Sales Leader Interview: Overcoming Resistance to Sales Coaching
Sales coaching is one of the most challenging roles. It requires nurturing and developing a sales coaching mindset, challenging individual and cultural resistance to sales coaching, and overcoming the pitfalls of a stereotypical ‘old school’ sales culture.
I spoke with sales leader Adam Zais, who brings a huge wealth of experience as a sales professional, sales coach and sales mentor. Adam’s experience is extensive and includes time in senior sales positions and senior roles at companies like Wistia, and as a mentor at Kurlan & Associates, one of the world’s leading sales enablement, sales coaching organizations.
We kicked off with a sales coaching mindset, challenged sales stereotypes presented in the media, and moved on to discuss how you foster a sales coaching culture within an organization. We also discussed some of the advice Adam would have given himself when he was a young, inexperienced sales professional.
Here’s a transcript of our conversation.
Rich: Why don’t you introduce yourself and a little bit about the history, your history, your journey towards working now with Allego?
Adam: Sure. I’ve been in sales for closing in on 40 years, and my career has spanned being a rep, being a manager, being in marketing, being a leader, being a CEO, starting companies. And that’s a bit of a patchwork, but it’s my journey. And as I look back on it, it makes a lot of sense. It didn’t necessarily at the time.
Rich: One of the things that I’m particularly interested in, Adam, is your take on the sales landscape. What would the landscape look like if sales as a profession were going in to see the doctor? What would be the diagnosis from your perspective?
Adam: That’s a great image, sort of imagine that sales could go into the doctor and heal itself. The complaint that the patient would have is that results are never what we hope for. Almost every sales organization kind of gets a C-minus every year. There’s a bunch of people that do well. And I say a bunch, I mean there are a few types that are exceeding the number, we’ll get to that in a minute. There are a few that are just behind them, and the rest of them are not doing well. It may be for a variety of reasons, but that’s the way most sales organizations really are. That’s the headache that they have. There isn’t a consistent top to bottom kind of performance.
Adam: As a sales leader, I would much rather have a sales team where everybody was at 80% than three people who are at 200%, five who are at 60 to 70%, and the rest are under 50. If you do the numbers, if you do the math, if you just assigned a million-dollar quota and so forth and you have a 40-person sales force, you’ll see that everybody at 80% is better. That’s one of the headaches that the patient would say to the doctor.
Adam: The other is that turnover is too high. Morale is too low. And the leadership isn’t really creating an environment to change that. So, there’s too much, in my opinion, there’s too much celebration, if you will, of inappropriate myths really about what sales is all about and the kind of people that should be doing it and so forth. So the kinds of things that worked, if they ever did, in the 1950s, right after World War II, about just trying to get a sale just because everyone has a door so you knock on it, interrupting them, manipulating them, pressuring them, whatever it might be. The myths that are perpetuated by movies like “Glengarry Glen Ross,” are the feeling that just because someone is a people person they’ll be a great salesperson. And celebrating, frankly, what looks like machismo, sort of male aggression, is those things persist, and frankly are dragging the profession down.
Adam: The prescription is very clear to me. I was very lucky that when I got started in sales, I was in a sales culture. Again, I say it was luck, it was literally just the job I happened to get, that celebrated development over perfection. And let me spend some time on this because this is really an important way of bringing this to clarity.
Adam: Perfection-oriented is, what I mean by that is you either make your number or you don’t. Or you close this deal or you don’t. There are these clichés of like it’s a numbers game, or it’s all about the attainment of these things that are fairly, frankly, arbitrarily assigned to people. And that creates a sort of a militaristic autocratic authoritarian mindset and culture. So I call that sort of the perfection-oriented sales world. Then there’s the development-oriented sales world, which doesn’t mean that people aren’t held accountable by the way. Accountability is something that spans both these models, but a development-oriented sales environment, or sales organization, including all the way from leadership down to the individual salespeople, is one that really is all about how to get better at the things that you’re asking the salespeople to do versus telling them that they’re not good enough, therefore they don’t have a job any longer.
Adam: So if you can see the difference about looking through those two different lenses, you can see that the kind of morale that exists in a culture that is development-focused is going to be higher. The retention is going to be higher. The turnover is going to be lower. The ability to attract people is going to be greater. And one of the interesting elements of development-driven sales environments is this concept of coaching, put a pin in that for a second, versus in the perfection-oriented ones, it’s yelling. It’s command-oriented. It’s “Do this or …” rather than how is a sales manager or sales leader, how can we help Adam achieve the kinds of things that we would like him to achieve and that he wants to achieve. That’s a very, very different thing than, “Well, Adam’s gotta be put on a performance plan because the numbers aren’t there,” and once that happens, I begin to look for a job.
Adam: So in my view, sales is one or the other. It’s binary. You’re either a perfection-driven group or you’re a development-driven group.
Rich: Okay, so follow on question. You mentioned accountability in that, and I think that’s something that perhaps the people who may be orientated more towards volume, both literal and metaphorical, the volume of activity may look at that and think what you’re saying, it sounds good, it sounds interesting, but it’s a little bit too soft, it’s not holding people to account. But I know from speaking with you many times that that’s absolutely not what you’re advocating. So talk to me a little bit about the accountability piece in that growth or that development-type mindset.
