Tough Feedback and How It Skyrocketed My Sales

tough feedbackI want to share a story about what happened to me many years ago when I was new in sales, and how the very difficult conversation I had with my manager skyrocketed my sales. I often share it with clients who are in sales, and sales managers I work with, and thought it was appropriate to share with you today.

I started my career in sales many, many years ago, working for a recruiting firm. I was fortunate enough to go to work for a company that really believed in sales training and invested many hours in helping us become better sales professionals. We had full days of training a couple times a year, and daily sales training about four times a week. They video taped us, recorded our calls, and then critiqued us. During training we had role plays and management critiqued those scenarios. Painful for sure and so incredibly helpful, once my ego got off the floor.

About six months into my tenure with them I wasn’t very successful, and although my manager and I had already had many conversations about my lack of performance I couldn’t seem to turn the corner. While he never said it out loud it was clear to me that my time with them was fast running out. I was terrified. I had never been fired before. What was I going to tell my husband? What would I do with myself professionally, and, more importantly, how would I feel about myself? That last question was easy to answer…yucky, like a failure, foolish, crappy…you get the picture. Truthfully, I wasn’t make much money. They were only payment me $1000 a month guaranteed, but that money was important to my family, and said something to me about value I was bringing to my family. Silly, I know, but true.

One Thursday, which I now refer to as Black Thursday, my manager came to me once again to discuss my lack of results. This time he took a different approach. Instead of having a conversation about what I was doing he asked me to pull every candidate I had recently interviewed and every job order (that’s what we called it when a company asked us to help them identify a particular type of candidate) and meet him in the conference room. I was feeling pretty secure about this. I had 5 or 6 job orders and at least an equal number of really hot (in my opinion) candidates, so I figured I was good, if not golden. Little did I know!

My manager went through each of my candidates, asked me a series of questions about their skills, readiness to take another job, compensation, etc. At the end of that discussion he literally tore up every single sheet of paper I had on them. I about choked, but we moved on to the company job orders. Again, the questions and at the end he tore all of them up as well. I wanted to burst into tears, but controlled myself. When I stated that these were all my next hires and all the money I was going to make with them he looked me in the eye and told me I had nothing. These companies were never going to hire from me, these candidates were never going to say yes to an offer I put before them…I had nothing.

Then he proceeded to explain why to me, and it was all about sales skills. Those great candidates…I hadn’t asked them about counteroffers or if they were serious about saying yes to another opportunity. I had not asked them how their spouse felt about them looking for another job. When they didn’t give me all the information I needed on references or something else I simply glossed over it and told them ‘when we get to the offer stage I will need this’. And the list goes on. The picture wasn’t any better with the companies. I won’t bore you with all the questions I never asked or the steps I missed, just know the list was long.

Here’s what I learned that day. First, my job was not finding the right people who could do the job my client (the employer) was asking for. Frankly, any reasonably competent recruiter could do that. My job was to make sure I knew enough about both sides (the candidate and the employer) so I could manage the sales process to closure. Secondly, I learned that my job was first and foremost a sales position. What I was selling, whether it be recruiting services or typewriters, was unimportant. Somehow, I completely missed that. Thirdly, I needed to get really, really good at selling and developing my sales skills. Understanding what those skills were was critical to my success.

It was truly one of the most painful days I have had in my professional life. By the time we walked out of the conference room, I had nothing…no clients and no candidates. I felt like I had stepped back six months, which in reality I had. What I learned was invaluable. It taught me how to quit deluding myself about my real prospects and be honest enough to move them aside if I couldn’t get the sales process with them tightened up. This is so hard for sales people. We want to believe and hang onto hope; accepting that there is  little chance this situation will come to closure can be disheartening.

The lessons from that one terrible Thursday are so vivid in my mind even today, decades later, that I will be eternally grateful to my manager. I went home devastated, deflated, and scared. I wasn’t sure I could do what needed to be done. Yet, that next day, I went into the office earlier than usual and sat down to create a plan for how I was going to be successful, what skills I needed to develop, what resources I needed to help me get there, and a detailed plan for cold calling (yes, back then most of my day was spent cold calling).

Within 45 days, I closed my first deal. Within the next three months I closed five more and I knew I was crushing it. It was more than just the fact that I closed deals. Honestly, anyone who works hard enough can get lucky sometimes. What I recognized was that I was impacting the sales process. Offers to candidates weren’t made unless I knew they would be accepted. Candidates who were kicking tires and not serious about the process weren’t sent out on interviews. Employers who weren’t willing to work with me in a way that demonstrated their commitment to our relationship and the process I quit working with, after explaining why. What shifted was my sales skills substantially improved and for the first time I was able to know how I could reach my goal on a monthly basis.

Yes, I still faced what ever sales professional faces — rejection, objections, unexpected problems…you name it. What changed was those situations occurred less frequently and when they did I handled them more masterfully. I went from no sales and thinking I was going to be fired to the top sales person in the office within one year, all because my manager had the courage to give me the feedback I needed. As you think about yourself, are you giving the feedback to others to help them soar? Or are you hoping one day they will see the light? As a sales person, are you accepting less from yourself because facing the truth is too painful? I will be forever grateful to Joe, my manager, who took me from loser to a place where my sales skyrocketed because he cared enough to tell  me the truth.

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