EPISODE 458: Meredith Bell and Denny Coates Say Elite Sales Teams Do This Especially Well

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Optimal Sales Mindset virtual learning session sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on November 4, 2021. It featured an interview with co-authors of Connect with Your Team, Meredith Bell and Denny Coates.]

Find Meredith on LinkedIn. Find Denny on LinkedIn.

Meredith’s TIP: “Find someone to be an accountability partner with you. Pair up with someone so that you work with another individual to help them and you improve in a particular skill. Because when you make a commitment to someone else and you meet with them on a regular basis, you are going to be more aware of using that skill and applying it in between the times that you meet with your accountability partner.

Denny’s TIP: “An elite team is a team where everyone on the team, the sales manager as well as the sales reps, all of the people involved are good at listening to each other so that the people, all of them felt understood and respected so that they are forthcoming with what’s going on. Also, they help each other solve problems. They stimulate each other to think. It’s not just a one-way thing. It’s people sharing ideas and they ask for the ideas.”


Fred Diamond: Meredith and Denny, I’m thrilled to have you here. I read the book. It’s excellent, congratulations. Book came out last year. We’re doing today’s show, believe it or not, it’s November 2021. I’m still dating my checks 1986, but it’s November 2021. We’ve been in this pandemic for 19 months now, and it’s still ongoing at some level, obviously, and that has forced a lot of challenges for sales leaders.

One of our guests said the other day that it’s even harder. The person who’s most impacted as it relates to teams is a first-time sales manager. Imagine you get your first-time sales management gig, February 2020, you’re thrilled. Then you’re in your basement for the next 18 months talking to your team via Zoom the whole day. Meredith and Denny, it’s great to see you. Why don’t we kick it off with Denny? Why’d you guys write the book? Tell us about a little bit behind that and what led to the publication of this book.

Denny Coates: Well, we’ve been together for over 30 years. When we began our consulting and we gradually moved away from consulting to products and services for other consultants, our focus gravitated towards interpersonal communication. Because in our work, we discovered that that’s the factor. That’s the big deal when it comes to leadership. Now, there are many different aspects of leadership such as vision and values, but the ability to communicate with your team members, that’s very, very big. We have focused on that all this time.

Eventually, we decided that since our products and services focused on it so much, we should write a book about it. The book that we eventually wrote is a how-to book. It’s an unusual book because really, its sole purpose is to describe how to perform each of the 10 most important skills that we feel that any leader or team member needs to have. What is involved? That’s it. That’s what the book does. It’s a manual, a guide, a reference.

Fred Diamond: I’m excited to get deep into the 10 that we talked about. By the way, you’re also the author of Peer Coaching Made Simple. Meredith, I have a question for you. My premise, which I just said before, has it been harder to build the elite teams over the last 18 months because of people being distant, only being available to be seen via the Zoom and those types of things, or have you not seen that?

Meredith Bell: It is challenging because we’re used to these little micro moments of interactions when we’re in offices together, such as getting a cup of coffee in the break room. Those have been missing and people have had to get creative about how to keep those kind of connections going. Now, Denny and our other partner Paula and I have worked remotely for a long time, each of us in different home offices. We haven’t struggled with that because that was the way we were set up. But for those that have been used to being in the office together, there’ve had to be adjustments made and thinking through, “How do we keep this connection going?” Having regular conversations one-on-one in addition to the team, I think is really important to get a feel for what’s going on in a person’s life not just at work, because they were all working from home.

Fred Diamond: Denny, what does an elite sales team look like? Give us a little bit of a perspective here with all the work that you all have done and the hundreds, if not thousands, of teams that you’ve worked with. What does an elite team look like?