Adam: Sure, I’ve talked about this with other people and they say, “What do you want, to have people sitting around singing Kumbaya?” I go, “Why do you think …” I just don’t understand why people come up with that as an image. It isn’t about that. Sales is hard. In either case, everyone has to put out, it’s a very, very sincere and significant effort. So holding someone accountable for their personal effort is different than holding them accountable for achieving a particular number or metric, this many calls versus, “Okay, I need you to make good calls. Let’s figure out a way for you to make good calls so that you will actually want to be making good calls and so forth.”
Adam: Where we want people to go is if we have it in our mind that success for us is written in terms of someone making X number of calls a day, then that’s fine. But let’s figure out a way to get people to that, not from some arbitrary and command-driven perspective, but to find out what it is that might be holding them back from actually doing that.
Rich: How can a person start to nurture and cultivate that type of culture within an organization that maybe is more focused on a number of dials, those hard metrics? How can that person who knows intuitively that that is an approach that works for them and could work for their team, but isn’t working in an environment that doesn’t necessarily support that? How can they cultivate that change?
Adam: Oh, man. When you told me you were gonna ask me this question, I wrote a little note. I said, “Well, that’s the million-dollar question.” That’s a hard question to answer. I will try to do so now.
Adam: One does not scrap one’s goals. So when thinking about how do I change my cultural mindset, it doesn’t mean I change my business goals or even go to market strategy. If it’s inside sales and it’s a lot of phone work, fine. What we have to be able to do is figure out whether we have the right people. Do we actually have the right people on the phones? A little story. Most people hire because they hire someone that did well before. And I think previous performance success is a good thing, but it’s not really a consistent predictor of future success in my experience. I know that there are a lot of folks that say this is really important, past success is important.
Adam: I agree that it’s important. But don’t overrate it, and say that just because someone had past success means that they’re going to be successful here. They tend to hire people without really understanding what are the competencies that they have and that they bring to the table, and are they well-matched for the role. And I don’t mean seeming competent, you know, and they were good in the interview. Every salesperson is good in an interview, or they should be. It’s deeper than that, and there are lots of tools out there for any sales manager or sales leader to try to figure out whether they have a good match between a candidate and the role that they’re trying to fill.
Adam: But that’s a step that many of them don’t take, so I would advocate a deeper and more scientific-based assessment for candidates that they’re bringing in, and evaluations of those folks that are sitting in on the sales force now to really determine whether they have the right people. Is this the right person for the role? That’s the first thing. So a mindset that says we’re going to actually answer that question for ourselves, versus well, she or he has been here for so long, we can’t let …
Adam: I understand the potential fallout on the human side, but anyone that really wants to try to embrace this and say, “We’re going to change our sales cultures,” they have to find out who’s part of their future and who’s really part of the past. And so it starts there.
Adam: Secondly, there’s a lot of talk about coaching in the world, and what it means versus management. And I think coaching and leadership are in sort of the same bucket. Management, the word management doesn’t interest me mostly because I think the images that it fosters in people’s minds are much more oriented toward the perfection-driven kinds of sales organizations out there that we just said that we’d like to try to avoid. The problem is that coaching itself is not a great word, because there’s a huge latitude of interpretation of what coaching means. Coaching is not cheerleading, coaching is not being enthusiastic, coaching is not getting a salesperson the answer that they need from the technical team.
Adam: Those are things that managers and leaders might do, but that’s not coaching. Coaching is literally the way development happens. The problem that I’ve seen is that I think sales management … The first line sales managers, that’s the toughest job out there. People that occupy those roles typically were elevated to those roles by virtue of being viewed as a good salesperson and therefore a good salesperson will be a good sales manager, which is not the case. It might be the case, but that’s not the arbiter of putting someone in that position. The training, or the support for managers, is even worse than the training and support that individual sales reps have out there. So there aren’t any models typically for that role that help them understand, “Well how much time do I devote to this thing called coaching? Once I understand it, how much time should I be holding people accountable? How much time should I be hiring? How much time should I be motivated?” and so forth.
Adam: And by the way, those are sort of the elements of managing versus selling. So creating an understanding about what the culture needs to be, sort of, if you will, here’s our playbook for being a development-oriented sales organization needs to be done from the top to the bottom. If there isn’t support for this kind of change from the C suite, it’s doomed, doomed from the start. You had asked me, “Well, okay Adam, can you put any numbers to this? Are coaching or development-oriented cultures and organizations better than their counterparts?” And I think the answer is yes, there’s lots of data out there that says if you do this, the outcome is going to be improved results between 15 to 40% annually. But even without those, on the face of it, it passes the reasonable person’s tests that if you do this, your results will be better, it’ll be better because everyone in the organization is going to find their own path to success versus trying to mimic the one or two or three or four people that are doing great.
Adam: In my experience, that’s never a recipe for success for an individual that’s struggling. What they need is to figure out, how do they do the job? Not how do they copy someone else?
