Tag Archives: virtues

A Christian perspective on selling

JOHN OBERG writes that a disarming conversation is essential to effective sales. When we humble and give of ourselves for the good of the other (which is ultimately also for our own good because we gain by giving), our potential customers experience our silent witness to Christ’s love. Christian sellers put buyers’ needs before their own . . . .

John Oberg

John Oberg

by John Oberg

I recently heard from a vice president of sales wanting to resolve his Christian beliefs with his management style. How could he teach his people to engage with customers in ways that aligned with his beliefs while still increasing sales?

How do we balance truth and love in today’s work environment? How do we love one another when we have a revenue target to hit? Our Christian perspective on selling is founded on two related ideas: relationship-building and stewardship. When we handle these well, we create a circle of trust in which both seller and prospective buyer can be honest and transparent.

Indeed, our entire philosophy can be summarized in one sentence: Have a disarmingly honest conversation. It’s in this environment, where we humble and give of ourselves for the good of the other (which is ultimately also for our own good because we gain by giving), that our potential customers experience our silent witness to Christ’s love.

Salespeople are often singularly focused on closing the deal, with their sales targets causing them sometimes to pressure the prospect. Over time, some prospects have become predisposed to expect to be manipulated. They perceive dishonesty, tend to respond in kind, and ultimately think of “Christian salespeople” as hypocrites. When sellers don’t properly manage their enthusiasm and customers bring a defensive mindset, relationship-building stalls, sales cycles become longer and more indirect, and the sales process feels adversarial.

Setting aside (and repudiating) those who justify lying or trickery to sell, good-intentioned salespeople who want to help their prospective clients often end up fostering this adversarial atmosphere. This usually happens in one or more of the following ways: 1) Their “solution” is for a problem the client either doesn’t have or doesn’t consider important; 2) their method for solving the problem is unacceptable to the client; or 3) the customer just doesn’t trust the salesperson.

The obstacle here is not that the salesperson is being dishonest. The obstacle is that the parties are talking past each other; the seller has not established a conversational framework that makes the prospect feel safe to be completely transparent about what’s most important to them. Indirection and mistrust then become the forces guiding the encounter. It’s the salesperson’s responsibility to create an environment where the prospect can be vulnerable in sharing information with no fear that the salesperson will use it as leverage when it comes time to close the sale.

In fact, the ability for either party to say “No” is fundamental to any honest sales conversation, and we should clarify the acceptability of “No” early and often in the sales process. In any sales call, while some outcomes are more desirable than others, the following four should all be considered acceptable by management and sales reps alike: 1) Yes, I’ll buy. 2) I’m interested; let’s move on to the next specific step. 3) I’m not the right person to talk to, but will ensure that you talk to the right person. 4) No, I don’t think this is a fit.

The one outcome that is not acceptable is an ambiguous path forward: “Call me back,” “I’ll think about it,” or some other nebulous outcome. This leads to bloated sales pipelines, inaccurate forecasting, and wasted company resources. Bad stewardship. By accepting “No” as a legitimate outcome, we can shorten sales cycles by helping salespeople waste less time on deals that have no hope, cleaning up the pipeline and clarifying forecasts.

So again, how do we balance truth and love with revenue targets hanging over our heads? If we focus on the good of the other person, establish a safe environment for honesty, and listen, we’ll be able to provide either a solution to their problem or be candid about the lack of fit. In any case, a Christian salesperson’s perspective on selling puts the buyer’s needs before his own. We need to ask ourselves: Are we truly reflecting Christ’s love or are we more like the Pharisee (Lk 18:9-14) who exalts himself? The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.

In the same way, managers must be able to put their own perceived good behind that of the company and that of their salespeople — both within the company and in their personal callings. Reducing pressure through management of the reps’ behaviors, helping salespeople keep full pipelines of legitimate opportunities, and providing solid processes for uncovering and qualifying new opportunities will help salespeople perform more effectively. This process won’t always result in a sale, but we can be confident that it will systematically produce the right outcome for the prospect and add more sales overall as reps won’t be wasting time on deals that have no hope of closing.

