Bill had already met most of the fifty seven faces that were now looking at him in anticipation of what he might say. In fact, he had individual casual conversation with many of those faces in the audience.
Bill had been hired by Tom Thompson, third generation President/owner of Kiechler Building Supplies just five short months ago, but he had already managed to personally visit every single one of the sixteen branches Kiechler owned. He was hired to change the direction of the company, to recapture lost market share, to rejuvenate the sales force and put Kiechler back on the growth track to become the premier building supplies distributor in the Southwest once again.
Bill was confident that he could meet the challenge that Tom Thompson had laid out before him. His personal history and knowledge of the industry gave credibility to his confidence. Challenge was no stranger to Bill Borders. Being a decorated Marine platoon sergeant combined with the street experience he gained growing up in the building supply business, provided Bill with exactly the quality of leadership necessary to tackle the issues Kiechler had been facing for the past five years. Lost market share, deteriorating competitive advantage, a culture of compassion that lost all of it's acquaintance with accountability and a lack of trust in the leadership of the company was pushing Kiechler toward the brink of disaster.
As Bill stood on that stage, facing his sales force all together for the very first time, he scanned the room looking from left to right and then right to left. As he looked into the faces of the people that held a major share of Kiechler's final destiny in their very own hands, he briefly revisited his decision to accept Tom Thompson's offer and plea to come out of retirement and help rebuild a company that had seemed to have lost it's passion, it's energy, it's sense of urgency and most importantly it's will to regain the reputation it held for over fifty years as the premier building supply distributor in the Southwest.
Bill had sold his own company located in the Northwest and moved to Southern California four years ago. He was only fifty eight years old at the time. Retirement seemed like the very thing he wanted to do. After two years of playing golf five days a week and relaxing by reading over 100 different books, boredom started setting in. Then Tom Thompson approached him with an offer. Bill accepted Tom's offer and they agreed on a three year contract that would take Bill to age sixty five. Bill knew with complete confidence that he could solve Kiechler's problems and recreate the success factor that had once existed at the company. Bill knew that Tom Thompson needed guidance, coaching and mentoring, but he believed that Tom was not the root cause of the problem even though he was a young forty two year old President trying to fill his father's shoes. Bill was confident that in three years, he would make Kiechler Building Supplies the number one distributor in the Southwest once again. He was sure that he could rekindle the passion, the commitment, the culture and ultimately the reputation Tom's grandfather began creating the day he opened the business in 1957. He knew it would be a challenge, but Bill seemed to have that unique leadership quality that made people want to follow him. He had that unique ability to get people to release the discretionary energy that is critical to success, energy that is only released if you believe in the company and you believe in your leader.
A few seconds had passed since Bill stepped onto that stage, but time was still at a standstill in Bill's mind. He scanned the room one more time. Slowly this time looking squarely into the eyes of the men and women that represented the $125 million in revenue Kiechler reported the prior year. This was a year that reflected a 20% decline in previous year's sales. As Bill looked into the eyes of his sales force, he felt he could almost feel the many different facets of the problems the company faced. The sales force before him seemed to send that message. In Bill's eyes, most of the problems were written all over the fifty seven faces that stared back at him from the classroom style setup in this conference hall.
A few faces in the crowd were even older than Bill himself with a look that cried out, "What do you know? What can you tell me? Why should I listen to you? Why should I bust my butt? I'm happy with the ways things work here. We don't need any 'Rah Rah lets all work harder speech'."
That look didn't appear just on the faces of the few in the audience that were older than Bill. He could see that look on most of the veterans in the audience that had ten or fifteen years of service with the company. Bill had seen that look before. It was a look of complacency. He liked to refer to it as the "pickup truck and boat syndrome". He actually had a salesman at his own company confirm his theory face to face once. He recalled those words as if he had heard them yesterday as he reached down and turned on his lavaliere microphone to begin his presentation to his sales force.
"I don't need to work my butt off anymore. I paid my dues. I've been around a long time. I own my customers. I have my boat, I go fishing every weekend and my son finished college. What else is there? Life is good and a few extra bucks every year isn't worth messing up my life style."
Bill almost chuckled out loud as he recalled that conversation with a stogy old veteran of the industry that had worked for him. It took a little while, but Bill had reached that sales veteran and today he is a good friend and still the number one sales person at Bill's old company.
Bill's recollection of that conversation also reminded him that the "pickup truck and boat" syndrome is probably just a part of the problem. The faces before him seemed to confirm that suspicion. There were the eager faces of the newer sales people willing to learn but perhaps they haven't had the opportunity. Bill knew the company "Talked the Talk" professing in their mission statement that employees are their most important asset but they failed to invest profits in training and development. Bill also saw a different look on the faces of the majority of his sales people. That look seemed to point out that they were being held captive in a culture embracing a reactive, passive order taking environment, a culture that didn't even understand demand creation, a culture so distant from accountability that reactive route mentality sales became the platform for Kiechler's market share degeneration.
