Monday, December 30, 2013

On The Sidelines For Q4......

Watching football this weekend, I couldn't help but take special notice of the injured players on the sidelines, who had to just sit or stand there, and watch their colleagues battle it out on the field to see who made the playoffs and who didn't.

It had to be especially painful in the fourth quarter.   Knowing that if they had only be capable of playing they could have made a difference.

It's tough when you're capable of making big plays, to be sidelined at this time of year.

The same can be said for skilled sales professionals, who, because of the economy and corporate layoffs or re-organizations, find themselves on the sidelines this Q4.   For me personally, it is the first time in my sales career, that I haven't felt that adrenaline rush from closing that impossible deal with just minutes left on the clock.   Anyone who's ever had a quota, knows that the countdown started in October and picked up speed in November, peeks in December and doesn't let you come up for breath until you've carried that quota ball, across the goal line.  And now that I'm on the sidelines for the first time in my sales career, I miss that adrenaline rush and that sense of accomplishment that comes from executing according to plan.

I want back in the game.

There was one player on the field Sunday, that drew most of my attention.    Aaron Rodgers who had been sidelined for several weeks from a collarbone injury, proved that a skilled professional can come back from being sidelined and contribute in a major way to his team's victory.  Rodger's success on the field, showed everyone that instead of focusing on his injury, he worked out, studied and practiced until he could return.   He stayed sharp.  He stayed focused.  He didn't lose his edge or one ounce of his competitive drive.  In fact, on Sunday, Rodgers came back to defeat the very team that sidelined him earlier this year in week 9 of the season.

Sidelined sales professionals must do the same.   Focus and plan for your return rather than dwell on the situation that sidelined you.   You'll never be able to correct the past, but your choices and your attitude today, will go a long way in determining just how long you will continue to be sidelined, and just how bright your future career will be.

Thanks Aaron, for proving that comebacks from the sidelines are possible.

"It was a very good learning experience for me.  You can learn from your experience and improve."        -    Aaron Rodgers

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Big Data Job Interview

I had the pleasure of interviewing with one of the top firms in the Big Data space yesterday.   Since the firm produces a wide variety of products, our discussion quickly turned to which section of the company I was interested in.   "I'm passionate about big data," was my initial response, "but I'm also quite experienced in mobile and database technology."

A little bit later in the interview I was asked a question that I had anticipated.   "I'm a C-Level executive.  How would you sell me on Big Data?"

I stalled for a bit of time, and tried to highlight my flexibility and confidence with the subject matter by countering with a question of my own.  "Which industry?"

The interviewer was an actual hiring manager, a VP of Sales too experienced to let me wrangle a bit of control of the process by allowing me to be the one asking the questions at this early stage.   Without hesitation I was countered with the simple but very effective phrase, "You pick."

I went with the Healthcare industry because of HIPPA requirements in the US and because the obvious process optimization gains hospitals would be able to realize by identifying both positive and negative outliers, adopting the positive and eliminating the negative, on their way to establishing new best practices going forward.   I outlined briefly that patients could be considered "Work In Process" and that operations could be sped up and made more secure by establishing patient identity cards, containing biometric security verification, retinal scan or fingerprint id, thereby ensuring that the patient is in fact who they say they are.   This would eliminate a lot of fraud from the system early on.  Coupling this card to an RFID tagged bracelet, would allow the hospital to track the 'product' through the entire process, collecting more data along the way.  

"For what purpose?"  was a confirmation question I faced at that point.   

Patient safety, making sure that the patient who was supposed to undergo a surgical procedure, was the one undergoing the procedure.   Also ensuring that no transcription errors occur and that the patient receives exactly the correct drug and dosage amounts prescribed, as opposed to problems that can arise from other medical professionals or pharmacists trying to interpret the doctor's handwriting. So you could say by beefing up their systems, C-level executives would be able to mitigate risk moving forward.  With the gradual integration of the "Internet of Things" or intelligent medical devices and sensors, more and more data could be collected as more and more steps of the process are electronically or digitally monitored and automated.

Beyond data collection, you can now apply analytics.   This can allow you to determine optimal procedures for certain ailments.  Is surgery required or is drug therapy the optimal solution?    Do the surgeons working for your hospital have areas of specialty?   Can you allocate cases more optimally along these lines?   Almost like a baseball manager, the proper system would be able to predetermine the hospitals optimal 'batting' lineup based on their workload that day.   The net result would be more patients served, more safely, and by the best person capable of doing the work 'at the plate.'   For the hospital it would mean serving the patients with more optimal care,  at statistically, the lowest possible costs, while enhancing rather than compromising quality.

