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What makes some sales groups successful while others don’t measure up? More important, what distinctions separate best-in-class businesses from those that are merely successful?
I asked Michael Gade, who has served at the C level with companies such as Coopers & Lybrand, Boston Consulting, 7-Eleven and The Home Depot. Gade also is or was on the boards of directors for multiple companies, including Crane Group and Rent-A-Center, and is an executive in residence and lecturer at the University of North Texas.
Tony Jeary: In your work with major organizations, what practices yield the best results?
Michael Gade: It starts with learning from past successes, including those of others. Don’t reinvent the world. Find things that are working and build off of them.
No matter what’s going on, you have to have people who are dedicated and capable, and they need to be focused with clear, definable objectives. Then they must be rewarded and recognized for accomplishments. This means more than rewarding financially. I can’t express enough how important recognition can be in motivating people to perform at world-class levels.
I would add that it is all about improvement. In American business today, we hear about continuous improvement. It’s incredibly important, but the question is how to do it.
How does innovation take place? It is important to listen and try new things and learn. It’s OK not to win every time as part of the innovation process. Failure is part of becoming successful.
TJ: What specific techniques did you use to increase sales teams’ skills?
MG: I’ve been involved in a variety of businesses. From my consulting at Coopers & Lybrand [an accounting firm that’s now part of PricewaterhouseCoopers] and Boston Consulting [a management consulting company], the key is understanding the particular needs of your potential client vs. selling them what you have; it’s understanding the benefits of your product and services for specific requirements they have. One of the biggest mistakes sales organizations make is that they have products and services to push, and that’s not what customers need. They need solutions.
Another absolute requirement for success is listening better. If you don’t have a sales organization that listens well, you won’t be successful. It starts with understanding that client, knowing what needs it has, and demonstrating how to make it win in the marketplace today. If you can enable that client to make its customer more successful, you become a strategic partner as opposed to just being a vendor.
TJ: From a leadership perspective, what are some of your best philosophies?
MG: Effective leadership is an ability to manage different people in different ways to get the maximum out of their personalities; it’s also a way of behaving and understanding how and what drives each individual. From my perspective, I don’t believe in taking any recognition—all recognition goes to my team and specific individuals. If you’re looking for individual reward [for yourself], you’re missing the power of a team working together, thinking together and attacking problems together. If a team is focused, it brings much more to the table than any one individual ever could. The key is getting them executing for the benefit of the customer.
It’s not about you. It’s about making your customers more successful. And if you can do that, you become strategic to them. If you are just providing a product or service, you can be replaced. So often, people start taking things for granted. Serving well is not enough to keep them. You must be able to innovate to benefit your customer, to become a strategic provider of a product or service.
TJ: What are some lessons you learned from failures or things that didn’t go as planned?
MG: Let’s talk about 7-Eleven for a moment. We believed we could innovate in financial services through… a next-generation ATM that provided an abundance of services for people: check cashing, bill payment, wire transfers and a variety of things. It was a virtual bank and was technically world-class. It clearly brought a variety of services together in one package.
It failed because it was too far ahead of its time. Customers didn’t understand it…. The technology was too sophisticated.…
[You must] make it easy for your customers to use the technology or product you are providing to them. Your ability to communicate the value you bring to that particular customer is the difference in getting or not getting a sale.
TJ: Is benchmarking a part of your strategy, and if yes, can you explain?
MG: My whole career has been built on analytics. Part of this is understanding the best-in-class operators and performers. The real success comes from extending what’s happening today and making that better. Consequently, benchmarking and understanding best-in-class performance is critical.
Understanding that all competitors are probably as sophisticated as you and that they’re doing it already—that means you’ve got to be faster, more direct, more focused, and willing to innovate and take risks if you’re going to win.… Part of success is daring to be different and become uniquely qualified to produce value and service for customers.
TJ: What do you believe is different about today’s sales forces, and how would you do things differently now to adapt?
MG: The amount of information available to [today’s sales forces] is well beyond what we had early in my career. They need to take that and apply that data into actionable next steps to provide differentiation. Also, they need to use the data to get a better understanding of who their prospect is and what products can best be used by them—use the information to provide best practices for each individual account you serve and not treat them all the same.
Sometimes it means that your sales force will have to be pruned, because as the world becomes more sophisticated and as analytics play a bigger role, not everyone’s going to fit, and that’s OK, too. It’s how you manage transitions within a sales force to keep the team working and operating together effectively that creates success.
TJ: What other insights can you share?
MG: I’ve been married for 25 years, and I’m proud of that. I’ve accomplished that by balancing in life; it only works when you work at each area that is important—job, career, [relationships], self…. If one hurts, it affects the others.
My advice is to understand what’s important to you, your company and your customers, and focus on their needs. Differentiate your services and position yourself to make them better, not yourself.