Sales Culture: The #1 Key to Successful Organizations

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I recently had a great chat with my good friend and mentor Kirby Steil, the VP of Sales at Insight Global, one of the largest and fastest growing staffing companies in the world. Kirby is a beast at transforming organizations using the only approach that actually works to transform organizations--creating, maintaining, and directing culture. In this article, I’ll share Kirby’s insights on

  • How to fix a broken culture
  • How to define culture from the top down
  • Best practices for keeping attrition low
  • How to know why an organization is or isn’t successful and what to do about it

Culture is the most significant driving force in America today--it’s at the root of everything we do. If you grow up in a community where certain behaviors are acceptable or unacceptable, you’ll end up living your life more or less following those behaviors. This also applies to sales culture in business organizations. When you come on board with a great organization that has a great culture, you end up embodying those characteristics in all aspects of your life.

While sales culture has been defined as so many things by so many people, I can tell you what it is not. Sales culture is not whether or not you can wear jeans or t-shirts to work on a particular day. It is not saying you can bring your Labradoodle to work or dedicating a day to Foosball. Those are nuances of a work environment and, although potentially exciting, they certainly don't represent sales culture.

What Then Is Sales Culture?

Sales culture is a defined set of expectations. It is acceptable and unacceptable behavior written out so that everybody understands the rules of engagement--and lives by them.

Who Is Responsible For Promoting Sales Culture In An Organization?

Everyone. And I do mean everyone is responsible for embodying the sales culture of an organization. However, it starts from the top. Organizational leaders including CEOs, Founders, and everyone else in between, have to embody their sales culture. That way, a model is set so that new and existing team members understand what is expected of them every single day.

"When I think of culture, I think about accountability, I think about what are you being held accountable for?" --Kirby Steil, VP of Insight Global

If as a sales manager, you are talking to your people about a certain level of expectation--work ethic, attention to detail, response time to customers, etc.--and an executive doesn't embody that mentality? If everyone from the top down doesn’t live, eat, and breathe the culture, it will neither manifest itself in other areas of the organization, nor resonate with team members.

Identifying Good Sales Culture

If you find an organization with these characteristics, then you’ve found an organization with a good sales culture.
•    Leaders believe in the sales culture.
•    Leaders embody the sales culture.
•    Leaders hire people that have similar values with the organization.
•    Leaders set goals for team members.
•    Leaders spell out the expectations of each team member.
•    Leaders communicate and follow-up with team members.
•    Leaders appreciate great performance.

To dig in further, let’s take a look at the best sales culture practices of top-tier companies below.

Sales Culture Best Practices

Defined Goals and Expectations for Every Team Member Beginning With The Leaders, and Having Them Embody That Culture.

“When it comes to leadership within an organization and driving culture, it has to do with walking the walk." --Kirby Steil

Top-tier organizations have their leaders believe in the culture, and then go a step further to practice it daily, in order to replicate and grow with it.

Hiring the Right People

What top-tier organizations do when recruiting is find and hire people that share similar cultural values with them. However, experience has shown that finding out all about an individual’s values during a job interview might be difficult, because it’s tough to be able to say, "Oh this person is exactly what we're looking for, and this person isn't."

Nevertheless, there are innate value systems that have been ingrained in everyone early in life from our parents, relatives, and past experiences--and these qualities are what you should look out for.

While you may not get 100% of the values you seek in a prospective hire during an interview, there are core principles such as work ethic, accountability, the ability to follow-up, attention to details, and other positive habits you can readily identify.

To further narrow this down, Kirby Steil – Vice President at Insight Global shared some of the qualities he looks out for when hiring. He said,

  • Hire someone with a “walk-on” mentality. That is, someone that says, "I want to  prove to the world that I can be on this team." These types of people come with a chip on their shoulder, an indication that they haven’t been catered to their entire lives.
  • Hire a person who has grit, and a stick-with-it-ness that quite often others don’t have. These types of people are going to give everything they’ve got.
  • Hire someone who can fail and not consider themselves a failure. These people will bring perseverance to the table.

There's going to be certain people who are great at accepting challenges. They hit adversity, and they drive through it. If there's a fight-or-flight response required, they'll fight. On the other hand, there's going to be those people that bail quickly. Top-tier recruiters look out for the fighters because such primary instincts fit in well with any organization’s value system.

