On this episode of the Sales Gravy Podcast Jeb Blount (People Follow You) and Kristie Jones discuss the trials and tribulations of building and sustaining a sales accountability culture. You’ll learn that without accountability your sales team will generate inconsistent results and devolve into the wild, wild west.
Kristie: How I Developed My Passion for Creating a Sales Accountability Culture
I actually started in SaaS sales leadership back in 2000. As I progressed through my career, I started to work for some VC-backed companies, and I got that VC-backed startup bug. Accountability is so critical when you’re dealing with people who have given you money and expect a return on the investment. Early-stage startups and fast-growing startups are all about urgency and results. I was working as a VP of Sales and it was clear that those environments needed to have a sales accountability culture. We needed to create and maintain one.
In about 2016, I left the W2 world and started my own sales consultancy. I’m passionate about helping early-stage tech startups build their sales teams and formalize their process. I spend a ton of time doing executive coaching on accountability culture. I’m still walking into companies and talking to them about accountability culture after really not seeing it. That includes everything from not having firm quotas, to not dealing with “accountability dodgers”.
Jeb: Too Much Money, Not Enough Leadership
In some cases, there’s zero leadership, too much money, and people run wild. In other cases, you’ve just got a founder who is trying to put everything together. There’s an inflection point where if you don’t create some accountability, it’s a disaster. What advice do you have for a business, no matter where they fit on that spectrum, for sales leaders or executives, to shift into an accountability culture?
Kristie: Expectations Are The Foundation Of A Sales Accountability Culture
It starts with setting expectations and putting those in writing. In the middle of this pandemic, it’s more important than ever. There’s more uncertainty than ever before, which also means that sales reps need accountability more than ever before. They need to understand: “What will cause me to lose my job?” Everybody’s worried about that. They need to understand the circumstances around that. A sales accountability culture starts during the interview process. During the interview process, I’m already starting to set expectations just by the behavioral-based interview questions that I’m asking to ensure that people will walk their talk and that people will fall on the sword when they need to.
During the start of COVID-19, I went back to all of my clients and former clients and wrote a little how-to menu and said, “You have to create accountability around the work schedule because the work schedule is not eight-to-five anymore. You have to understand what you can expect from them, even from a work schedule standpoint.” Also, expectations are a two-way street. As a leader, I can’t just sit down with you and say, “Here are my expectations, let’s negotiate them and put them in writing.” I also need to say, “Here’s what you can expect from me.” And then, at the end of our expectations meeting, I ask, “What do you want me to do if you don’t hold up your end of the bargain?” I let them set their own consequences.
Why would I wait until it’s gone south on me, just to go back to fix it in a way that may not work for the rep? I hear everything from, “I need a gentle reminder,” to, “I need you to take me out to lunch, clearly something’s going on and I need some one-on-one attention.” I hear a lot of different answers to that question, but I write those down on the document, too. And so it’s so much easier for me to go to a rep who’s not walking their talk and say, “We had this conversation and this is what we discussed. This is what you told me to do if you weren’t holding yourself accountable. I think we’re at that place, so now we can have that conversation.”
Kristie: Don’t Wait For A Crisis To Have Clear Communication
I let the conversation happen a couple of different ways. So I want that first conversation to happen in the first one or two weeks of onboarding. I spend a lot of time helping my founders onboard new reps, and I build that in. I create an hour-by-hour, day-by-day, formal onboarding plan for the first two weeks for my founders, including a two-hour expectations conversation. If I worked with the founder before, they can run through that themselves. I want them to understand not only expectations but also communication.
For example, how does the employee want to be communicated with? We’re dealing with a lot of Gen Y and Gen Z, right? So they like having conversations over Slack. And I always say to people, when my door is open, you’re welcome to come in. But I run a very tight schedule. I say to them, if it’s a 911, you better text me. If you need an answer in 24 hours, email me. Those are expectation conversations, too, that people just don’t think about. Business is shifting so quickly that you really need quarterly expectations conversations.
You can’t just set expectations in week two and expect them to not change by month nine. So we need to sit down quarterly as a team. What are the expectations of the team, as well as individual expectations? We’re going to have these conversations upfront so we don’t have to have a very awkward conversation in the middle of a crisis.
