Company Culture: Successful Selling - April 2014


By Sam Allman

In my last article I discussed the small-but-hard-things that matter in successful selling. I am often asked, “How do you get your salespeople or employees to do those things?” Let me say, it is not necessarily an easy task. 

You can hire a trainer like me to come in and teach the skills. If your trainer is a good one, your salespeople will learn. However, the real question is whether they will use them once the trainer leaves or, after a short time, resort back to previous behaviors. That answer comes back to you. Will you hold them responsible for changing? Will you implement methods of accountability to assure the learning? Bottom line: does your company culture encourage a results orientation, such that it promotes employee engagement, personal growth and learning? All are critical to creating an environment conducive to peak performance. Your salespeople must do the small-but-hard things if they are to be high-performing salespeople.

What kind of culture is found in your company? Did you consciously create it, or did it just happen? Did you shape it, or were you shaped by it? Does company culture really matter? Does it affect the productivity and profitability of your salespeople and others in your company? 

Culture is to a company as character is to a person. Culture covers the company’s collection of beliefs, values, work styles and relationships. Essentially, it’s the-way-things-are-done in your company or organization. To discover a company’s culture, you would look for the values its people live by, how managers use power and encourage employees to produce, and how the people treat each other and their customers. 

Company culture is determined by a company’s principals: the owners and key employees. By its nature, a company’s culture can be no better than the collection of their character traits, as expressed in thought, attitude, intent and action. The principals’ characters may include industry, accountability, honesty, temperance, courage, justice, kindness, fidelity, simplicity, modesty and selflessness—and their negative opposites.

Company culture is expressed everywhere. Companies express their culture in actions and images; their building architecture and interior décor; what the principals pay attention to; their language, job titles, emotions, judgments and decisions; the communication channels they use; their tolerance for fun; the behaviors they reward, ignore and punish; whether principals consider people or tasks more important; who gets promoted; what employees wear; how people address each other; who fits in and who does not. 

If your culture drives customers away, creates high turnover in employees or lowers productivity and profitability, it cannot be hidden or disguised. A company’s other stakeholders (non-principal employees, vendors and customers) can readily detect the culture. They figure it out by watching what owners and key employees do to, for and with employees, vendors and customers. 

Your culture cannot be masked by pretty slogans or flowery platitudes. I know well a company that professes honesty as one of its core values, but the owner speaks out of both sides of his mouth and often with a forked tongue. Stakeholders conclude that a company (like a person) has integrity when they see that the principals’ words, attitudes and behaviors match their claimed principles—when their preaching harmonizes with their practice. A company that attempts to advertise a culture contrary to its principals’ actions loses the employees’ hearts and minds, though it may get the labor of their hands and feet by force or fear or extraordinary benefits. It will lose their loyalty—and eventually their productivity and its own profitability. Customers, too, abandon companies that lack integrity. Integrity is essential to longevity. The fact is, your company culture matters and affects profitability and performance.

Abraham Lincoln said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” When customers think ill of a company that really does serve them well, the owners’ fiduciary obligation to close the gap between reputation and reality is as great as their obligation to improve real performance. Both things drive value creation for stakeholders, say Robert G. Eccles, Scott C. Newquist, and Roland Schatz in Reputation and Its Risks.

The obligation to thoroughly train employees rises to the highest priority when we remember the adage of Benjamin Franklin: “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”

Books like John Kotter and James Heskett’s Corporate Culture and Performance, James Collins and Jerry Porras’s Built to Last, and Collin’s Good to Great provide almost irrefutable evidence that a positive robust culture enhances the bottom line. That’s because a positive culture affects the four key business outcomes for which a manager or owner is responsible: productivity, profitability, customer satisfaction and employee retention. Because employees’ impressions and working environment impact these outcomes so profoundly, managers would do well to reflect on how to create, enhance or revitalize their current culture. By doing so, they can travel the shortest route to the outcomes you want.