Bill's microphone went live and a loud screech from the sound system brought his consciousness back to the moment. The very last thought that raced across his mind before he began to speak took him back to the biggest challenge he had ever faced in his life. For a brief moment he was back in the jungle on the outskirts of DaNang, Vietnam. He made a speech that day too, a much more important speech. He peered into the eyes of those men he had to lead also. Young men, young warriors, young marines that looked up to him as their platoon sergeant. He looked at them and told them he believed in them. He made them a promise that day. He promised he would take them back, take them back home. Twenty five of his men were in the fight of their lives that day, the day DaNang was over run. Twenty four of them came home. Bill regretted that one loss, but all his men knew that he was one of but only a few leaders that could have got them through that day. They believed in him and it paid off. Bill took them back home.
Bill started his little talk by saying;
"Nowadays, salespeople must be problem solvers able to generate solutions for customers in their time of need. Therefore, we must possess a great deal of knowledge about our customers' business. We must actually define what those needs are because the customer may not know, nor take the time to explain if they do know. Customers want us to have the knowledge and intelligence to comprehend and analyze their problems before showing up at the door. Customers will listen and buy from the salesperson that finds the "pain" and takes it away."
Bill hesitated a little for effect before he continued.
"That means we need to go back to the basics. We are going to revisit sales best practices. Some of you will know exactly what we are talking about. Some of you may have forgotten it and some of you may have never known the principles upon which we are going to rebuild our sales force. In the building industry today our sales environment leans toward a more multifaceted atmosphere, salespeople must become strategists with a plan. This plan requires more knowledge about the business, better relationships and better solutions. Some old school salesmen may believe they know what it takes. They have the experience. They've been around a long time. They also may be wrong. The world has changed ladies and gentlemen. To recreate the competitive advantage that Kiechler enjoyed in the past we must do things differently. We can't afford to be complacent. Complacency destroys competitive advantage. As sales professionals, we can't become full of ourselves, no matter how long we've been in the field, no matter how much experience we have."
Bill's gaze sought out the veterans in the audience as he spoke those words. He continued:
"Going back to basics and revisiting best practice means we are going to be talking about targeting, goal setting, action planning and customer profiling. Targeting is the process of selecting high potential customer accounts to receive intense sales focus. Goal setting translates that high potential into achievable numeric objectives, i.e. revenue and margin growth. Action planning means we have to define the activities that are required to achieve our expected results. It's about strategizing, figuring out exactly what it is going to take to succeed at every individual account we target. That is why it is important that we understand the customer's customer and the customer's industry. Be more knowledgeable and conscious of our customer's problem. We are no longer selling a product, we are selling a solution to make their life easier, happier, better, less complicated, or more fun. By understanding the customer's business and his customers, we help them make a profit through cost reductions, improved efficiencies, increased value and increased sales. Solutions come in many forms and may have nothing to do with our products. That's okay. Look for the pain regardless of what it is and focus on the solution. Customers don't want products; they want profits - or ways to make profits. They want satisfaction, feelings of comfort, pride, praise and self-esteem. They are people just like us. Well, maybe they don't have the same crazy genetics that we have as salespeople, but they are just as smart, just as caring and have similar personal needs and feelings."
Bill paused again as he contemplated the reaction he may get to his introduction of a sales effectiveness process. A process he himself had employed at his own company. One of his first initiatives as the new Vice President of Sales was to create a team to develop and implement this process at Kiechler Building Supplies. Bill had formed a hand picked team that included two of his sales managers, an IT person and three sales representatives. Those three sales representatives were in the audience today. Bill knew rumors had been flying about what this team was up to but nothing had been officially disclosed as of this date. The team worked hard and developed a process and program that would bring Kiechler back to a level playing field with the competition. This process would give them the opportunity to rejuvenate the sales force and create the success necessary to recapture the market share they have lost over the past five years. Bill started his introduction of the new sales effectiveness program by saying,
"There is a pill called Nexiom that some people believe is a wonder drug. It solves several problems. It does wonders for people that have experienced distress. I wish I could pass out a pill to each and every one of us including our entire management team to create instant success. Unfortunately, there is no "Purple Pill" that you can buy to drug our sales team. There is no "Purple Pill" that will improve effectiveness, there is no "Purple Pill" that will increase profit, there is no "Purple Pill" that will generate more revenue, there is no "Purple Pill" that will increase market share but there is a proven process that sustains continuous improvement that can help you achieve all those objectives. It's actually very simple, and not that difficult of a methodology. It's called a Sales Effectiveness Process. This is simply a structure for continuously improving sales force performance through focus, discipline and process built on a platform of accountability. We have put together a team that has helped develop such a process for our company. This team has worked very hard over the past four months developing this process built on a best practice platform."