JOHN OBERG is president of Legatus’ Austin Chapter and a partner at an international consulting firm focused on revenue growth.

The importance of virtues in business

WILLIAM H. BOWMAN writes that firms run by virtuous leaders thrive in the marketplace and the results show in their bottom lines. Further, the character of employees is more important than ever, and data show that companies led by men and women of character outperform competitors. Key virtues include integrity, responsibility, forgiveness, and compassion . . .

William H. Bowman

William H. Bowman

by William H. Bowman

April’s Harvard Business Review has a fascinating article which notes that we regularly hear about unethical CEOs, but not much about firms led by “highly principled leaders.”

Do such organizations outpace competitors? KRW International conducted a survey and found that firms run by virtuous executives had a two-year return on assets of 9.4%. Those led by ethically challenged leaders returned 1.9%. And what were the key virtues they tracked? Integrity, responsibility, forgiveness, and compassion.

This isn’t the first time the relationship between virtue and corporate performance has been observed. In 2001, Jim Collins published Good to Great, demonstrating that top CEOs consistently practiced two key virtues: personal humility and professional will. He called that “Level 5 Leadership” and said it was primarily responsible for the 5:1 stock performance advantage great companies had over their direct competitors.

With such dramatic results, wouldn’t you do everything in your power to hire employees who took seriously the practice of virtues? We all say we want employees with integrity, but do we seriously address the issue of virtue in our recruiting procedures? If not, we should! Fivefold performance advantages are just too significant to ignore. But how do we do this? Which virtues are the most critical?

I was the president of two companies, each with about 250 employees. One was in the child care business and the other conducted building inspections. Each company decided it would work to acquire the human virtues most important to its customers.

Our first step was assembling a list of human virtues. We were able to identify 135 of them. Recognizing the impossibility of becoming proficient in each, we decided we would choose five. But which five? We needed employees to buy in because this was going to be serious work. So we decided we would ask each of our customers: “What is most valuable in the work that we do for you?” We received over 200 responses from each company’s customers.

We then mapped each customer response to one of the 135 human virtues. At the end of that mapping, we picked the five that received the most comments. For the child care company, the virtues were patience, optimism, tolerance, perseverance and commitment. For the building inspection company, they were diligence, dependability, knowledge, charity and honesty.

With virtues identified, we created an 18-month program where the first three months were reserved for planning, and each successive three-month period was dedicated to learning and practicing each of the five virtues.

Of course, we learn from Aristotle and others that virtues can’t simply be willed, they must be practiced. We become a generous person by practicing acts of generosity, not simply by reading about the value of giving. So for each virtue we created a plan by department so employees would have plenty of opportunity to practice that virtue. One of the real benefits of this process was that the entire company worked on each virtue at the same time, so there was a lot of shared experience.

A few months after the program ended, we went back and measured our key company metrics to see what had changed. We were not expecting to see the dramatic cost savings that accrued at the end of the program. Here are some examples:

• A reduction in turnover at the building inspection company from 20% to 14% six months later, to 8% a year after the program ended. It cost us about $25,000 to replace an employee, so this saved us $750,000. At the child care company, turnover was reduced by 35%.

• When our building inspectors missed a defect, the company had to pay to remediate it. That bleed was running $1 million a year before the program, but fell to $150,000 a year after the program ended, saving $850,000 per year. This savings continued year after year.

• A Fortune 100 company decided to purchase a child-care facility for its own use because it wanted a partner dedicated to helping its employees improve their personal as well as professional lives.

The break-even for each company’s program was less than six months. So we had a company that was more virtuous and that cost much less to run. Truly a virtuous cycle.

The character of employees is more important than ever, and data show that companies led by men and women of character outperform competitors. A conscious plan to help employees develop the virtues important to their business can vastly improve a company’s culture, as well as reduce its costs.