Also, primary instincts are not easily transferable, and you can’t afford to waste time teaching them.

Maintaining Low Attrition

Attrition plays out a ton in the culture game when it comes to an organization.

"Any organization that doesn't care about the number of people that they lose, is a company that’s doomed in the long run." --Kirby Steil

Main Causes of High Attrition

Breach of Trust: Great leaders make sure that if team members embody the organization’s principles, work hard every single day, follow laid down sales processes, and show up with a positive attitude, the company make sure each of them achieves the success they want.

When leaders give such assurances, they have to embody the principles and work with the team every single day towards achieving their goals. Failure to do that is one of the causes of high attrition. Team members will no longer trust their leaders, and they will constantly be on the lookout for other opportunities.

"People don't quit an organization because of an industry, because of the city that they're in, or whatever the situation is, they quit their leaders." --Kirby Steil

To keep attrition low, organizations with good sales culture empower team members to become better in all aspects of their lives. They encourage professional growth by placing team members in an environment where they are forced to grow--like a territory that they’re probably not ready for and probably don't have enough experience with--while providing them with operational guidelines to help them succeed. This rapidly challenges them and equips them with relevant skills for professional advancement.

Hiring C Level Players Into an A-Level Team: When you're at the top echelon of your field, you have to have only A players. The Navy SEALs don't allow someone weak to be a part of their team right?

If leaders tolerate subpar performance like lack of attention to detail or terrible customer service, it affects the entire team. The other team members begin to take the sales culture, goals, and expectations not-so-seriously. A-players will leave to find another team of A-players.

Top recruiters know that hiring team members with the same value system and willingness to deliver on set expectations is critical to maintaining the pace of performance and timelines for deliverables.

Hiring From the Competition: A lot of companies that struggle try to steal a piece of the magic by hiring from top organizations. They think this is going to help them bring a great culture into their organization, but what they’re really doing is hiring the worst employees from the other company--the ones that were cut or didn’t connect with that culture anyway.

“Trying to hire someone else's culture instead of building your own. It doesn’t work." --Kirby Steil

The reason an organization will intentionally hire from the competition is because their leaders do not embody a strong culture. As a leader, I can't make you feel like something is important if it's not important to you. If I tolerate subpar performance from team members when expectations are clear, then I’m not getting into that person's world to figure out why they're not hitting their numbers or accomplishing their goals. The culture of tolerating subpar results creates a mediocre company and no serious salesperson will want to associate with your brand.

"If you tolerate mediocre activity, you're going to get mediocre results, and that's going to be what your company is known for." --Kirby Steil

How To Keep Attrition Low

To keep attrition low, organizational leaders have to:

  • Embody the sales culture so that team members can follow suit.
  • Hire the right people. (I can’t emphasize this enough)
  • Add value to the lives of team members.
  • Refuse to tolerate sub-par performance.
  • Actively follow-up with team members.

Encouraging Likeability, Acknowledging Good Work, and Giving Shout-outs

I would like to quote my good friend on this. In the words of Kirby Steil,

"At Insight Global, we say, ‘please,’ and ‘thank you.’ We give shout-outs, a ton of shout-outs. We want to make sure that we recognize people for doing great work. Yeah, I might have followed up with that person ten times before they got it all done, but when they got it done, and they did it to the level of expectation that I'd set for them, I want to give them a lot of love for that. I want to say, ‘thank you for working hard and dedicating yourself, the attention to detail was wonderful,’ and I want to let everybody within the entire organization know that we value that."

I couldn’t agree more. The importance of rewarding good work cannot be overemphasized because every team member is hungry for recognition. And by recognizing their work, you tap into the best way to motivate them and bring out other hidden talents.

Studies show that team members who are recognized and rewarded for going the extra mile are more productive and fulfilled than their counterparts. They display greater loyalty to the organization and are always excited to contribute to an organization in an impactful and meaningful way.

Top-tier organizations know this and use it to their advantage.

Promoting Trust and Communication

In accord with their sales culture, great organizational leaders promote trust and encourage communication in three significant ways:

Taking Feedback Seriously: By ensuring that team members always have access to leaders to ask questions, make suggestions, or discuss challenges, leaders create a sure-fire way to nurture trust and encourage communication within the team.

