Failure Sucks But Instructs

One of the hardest things about sales management is how to handle one of your charges when they lose a deal. Fear of failure can drive some people to spectacular success. Fear of making a mistake usually freezes someone in terror.

When I first started to learn my trade I was also an extra gun for hire across the senior sellers in my team for certain bid activity. On the surface I was encouraged to help out with abandon. When it came down to it though, this was truly only skin-deep. As one memorable instruction given to me by an established rep shows,

You can make mistakes. But they better not be on any of my deals.

In the light of this, it was with a skip in my step that I recently came across an American business school lecturer called Bob Sutton.

‘Failure sucks but instructs’ is his mantra around how you should behave after someone’s messed up. He summarises that of all the material he’s written throughout his five management books and beyond, one standard is paramount.

One of the best tests of my leadership — and my organization — is “what happens after people make a mistake?”

Absolute golden best practice is, he proposes, to Forgive and Remember, as opposed to forgive and forget. There’s fascinating insights throughout these links, but here’s his summary.

You forgive because it is impossible to run an organization without making mistakes, and pointing fingers and holding grudges creates a climate of fear. You remember — and talk about the mistakes openly — so people and the system can learn. And you also remember so that you’ll notice if some people keep making the same mistakes, even after being taught how to avoid them. In that case, well, they need to be moved to another kind of job.

Translating this mindset to a sales office is not a easy thing, is it? But just like the innovators he cites, salespeople also “experience the agony of defeat far more often than the thrill of victory”. How many salespeople win every single deal? At my very top selling old-school software and services over a decade ago, my close ratio was 1:1.7. The benchmark for solution sales is at least 1 in 3.

Luckily sales campaigns feature all sorts of pressure points where ‘failure’ can occur. KPIs abound for them. From appointments booked when cold-calling all the way through to final/Board presentations, there’s ample opportunity to both acknowledge and positively act upon a result less welcome than the outcome hoped for.

The best sales managers it seems recognise this and set up plans accordingly.

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