnessed an auto wreck last spring…well, you’re like most of America.

But you can change all that. People want to do business with others who are web-certified entities:

Here are a few ways to improve your online reputation (especially when it comes to Google search results):

  • Create a clear, positive posting for LinkedIn. You can be invited to join LinkedIn or create your own account. To participate in Groups, find on you’re interested in and click the moderator to ask if you can join the dialogue.
  • Contribute an article to a publication. It doesn’t have to be a business piece. Maybe it’s a community project, or a remembrance of an unforgettable coach on a memorial site. Write something meaningful that demonstrates you have good taste and judgement.
  • Give a talk and publicize it. Many community organizations need speakers, and you may have the opportunity to post your talk on their website. The early-20s youngster of one parent I know joined a disaster relief group in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Despite initial misgivings about the young person’s safety, the experience proved positive for all involved. The parent went online to describe her hesitations and the evidence. Not an easy choice, but the comments showed a mother who was forthright and thoughtful.
  • Tweet intelligent tips. The best way to create Twitter traction, I think, is to recommend sites and gems on the Web that you find useful yourself. Don’t pretend you’re a star. Tweet others a fresh edge on camping in Nova Scotia or organizing their garage.
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Trust The Experts…To Be Wrong

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There are two types of experts…

and it’s very important to distinguish between them: There is the expert who can make something happen, and there is the expert who can tell you what he or she thinks is going to happen. Get all the advice you can afford from the experts in category one, but be very, very cautious about the category-two types.

Let me give you one example: One of my best friends was the president of a very distinguished regional brokerage house, and as such had more than a rooting interest in the economic outlook. The firm paid a sizable retainer to a prominent economist who provided them each month with short- and long-range economic forecasts. It was beautifully written, filled with clever quotes and closely reasoned arguments…and always wrong.

Nothing unusual there, as it has been said of economists that they are the only professionals who can make an excellent living without ever being right in their entire careers.

My friend knew all this, of course, but he was afraid to cancel the arrangement because of fear he might someday miss a major turn in the economy. He hedged his bets, though. When he had to make a really serious decision–a major underwriting, for example–he also used the economic forecast feature in Fortune magazine which he bought at the newsstand every other week–and got better results.

Whether it’s economists, the most prestigious of the professional pundits, or stock-market forecasters, or political analysts, or just plain old sports handicappers and racetrack touts, my advice is the same: Be extremely leery. Rely on these people to tell you why something happened, but don’t rely on them to tell you why something is going to happen. They don’t know any more than you do–and neither do their computers. When it comes to forecasting events with a large number of highly volatile variables, any one of which could determine the outcome, experts are less than expert.

Trust yourself and your gut, and you’re likely to do at least as well. 


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The Confidence Game

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For about six weeks every year, beginning in late December and continuing through early February, football fans get the ultimate fix: the college bowl games, The NFL play-offs and, finally, the Super Bowl. It’s also an annual refresher course in winning and losing that separates the champs from the also-rans.

For a moment, consider the losers in these annual contests. The also-rans work mighty hard to get to those games in the first place. What causes these exceptional teams to be eliminated? Much of the reason can be traced to split-second breakdowns in what you might call the confidence game.

Legendary Alabama football coach Paul Bryant retired with 323 wins over 38 seasons. “Bear” Bryant used to say that members of a winning team needed five things:

1. Tell me what you expect from me.

2. Give me an opportunity to perform.

3. Let me know how I’m doing.

4. Give me guidance when I need it.

5. Reward me according to my contributions.


Winners need straight information. Too often, you’ll hear salespeople complain they’re not getting a constant flow of confident support. Confidence is surely important. So is exact and clear direction at critical moments. When everything is on the line, make sure you’re listening for the right signals.

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Take Your Work Seriously, Don’t Take Yourself Seriously

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“Dilbert,” which is carried in 1,100 newspapers, has helped us laugh at the crazy dynamics of the workplace. Now if we could only start laughing at ourselves.

The late and much beloved chief executive of Coca-Cola, Roberto Goizueta, had the ability. He could distance himself from a situation, and by standing back and observing things objectively, he could see the irony. Humor is a critical business weapon.

We’ve all worked for the humorless. There are the bosses whom I call “Rocky” who take on the whole world through earnestness. And we’re in big trouble if we don’t seem equally serious. We can’t joke that sales plunged one percent or that a supplier might not meet a deadline. In such offices you can cut the tension with a knife. And usually results aren’t what they could be.

No matter who’s the boss, we can still get a few laughs at our own expense–and be able to work better. A colleague of mine is a genius at this. If his plane is late and his blood pressure is rising, he distances himself. He often thinks to himself: “How will this ‘nightmare’ seem to me a year from now…a brief scene in this saga we call “life.” Another colleague, when stressed out, tries to imagine how he would explain his “predicament” to his six-year-old. Pretty quickly the concerns of the day start to sound ridiculous. He calls that “baby-proofing’ his consciousness.

