This was related to me by a sales executive—I’ll refer to him as Robert–who swears it is a true story. Although I have his permission to use his name, I’ve chosen not to for as you will see, the story is not complimentary to the company he was working for (and it’s too pleasant a Spring to worry about a law suit).
Like many other companies, Robert began, we had gone through a terrible year in 2008.
I had joined the company as chief sales officer at the beginning of 2007, just a very few months before the economy really began to hurt our sales.
During the course of the year we had cut back on everything—even to the point that office supplies were monitored, hourly employees were forbidden to work overtime, a hiring freeze was instituted which not only meant that no new positions could be created but if someone quit or were terminated we couldn’t replace them. There were no merit raises, and, of course, there we no bonuses. Travel, training, meeting, and other “non-essential” budgets were greatly reduced if not entirely eliminated.
We in the sales department were under a great deal of pressure to bring in business—any business. At first, profit margins were watched with an eagle eye, but after a few months the goal was to get a sale at virtually any price. The entire sales staff was working under tremendous pressure. Two satellite sales offices were closed during the year as well as one branch office. The national and all regional sales meetings were cancelled.
Despite the emphasis on bringing in business at any cost, sales were still down by almost 20% for the year—and 2009 looked like it would be even worse. The company posted a loss for the first time in almost 15 years and we knew that the following year would be an even bigger loss the way things were going.
During the first quarter of 2009 all the department heads and executives were called in for a strategy meeting. The goal was to figure out what could be done to stop the bleeding. I was to lay out in detail what was needed in the sales department.
When it finally came my turn to present, I started with an overview of 2008’s sales and the current projections for 2009. I then wanted to make a case for funding an aggressive training program starting immediately. During the previous year our one in-house trainer had quit and wasn’t replaced. We instituted some training during weekly sales meetings but that was totally inadequate. For several years prior to the recession when business was really good the company had cut back on the amount of training it provided. Business was coming in and frankly they didn’t see a reason to spend the dollars. As I said, we had a company trainer but he wasn’t really a sales trainer although he had gone through one of the major sales training systems and was our “official” sales trainer so to speak, supplemented by our branch and regional managers and on occasion me.
Rather than giving a straight forward argument for increased training of the sales team and the associated expenditure, I decided to tell a story that I thought might illustrate the need better than simple facts.
I stood up and started:
“Around the mid to last half of the 19th century in the Midwest farming was becoming the backbone of communities. Small farming villages were constantly forming as more and more farmers developed their farms. Often these communities were founded on a river.
“In one area in particular at about the same time, three farming villages were founded, each on a fork of the same river.
“Each village was thriving as more framing families moved into their area. Over the years, additional commercial interests began to move into each community.
“For many years life was good.
“But from the beginning, each community took a different view of the fork of the river they lived on.
“The first village understood that the river was the source of their livelihood. The village council made sure that the river was well maintained. Any trash that was found in the river was removed. If sand, silt, or rocks began to build up around the banks of the river, it was cleared out. About every couple of decades they dredged the river if they needed to.
“But the elders of the second and third villages didn’t see a need to pay much attention to the river as the river was always there. Sure, over the years the silt and sand had accumulated. The river was shallower than it had been but it was also broader, so it had just as much water as ever. They thought the first village’s efforts to keep their fork of the river narrow and deep a silly waste of time. Life was good–why invest in something that didn’t need to be done?
“But then a year of drought came. The first village barely noticed that the rains had ceased as their river still ran strong and deep and provided all the water they needed. But the other two villages began to see their forks of the river begin to dry up. At first it was just a bit of bigger semi-sandy beach. Then there were mud flats that seemed to go for hundreds of yards before there was any water.
“The drought didn’t break in the second or the third years.
“By the end of the second year the first village had seen a noticeable decrease in the flow of their fork of the river. Even so, they had plenty of water and had no fear that if the drought lasted another year or even two that they’d be in any real trouble.
“The people in the second and third village were in very different shape. Their forks of the river were on the verge of drying up completely after the years of neglect.
“The village councils of both villages finally had no choice to face the crisis.
“Both villages talked about their options—they could sacrifice and pay the price to do the work they should have been doing all along and invest in getting their fork of the river in shape to handle the drought, they could give up and move out of the village, or they could stay and hope that the drought relented before they were driven out.
“The people of the second village debated and debated and finally decided that as much as it would hurt short-term, they had no choice but to hire someone to come and help them save their fork of the river. The sacrifice was painful—and it wasn’t quick, but finally it began to pay off and the water began to flow, each day the flow of water seemed to increase.
“The people in the third village decided that the cost to deal with the river was just too great to bear. They believed that the drought would abate and they would be able to delay any repairs to the river until times were better. During the fourth year of the drought the final residents of the third village moved away, leaving their small village and most of the surrounding farms to decay.
“Unfortunately, we have several competitors who, like the first village, didn’t fritter away the good years. They maintained a high level of training for their people even though for many, us included, it seemed a waste of time and money. They are now reaping the rewards of that investment. Some have even seen their sales increase during this downturn.
“We now have to decide if we’re going to be like the second village that was willing to pay the price in the short-term to rectify past neglect–or whether we’re going to hope against hope as the third village did that somehow we’ll make it through.
“It’s our choice—and our responsibility. Where do we go from here?”
I’d like to say that my little story had the desired effect, Robert said. It didn’t. We limped along through 2009 and most of 2010. The loses grew larger each month.
I eventually left out of disgust.
The company is still hanging on but is looking for someone, anyone, to purchase them. Most of the executive group that was there for my story is gone also.
Would things have been different if we’d made the decision to ratchet up our training? Of course I can’t say for sure, but I’m willing to bet they would be very different. We had a good product. We had some good salespeople. We didn’t have the right support in terms of training and coaching to help them at a really difficult time.
Since then I’ve changed my focus, Robert ended. My team is 100% focused on gaining and implementing skills—and every manager is required to learn how to coach their team members. No longer will I get myself in a situation where my river is going to silt over and die.
I thought Robert’s story both timely and relevant to many a company right now.
I hope if your company didn’t follow the example of the first village that you at least joined the second village in digging deep and sacrificing to dredge your river to get the saving water flowing again. If you’re with the third village, well, good luck.