I then touched on mobile.   The advantages of having medical information available on tablets for doctors and nurses alike.   The security of medical information on devices is far superior to a clipboard at bedside, but it also allows specialists to consult on cases remotely, with full patient information, perhaps even live vitals feed, whether they are offsite at dinner or on the golf course.  Tablets themselves are perfectly suited for the hospital environment, because they are the same form factor as the clipboards they would be replacing, which would permit a direct digitalization of forms currently being used and a much shorter learning curve.   Tablets are also much easier to keep sanitary then computer keyboards or a paper-based system. 

Last, I touched on the monetization of data over time.   I cited examples of where some drug companies were willing to pay for patient outcome data to validate the effectiveness of their products.   Statistics on procedure effectiveness, drug effectiveness, wait times, population demographics, could all be very valuable to third parties.  But first, the hospital would have to be able to reliably collect and then 'package' the data properly.  HMOs and governments would be able to utilize the same data and with predictive analytics, allowing them to refine their capacity planning going forward.   So in short, big data and accompanying technologies, would be able to increase revenue, reduce costs and maximize the utilization of their current assets.  What's not to like?

I thought I had done well on the interview.   But then on the drive home, self doubt started to creep in.   Had I got too bogged down in technical details?    I resented not hitting that home run catch phrase, that would, differentiate me from the rest of the field.

It was dark on the drive home.   I was stuck in highway stop and go traffic for more than an hour.   My mind automatically kept going over what had transpired in the interview.   My dream job on the line and I had put in an okay, but not spectacular performance.   I began to think that what I lacked was a great universal analogy to describe the value of big data to any level of business executive.   An analogy so effective that once used in an interview, would be recognized immediately as a home run, gaining me a job offer on the spot.   As traffic started to finally approach the posted speed limit,  I spotted an opening, and at least was able to separate myself from this pack. 

A few exchanges later, as I left the metropolitan area and my grandiose dreams of the perfect big data analogy behind, I found myself  now alone on what appeared to be a very long stretch of highway, at night.

So I did what any other driver would do in these circumstances.  I turned on my high beams.

And then it hit me.

A C-level executive is really like the driver of a car, coping with ever increasing speeds and huge areas of uncertainty, or darkness.   Dashboards are of little use to that level of executive.  Dashboards are merely a reflection or validation of what's happening right now.  Today's results are merely the active history of decisions already made long ago.  Looking down at the dashboard isn't going to help the C-Level executive determine what lies ahead.   What the C-Level executive needs is something that will help enhance their vision of the future, or extend their vision of the road ahead at night.    

Having access to big data, would be like turning on your high beams, giving C-Level executives that valuable extra time required to make very important decisions ahead of time.   To take it one step further, predictive analytics could be considered an extra set of fog lights.  Having access to the two in tandem would allow any C-Level executive to avoid costly, if not life-threatening accidents, in the process.  Given similar conditions of darkness and speed, a car with high beams, or a company with big data, would be able to out maneuver any competitor no so equipped.  Both high beams for cars, and big data for companies, allows one to better navigate through all sorts of nasty weather or business conditions.  Both extend one's vision ahead into the future when it's needed most.

As I turned off at my exit, and reduced my speed to adjust to residential speed limits, I also turned off my high beams.   For the rest of the way home I tried to come up with a way of creatively getting this big data analogy through to the hiring manager, without appearing too obvious. 

Does anyone out there have any big ideas?

"Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others."      - Johnathan Swift

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Job Hunt

The one thing great about sales is that usually when you attain over 100% of your quota the year before, you can count on job security for at least the following year.  If you have no chance of hitting your quota, you could get a head start on your job search, land another  position, and make a hasty exit before the boney hand holding the scythe of career death from HR catches up with you.  But in sales, nothing ever prepares you for being let go as a result of a corporate 're-org.'

With a 're-org', all bets are off.  Before you can take a breath, you find yourself at home, packaged off, instructed to take advantage of this golden transitional opportunityEven though you feel like a hockey player, on the bench, while the game is being decided on the ice, now you are being told to find another team.  Now you can supposedly go out and find your dream job.

But what if you had your dream job already?    The company you worked for was the biggest in the industry.  Their technical products were leading edge.  Being a rep for them carried clout.  So much clout, in fact, a mere mention of who you worked for, generally guaranteed a return phone call.  To your horror, the old adage which states, "you don't know what you've got till it's gone" had decided to drop by for a visit.   And it didn't look like it was ready to leave, any time soon.

