The quest for better lug nuts: be mindful of your words

When I was in my first job out of college, I worked for a containerized shipping company and wrote code for automating the shipping port.  On the successful launch of our software, the CEO of the company came to the port to see the operation. While reviewing the smooth motion of the trucks thru the port, he saw a trucker changing a tire and he was struggling with a lug nut.  He made an off-hand comment, “you know… someone should fix that… there should be an easier way,” and then he continued on his tour.

Some managers heard this comment, and proceeded on a six month engineering study of lug nuts, and eventually came back to the CEO with an entire plan on new and improved lug nuts, and what the implementation plan and costs would be to equip the entire fleet of chassis with new lug nuts.  These new lug nuts would reduce the amount of stress on drivers needing to change tires.  Needless to say, these managers were quite proud of the work they had done.

After the presentation of the lug nut plan, the CEO sat for a while before responding in anger, “What the heck is this?”  When these managers explained that he had made a comment about the lug nuts and that someone should fix it, not only did the CEO not remember making the comment, he certainly did not appreciate the hundreds of thousands of dollars that were spent in a research study about how to make them better.

This story is always in the back of my mind.  Why?  As a salesperson, I’m always trying to make sure that I choose my words wisely – and I attempt to be mindful of everything I say.  You can never be sure of what small off-hand comment will be taken as gospel, or what small comment might offend or kill a deal.  I’ve already blogged about how you need to keep your on-line presence clean in Swingers Make Bad Salespeople, but what I’m talking about here is something even deeper.  Its about making sure that you are careful in even the smallest things you say – not only because you might offend someone – but because you might take the prospect in a direction you don’t want them to go – or thinking about issues that will cloud the deal and take longer for it to get done.

One time, an account manager and I were at a meeting, and before the presentation, all the people in the room were having a friendly chat about their iPhones, Blackberry’s, etc. and the account manager made a comment about how the service on his phone was so bad he had been late to answer quite a few emails over the past few weeks because of the bad phone service.  Harmless comment?  Perhaps in some meetings, but this prospect focused on this comment throughout the sales presentation – worried about not being able to get the service he might require for his account – because he had a bad experience with this before.  Instead of listening to the presentation as deeply as he should have – he was thinking about his bad customer service experience, and was thinking that he would have that with us.

Simple comment about phones – it was not.  It was a manefestation of his basic fear about using our software.

While I can think of hundreds of examples to this, I’d love to hear stories where off-hand comments affected a deal – or perhaps won a deal.

Managers and entrepreneurs can take lessons from this as well.  As a person in authority, you need to make sure that you are careful about how you phrase things and be clear in what you need your people to do.  I’ve seen sales managers complain about sales metrics on call numbers, and cost per meeting – and have that result in salespeople taking their eye off the ball of closing deals in the pipeline.  In the constant desire to look good in the eyes of the boss, people will do what they think their boss wants them to do – as was in the lug nut example above – but in fact, that may often NOT be what they ultimately want them to do.   This is NOT a cheer for micro-management (I’m vehemently opposed to that), but it is a cheer for making sure you are careful in what you ask of your people, and that you continually check-in to make sure your employees are on-track.

I’m not sure what ever happened to those lug-nut designs and if they were ever acted upon, but I know the story has had a tremendous impact on my career and in the ways that I treat conversations.

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