In the book First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, we find some of the key ingredients of a positive culture. The authors found, through extensive research, that in every company there are four types of employees: the engaged, the nearly engaged, the not engaged and the actively disengaged.

The Gallup Poll defines engaged employees as those who work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company. They drive innovation and move the organization forward. Truly engaged employees give above and beyond what is expected of them at work and thus contribute to a company’s growth. They give not only their hands but also their hearts. 

John Gibbons of The Conference Board, a New York think tank, believes there are four measures of engagement and four drivers universal to workers in all companies across the world. Engaged workers say their jobs are: satisfying, interesting and personally fulfilling, and that they, as employees, are motivated to do more than is required, like mastering the small-but-hard things in successful selling. 

Driving factors are work the employee finds challenging; a good relationship with the immediate manager; a coincidence of values between the employee and company; and opportunities for advancement. Engagement largely determines the employee’s productivity and loyalty, which, in turn, raise employee retention, company profitability and customers’ satisfaction, say Buckingham and Coffman.

“When engaged employees utilize their natural talents, they provide an instant and constant competitive edge,” say Curt W. Coffman and Gabriel Gonzalez-Molina in Follow This Path. “They build a new value: emotionally driven connections between employees and customers.” At the other end of the scale, actively disengaged employees are not just unhappy at work. They are usually busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers undermine what their engaged co-workers accomplish. They have essentially checked out. They more or less sleepwalk through their workday, putting time, but not energy or passion, into their work. Some have quit the job but never left. They physically attend but mentally pretend. They may go to training but will act as prisoners with nothing to learn. If I teach them the small-but-hard things, the message will go in one ear and out the other. 

The nearly-engaged need some individual attention to bring them up into the engaged range. If ignored, they may slip into the disengaged category. How many employees do you have that put just enough effort into their work to keep their job?

Gallup discovered that engaged workgroups produce better results: increased employee retention (44%); increased customer loyalty (56%); improved safety records (50%); increased productivity (50%); and increased profitability (33%). Another poll produced similar results. Engaged workplaces are 50% more likely to have lower turnover; 56% more likely to have higher-than-average customer loyalty; 38% more likely to have above-average productivity; and 27% more likely to report higher profitability.

The key question is what can be done to enhance, improve or create a robust culture that engages employees such that they are both loyal to your company and passionate about their work and learning. I hesitate to give you easy answers. As former Visa CEO Dee Hock commented, “In the field of group endeavor, you will see incredible events in which the group performs far beyond the sum of its individual talents. It happens in the symphony, in the ballet, in the theater, in sports and equally in business. It’s easy to recognize and impossible to define. It is a mystique. It cannot be achieved without immense effort, training and cooperation, but effort, training and cooperation alone rarely create it.” 

Very simply, it starts with you. As the owner or manager, your actions and character define and pervade the work environment. For your business to perform like a symphony, you must first set clear expectations (employee handbook, job responsibilities and standards, and clear outcomes); provide your employees with the instruments or tools they need to do their jobs right; put them in the right seats (in the orchestra) that allow them to maximize their talents; and build relationships of trust so that they will perform when your baton gives the signal. 

Your employees must not only feel you care about them as people but also about their performances. That caring must be demonstrated by recognizing good performance—deciding what you want; noticing when you get it; and acknowledging the behavior—and by your investing in their development with training, coaching and mentoring. Your employees must feel that they have had opportunities to learn and grow. That also means that you are having periodic discussions with them about their personal growth and development. By the way, that is where you discuss the small-but-hard behaviors you expect them to perform.

Finally, your employees must feel that what they do matters and that the mission of your company is important. If who they are and what they do matters, it translates that they feel that their opinions count; and that those opinions are requested and considered. We all have the need to matter. If you want your salespeople to learn and master the small-but-hard things, your culture must show them why it matters and hold them accountable for the key behaviors.

Though complex and not easily defined, culture matters, and it starts with you. If it’s not helping us produce the results we desire, then we have to assume that we are the problem. If we are the problem, then we can be the solution.

Copyright 2014 Floor Focus