Learning: Does Your Sales Culture Lead – Or Get in the Way?


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“Quit allowing your salespeople to make any excuses.”

This shiny emblem of willful ignorance carries a clear message: “Talk to the hand, ‘cause the face ain’t listening.” But under this noxious edict, some learnings thrive. For management, it’s how to be close-minded. And for salespeople, it’s that higher-ups don’t care.

Low-productivity sales organizations don’t just happen – they’re built on demands like this one. No-excuses cultures crush the ability to learn – a significant risk for revenue achievement. Knowledge impediments rank high with other selling risks that receive much greater attention – and most sales organizations unwittingly construct insidious barriers.

No excuses foists bad outcomes on a sales organization. For example, “Charmaine,” a software sales rep in the East region lost a major opportunity because her product lacked several features her competitor provided. The issue came up more than once in her client meetings, and her prospect told her it was a deciding factor when the buying committee selected her competitor.

But Charmaine’s boss constantly chided her to quit giving excuses and to “sell what we’ve got.” So, when the sales team met to discuss the revenue pipeline, Charmaine preserved the no excuses mantra, and didn’t share the problem with her manager. She didn’t share it with anyone.

At the same time, Charmaine’s competitor learned why his company won the deal. Predictably, he told other sales reps at his company, and anyone nearby who cared to listen. Which was everybody. From there, his company’s marketing department took the reins and proselytized the feature advantage to its global sales organization, its partner community, and its prospective customers.

The story doesn’t end there. No excuses claimed its next victim in the sales territory right next door. Charmaine’s Midwest colleague, Mike, faced the same competitor in a similar account. But he had just joined the company, and had no knowledge of Charmaine’s experience. Mike got clobbered, and lost his deal, too.

When Mike held his account review, his boss made a dutiful note, straight from the well-worn company Sales Playbook: “Rep failed to adequately differentiate our product from competitive offering.” More ignorance. As much as anything else, what lost the deal for Mike was a company culture that prevented knowledge sharing by championing “Talk to the hand!”

No excuses closed mindedness is just one way that sales organizations stifle learning. Edward D. Hess, Professor of Business Administration at UVa’s Darden School of Business, and author of a new book, Learn or Die, identifies other top learning inhibitors. Here’s how they infect sales organizations:

1. Complacency. “Our compensation plan is spot-on. I don’t see any need to change it,” one VP of Sales proudly told me. But if you asked members of his sales team, the package was way off target. Many reps were thoroughly dissatisfied with its complexity, and with the difficulty they experienced reconciling their commissions.

2. Fear of failure or looking bad. “Just move on!” – for many sales managers and reps, that’s a loss review. Meanwhile, wins are dissected with great zeal.

3. Intellectual arrogance. “Here’s everything you’re doing wrong and a list of what you need to do differently and you know now because I told you that’s why!” When a low-producing rep is put on “Plan,” managers assume the rep is un-motived, even stupid. So they behave didactically and squander the opportunity to learn from the rep’s perspective.

4. Emotional defensiveness. “That was the only pricing choice I could make, given what was known at the time.” “Emotionally, we are generally ‘defensive thinkers’ seeking to defend our self-image and our views of the world. That is our humanness,” Hess wrote in a 2014 article, To Get Ahead Today, Learn How to Learn.

Sales cultures block learning with other impediments, unique to selling:

1. Internal contests. Sure, they generate motivation, excitement, buzz, and enthusiasm. But they also encourage salespeople to hoard knowledge and know-how like a junkyard dog guarding a food bowl.

2. Focus on the machinery inside the sales funnel. A friend recently told me, “not looking is just as bad as not knowing.” He’s a cardiologist, and his point was that some serious conditions are missed even as they happen in full sight. Almost every VP of Sales knows his or her company’s sales funnel conversion rates. “28% of our leads convert to sales, so we’re right on target.” But few understand what caused 72% to exit the funnel.

Learning cultures don’t spontaneously generate. This article recently bubbled into my news feed: The 2016 Sales Must-Read Books: Build a Learning Culture. Wouldn’t it be great if by reading books, we could achieve this result? In reality, establishing a learning culture takes much, much more. “It is critical that the organization’s managers and leaders have learning mindsets . . . Paying more attention to the managerial mindset can help in the transition to a learning organization,” Hess writes. Reading books from sales thought leaders can improve sales performance, but not if companies allow learning inhibitors to permeate day-to-day sales operations.

Ways to create a learning sales culture:

1. Expose and extinguish Theory-X beliefs and attitudes wherever they lurk. Examples: “being nice to employees means they will take advantage of you,” “employees should feel lucky to work here,” and “employee-centric practices are inconsistent with high accountability.” [Hess]

2. Rethink what successful sales achievement means. That includes possibly re-defining it from revenue achievement to quality of customer engagement, and establishing metrics accordingly.

3. When conducting sales meetings, encourage candor, and be willing to confront facts, even when they are not pleasant.

4. Establish a meritocracy of ideas rather than acquiescing to opinions based on job title.

5. Champion intelligent decision making, while giving permission to fail.

6. Encourage members of the sales team to maintain a healthy skepticism.

7. Let go. “Smart, motivated people let go of decision making,” and trust subordinates to make worthwhile choices, Hess said. That means letting them learn, and not feeling personally threatened by their success.

Ego: Great to have, but for learning, check 95% of it at the door. When it comes to instilling a passion for knowledge sharing and intellectual development, sales cultures have a long way to go. A perpetual deterministic attitude frequently blocks the way: “We’re carrying a $200 million quota. Don’t tell me how you aren’t going to make your number – I want to know how you are!” Sure, we must create and execute a plan, but with “Don’t tell me . . .” I see a hefty chunk of knowledge, squished.

In a symposium I attended for the UVa’s Darden School in Virginia on April 11, 2016, Hess called out seven organizations known for exemplary learning practices:

Bridgewater Associates
W. L. Gore
US Special Operations Teams

The last one especially interests me. In the places where Special Ops conducts its business, imagine how things would go if the learning impediments common in sales prevailed. Most likely, there would be plenty more failures to talk about – and a lot fewer successes.


  1. Andrew – what a great post. It appears to me if leadership can’t get past “Expose and extinguish Theory-X beliefs and attitudes ” there is no hope for the rest of the list?

  2. Hi Nicholas – thanks for your comment. I think you’re correct. That’s why recommending books for salespeople to read – while helpful – doesn’t ‘build a learning culture.’ I’ve found that executives delude themselves into thinking that it does. Or, that by instituting ongoing sales training, they have accomplished the same objective. Most often, sales training is unilateral.

    Implementing a learning culture takes much more commitment and requires the management team to model the right behaviors and to create ways to collect and share knowledge.


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