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Stop Abusive Sales Coaching

The words combative and hyper-competitive often describe athletic coaches. An accolade usually follows: “they get results!” No doubt. But it’s worth questioning whether those results are ones you want.

“Rutgers coach Mike Rice’s fiery style has been on public display before . . .”

Mike Rice was the University’s basketball coach until 2013, when ESPN aired footage of his abusive conduct at a team practice. Outrage over his behavior led to his immediate dismissal. Some sports columnists gave Rice a pass, explaining his actions as what naturally occurs when you combine testosterone, adrenaline, and hyper-competition in college sports. A volatile mix, for sure, but the physical abuse and anti-gay slurs evident in the video don’t belong.

Watching Rice’s behavior on the practice court reminded me how the pursuit of winning can make people inhumane. In sales, I’ve seen it up close and personal.

In the days before the Internet and tele-work, a technology Sales VP I’ll call Paul instituted a weekly face-to-face sales meeting at the company I worked for. The purpose was to review account status, company and industry news, and product updates. 7:30 am, on the dot. Every Monday. In Paul’s office. At the time, there was no such thing as casualworkplaceclothing. We were expected to present in business attire – which for men meant a suit, pressed shirt, shined shoes, and a necktie. Those MondayMorningSalesMeetings became synonymous with de-motivation – with good reason.

I’ll set the scene: Paul’s rectangular office was drab and windowless. His large desk was positioned so that there was a wide space behind him, and a narrow corridor in front. Facing the desk were four thinly-cushioned wooden chairs, their rigidly-straight backs pressed tightly against the wall. The office had a raised floor that Paul made from some knotty pine he recovered from an old farmhouse. I mention this because aesthetically and proportionately, everything about this office felt palpably wrong. The chairs weren’t comfortable, either.

Every Monday at 7:30 am, Paul sat behind his capacious desk, and my three colleagues and I sat lined up in these straight-backed chairs, ready to begin our sales week. But in almost every meeting, Paul became abusive. His tirades became so infamous that after our meetings – which typically lasted an hour – others in the company would ask, “who was the Rep of the Week?”, code-speak for “which one of you got reamed?” There was always somebody. Always.

Usually it was “Barry,” an easygoing sales rep with one annoying flaw. Barry could not answer a question to save his life. If Paul asked him “when will the ABC Company deal close,” Barry would embark on a rambling soliloquy. The longer Barry talked, the redder Paul’s face became, the more his nostrils flared, and the more pronounced the veins grew in his neck. His breathing rate increased. It was a predictable pattern.

Much as we tried to help Barry out by listening for specifics in his answers, he never provided any. Paul responded by mercilessly berating Barry in front of us. The more he pressed Barry for clarity, the more befuddled Barry got. Barry stammered. His body language exposed his fear. As Barry struggled to address Paul’s questions, he often crossed his legs so tightly that we winced.

After we experienced a couple of bad quarters, the company faced the possibility of reducing staff. “Management had to come up with some people to let go, and you, Barry, were on the list,” our boss emphatically told him during one of our weekly 7:30 am meetings, with everyone present in the room. Nobody had yet been fired. Barry quit about a week later.

Maybe Barry didn’t belong in Sales. After all, Sales isn’t for sissies. But neither should it be a haven for the asinine or cruel. In one particularly contentious meeting, Paul told “Shawna,” another salesperson, that her revenue numbers were low and he asked her point-blank, “What are you doing to justify your existence?” Emoticons hadn’t yet been invented, but if they had, I assure you that the one at the end of this sentence wasn’t winking.

Shawna, who was as stoic and thick-skinned as anyone I’ve worked with, told me over beer how hurtful Paul’s statement was. “I almost resigned right there,” she said, tearfully. I still wonder why she didn’t. In his lust for revenue, Paul forgot that Shawna was also somebody’s sister, daughter, granddaughter, and friend. Years later, when I read the words of the late Maya Angelou, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time,” I thought of Paul and that horrible meeting.

Eventually Shawna left the company, along with me and “Mark,” the person who sat in the fourth chair. Over the years, other reps joined the exodus. Next time you read the words, sales force churn, followed by a statistic, consider the stories that underlie that number. Not every percentage point in sales churn reflects people who moved on happily to a better position. A measurable proportion got out after being subjected to abusive sales coaching.

The last I heard, Paul stayed in his position as VP Sales, and continued to recruit and hire new salespeople. Hopefully, he gained some maturity along the way. Years ago, when I became a manager, I received wise advice from the company’s COO: “Andy, there are two things you can do to unite your staff. You can either be a common friend to them, or a common enemy. It’s your choice.”

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