Can Sales Productivity, Ethics and Shareholder Interests Coexist?


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“I don’t care how you make your sales number, as long as you make it!”

Fifteen years ago, that was my Intermec sales manager’s guidance on how to achieve quota.

But my manager made assumptions that the sales team had the knowledge, motivation, and integrity to deliver the required results. He didn’t have the time or interest to micromanage anyone. At Intermec, many salespeople got fat, dumb, and happy under such laissez-faire management. Ultimately, sales suffered in the face of unrelenting competitive pressure, shareholder demands, and product commoditization.

Policies changed. Not only did management measure results, they began to scrutinize sales activities as well. Thousands of other sales organizations facing the same forces created measurement spotlights under which few could hide.

Today, business needs and technology have converged, causing the productivity-management pendulum to swing even further toward Total Management Control. Are purveyors and users of sales productivity software tools telling us that salespeople are too stupid to figure out how to be productive? Are their managers too lame to manage? Pete Reilly, a senior vice president at RedPrairie, developer of the Ann Taylor retail labor productivity system ATLAS (see my September 10th blog, Please Buy From Me! The New Ann Taylor Shopping Experience) said “the (ATLAS) system will allow you to push (productivity initiatives) too far, but at the end of the day, it is based on business principals and how I treat my employees. That is really up to the retailer.” His statement reveals his ambivalence. But it’s clear that financial success depends on how businesses deploy productivity tools, and no one should assume that they understand what they are doing.

The most insidious dangers aren’t created by productivity rules based on flawed assumptions or incorrect information. They’re created when managers detach from the gut-wrenching ethical and personal conflicts imposed on the employees who are measured and managed. Scott Knaul, director of store operations for Ann Taylor, described his own misguided tactic when he was quoted in the Wall Street Journal (Retailers Reprogram Workers in Efficiency Push, September 10, 2008) saying “giving the (productivity) system a nickname, Atlas, was important because it gave a personality to the system so (employees) would hate the system and not us.”

What Mr. Knaul might be alluding to are torn emotions caused by Ann Taylor’s institutionalized sales conflicts of interest—all in the name of productivity. To mention a few possibilities: “If I’m honest with my customer, I could lose this order, and possibly my job.” “How do I spend time with my ailing parent and satisfy the minimum number of hours I must work to keep my time slot?” “As a single parent, how do I plan my weekly food purchases knowing my work schedule can be cut or changed at a moment’s notice?” These poignant struggles are frequently the other side of productivity-improvement equations, unmentioned when numbers are bandied about at the quarterly management retreat.

If laissez-faire management contributes to complacency, and overbearing rules are tantamount to wielding a stick without offering any carrot, what works? For insight, I consulted a local sales leader, Mark LaFleur, director of worldwide sales and channels for Arlington, Virginia-based software developer GroupLogic. He said “Understanding what causes sales to happen and managing metrics is critical to success, but sometimes it’s easy to get so caught up in metrics that you lose sight of the big picture . . . Effectively managing your team’s performance requires a balance between hard metrics and business instinct. I have found that there is no substitute for frequent, intensive one-on-one meetings with reps and sales managers, where you hold them accountable for understanding and articulating all aspects of their business and how they are tracking toward their revenue goals. Metrics are only one component of that discussion, and the key there is to develop practical metrics that really do lead to sales, communicate them clearly, and then hire disciplined sales people that are smart enough to understand their importance.”

When it comes to using metrics to improve sales productivity, Mark’s views are clearly nuanced compared to those of Ann Taylor’s managers. Still, it’s troubling to think about the future clash between productivity improvement, business value, and work-life balance. Managers like Mark recognize both the power and limitations of productivity measures, and that we have the opportunity today to build shareholder value without exploiting the people who help deliver the value we produce for our customers.


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