On the other hand, leaders who brush off a team member’s concerns about challenges they’re facing with some sort of candy answer like "keep doing what you’re doing" are destroying that person’s inspiration and creating a culture of failure. It's like saying "keep failing," which alienates and demotivates any team. Be there for your people.

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Keeping to their word: Kirby told me a story that illustrates this perfectly. Years ago, he worked for a company in the home improvement industry. They were a marketing firm that sold windows and doors and things like that. They brought in just a couple million dollars in sales annually but never really grew past that.

And so the owner hired Kirby to come in and improve their performance. They talked a lot about how to engage good quality salespeople, setting expectations, the numbers that salespeople should hit, and how they would have a sales process so that the sales team knew what was expected of them every single day.

After putting these things in place, the company grew to about four or five million dollars in sales annually, and then the owner decided to implode on himself by making it difficult for salespeople to be successful in his company.

He started messing with people's commissions, and he began to undo everything that had been done over the last couple of years. He began breaking his promises and being greedy.

Kirby realized that the owner behaved that way because he did not embody the sales culture--he had forgotten that it was the value placed on culture that had helped them progress to where they were. He did not represent or value what his salespeople did, and he looked at them as if they were disposable, or expendable resources.

"A great salesperson is worth their weight in gold." --Kirby Steil

Kirby left the company and the owner lost a great deal of his income and team, because if you know anything about salespeople, then you know not to mess with their commissions.

So it’s important that if your sales culture promises specific rewards for team members when they get results, you have to give it to them. You have to respect the culture that brings you growth. Keeping your promises breeds trust and boosts the confidence your salespeople have in you as a leader.

Accountability

Keeping people accountable is one of the best ways top-tier organizations have been able to maintain their sales cultures. If leaders tolerated subpar performance without trying to get into that person's world to figure out why they're not hitting their numbers or why they're not accomplishing their goals, there would be no performance.

If you want to get the best from your team? Keep them accountable.

How To Ensure Accountability:

Set goals: Define goals so that everyone on your team has a clear understanding of them.

Set expectations: Each person must know what they are supposed to do on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis toward achieving the goals.

Follow up: You must follow up with the expectations of every team member and provide support where necessary. Be there.

How To Fix Sales Culture

As a new Sales Manager in an organization, it can be a little tough to quickly fix sales culture in an unproductive organization within a short time frame, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. 

Let’s look at this scenario: a sales team leader is newly transferred to help fix sales culture in an organization. He has been briefed on the culture. He understands what the expectations are regarding activities and everything like that, but the current organization is just not producing. If he comes in and starts confronting people, throwing orders and blame around, he’s on a sure path to failure.

After my chat with Kirby, I created this checklist to guide you on steps to take when fixing sales culture in an organization.

Let’s dive in.

Here’s What You Should Not Do To Fix Sales Culture

  • Confront team members.
  • Start throwing blame around.
  • Condemn team members’ efforts.    
  • Immediately start making big changes.

If you do any of the above-listed items, the team will never follow your lead. From their perspective, they might have never been taught this stuff, so they don't really know what to do. Maybe they’ve got a little bit of a chip on their shoulder because they got their asses kicked for the past year. Maybe they come in every single day working hard and are not making any money or not making the kind of money they would love to make.

And then here you come, a lone cowboy, yelling orders at everyone, talking about, "You don’t know what you’re doing, you got to double down on this, don’t do that, do this and do that?" Do you see where I’m going with this?

There will be an instant dislike of you as a person. Your team will get defensive and build a wall to keep you and your ideas out, and you will end up alienating the same team you were sent to fix.

Here’s What You Should Do To Fix Sales Culture

1.    Observe & Participate For The First 30 Days

It’s best that for the first 30 days or so you merely observe and participate. If something has to be confronted, a little tweak here and there, you can do it. But when it comes to major decisions and big shake-ups, hang tight for a second and observe.

2.    Build Rapport With Your Team - Make Ten Deposits For Every One Withdrawal

Get to know your team personally:  Familiarize yourself with the team. Ask them about their world, themselves, their values, experiences, what they’ve learned, what they love doing, and just try to understand who they are. Find the time to grab beers, grab dinner, grab breakfast, and spend as much time with them as you can, so you can understand them and they can understand you and your motivation.