Denny Coates: Well, Fred, that’s really a good question. I’m going to give you my opinion right off the bat. Of course, there are as many different kinds of teams as there are teams, and every sales manager is different. But I think an elite team is a team where everyone on the team, the sales manager as well as the sales reps, all of the people involved are good at listening to each other so that the people, all of them felt understood and respected so that they are forthcoming with what’s going on. Also, they help each other solve problems. They stimulate each other to think. It’s not just a one-way thing. It’s people sharing ideas and they ask for the ideas.

Of course, there’s feedback, and the feedback is encouraging feedback. With all of the challenges of working in the marketplace, everyone needs encouragement, and so they encourage each other. In fact, I think an elite team is a team that doesn’t compete with itself. It’s a team where everyone wants everyone else to succeed. In a sense, what you’ve got is a team of emerging leaders, because they all do the things, are learning to do the things, and improving on doing the things that matter in leadership. They’re connecting with each other.

Fred Diamond: Meredith, before I ask you about how we make this a reality, Denny, I have a quick follow up to that question. The way you answered the question, you said the team is made up of emerging leaders. Elite teams, are they led by an elite leader? Not everybody wants to be a leader, but is the elite team because of the elite leader, or is it an elite team because it’s made up of prospective elite leaders? After you answer that, then again, Meredith, let’s start talking about how we make this a reality because we have a whole bunch of sales leaders I could see listening to today’s show and we want to get to some of the nuts and bolts. But Denny, about that question, what do you think?

Denny Coates: Well, I don’t want to be flippant, but it’s all of the above, Fred. I think an elite team is led by an elite leader or someone who really knows how to connect with the people on the team, and the team members are getting good at connecting with each other. They dialogue and they resolve issues, and they know how to do that. It’s happening. I think these are the things that can happen when people know how to communicate well with each other.

Fred Diamond: Meredith, let’s get down to some nuts and bolts here. What does it take to make it a reality?

Meredith Bell: One of the first things is reinforcing what you both have just said, which is the leader needs to upgrade the way they lead the team, the manager. Then the team members also need to upgrade the way they interact with each other. What does that mean to upgrade? I love the focus of the theme of your Thursday sessions, because it really does all start with mindset. The mindset and attitude is, “I am here to be of help to others.” That’s where we get away from competition and look at applying these skills that are so important in building strong relationships with other people. Because the way that you get to a situation or an elite team where you automatically have this trust for each other, you know that you’re in it to help each other, it’s when you respond in a way that demonstrates to other people, “This is where I’m coming from.”

In the case of a manager, a really key piece is being willing to and not just being willing to, but just having this attitude of, “I don’t have all the answers.” My team has a lot of capability within them. Learning how to be a good question asker, where you are not just providing automatic answers to people and feeling like, “I’ve got to come up with something to say, or else they’ll think I don’t know what I’m talking about.” If instead we have this mindset of, “I’m a learner along with them. I may be the guide, but I have a lot of capabilities here within my team.” Asking questions to help people draw out from them what they know, but also asking questions when a situation doesn’t go well.

Let’s think of a situation where someone on the team had really great hopes of making a sale, it didn’t come through. Rather than the manager telling them, “Well, you should have done this, you should have done that.” Instead, asking questions. Here’s something specific that managers and team members can write down and start using right away, because we did talk about right now, what can they do? Here are a series of questions that they could start asking each other anytime they encounter a difficult situation, or they’ve had circumstances that didn’t go well.

The first question is, “What happened?” You get at the sequence of events, and tie that in with the right brain of, “How do you feel about it?” You get at both aspects. Once you’ve identified that, then the second question is, “All right. Why did it happen that way? What were you thinking? What was your motivation? What were you detecting from the other person that caused you to respond the way you did?” Then a third question is, “What was outcome? What were the consequences of taking that approach?” This can work for a situation that went well or didn’t go well. Then the fourth question is, “Based on what you’ve just said, what would you do differently next time?” So that you draw the lessons from all that has happened. Then, “Are there any steps you can take now? What can you do now?”

