George was dreading the meeting that was going to occur in the next few minutes. Lisa’s attitude in the office, and now with customers and even prospects, was bad. That’s the only word George could come up with—bad. In one situation he heard about, the customer actually was so angry with Lisa that he called and told George that if he wanted to keep the business, he had to assign him another salesperson.
Two of his salespeople had come to him this week alone and half-jokingly wanted to know if there was some way the company would give Lisa her own office. They had even offered to help move her furniture in.
About two years ago, remembered George, I had this same problem with her. Turned out that at the time she was divorcing her husband and dealing with all the attending mess of selling the house and raising two primary school age children. Somehow that situation worked itself out, but George ground his teeth remembering those meetings. I didn’t, he thought, want to be sales manager to handle personal problems.
“Lisa,” said George as she came in, “sit down.”
“Sure,” responded Lisa in a short voice, “whatever.”
I don’t want to do this, George thought. Where do I start, telling her that Rick wants another salesperson assigned, that the salespeople want her walled off?
“Lisa,” said George, feeling as if he were ducking behind an imaginary wall, “you start.”
She looked at George quizzically. “You aren’t going to tell me just how awful I’ve been lately?”
George chose not to respond. He didn’t want to get pulled into a personal fight.
“I guess you aren’t,” she said in a resigned voice. “You know, I came in here to defend myself, tell you just how unfair everyone has been, and you popped a hole in my prepared speech.”
“I appreciate what you are saying . . . where would you like to start?”
“I’m frustrated beyond belief. My home life is going well, my professional life, aside from my attitude lately is going well . . . I just don’t know. I thought I’d be further along than I am now.”
“By further along, you mean . . . ?” asked George.
Just as a salesperson looks for a prospect to define pain, so George looks to Lisa. George is not painting himself into Lisa’s picture.
George could have taken the standard approach of noting the concerns customers and other company members had, then asking Lisa what she was going to do about them. The resulting discussion would have been one of Lisa focusing on single incidents, one after another. Instead of her focusing on what the problem really was, the focus would have been on everything and anything else.
Once this conversation was finished, George would sit back and hope she got a better attitude. And, of course, he dreaded having to hear from anyone that the attitude hadn’t changed because then what would he do? Lisa would leave, angry with herself for having to dredge up one unpleasant situation after another. No one enjoys defending poor behavior. In leaving his office, she’d promise to try and keep George from having to deal with future “confrontations.”
Using this standard approach, nothing would have been resolved or discussed. George would fervently hope he heard nothing further. Lisa would leave angrier than when she came in, having made George a promise that she probably wouldn’t keep.
Does the phrase, “Doomed to failure,” ring a bell?
Unless the salesperson is totally oblivious to her behavior, she knows how she is acting. What is gained by a sales manager recounting the incidents? Nothing. In fact, a recounting only encourages the salesperson to provide her side of the incidents as a defense. Are you interested in her defense or rather in her changing her behavior?
By stating, “You start,” you are forcing the salesperson to tell you what the pain is, as opposed to symptoms of what the pain is. By keeping yourself out of the conversation, you develop rapport. In effect, you are saying that the salesperson’s pain is more important to discuss than the pain you get as a result.
The message you deliver with this approach—I want to listen.
In the story, it appears that Lisa’s “problems” are a symptom of her feeling of “not being further along.” When George asks for clarification, he is encouraging Lisa to begin defining what she means. As Lisa defines, George will ask for further clarification.
While you probably can’t solve someone else’s problems, you can help her define them, which is the first step to solving them.
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