Jeb: Why Expectations Matter
That expectation meeting matters, because when I look back on the early stages of our company, our biggest mistake was not having those conversations. So when there was a crisis, it was pretty easy for the employee to look at me and say, “You didn’t tell me what to do.” And there is a truth in the fact that if people think they’re doing the right thing, it didn’t even occur to them to do anything else.
Kristie: A Rep’s Failure Is Also The Leader’s Failure
You’ve got to go in with that attitude. I assume everyone is doing the best they can. Sometimes the best they can do is subpar, but only because I failed them as the leader. When executive coaching, I’m teaching them how to do this because my clients can not afford to make hiring mistakes. They can’t afford to let people go because they didn’t know they should have had these conversations. And now things are so left of center that there’s no coming back to the center.
I think one of the harder things for people who are the hiring manager, whether that be the founder, whether that be HR, whether it be the VP of sales, is that you might’ve mis-hired. That’s accountability for yourself. That’s saying, “I made a bad hire. I’ve got to fix my own problem.” And again, it’s not the employee’s fault. I always take full responsibility for bad hires because I should know better.
We had a mis-hire that happened, and I consulted with the founder and said, “This person is not qualified for this job. You’re going to set them up to fail, and it’s never going to be their fault.” And now seven months later, after two of the four sales reps quit, now we’ve got ourselves a problem. Now we have to make the decision we should’ve made if we were disciplined during the hiring process. But the other thing that people don’t realize is the morale problem that it causes. When I terminate a rep for accountability issues or non-performance and another rep walks in my office and closes the door and says, “We weren’t sure how long it was going to take you,” it’s embarrassing.
The managers always are the last to know, right? We’re not living amongst the gossip and we’re not going out for a beer afterward with the employees, but I’ve had that happen to me two or three times over 20 years. And it is embarrassing and humiliating that your team was waiting patiently for you to get rid of the bad apple so we could change the culture on the sales floor.
Jeb: Leaders Must Be Accountable To Themselves
That is one of the keys to creating a sales accountability culture. You’ve got to recognize that people who aren’t accountable pull down and hold back the very best of the best salespeople. They are lifted up when they’re surrounded by people who are accountable to the mission, accountable to the numbers, and accountable to integrity. I think sales is a competitive environment where everybody is working to get to the top of the leaderboard. There can’t be backbiting and people doing side deals behind your back. And I’ve had that happen in my own business and people didn’t tell me, so I found out later on.
It pulls the entire organization down. Even if they are your top salesperson, it pulls everybody down around them. That’s just a key part of building that accountability. One of my early leaders and mentors, Mary Gardner, who in my early twenties taught me how to be a sales leader, said to me: If you have to fire somebody, the first thing you do is go into the restroom, look in the mirror, look yourself in the eye, and you say, “This is my fault. It is my fault that I have to fire this person. I own this, I’m accountable for this.”
Then you go fire them. It sounds weird on the outside, but it was a really important lesson. I’ll have leaders even say to me, “Well, I didn’t hire that person.” But they don’t get a free pass on that, either. You’re firing this person and it’s your fault because you couldn’t coach them. It’s your fault because you couldn’t make them better, and it’s usually your fault because you hired them in the first place. You did it too quickly and you didn’t ask the right questions. I think that as leaders, if we’re accountable to ourselves, then it’s easier for us to lead from a place where we’re saying that this is a place where we’re all going to be accountable for the things we’ve promised the organization.
Kristie: How To Begin Creating A Sales Accountability Culture
Don’t forget that it’s a two-way street. I can’t set expectations for my sales reps, but not be willing to be held accountable myself. Tell them: “Here’s what you can expect from me now. What else do you need that I didn’t mention? What else are you expecting from me?” These sound like complicated conversations, but with a couple of these under your belt, they’re not. I promise that it will make your life as a sales leader so much easier. It will add a level of respect to your organization and the team. Not every department has an accountability culture, either. I tell sales leaders that we’ll lead the way for the company and set the example.
Everybody’s looking to us anyway, so we’ll create an accountability culture. Set those expectations, and then set consequences. You and I talked a lot about termination today, but it doesn’t have to get to that point. There have to be milestone consequences along the way. How are we going to handle that? Ask the employee, what do you want me to do? Let them set their own consequences. You have to negotiate that and agree to that.
As a new leader who comes into an existing team, you have to sit back within the first two weeks and have those expectation conversations. You have to start all over again, no matter whether the last leader did it or not. This is now your team. It needs to be run by you and they need to understand what they can expect from you.