There’s no excuse for total, self-aborted seriousness. It’s boring. It pushes others away from you. And it requires a whole lot of energy to assume such a world view. Oh, of course, there are times for seriousness. But we all know when they are. If the company can’t seem to achieve a turnaround there will be plenty of people focused solely on the bottom line. No chuckles there. When someone else has a problem, it’s showing respect to treat their situation seriously. In addition, as we enter a company or grow into a new job, we can leave the levity to others. At my company there are few managers-in-training who are a barrel of laughs. Learning the ropes is definitely serious business.

On formal performance appraisals, it might be a good idea if we introduced the category “Can laugh at themselves.” In an organization where a little self-deprecation is encouraged, people are more likely to take risks and therefore make mistakes. In the current global marketplace, where there are a few precedents anymore, plenty of errors of judgement are going to be made.

Mackay’s Moral: Lighten up.

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Inching Ahead Your Goal Line

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Great goals make you stretch, not snap.

You must stay focused on your goals above all else. Truly dedicated individuals won’t let anything interfere with attaining their goals. that’s why so few people become champions. It’s not easy.

The late Red Auerback, famed Boston Celtics coach, was one of the most successful basketball coaches in history. He believed that the basic principles for success were the same in business as athletics. At the top of his list was setting goals.

Good teams always have common goals. When you find that goals of certain members differ from the team’s, then the team will usually not do well. That’s why teams with outstanding individual talents sometimes do poorly, while others are able to blend average abilities into championships.

I witnessed this firsthand at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, when the huge underdog Lithuanian basketball team took the U.S. Dream Team to the final seconds before losing.

Goals give you more than a reason to get up in the morning; they are an incentive to keep you going all day. Goals tend to tap the deeper resources and draw the best out of life. Achieving goals is a significant accomplishment.

Most importantly, goals need to be realistic: beyond your immediate grasp but within your reach in the foreseeable future. 

I remember a particular Peanuts cartoon in which Charlie Brown is having a bad day…


Baseball is a game rich in wisdom. Look at all the specialists; designated hitters, set-up relief pitchers, closers, and on and on.

The lesson is clear. Want to excel in life? Master what you do, and, for sure, master one thing at a time.

Mackay’s Moral: You have to get to the plate before you can hit one out of the park. 

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4th-Quarter Game Changers

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Are life’s record smashing performances reserved for those sprightly early decades? Not for seasoned vets who know how to strew the seasoning.

  • Colonel Harland Sanders began franchising Kentucky Fried Chicken at age 65, using $105 of his first Social Security check.
  • TV journalism maven Barbara Walters was 68 in 1997 when she cocreated The View and sold ABC on the idea. She and Joy Behar (now 68) are the only cohosts still with the show since its inception, which was lauded as “wildly different” from the get-go for its creative slant.
  • Management guru Peter Drucker wrote more than half of the 39 books to his credit when he was past the age of 65. And he was churning out riveting, fresh ideas into his 90s.
  • Angela Lansbury, 85 in 2011, wowed Broadway crowds two years earlier as the clairvoyant Madame Arcati in a revival of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. Therewith Dame Angela carted off her fifth Tony in an illustrious career.
  • Roy Neuberger–investor, art collector and philanthropist–made an old-fashioned killing off the 1987 market crash. He was 107 when he died on Christmas Eve in 2010. In his autobiography, So Far, So Good: The First 94 Years, Neuberger wrote: “I am not as good a walker as I used to be. When I was 80, I could walk very long distances…Three times a week [at age 94] I work out with a personal trainer…In 45 minutes I do 42 exercises…It costs $45, so it’s a dollar a minute–well worth it.”

Each embraced the make-it-happen mind-set of the never sidelined former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Formidable “Little Nell,” as her pals knew her, served on the National Advisory Committee to the Peace Corps in her 70s and even pitched Good Luck margarine on TV, donating the proceeds to charity. “I could not, at any age,” she summed up her life, “be content to take my place in a corner by the fireside and simply look on.”

Most of us learn to be our very best only after years of hard-tested effort. Mark Twin nailed it when he said: “The first half of my life I went to school, the second half of my life I got an education.”

No one can beat an experienced and determined mind, able and willing to apply new lessons.

Mackay’s Moral: It’s no accident they’re called your golden years. 

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Courage–What Sets You Apart From The Crowd

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In his final broadcast as anchor of the CBS Evening News a few years ago Dan Rather paid homage to people around the world who daily struggle with danger, sickness, death, disease, poverty and other challenges. Rather concluded his broadcast with the same memorable ending he used 24 years earlier when he took over from Walter Cronkite. He often used to end his broadcasts this way–he’d look at the camera and say one word: “Courage.”