Then the job hunt begins.    Posting your resume online, phone interviews followed by in-person interviews, can be a frustrating, very frustrating, experience.  Especially when you are in sales.   Because of your sales background you understand what the screening process is all about.  You know the how and why behind the questions you are being asked.  Your experience in face-to-face selling means you can tell when you are physically being read, and you can read your interviewer too.   You know early on in an interview when the interviewee is simply just going through the motions.  You can tell when the hiring manager is going into oversell mode in an endeavor to put lipstick on that pig of a position the company hasn't been able to successfully fill for the past two years.  You can also tell when the hiring manager regards you as a threat.  You've answered their questions too well, and hiring you, they think, might be putting their own career in jeopardy.  Many mid-level managers would rather hire someone with fewer skills and less experience, that they can control, rather than someone with competence and confidence enough to do the job on their own.  Such a hire might represent an unnecessary challenge.  And that's usually when they fire the kill shot.

The Kill Shot.  That one question the interviewer holds in reserve until that point in time when you think you've aced the interview and are ready to start negotiating your starting bonus.  It's that type of question you can't prepare for.  It's the type of question that clearly shows they've done done their homework, and they are now prepared to let you know they've found your Achilles heel.   

It started innocently enough.  With the first shot, the human resources representative asked me what I didn't like about my last employer.   Piece of cake right?  Obviously I didn't appreciate the fact they let me go.  No one ever does.  But I can understand from a corporate viewpoint why it was necessary.  I used this opportunity to interject that it had caught me by surprise since I had surpassed my quota from the year before.

The hiring manager nodded his head in agreement.  The human resources manager, then took her second shot.  I was asked why I liked working for my previous employer.   I had no problem with answering this question at all.  Global market leader, technical superiority over the competition, large customer base and top notch technical resources to draw upon when needed.  Since I was interviewing with a former competitor, there was a brief volley back and forth about technical specifics.

Then the hiring manager took the kill shot.  And I have to admit I didn't see it coming.  He started out by stating that he loved my passion for technology and for my previous employer, but then he asked me, if I was in his shoes, would I be worried about hiring someone who was so passionate about his competition.

I hesitated for just a split second, but then, I did it.  I looked up and to the left.  Up and to the left.  Up and to the left.   I couldn't stop myself.   I tried to respond as best I could by stating that my passion could be transferred to his company without any problems.  My competitive product knowledge, could be a real asset to his team.   And his current reps wouldn't have to worry about competing against me any more, if of course, we became team mates.   

I just couldn't bring myself to bad mouth my previous employer and I could see by the look in the hiring manager's eyes and the very subtle last inhale of exasperation, that he had already decided I wasn't going to get the job.  When our eyes met as we shook hands at the end of the interview, the hiring manager thanked me for my time, and the human resources manager complimented  me for handling the questions so 'professionally'.  In sales we call this a 'cushioning' statement.  We all knew I wasn't going to be offered the position.  I had been taken out by the triangulation of likes, dislikes and passion.

To those of you who are packing up early this Friday afternoon, and can't wait to get home early and get a head start on the weekend; be thankful for the sales job you have.  Never take it for granted.  Make the most of the opportunity you have right now, while you still can.   You just never know how long a good thing will last.  And remember too, there will always someone with passion, who is hungry and just waiting to be given another shot; who is looking over your shoulder, licking their chops. 

So stay on your toes.  Don't be caught flat-footed.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Seller's Dilemma

Read an interesting article today from Garner entitled "Future Sales Growth Challenged by the Seller's Dilemma.   (  )   The fundamental issue set forth in the post  was that sales management was "handcuffed" if you will, by quarterly revenue demands that required all of their efforts.   No time was left apparently to "reinvent themselves" or align their sales methodologies with the new technical reality of today's business environment.

I find that hard to believe.

I would argue the problem lies far deeper than time constraints.   I would argue that for too long, especially in the high tech industry, sales is viewed as a necessary evil, sometimes an afterthought.   Often times, sales budgets are mere extensions of last year's sales figures.   Sales managers are brought in temporarily from other departments so they can pad their corporate resume with the required revenue generation tour of duty.  Sales is often a dumping ground for aspirational MBAs on their way up the corporate ladder, mediocre marketing folk looking to gain a transitional rung on some their cohorts, or product and technical managers whose technical skills have been outstripped by their own march towards retirement.  Sales management is considered by some firms as nothing more than a corporate career hospice.