WILLIAM H. BOWMAN is president and CEO of Core Values Group.

Building a culture of positive ethics

Andreas Widmer writes that practicing business virtue might be as simple as increasing communications with employees or providing a forum for suggestions and complaints. He provides some ideas and questions to help you sharpen your focus on your most critical virtues. Leaders, he writes, must strive to train their will and build their own virtues first . . . 

Andreas Widmer

Have you ever wondered how a person loses control of their car and crashes into that one solitary tree along the street — not the 359 degrees around him that don’t have trees, but that one degree that does?

When I learned to drive in Switzerland, I trained on ice. What you learn is simple: When you think you’ve lost control of the car, you haven’t really. As the car seemingly spins out of control, don’t look at that tree. Instead, keep looking where you actually want to go and you won’t crash into the tree. You drive where you’re focused.

When pursuing goals, it’s better to aim for what you want to achieve than to focus on what you don’t want. In business ethics, the same principle applies: What behavior do you want? What are you aspiring to? What’s the virtue you want to pursue? These are much more effective and actionable questions than “What do you not want to do? What behavior do you want to avoid?” It’s more effective to focus on pursuing the virtue than avoiding the vice.

Saint John Cassian, who brought monastic spirituality to the West, learned from the Desert Fathers over 1,700 years ago that we have seven primary kinds of thoughts. We think about food, pleasure, possessions, emotions, moods, reputation and ourselves. They are ordered by increasing complexity and each thought is on a continuum with vice on one extreme (seven deadly sins) and virtue on the other (seven virtues).

The Desert Fathers’ advice is not to focus on avoiding vice, but rather to focus on practicing virtue. As leaders we must strive to train our will and build our own virtues first. Without mastering our own appetites, we cannot justly guide our company’s overall mastering of the various appetites we’re exposed to as a group.

Practicing business virtue might be as simple as increasing communications with employees or providing a forum for suggestions and complaints. Here are some ideas and questions to help you sharpen your focus on your most critical virtues:

Temperance: What appetites do you want your company to have? Does your company create products or provide services that allow customers to practice temperance? Do you celebrate both days of plenty and days of “fasting”? Do you encourage your employees to help feed the poor?

Wholesomeness: Does your company make its case to customers and employees by deploying positive advertising and communication — and portraying wholesomeness? Are people seen and treated as unique and irreplaceable? Do you pay just wages across the board?

Justice: Is it clear to people who deal with your firm that you value people more than material things? Do your actions reinforce that? How is success celebrated? Is your company culture “entitlement driven” or is it “gratitude driven”?

Good Naturedness: Is your company “reactive” or “proactive”? Does your culture promote coercion or conversion of its employees, customers and other participants? Do you provide a means for your employees, customers and shareholders to express their concerns and issues?

Confidence: Does your company promote egotism or a healthy self-confidence? Does your company flame up its audience’s envy or solidarity? Are your company communications truthful and constructive? Do you speak respectfully about your competitors?

Involvement: Does your company stand for something larger than itself? Does its culture promote nihilism or purpose? Does it believe in and affirm the human person?

Humility: What actions would communicate to your customers and employees that your company holds itself to the same standards as everyone else? Has your company ever admitted a fault or mistake and made up for it?

In many years running a strategy consulting firm, I have learned that it’s hard for a company to achieve something if everyone on the team doesn’t precisely know what that goal is. Successful goals are defined in the positive: Tell me where you want me to go, what you want me to do, not the opposite.

In the next two weeks, take five specific, visible and consequential actions in your company or your team to exemplify one of the virtues you aspire to promote. The results will amaze you. Save your company from crashing through vices, and aim at the virtues!

Andreas Widmer is director of entrepreneurship programs at The Catholic University of America. He is the author of “The Pope & The CEO: Pope John Paul II’s Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard,” and a frequent speaker on issues related to business ethics, entrepreneurship, and business leadership.