Bill could almost feel the anxiety experienced by some of his sales people in the audience. Bill knew that by introducing the sales effectiveness program they would all but eliminate any place for the non performers in his group to hide. He expected that about 20% of his sales force would not be able to meet the requirements of this new program. He fully expected to have to replace them. He also felt sure that he had several sales managers that may have been great salesmen at one time but just weren't cut out to be sales managers. He had reminded himself and Tom the President that compassion was an admirable quality but it was also one of the biggest weaknesses that privately held companies exhibit throughout wholesale distribution. Bill explained that we may think we are being ethical and acting with integrity by not replacing under performers that have been under performing for a long time. But in reality, we are doing a major disservice to the majority of our employees that want to step it up and recreate that sense of urgency for success that has been missing for the past five years.
Bill continued his introduction of the sales effectiveness program by using power point slides to talk about a sales force scorecard that would be introduced.
"Once we understand basic sales best practice and make sure we have trained our entire sales force, it's really about execution. Execution involves the day-to-day activities of the salesperson. For most industries, this entails both planned, proactive tasks and opportunistic, reactive events that the salesperson uncovers by doing the right things in the right place at the right time. It's critical that the progresses of the tasks in the target action plans are carefully monitored to avoid surprises. Our new sales effectiveness process will circumvent the most common mistake made in distribution today, trying to manage results. We have to manage activities because it's the activities that produce results. Once the results are in, the horse is out of the barn and everything we do from that point on is reactive. That's the biggest mistake we have been making for the past five years. If we proactively manage the activities, the expected results will follow."
Bill paused again to search the faces in the crowd to get a feel for their reaction to his words. Most of the faces glowed with excitement. Some showed disdain, a look of disbelief and some had that look of; "Ya right, I'll just wait and see." Bill knew it wouldn't be easy, but he was pleased with what he saw so far. He continued;
"Sales is a profession that requires professional sales people. Every company needs aggressive, creative and resourceful salespeople to have their products specified, accepted and used by customers. Without informed and capable field salespeople, no company, including Kiechler could hope to compete in the marketplace today.
I believe that good salespeople, the kind who can help a company really grow, don't just happen to come along by chance or fate. There is no such thing as a "born salesperson," because selling ability is much more than an intangible given that a person either has or doesn't have. Granted, selling does require certain attributes in a person and some people are naturally born with these attributes and some aren't. Also, the person must be intelligent, able to grasp ideas and details easily, retain them and recall them for use whenever necessary in selling situations. These factors and many others relating to personal and emotional characteristics are contributing elements in the makeup of the professional salesperson. However, these attributes alone do not make a sales person nor do they guarantee success. It takes more than that. A sales person must have adequate tools, resources and leadership to maximize their effectiveness. I am here to provide that leadership. I am here to take us back to the level of success this company used to enjoy. Things will change. Your President has made a commitment to me and to you that we will have the resources and the training necessary to make this happen. This new program is our first step. That is why the Sales Effectiveness Process is so vital. This is the program that provides the support and the resources to allow each and every one of you the opportunity to maximize your personal effectiveness in your individual territories. This is our chance to prove we are professionals. This is our chance to prove we can create success. This is our chance to regain our position in the market place. This is our chance to regain our pride. Our pride in our company, our pride in our leadership, our pride in each other but more importantly this is our opportunity to regain our pride in ourselves."
Bill was taken back by the noise, the applause. Unexpectedly all the people in the audience rose to their feet and cheered. It was exhilarating. Bill had planned to talk for another twenty minutes. He was going to discuss the sales management review process. He was going to explain his hands on involvement. He wanted to talk about functional cross selling but Bill knew when he had the order. And when you have the order you need to shut up. He waited for the applause to die down and he ended his talk that day by saying,
"I believe in this company or I wouldn't be here. I believe in our President or I wouldn't be here. I believe in our ability to change the direction of this company or I wouldn't be here. But I want to tell you from the bottom of my heart that I believe in you. If I didn't, I wouldn't be here. I know that you can become the most talked about, the most feared and the most successful sales force in the building products industry that exists today. I have faith in you. I believe in you and I'll be by your side as we win this battle together. We will make it back, back to success."
Bill walked off the stage to an applause that was deafening. He had a big smile on his face as he muttered under his breath, "Step one!" (E-mail [email protected] for the Five Steps to Maximize success on Target Accounts)
Dr. Eric "Rick" Johnson ([email protected]) is the founder of CEO Strategist LLC. an experienced based firm specializing in Distribution. CEO Strategist LLC. works in an advisory capacity with distributor executives in board representation, executive coaching, team coaching and education and training to make the changes necessary to create or maintain competitive advantage. You can contact them by calling 352-750-0868, or visit for more information.
Rick received an MBA from Keller Graduate School in Chicago, Illinois and a Bachelor's degree in Operations Management from Capital University, Columbus Ohio. Rick recently completed his dissertation on Strategic Leadership and received his Ph.D. He's also a published book author with four titles to his credit: "The Toolkit for Improved Business Performance in Wholesale Distribution," the NWFA & NAFCD "Roadmap", Lone Wolf-Lead Wolf-The Evolution of Sales" and a fiction novel about teenagers called "Shattered Innocence."