If you take those steps and questions and apply them, you don’t necessarily have to ask them every single one, because sometimes when the person starts talking, one of the questions gets answered automatically. But the key is helping someone process, because what happens too often when we get into the rush and day to day, we just move from thing, to thing, to thing without pausing, slowing down to process the lessons that we could extract from a specific situation that happens. The asking of questions and tying in with listening carefully, and making sure you understand, because another problem that we can run into that undermines a team being at an elite level is making assumptions about what somebody meant and drawing conclusions without checking to make sure we got it right.

Fred Diamond: We have a question from Dan. I’ll pose this to Denny here. Accountability. We’ve talked a lot about accountability on the Sales Game Changers Podcast, particularly over the past year. As a matter of fact, accountability was our word for 2021. Some other words have gotten a little more prioritized, but the question comes in from Dan, which is, “How much do you weigh accountability as part of the equation of building an elite team in terms of priority from the leader and from the members?” Denny, what do you think about accountability from both sides, from the leader and from the team members?

Denny Coates: Well, my thoughts about accountability are based on what’s expected. Ideally, people are expected to do things that they’ve bought into. A preliminary step to holding people accountable for expectations is to make sure everybody has bought into the expectations. By the way, that’s one of the skills in the book. Part of an elite team is that. Then of course, when you hold people accountable, sometimes it’s really a win, something wonderful has happened. That’s accountability and that’s fine, but if it doesn’t turn out that way, then accountability should be a part of what Meredith was talking about, which is learning from that. Because you don’t want something bad to repeat itself in the best case. You want to build on that and learn from that and move forward. The process needs to be encouraging, holding people accountable can be a learning and encouraging experience.

Fred Diamond: Meredith, Denny just talked about getting buy-in, and it’s one of the 10 communication and relationship building skills that you talk about in the book. One of the other topics that we’ve talked a lot about on the Sales Game Changers Podcast, especially obviously over the last 18 months, are things like vulnerability and transparency. Talk a little bit about that and how does that play into getting buy-in? Because a lot of times when you see a team that’s festering, it’s because they don’t believe in the leader, or they dispute what the leader is saying, but they just don’t voice it. Then the next thing you know, the team falls apart because there’s a faction that didn’t express it and the leader one day finds out. Talk a little bit about transparency and vulnerability, and how that relates to buy-in. Then, Denny, if you want to chime in after Meredith, we’d love to hear what you have to say as well.

Meredith Bell: I think a key thing that gets in the way, Fred, is when a leader is afraid to be wrong and afraid of being embarrassed for not knowing or not getting it right. I think what is so helpful and important is if we have this mindset, we’re all humans here. Just being upfront with people and saying, “I may not always get it right. When I do make a mistake, bring it to my attention. I welcome you pointing out things where I can be a better leader for you.” In fact, one of the things that would be great for vulnerability and openness is to ask each member of your team, “What’s one thing I could do differently that would make working on this team a better experience for you?” That, again, is a right now thing.

Any team member can go and ask the other members of the team that very question, because people will tell you. Now, you have to be willing to hear it, and not get defensive. I think that’s so important, is feeling like it’s okay around here if we make mistakes, if we own that we’re not going to always get it right. Because if we don’t make it safe for people to make mistakes, then you’re going to see people be very risk-averse and not going for innovation, not going for new and different ways that might actually improve the performance of an individual and the team as a whole.

Fred Diamond: Denny, a little bit of a follow up to the great answer that Meredith just gave us about transparency. Do you find that most people are comfortable with that? A lot of the message here is that you need to listen, like Meredith just said, you need to have the environment where you’re not afraid to make mistakes. That’s a very risky place to be, to put yourself in there, because you’re thinking about your career. You don’t want to look bad in front of other people and those kinds of things. Are people, from your experience, on elite teams, are they willing to be transparent, or still can you be resistant? Talk about the level of transparency and openness, like Meredith just touched on, to create these mistakes.

