Table Stakes

In which we are urged to balance our sales pipelines for best results. Summer camp is over. Parents Weekend. The conclusion of a three-week, 300 camper performing arts camp in the middle of upstate nowhere for my daughter, an exhausting frenzy of plays, improvs, musicals, recitals, and revues.  And, speaking of frenzies, camp meal times

The “hot line” served hot (more or less) food. The “salad, cold veggies, pasta salads, fruit, condiments, and dessert” line stretched 24 feet (yes, I measured it, you don’t think I’d make this up, do you?) across the room. Self service. 3 different kinds of green salads with all the usual salad bar fixings including three different varieties of jalapeno peppers. Five different cold pasta salads. Cucumber salad. Tomato salad. All neatly laid out like a jig saw puzzle down the tables. For 24 feet.  Dripping or sloshing over container sides in the wake of broad-beamed parents heaping their plates, gulping fork-fulls of bounty, and carelessly throwing the ample unfinished remainders into plastic-lined garbage barrels scattered conveniently throughout the dining hall.

So, my daughter and I were sitting in a corner of the room, observing all of this.  She asked, “How do you write your column every week?”  I said, gesturing toward the food expanse, “all I have to do is look around.”

“That table of food, with all of those choices, represents a sales person’s territory. Sellers have all kinds of potential customers in the territory. Watch the people in line. How do they manage this territory? Some swarm around the table, busy bees, this way and that, loading their plates with as much of everything as they can in the shortest time interval. Some methodically work their way down the line, examining the choices and choosing small portions of a few foods.  Some start with the salad. Some start with dessert. And, if we take a very quick sample of what we’re seeing, there are many fewer strategic, methodical pickers than plate heapers, just like in the sales world.”

We’ve learned from watching sales people that the best ones, the top 10% or 20%, the healthiest ones, have decided who they’ll focus on and who they won’t, and they use a set of disciplines (i.e. ways to set priorities and make choices) that help them build long-term successful businesses.  Less successful sellers are more like the swarming plate heapers who expend great amounts of energy and generate vast amounts of waste in their pursuit of transitory gustatory satisfaction.  They keep shoveling leads onto their plates, and just as rapidly discarding most of them as “bad leads” when the companies don’t immediately buy. They just go out there and “try to make something happen.”

An old rule of thumb in the sales management game: To increase sales, make the territory smaller.  Another: a sales person with everyplace to go has no place to go. The lesson is: Focus. Scan the sloshing food line, pick the targets with the greatest return, and focus. Balance the plate — one or two main items surrounded by a number of small ones. (In other words, you need a couple of big ones to make the year, but you can’t bet the year on them alone.) And choose carefully, you can’t finish everything on the table.

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