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Hero to Zero

By Jeff Kaplan

Make the number and you’re a HERO! Miss your number and you’re a ZERO! Coffee is for closers!

In my first sales job, the sales manager drew the outline of a thermometer on a big poster board. Then, he pinned the board up in the center of the office so all of the sales folks could see it. Each time a deal closed, he got out his big red Marks-A-Lot and colored in part of the thermometer.

From the bottom up, day-after-day we saw the temperature rise. Inch by inch, that crude graphic tracked our sales progress. Fill it to the top and you make your number and you’re king of the world. Miss the top and you may be out looking for work very soon.

In sales, the only thing better than hitting your number is beating your number. Whether it’s using a marker to fill in your hand-drawn thermometer or getting the audited sales report printout from your CRM system – you did it! Three more quarters like this and you’re headed to the President’s Club. You’re a rainmaker! You float out of the office on a cloud because you’re a HERO!

The next morning, still on that “hero high,” you come into the office only to see someone has taken down the thermometer and replaced it with a new picture. This one’s a thermometer, too, only this one’s empty. In an instant you’ve gone from hero to zero in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of traditional selling.

New York-based Chris Perry, head of sales at a multinational multimedia and information firm, pointed out to me that the challenge of being a salesperson is that you essentially start every month unemployed. “If you didn’t have a sale, you had nothing.”

The Hero to Zero fallacy is part of the illogic that permeates the traditional selling process. It’s an unspoken tenet of a professional sales career. No one has ever stated it in a manual or written it on a whiteboard, but the truth is — even for the best of best — selling is a rollercoaster ride where you’ll inevitably experience the momentary thrills and accolades of being a hero right alongside the chills and accusations of being a zero.

Professional selling is a two-sided coin.

On the one side, when you make your number there’s a fair possibility you didn’t get there alone. There are so many external factors that can give your efforts a big boost. For example, your industry might be benefiting from an economic uptick, or perhaps a client’s mergers-and-acquisitions (M&A) activity mandates a need for your product and service, or maybe it’s the fact that you’re selling the hottest gizmo in town.

The productivity you post this quarter is often the result of efforts you made long ago — or even the efforts of the salesperson selling to the account before you. As the deals get larger and more complex, sales cycles lengthen right along with them, making the likelihood of the previous seller’s effect more likely.

Just as often, we get the flip side of the coin. The economy tanks and hits your industry hardest, or your prospect is acquired by another company that has a long-term deal with your competition, or clients don’t see the wonder in your new wonder gadget. Or perhaps management reassigns you to a new account with no activity, while the new rep closes the mega-deal you’d been working on forever (Damn, that account was yours!).

Given the measures that most traditional shops use to compensate, the daily anxiety about money and the future anxiety about performance reviews is an ugly burden. And for what gain to the employer?

A Truer Basis for Performance Measurement

Michael D’Ambrose, head of human resources (HR) at Archer Daniels Midland Company, believes that if you want employees to strive to get to the next level, then you have to engage in a regular dialogue with them about how to get to that next level. Once-a-year performance reviews aren’t enough. The best companies power their growth by rewarding great performance with promotions. But promotions only motivate employees in environments where individual success is supported through regular feedback and transparency.

Sadly, too few salespeople work in organizations that strive to intrinsically motivate great performance. Let’s face it. A great many salespeople live with the knowledge that we’re never more than a handful of pay periods from being a former employee. The best we can hope for is to give it our all and then start from scratch yet again.

To people who haven’t sold professionally, this may not seem like much grief, but it takes a special person to weather the selling course. People who know me well have heard me talk about the fact that the only time I ever saw my father cry was the day his boss said to him that he “wasn’t worth his draw.” This was after years of consistently being at the top of the ladder, making and exceeding quota. In the hero-to-zero world of traditional selling, you’re only as good as your last number.

The hero-to-zero mentality is a short-sighted one that strip-mines the pipeline, the salespeople, and the customer. It’s the dressed-up version of selling that Alec Baldwin illustrated in “Glengarry Glen Ross” when he announced the sales contest prizes.

First prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Anybody want to see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.

There has got to be a better way.

The Everybody Sells approach casts off the shackles of Hero to Zero, replacing that worn concept with the tools to go from hero to superhero.

Where the hero-to-zero dysfunction guarantees you’re never more than a year from starting at zero in the eyes of your management (and if your quotas are based on quarters, only three months), the Everybody Sells model makes enduring success a possibility.

Our objectives involve working on the things that matter most to the customer.

We focus on their longer-term mission (which keeps us relevant for a longer period). We work at being part of a solution at the top of their specific value-creation pyramid. Sales isn’t about a single transaction or milestone. It is an ongoing effort, and that’s why it’s sometimes so difficult to define what selling is.

We invest our energy in building longer-term, more meaningful relationships, working from the inside. We make connections for prospects and clients to outsiders who have expertise that complements theirs, even if that connection has nothing to do with something we’re trying to sell now. Or sell ever.

I will tell you more about connecting prospects and customers to other people not related to the sell when we discuss the Align step of the FTDAOR process, but this form of generosity is a powerful accelerant to relationship-building that is fairly easy, very fun, and that almost none of your Hero To Zero-addicted competitors will put into play.

It helps if you as the seller can overcome your inner hero-to-zero programming by focusing more on the process and proper execution and less on the daily push and pull of your comp-plan metrics. Colleen Blackwell, a high-tech communications and nonprofit executive, has the right attitude, noting:

Quite frankly, I have rarely understood 100 percent of any compensation plan I ever had, because most are too complex. I was, however, always successful in being fairly compensated for what I delivered. I have made quite a bit of money without paying attention to those details, because I've paid attention to the execution of what needed to be done right.

It’s a leap of faith, for sure, but it improves work-life quality by draining a lot of pressure off something over which you have little control and refocuses it on something over which you do have some control.

Your ceiling is raised. No longer is “Quarterly Hero” the best you can hope for. You can be the Ongoing Superhero, a role where you can sustain your success and your customers’ success over a much longer time.


Laura Camacho's picture

Your article communicates a great message about sales. Not that I'm a sales pro, as a communication expert, I know that people rarely perform well consistently when they feel so much pressure. The yearly performance review is a joke and it takes regular encouragement and feedback for people to perform at optimal levels, especially in sales. Furthermore, the new normal makes relationship building the ultimate competitve advantage, and who is able to build good relationships in a "hero or zero" context?

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