Denny Coates: Well, to be honest, I don’t know how you can have an elite team without that kind of transparency and honesty. I think that’s just one of the ingredients. I’m just talking from the sales manager’s perspective. The people that you lead, they have to believe you. They have to trust you. If this honesty and transparency is not there, that won’t happen. Immediately, you’ve plateaued out as a team and forget about being an elite team. It’s very essential to have that on a team.

Fred Diamond: We have a question here that comes in from Jared. Jared says, “We’re being told to come back into the office in January, but I don’t want to go back.” Talk about that a little bit, because we’re in a huge transformation. We’re living in a challenging, disruptive time here. We’ve obviously been in a challenging, disruptive time for the last 18 months, but it’s going to continue at some level, especially as we get into the winter, and people want to continue to stay home, and people have gotten used to it, and things like that. Denny, then Meredith, I’m interested in your thoughts as well, is how do we navigate this unusual time that’s going to continue in a lot of ways?

Denny Coates: Fred, what you’re talking about is a conflict. The organization wants X. The individual says, “Wait a minute, I’m not sure I can live with that. I need Y.” It’s a conflict there. On an elite team, conflicts get resolved. In our book, we talk about how to do that. It’s usually getting back to, “Okay. What do you need? Why are you asking for that? Here’s why I’m asking for this.” We say, “Okay. What can we do to meet both of our needs together? Let’s get creative and think about, is there another option other than coming into the office on February the 12th, or just staying at home? Is there other options? Let’s talk about that.” Through this kind of communication, conflicts do get resolved. I’ve done this so many times and very, very rarely does it happen where it doesn’t work. It really works most of the time, even when you think it wouldn’t.

Fred Diamond: Meredith, what were some of your thoughts on that? Denny’s right, we’re talking conflict here, but these are big ones that’s not going to be handled in a meeting, per se. People are still trying to figure things out. I’m on a couple of Facebook groups where people are saying that, “We’re required to get vaccinations,” but because of an illness, they don’t want to get vaccinated. How do you handle those types of things? How do you resolve some of the challenges that Denny just alluded to?

Meredith Bell: I think so much of it depends on a willingness to be open and listen to other opinions and the reasoning behind those opinions. Because if we dig our heels in and insist, “This is the way it’s going to be,” we’re setting it up for a continued conflict, instead of a resolution that can work for both of us. I think it requires a commitment on both sides to say, “We want to continue working together. Let’s just look at this in a way that we both keep our minds open and consider different possibilities, and a willingness to change our mind if the other person’s – I don’t want to say arguments, because it doesn’t have to be arguments, but points that they’re making, if they make sense. Again, it goes back to our egos and not wanting to appear to be wrong. Instead of thinking, “If I give in, then I’m wrong, then I look bad,” it’s, “How can we create a solution here that feels good as much as possible to everybody involved?”

Fred Diamond: We’re going to talk a little bit about transformation. We have a couple of questions here. Again, in the book you talk a lot about giving feedback and accepting feedback as critical parts of an elite sales team. Meredith, you could talk for that for a couple of seconds here about how do you effectively give the feedback? Then, Denny, why don’t you talk about how do you graciously accept feedback?

Meredith Bell: Well, in giving feedback, there are a couple of things that are really important. Number one is that you have firsthand knowledge about what happened, so you’re not repeating something somebody else told you. Then also being very specific about the behavior that created the issue and recognizing that it needs to be delivered in the context of this individual and their overall performance and value in the past. So they don’t feel like you’re just being picky about one thing, you put it in the context of everything else they’ve done that’s good. Because the goal of feedback, of course, is to get the behavior change that you want from the individual, but you don’t want to build up resentment, anger, and negative emotions in the process of delivering it.

Letting them know that you’re on their side when you say the things you do, which are again, being very specific about the behavior, and also being very clear about what’s needed in the future. There’s no ambiguity on the part of the other person and getting their commitment to do it so that they know what you expect of them going forward. Then the final piece is expressing your support so they know you’re with them, not holding a stick over their head to see if they comply, but rather you’re walking alongside them, encouraging them along the way. That’s where feedback, I think when it’s constructive, can be very supportive.