That sign-off intrigued me. Courage is regarded as a major human virtue. Courage is bravery, valor, standing up to danger, guts and nerve all rolled into one. I’m not a soldier, a policeman, a doctor or a relief worker. I’m a businessman. What does courage have to do with running a business?

Plenty. I admit that most folks’ daily lives are not filled with such dramatic challenges. We all face situations that require us to reach down deep within ourselves to do what is right and brave and occasionally difficult. Courage can involve making decisions that are unpopular or time-consuming or even expensive.

It’s easy to be ordinary. Courage is what sets you apart from the crowd…especially when the crowd checks out. 

In one of my all-time favorite movies, The Wizard of Oz, the Cowardly Lion is looking for, of course, courage. When he finally meets the Wizard, he has some questions (and answers):

What makes a King out of a slave? Courage

What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist or the dusky dusk? Courage.

What makes the muskrat guard his musk? Courage.

What makes the Sphinx the Seventh Wonder? Courage.

What makes the dawn come up like thunder? Courage.

What makes the Hottentot so hot? Courage.

What puts the ape in apre-ricot? Courage.

Whatta they got that I ain’t got? Courage.

And you know what comes next: The Wizard awards the Cowardly Lion the Medal of Courage so he would always be brave. That’s something we could all use.

Mackay’s Moral: Courage is ordinary people doing extraordinary things. 
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The 10,000-Hour Investment

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Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success continues his steady stream of thought-provoking bestsellers. This book will make a lot of people feel much better about not achieving instant success. Gladwell maintains it takes about 10 years, or 10,000 hours, of practice to attain true expertise.

“The people at the very top don’t just work harder or even much harder than everyone else,” Gladwell writes. “They work much, much harder.” Achievement, he says, is talent plus preparation…and the preparation part of the formula looms far larger than we normally assume.

Gladwell cites The Beatles’ rise to fame as unassailable evidence. They had been together seven years before their famous arrival in America. They spent a lot of time playing in strip clubs in Hamburg, Germany, sometimes for as long as eight hours a night. John Lennon said of those years, “We got better and got more confidence. We couldn’t help it with all the experience playing all night long.” Overnight sensation? Not exactly. Estimates are that the band performed live 1,200 times in their careers!

Gladwell quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin, who has extensively studies the formula for success.

The emerging picture from such studies is that 10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert–in anything. In study after study of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals and what have you, the number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.


As Malcom Gladwell puts it, “Practice isn’t the thing  you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”


Mackay’s Moral: Some people dream about success, and others wake up and do something about it. 

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Never Look A Gift Mule In The Mouth

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The real pros know how to motivate themselves before they start having bad days. They look at work differently, not just not just as a means of making a living, but as a significant part of a quality life. Their particular mix of attitude, responsibility, cooperation and accomplishment make them a valuable commodity in any organization.

Joan is a busy realtor with an active family who also manages to organize a sizable silent auction for her church and spends time helping at her kids’ school as well. Joan’s willingness to get the job done, no matter what the job happens to be, has earned her the respect and awe of everyone who has ever worked with her. Does she have boundless energy? No. She’s not even a morning person. Her secret? “I have exactly 24 hours to make life better than it was yesterday,” she says. Joan would probably laugh if I told her she was a mule.

The quiet asset of determination can be as awesome as it is invisible.

Mules, by the way, like their jobs and perform well as a result. If they find themselves getting in a rut, they stubbornly haul themselves out. That quiet determination is a huge asset in business. The ability to get over the bumps is frequently the difference between success and Chapter 11.
Mules are often hard to miss because of their size and stature–especially the strain known as Mammoth Jack. That’s why their contributions are routinely taken for granted. One thinks of the 6-foot-3 Detroit Red Wings center Johan Franzén. Dubbed “The Mule” by his teammates, Franzén can also catch fire. He has, for example, surpassed super-star Gordie Howe’s number of game-winning goals in a month, a remarkable five.

Rationality may be another enviable mule trait. “My favorite animal is the mule. He has more horse sense than a horse. He knows when to stop eating–and he knows when to stop working,” President Harry S. Truman once remarked. Being a Democrat, Truman’s bias for the son-of-a-donkey mule comes as no surprise.

The mules–steady, willing, get-the-job-done employees–are worth their weight in gold. Don’t confuse the reliable, day-in, day-out dependability with a lack of creativity. It’s usually the mules, the folks who are there, who find the creative solutions to everyday problems. They know how things work. Mules know what Woody Allen meant when he said, “80 percent of life is showing up.”

Mackay’s Moral: Being a mule beats being an ass any day.


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