Let them know that you are there to help them, not to change the world and be a hero.

"No leader ever is the hero." --Kirby Steil

From my perspective, a leader should be the type of person that gives a tremendous amount of accolades and credit to everyone else, while absorbing blame. If you're going to change the culture of an organization, first seek to understand and know who those people are, and what they're all about. Make some deposits with them over the course of two or three weeks, and after you’ve invested your time and energy making deposits, they will become more receptive to any inputs you make. 

Get to know your teams’ plans for growth: Understand that these are human beings with families, children, and debt or college debt if they’re right out of school. I mean there are all these things that make an impact on whether or not they're happy and if they feel secure and safe enough to be able to ask questions or seek solutions without fear of being wrong. So you have to ask the questions:

  • What do you want? 
  • How can I help you? 
  • How much do you want to earn?
  • Where do you see yourself going, and what do you think we could do together in order to get you there?

Once you have talked about adding value to them, you have to ensure that you end up doing just that. The deposits you make have to be you illustrating your desire to help them accomplish their personal, professional, and financial goals.

Get to know your team’s opinion of work: Ask team members questions like:

  • What do you think of your customers in this location?
  • What do you think of these customers? 
  • How do you feel about your territory?
  • How do you feel about these processes?

Failure to do this means you are not taking the time to understand if their mind and attitude is in the right place. You will also miss out on the chance to discover where a team member may have missed out on or overlooked an opportunity.

Kirby shared this example--he said: 

"We've had salespeople go on their meetings, and when they come back, I say, ‘What do you think of this customer?’

And they respond with, ‘They have a huge facility, and I know they have a giant presence in this business.’

And I say, ‘What do you think of them?’

They respond, ‘Oh well they're on a hiring freeze, they're doing technical staffing, or they've got no IT budget, and so they're completely on the freeze, and they’re not going to buy or do anything for the next 12 months.’

So I dig deeper, ‘Okay, how many people have you met with there?’

And they're like, ‘Two.’

So I’ll say something like, ‘Hey man listen you might be right, I don't know anything, I'm completely in the dark, but you have 45 names on your lead sheet or in your call sheet are people that work there that are in management positions that should require our services. So why don't we set a meeting with them? Why don’t we go on 10 or 15 more meetings to make sure that we didn't meet with the two people that told you that they don't hire and they're not going to have any projects? Maybe they're wrong.'"

So you want to make sure that you get as much information about your team members’ perception of, and level of, interaction with prospective and current clients to ensure that they are not missing on any opportunities.

Armed with this information, you can begin to make better suggestions, informed recommendations, and educated decisions. You can start to make withdrawals.

3.    Celebrate the Failures

Upon completion of steps one and two, it’s time to hit the road with your team members. Go out there and dig up some stuff, and if you find out that they made a mistake, if you find out that they completely screwed things up, that they're not asking for the business, they're not digging in on referrals, and whatever it is you would expect them to do, don't ever come down on them for it. Celebrate it.

Let’s say you just found out that there’s a whole different organization that has these huge projects, that isn't under a hiring freeze, that your team overlooked. Which translates to more business for your organization.

So you want to celebrate that, you want to celebrate find the previous failure. You want to celebrate getting your asses kicked and making a mistake because if we have been successful to this degree by making these mistakes, imagine what we could achieve without making those mistakes.

4. Lead By Example

If you look around in any organization at the very best sales leaders, those are people that participate, and their salespeople want them on the road. What more badass asset could you have on the road in front of a customer but a vice president or a regional manager or somebody that has 10 or 15 years of experience that knows a ton about what they’re talking about and knows how to ask for the business. What a great teaching moment--a great opportunity.

If you build rapport and celebrate with your team, they’ll want you on the road with them every day. They’ll soak up the culture from the top down.

Conclusion

On a final note, bad sales teams are a reflection of a lack of sales culture or a lack of good leadership that embodies the organization’s sales culture. 

If you really want to fix sales culture, if you really want to make an organization go from just being okay at what they do to being great-at-what-they-do, you have to make sure that you tap into the value system of the leaders and create a system around that, so that it can scale and remain consistent and authentic.