Fred Diamond: Denny, I have a different question for you. We have a question here that comes in from Neil. Neil says, “I’m a first time manager. What is the one thing that Denny and Meredith suggests that I focus on?” Again, you talk about mastering 10 communication skills, the top 10 skills in relationship building and communication skills. I’ve said this many, many times, the hardest job in sales is first-time sales manager. Again, you’re all thrust into this unusual time. Per Nelson’s question here, what would be the one thing that you would recommend, Denny? Nelson says he wants one thing, what would you say would be the most important thing for sales leaders, sales managers to focus on right now? First-time sales managers?

Denny Coates: I love that question, because I always give the same answer. The number one thing that you can do, among all of the various 10 really important communication skills, is to improve the way you listen. The reason is, because first of all, it’s so powerful. Because when you listen well, the way we describe it, it’s magical. People really feel heard. They say, “Yeah, man. He gets it. He gets it.” That connection happens. The other thing is that listening really is a component of most of the other skills. It’s hard to do the other skills without listening well at the same time. I would say start with that. By the way, I keep using this word skill. It really is a skill. It’s not an attitude. It’s not a value. It’s not a concept. You can’t become a good listener by watching a video about it.

Can you imagine trying to learn how to hit a golf ball out of a sand trap by reading a book? You can’t do it. What you have to do is read the book and then practice, and practice over and over again. Then you get a coach who will watch you and say, “Okay. This one thing, you’re not doing right. Try this. Go back to the fundamentals and keep practicing.” The more you practice, the more your brain wires for that particular skill, the more you listen and come back to the fundamentals of listening and make sure you’re on track and keep doing it. Keep doing it, and get the reps, then eventually your brain will wire for it. It’ll start to feel comfortable and your old way of responding will melt away after all those reps of doing it right. That’s what we’re hoping for with this book, Connect with Your Team and Peer Coaching Made Simple, people helping each other do this.

Fred Diamond: I want to acknowledge you both for all the great work you’ve done for so many organizations. Again, we’re talking today about sales teams. I know you obviously talk about larger bits of the organization and bigger organizations as well, but I want to thank you for today’s great answers. I’ll just acknowledge you once again for publishing the book. It’s a fascinating book. It’s a replete with a lot of ideas, things you can specifically do to take your sales leadership career to the next level and to help build your team. Also, like we talked about a lot today, how you could be a better team member. Kudos to you both.

I’d like to wrap it up here as we always do on the Sales Game Changers Podcast with a specific action. You’ve given us 30 great ideas, give us a specific action that people should do right now to take their sales career to the next level. Denny, why don’t you go first, nice and brief and crisp? Then Meredith, you bring us home.

Denny Coates: I think that in order to get started right now to become a better communicator so that your team becomes an elite team, is learn about these aspects of communication. Get the book and begin to read it and find out which skill you want to work on first, because you really need to work on one at a time.

Fred Diamond: Meredith, bring us home, give us an action step people should do. We’ve already heard buy the book. Give us something else specific that people should do to take their sales career to the next level.

Meredith Bell: Find someone to be an accountability partner with you. Pair up with someone so that you work with another individual to help them and yourself improve in a particular skill. Because when you make a commitment to someone else and you meet with them on a regular basis, you are going to be more aware of using that skill and applying it in between the times that you meet with your accountability partner.

Fred Diamond: We have comments here. Donald says, “Thank you so much.” We have Nick. Nick says, “Thank you so much.” Jennifer says, “This was great.” I want to thank, once again, Meredith Bell and Denny Coates for the great insights today on how you could build elite sales teams and how you could be a member of a great elite sales team as well. This is the Sales Game Changers Podcast, my name is Fred Diamond.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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