Even this article, "The Seller's Dilemma" leaves out the sellers themselves.  The actual sales representatives, the road warriors, and the notebook bag carrying, PowerPoint  packing henchmen, whose job it is to grab any available red eye, show up at the prospect's door refreshed, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, deliver a generic presentation, painstaking developed by marketing two versions ago, and come home with the contract.

The only problem is:  it's just not that simple.

Any sales rep who has ever carried a bag can tell you that.

For the real seller, the dilemma is not whether or not they have time to make their present quotas and realign themselves for the future.  Their dilemma is that they do not have a voice at the table when corporate decisions are being made.   In many firms, even middle layers of sales management have had their functional responsibilities restricted to sales execution only.  They too, just follow orders.  If middle managers don't achieve their quota, they and their subordinates are corporately executed.  In such sales organizations, it's impossible to look forward into the future if you have to constantly watch your back.

Career paths you say?    What career paths?

For most salespeople on the front lines, their only path up the ladder lies out the door.  Little commitment is given for upward internal advancement and little mentoring or coaching takes place.   Often the mid-level sales manager with experience outside of sales, or worse still, the letters MBA behind their last name, doesn't have any actual sales experience to draw on.  Their advice is often based on book smarts rather than street smarts.  While they may have an MBA, they are by all accounts, functionally illiterate.  During this interregnum, it is often the sales reps themselves, bringing their manager up to speed.  Their own advancement set adrift, until the next top sales officer is appointed and another wave of administrative or organizational change sweeps in, with little or no corporate benefit, other than career carnage.  

In situations like these, the best a sales rep can hope to achieve is survival.   Seeing customers and closing business takes a back seat to political alignment and garnering special treatment from those one rung higher up the corporate ladder.  Large accounts and opportunities, dug up by those on the fronts lines are often passed over to those reps who spend more time face to face with their own manager, courting favor, instead of face to face time with customers closing real business.

We've all heard of death by PowerPoint.  In sales bureaucracies, it's death by spreadsheet.  Here, death is much quicker, yet much more painful.  It's here during times of corporate cost cutting, where the reps are ranked by revenue only, on a spreadsheet.  It's printed out shortly before a bean counter with Occam's razor approves on exactly where the final line between retention and dismissal gets drawn.  Those above the line are retained, while those below the line are let go.   Shortly after this occurs, the melee begins amongst the survivors to see who gets to salvage what, from their recently departed colleagues.

Some would argue that this is nothing but a Darwinian struggle towards the survival of the fittest.   I would counter with: "Close."   It's really a survival of the fattest.  Who's been able to elbow their way closer to the trough of managerial favoritism, usually gets to survive.  Merit has given way to simple bureaucratic assertion.

At this point, your departmental sales revenue is in free fall.   For the best you can manage, with nothing but sales bureaucrats in your lineup, is to retain last year's sales going forward.   To show real sales growth you need new accounts.   But with no hunters on staff any longer, how is this going to happen?

It isn't.   

Better get started on your resume.   Because that Sword of Damocles hanging over your head is Occam's Razor.   And this time, it's your name that's below the line. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Getting off to Fast Start

In sales, often your success in any given year depends upon your ability to get off to a fast start.   Just like in the 100m dash, if your competition beats you out of the starting blocks, the chances of you catching them by the finish, diminish by the second.

"Close early, close often" are the words one of my favorite sales managers used to use to motivate me early in the year.   I can still remember all those years ago when a few other sales reps and I were in the office between Christmas and New Years trying to bring those last deals across the line before year end.  There he was too.   Encouraging us at times, but most of the time he was spending polishing off his plans for us.  For the next year.   The first working day of every year we had a sales meeting with all the reps, nation wide, in one large conference room.   By 9:30am we had celebrated the successes from the previous year, by break at 10:30am we had our new territory assignments and by noon everyone had their new contracts in hand.   The signature line just waiting for us to get sign and get started.

Only several years and several positions later, have I grown to really appreciate all that work and sweat equity he put into our careers.   Simply by taking it upon himself to make sure everything was ready for us to get out of the blocks quickly the following year, he showed us he cared.   He was committed to our success.

In high level athletic competition, years of coaching time can go into one Olympian's eleven second race.  If you are a sales manager or senior sales executive, how much work did you put into ensuring that your reps got out of the blocks quickly this year?   How much planning and effort did you put into their 2013 run?  A race that lasts 364 days 23 hours 59 minutes and 48 seconds longer than the average 100m dash.

Have you been helping them run better?   Or have you been putting painful hurdles in their way?

Something to think about.