Rich: Do you have any examples that you can think of of a time when you’ve been specifically helped as a coach or as a coachee? Bring it to life in terms of an example from your career of how coaching has helped you navigate the world of sales.
Adam: Sure. In my first job out of college, I was an inside sales rep at a factory in Northern New Jersey and the factory-made outdoor lighting products. A lot of boring stuff. Molded aluminum and whatnot, and sold through distributors. The right of passage for every new salesperson at that time was to go spend a week with Vern Getman in upstate New York. And remember back when I said I was lucky? I was so lucky that this was the guy that I didn’t know I was being coached. I went out and spent a week with him on the road. He and his wife lived in Albany, New York, and he covered all the industrial, electrical suppliers like Graybar, Standard Electric Supply, everyone knows these kinds of things in upstate New York, from Albany to Buffalo.
Adam: I’m like 22, I get up there, I stay overnight with him and his wife. And he wakes me up at like 4:30 that Monday morning and says, “Okay, we’re going to get in the …” He had this old Oldsmobile station wagon full of product and whatnot, and the guy wore the same thing every day. He wore a black suit, white shirt, and a red clip-on bow tie. He bought them by the gross. He had them in a box in the back, and that was his uniform. On his card, it said, “Vern Getman, Getman Sales. I’m the guy in the red bow tie.”
Adam: So we go out and, I’m telling you, from dawn to dusk, we’re calling on all these folks. And Vern’s out there, in the back, taking notes on what the stock is. Also noting the competitor’s stuff. But I asked him, I said, “How is it that you’ve gotten to a place that they let you go out there and do this?” He says, “Well, they trust me.” And I can tell you, I’ll make this story short, the things that I learned from that stayed with me for the next 40 years. It’s about trust, it’s about the relationship, it’s about showing up every day, it’s about being memorable. This guy was a big guy, had a military flattop haircut. It looked like he was a gunny sergeant out of the Marines, just got out. And he knew every, he just was happy to help. And he always just did great with his numbers.
Adam: So let me go through that again. It was a strong, trusted advisor relationship. He wasn’t the guy selling stuff. He was Vern, the guy with the red bow tie. He was the guy that was being helpful, and sort of talking about, “Hey this is where stock.” And then, he wasn’t talking about, “Why haven’t you bought them?” He would ask them about what was going on in their business. “Are housing starts slow? What about the …” He’d go and mix it up with the electricians that were coming by. The guy taught me just by example. It’s not like he said, “Okay, pay attention to this and that.”
Adam: That’s how you do it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that’s the first coaching I got in my life, and I’m so thankful that that’s the way it was.
Rich: Curious to get one or two examples from you of times when you’ve struggled with some aspect of sales and some things not quite worked, and in hindsight, you might look back and think, “Oh, I wish I could’ve advised myself or coached myself in this way.” Any coaching advice for yourself in the past when something’s not gone as planned or gone as you’d expected?
Adam: Yes, great question. I’ll try to answer it in a general sense, and then dig out a couple of examples. The first bit of advice, if I could talk to my younger self, is to not be afraid to embrace the failure or the weakness, or the situation that isn’t going to one’s plan or what they were hoping for. To embrace that and say, “I am responsible for this, not the company or the economic times or my manager or the product or the price,” anything else, but I’m being ineffective in some fashion. What is it about that? I would advise my younger self to have been better at looking at himself in the mirror and embracing that in that fashion.
Adam: Here’s an example. I have, for most of my life, been in the software business, other than my first job where I met Vern Getman. I decided to take a job at a Unix computer vendor. My one time on the dark side really was the hardware side, and it was a very large company at the time compared to the companies that I had been working for and have worked at since. And I found myself in an environment that was very much, as I described with the term perfection-driven. I was hired, I got the job. Good at getting the job, but I was not at actually doing the job in hindsight. I didn’t admit it at the time, of course. There were elements that sort of might lead you to think that I was doing an okay job. It was an overlay kind of position, where we were trying to build relationships with application vendors that would run on the box that we were selling because no one just wants to buy a Unix box, they wanted to buy a manufacturing system in this case.
Adam: And I did a lot of that, I built these relationships. We sold, in the time I was there, over $50 million worth of machinery because of these applications that ran on it. But the thing that I was really not good at was managing the internal context of self-promotion and fighting for resources and advocating for the team. I didn’t know how to do that. I knew how to build relationships, I knew that those relationships that we built would get these machines sold. But what I didn’t know is how to transfer that to “I’m doing a great job.” In larger companies, I have learned, for me, I’m just not good at that kind of political element. And when the predictable, reduction in force came, 1,200 people were let go. I hadn’t put myself into the bucket of “Well, we gotta keep him because of that.”
Adam: And that was a crushing blow for me at the time. And it was my fault. It wasn’t my manager’s fault. The fact is that he did not provide me with any kind of support or development or help in navigating those waters and trying to figure it out. That’s true, but it’s still I’m responsible for not having figured out how to get the support that I needed. So that’s the advice that I wish I would have been able to go back in time from now and tell my younger self what to do in that situation.
Rich: Adam, thank you very much for your time. I really appreciate it.
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