A sales career is a series of “gut checks” —situations where:
The stakes are high.
The outcome is unpredictable.
Your next move can tip the balance in either direction.
Gut checks teach us in the moment, but they also become the stories that define us. This one forever shaped my understanding of how customers want to be treated.
The big promotion
I was days into my new role as leader of the Norfolk sales, distribution, and service center of Coca-Cola Enterprises, a $40M P&L built on a franchise beverage territory in southeastern Virginia.
Norfolk was a turnaround situation--a meat grinder of an assignment. I was the fourth Sales Center Manager in five years, an outsider taking a shot after a parade of industry veterans had imploded.
The place was organizationally and physically a wreck. Many employees were openly hostile and the other hundred and fifty were deeply suspicious.
Little did I know, the customer base was similarly arrayed against me.
Oh Thank Heaven
Norfolk was barely functioning. On any given morning, our warehouse crew failed to load the delivery fleet in time for drivers to roll on their routes. IT issues made it worse. The simple act of taking and fulfilling customer orders was fraught with peril.
Up to my ears in operational issues, my sales manager nonchalantly offered respite--an opportunity to get in front of the 120 franchise owners of my largest convenience store customer, 7-Eleven. “It won’t take long, Everett. They just want to meet you.”
Time for a gut check
It was a crucifixion.
It began with “If my driver shows up and he doesn’t have what I ordered, is that your fault?”
Over a dozen angry franchisees piled on. They hurled questions like, “Why don’t your drivers listen to me when I ask them to park out of the way of my customers?”, and “Your sales guy is arrogant, but he doesn’t have a clue what’s going on.”
Summarizing the mood, one of the most vocal store managers concluded, “Coke is my worst vendor. You don’t do anything right.”
I responded with the only answer I could give. "The buck stops with me, and I hear you loud and clear." I promised changes—big changes—and asked for their patience while I implemented them.
As I left the room, I was committed with every fiber of my being to solving their issues.
But I didn’t have a clue how I was going to pull it off.
The rest of the story
Thirty months later I left Norfolk.
This time, turnover in the Sales Center Manager role was the result of a promotion.
Norfolk was a success story. We beat our business plan and took the lead in our peer group by consistently delivering on key metrics.
I had gotten the right people on the bus, and our revamped sales and operations teams worked hard every day to add value for customers. Life was good.
On my farewell customer tour, I found myself trading jokes with a 7-Eleven manager. She suddenly turned serious, reminding me of my gut check day.
“Coke went from my worst vendor to my best," she said. "Honestly, we didn’t think you would survive, but you know, everything you promised came true.”
My story of redemption came to mind as I read Beyond the Sales Process, a new book for salespeople and account managers, as well as leaders of all customer-facing teams, by Steve Andersen and Dave Stein. The book’s subtitle is 12 Proven Strategies for a Customer-Driven World, and it captures the essence of what I’ve learned about managing customer relationships, and then some.
They write, “Customers don’t want to be coerced, controlled, or otherwise pushed around. They value authentic relationships based on transparency, competence, credibility, and trust, and they’ll pay more for these qualities…” One of the most illuminating aspects of their work is the best-in class case studies of strategic account management, featuring global industry leaders that Andersen and Stein have worked with over the years.
Consistently executed sales and customer service processes are crucial for long-term success as a sales leader. The "shocking truth" is that at every turn, you must focus these processes on reinforcing the authenticity of customer relationships.
Don't be distracted by the shiny but incomplete idea that winning is the result of challenging your customers. Long-term sales excellence has always been, and will always be about building credibility and trust.
Please share in the comment section below:
- What's been your most powerful “gut check” as a sales professional?
- What did it teach you about the value of authenticity?
I look forward to engaging with you on this.
Everett Hill helps CEOs and CSOs of mid-market to large companies grow B2B sales. He does it by connecting their competitive strategy to tactical execution and transforming customer experience. Prior to founding Catalytic Advisors, he was a sales leader and General Manager with significant P&L responsibility in manufacturing and distribution companies. He holds an engineering degree from Princeton University and an MBA from the Harvard Business School.