Ask. Tell. Command.

Three words.

Some of the best advice I ever got on managing, negotiating, even parenting.

I read about this in a horse training book that I was given before taking a job as a wrangler at a summer camp in Colorado. It works well with the horses too.  I explained the concept to my 8-year old son just the other night.  It was not a theoretical conversation.  He got it.

A few weeks ago, I was reminded of this concept as I watched a news report of yet another diplomat announcing that her country “strongly condemns” some atrocious behavior somewhere in the world. Maybe it was torture in Syria, or the destruction of artifacts in Timbuktu, or a bomb killing civilians on a bus somewhere. The specific example doesn’t matter. What exactly it was that was being condemned is not the point.

The point is that ask-tell-command has some logic. Strongly condemning (asking) again and again defies that logic.

According to ask-tell-command, there is no need to request a change in behavior by starting with a strong command; it is better to ask first.  In the horse book, it was explained that if you want the horse to turn or stop, there is no need to make the first request forceful.

However, it also doesn’t make sense to ask again and again and again without compliance. If asking doesn’t work, escalate to telling. If that doesn’t work, move on to commanding.  If you gently nudge the horse to turn and it doesn’t work, there comes a point where continuing to gently nudge and repeatedly being ignored is counterproductive, and in some cases, could even be dangerous.

World leaders and diplomats are not the only ones who can benefit from this advice.  Sales managers are also guilty of asking repeatedly without results. Yes, this is still a sales blog!

Typically, sales managers ask again and again because they are not asking the right questions. The questions they are asking don’t have to do with any measurable, accountable steps related to getting sales.  They may ask why sales are not strong, or why a sale was lost, but these answers only have subjective answers.  There is no sense getting forceful about a subjective answer, there is no real substance to pursue anyways.

However, if the sales process has been well mapped out; salespeople know what steps to take to get a sale; and sales managers hold them accountable to metrics around these concrete steps, then it is possible, and quite productive to regularly meet with salespeople to go over the tasks that they are supposed to be doing in order to get sales.

In this case, if tasks are not completed, there is no need to yell or scream, you may simply ask why, and point out the problem in very concrete terms, as well as the expectations for change based on these measurable, objective activities.

If, however, your requests are repeatedly ignored, and you as the sales manager find yourself asking the same questions about uncompleted tasks again and again, then it makes sense to escalate.  Like with the horse, failing to do so can be dangerous.

If your sales organization is run on the basis of accountability, then expectations are clear and performance is either done or failure to do so has consequences.  Failure to hold salespeople accountable and accepting mediocrity is far too common, and far too many sales managers know how dangerous this can be.  Just look at the headlines.  Strongly condemning again and again doesn’t seem to change the behavior, now does it.

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Authors note (AKA shameless plugs)

So, this 7-step sales process and associated topics…. Yup, I write about that a lot. I’ve been working with it since I developed it about 25 years ago – in my own diverse work experiences, with my teams when I had them, and with clients ever since.

If you would like to develop you own personalized and customized, highly effective and efficient B2B selling system, here are some further steps you can take:

The Salesman’s Guide to Dating is a free or very cheap (depending on Amazon) Kindle book that walks you through the sales process using the familiar analogy of dating. It’s a good, fun and quick way to get your mind around the whole process and how the pieces fit together.

Building Your Sales Process (BYSP) is a free and very thorough exploration of the same 7-step process that will walk you through the development of your own customized, personal B2B selling system. When you are done, you will know exactly what to do to get new business.

The Momentum Selling System® is an inexpensive but very robust online sales training course that is similar to BYSP, but goes deeper into the concepts behind each of the steps, and also helps you develop a plan not only for the 7-step process but also addresses mindset, repeat business and client base management.

If none of that sounds right, I do personal coaching and offer a free 30-minute intake session so that we can both learn if it makes sense to work together 1-on-1. If this sounds interesting, click over to the coaching page on this site and sign up for the free session.

Here’s to your success!

-David