The Air We Breathe

By Michael Perla on Aug 16, 2013

When you talk to Senior Leaders at most middle-to-large sized companies, a key word often creeps into the discussion. I’ve heard the word for years, but it feels like I’m hearing it more lately. It can be a bit nebulous at times, but it often engenders some philosophical deliberation and deep thought. That word … Culture.

Within a company, culture can mean a lot of things. There seems to be a number of definitions depending on who is using it and the context of it.

I’ve heard some of the following definitions or aspects:

  • The beliefs, behaviors and assumptions that permeate the organization
  • The company’s core and operating values
  • The expectations for how people interact inside the company, and with those outside the company (e.g., customers, investors, partners, etc.)
  • What is rewarded and punished in the company are the barometers of the culture

Some companies are said to have more of a sales culture. Sales is perceived as being a key contributor to delivering customer value. This perception would be in contrast to an engineering culture, where sales may be seen as more order-takers for expertly engineered products.

The definitions above are probably all part-and-parcel of a company’s culture. For a sales organization, the cultural aspects that I’ve seen work include:

1. A bias for action.

I’m not talking about knee-jerk reactions, but thoughtful action executed quickly is often better than flawless planning that never goes anywhere. This cultural attribute is also the foundation for quick and consistent follow-up (e.g., to customers, partners, internal colleagues, etc.), which is one of the most critical change management activities a sales professional can do. It speaks volumes when people know you value their time and efforts by following-up in a timely manner – compare this to people who never follow-up on emails or always show up late to meetings.


2. The customer has the answer.

I’m reminded of two quotes that are emblematic of this cultural sustenance:

  • One, by Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, who said: “The folks on the front lines – the ones who actually talk to the customer – are the only ones who really know what’s going on out there.”
  • Two, by John Sall, a co-founder of SAS, the largest privately owned software company in the world, who said: "Listen to your customers. Listen to your employees. Do what they tell you."

3. What am I learning?
The best sales organizations are continually looking to get better and find the lessons learned in every interaction. The process of selling creates one of the best feedback mechanisms there is – your message resonates or it doesn’t; the customer buys something or they don’t; you have to discount your price or you don’t. Best-in-class sales organizations are maniacal about finding what is working in the current environment and then quickly embedding that knowledge as part of their processes and culture. A corollary to this aspect is a culture that encourages employees to take calculated risks and occasionally fail – it’s a way to quickly learn what does and doesn’t work. The failure is in not learning from the outcome – as Stephen Richards said: “Our way of thinking creates good or bad outcomes.” 

When I worked at Siebel Systems, Tom Siebel was adamant that a customer call or meeting should trump anything else you were doing. The customer paid the bills, so to speak, and if they found value and were satisfied, the employees and investors would do well. This idea could be taken to an extreme, of course, but the overall message was pretty clear from a focus standpoint.

What’s your culture like? What works and what doesn’t?

Michael Perla

Written by Michael Perla

Michael Perla is a strategic leader and co-author of Symmetrics Group’s book "7 Steps to Sales Force Transformation." Michael specializes in providing actionable insights to marketing and sales organizations to help them increase pipelines, win ratios and productivity. Having sold and led projects with the Global 50 to Fortune 1000 companies, Michael provides the analytical rigor of a financial analyst with the holistic skills of a strategist to help Symmetrics Group clients improve marketing or sales performance. He has worked as a sales overlay, head of sales operations, and head of strategic marketing planning, in addition to a sales effectiveness consultant. In his spare time, he enjoys working out, reading, and watching his kids play sports.

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