Monday, December 5, 2011

Sales Sutra Part III - Avoiding the Numbers Game

Thursday was a very special day in the week of us Sales Managers. It was the day that we reported back our achievement against the weekly target, the week closing, as it were.

Like movie stars whose fate and fame would be decided by the public every Friday, the fates of ASMs was decided by that dreaded sentence starting with the F word every Thursday – “Final number kitna hua?”

Managing targets and responding to questions around sales numbers and targets is a fine art. Especially, when you have not achieved the target.

The naïve and novices would bumble and stutter and tumble through the maze of numbers, justifying why the target was not achieved.

And then there were the Masters. ASMs who had perfected the art of going through the whole conversation without revealing anything. It was like magic, and they were the Masters of Illusion.

A typical smoke and mirrors conversation around sales target achievement would go something like this. Mind you this is when the Master ASM has NOT achieved the target for the week (something that only his colleagues knew):

Boss: “So how were sales?”

Master ASM: “Very good”

Boss: “Very good matlab, kitna hua?”

Master ASM: “On plan hai boss.”

Boss: “Plan matlab, hua kitna hai??”

Master ASM: “Boss we are 15% over last week!”

Boss: “That’s good, how much was last week??”

Master ASM: “Boss, last week was in line with running rate.”

Boss: “Arey yaar, week ka number kitna hua hai???”

Master ASM: “Boss, abhi toh bataya, 15% over running rate!”

Boss: “but… number??”

Master ASM: “Boss, number is in line with plan. We are on growth!”

Boss: “Main samajh gaya…. MAGAR Number kitna hai????!!!”

Master ASM: “Boss in line with plan. Aur growthein (a very peculiar Sales term from the North) bhi aa rahi hai… Don’t worry. All is under control.”

Very few people knew this fine art. And none practiced it better than my predecessor. It was magic… At any point in time he could prove that he was growing. On what base, was his prerogative. Last week, same week last year, on running rate, on required rate, on plan, on ambition…… the list is endless.

I obviously had tremendous respect for Houdini like skills when it came to avoiding tricky Sales Target achievement conversations. In my mind, nothing could shake or fluster the person.

So one day, when I walked in and saw him flustered, I got worried.

I hopped over with my cup of tea, balanced myself on the edge of his desk and asked what was wrong. He vented.

One of his salesmen, the most experienced and best performing one, was giving him a dose of his own medicine. And he did not know how to catch the bugger.

I prodded him further and facts that emerged were these:

He is able to play the boss only because he has complete information on what is happening. This delicate equation breaks down when he doesn’t know what is happening. Earlier, there was a set pattern and time at which salesmen from various pre-selcted STD booths would call and report on the progress of sales. But now with the advent of mobile phones, that practice was dead. So while mobile phones actually made information gathering really easy, his chief salesman was perpetually “Out of reach” and he did not know what was happening.

“Something is wrong Shome. Every time I call his phone is out of reach. So it’s not like he is switching it off. Because the message doesn’t say his phone is switched off! It says, “the phone is not reachable”. I get to know the sales number only on Thursday now! How can his phone be perpetually out of coverage area?? And it’s not as if he is not in the market. I called up the Distributor and he confirms that he is working the market!”

Clearly he was frustrated. And I found an occasion to shine in front of him. I knew what the salesman was doing to avoid calls coming through!

“He is loosening the battery!”, I announced triumphantly.

My colleague looked up with eyes red with intent and a clenched jaw that spelled doom for the salesman. I knew that the poor bugger is going to get a chink of his Boss’ mind this Sales Meeting.

Sure enough, when we reconvened in the branch after our monthly sales meetings were over, I asked the Master ASM if my hypothesis was correct. He gave me a beaming smile and said it was.

“Sabko sunaya maine. No one expected me to know. Kamaal ho gaya. Yeh sab ladke samajhte hain ki hum buddho ko kya pata. Now they know I can catch them anywhere”

Sanity and semblance returned to the branch. In fact that salesman caught up with me in a conference and told me “Sir, aapne baja daali meri… Ab kuch aur sochna parega!”

Years went by… The glich that used to allow the battery to be loosened and the message of “Not reachable” had been ironed out by the steamroller of new technology.

In my new avatar as a brand manager, I happened to visit the branch. The salesman had become a Sales Officer by then. In the break I caught up with him and jokingly remarked

“So you are always reachable now?” He laughed.

“Sir ek baar phone lagao mujhe.. .abhi..”

“Kyon?” I asked, my curiosity piqued.

“Arey sir lagao toh… Aap dekh lo phone switched on hai” I leaned over and saw, and indeed the phone was on. I was being challenged by the ultimate Houdini.

I decided to call his bluff and dialed his number. No way he knew of a trick that I did not know of…. I jabbed at the numbers and listened in, with a quiet confident smile. And to my utter horror I heard the familiar voice go “The number you are trying to reach is not available”!

I was in shock. The phone was on, he was right there in front of me… And I could not reach him! And he had a gloating smile on his face that I wanted to personally erase with my fists!

He saw the mad rage and shock on my face and decided to simmer the situation.

“Sirji… agar aap batao ge nahin to main aao se share karoonga secret”

“ Pukka nahin batyenge.Dus saal tak nahin batayenge. Bolo..” I grunted.

“Sir. Maine ringtone ko hi “Not reachable” bana diya hai. Aap jo sun rahe ho who mera incoming caller tune hai!” He had a smile as wide as the Cheshire cat.

It’s been 10 years since that incident, and I kept my word. But today, on the 10th anniversary of the most ingenious chicanery that I had seen, the tale needed to be told.