Circulate Among the Troops
"His cardinal mistake is that he isolates himself, and allows nobody to see him; and by which he does not know what is going on in the very matter he is dealing with."
- Abraham Lincoln's reason for relieving General John C. Fremont from his command in Missouri - Sept. 9, 1861.
President Lincoln wrote the above words to the man he was appointing to replace General Fremont. The new general would make no mistake about what was required of him: Get out there and circulate among the troops.
Elected by a minority vote, with no executive or management experience, President Lincoln took office shortly after seven Southern states seceded from the Union. It was a disastrous time in our country. His predecessor, James Buchanan, left the White House declaring, "I am the last United States president." Yet, Lincoln led the country to the end of the Civil War and to an undivided nation.
Lincoln was a hands-on leader, and by his concern, compassion and direct involvement, he earned the trust and respect of the American people-particularly, the Union soldiers.
Lincoln understood what the soldiers were going through on the front lines. In 1861, he spent more time on the battlefields than in the White House. He visited the wounded, he counseled with the generals and he saw firsthand the results of his and their decisions. He was kind and affable, and wholly supportive of the troops. He acknowledged them as performing "the hardest work in support of the government." And the soldiers loved him for his appreciation of their sacrifices.
In his book, "Lincoln on Leadership," Donald T. Phillips writes, "One of the most effective ways to gain acceptance of a philosophy is to show it in your daily actions. In order to stage your leadership, you must have an audience. By entering your subordinate's environment-by establishing frequent human contact-you create a sense of commitment, collaboration and community. Many leaders in today's complex work settings would argue that they couldn't spend the amount of time Lincoln did with his subordinates. But, then again, they're not trying to win a war. Or are they?"
Bill Raymond is a big fan of Abraham Lincoln. He is the president of a contracting company in Peekskill, N.Y., and a first-rate trainer and life-long student of business. He gave me a copy of "Lincoln on Leadership" because we share an appreciation of the great American statesmen.
Raymond has Lincolnesque leadership skills. He's a hands-on manager and he isn't afraid to get in the game. He is a firm believer in "the ride along."
The ride along
"How do I know what's happening in the field if I don't ride along with my techs? It's expected that I will get out there and get in the game," Raymond explains.
"The techs are really the ones who pushed me into ride alongs. I tried imposing new sales techniques and customer service standards, and they would say, ‘You don't know what it's like out there! That will never fly in the real world.' But, I wasn't getting anywhere sermonizing from the training room. So, one day I put on a service uniform and hopped into a truck with one of my techs.
"Here's what I discovered," he continues. "As a manager, what you think is happening out there, well, it's not. It's downright scary what goes on in the field. And it's not that the techs aren't trying or willing to do the right thing. It is just an incredibly difficult position. We need them to be sales professionals with great communication skills. We need them to have finely honed technical skills. We are asking our techs to be superhuman.
"You can't just sit back in your cozy office and say, ‘Sell more!' You have to discover what's going on with each technician, and help him get better at handling these situations."
Excuses for not riding along:
• The tech won't act the same with me along as he would without me. He'll just put on a show. What good is that?
• I don't have time!
• He'll think I don't trust him.
• I don't know what I would say.
These objections are just fear talking.
Bill Raymond calls these moments, "fear junction." He says, "The best way to combat fear is with pain. When the pain becomes big enough, then you'll be willing to change. A 1-percent increase in billable hour efficiency makes a $35,000 difference in my bottom line in one year. For me, discovering the lost dollars associated with my billable hour efficiency was painful enough for me to overcome my fear of riding along."
Here's a potentially painful exercise: Start tracking the closing rate on sales calls. Divide the number of sales calls where you get the job and do the work by the number of calls run. Consider that more than 90 percent of all customers get someone to do the work. What's your closing rate?
If your closing rate is less than 90 percent, opportunities are burning up ... and potential billable hours. If the closing rate is hovering at 50 to 60 percent, why do any more marketing? You are just going to blow half of those calls. You better find out why you aren't getting the sale. And the way to do that is to ride along.
Rules and recommendations
Before you hop in the truck, prepare yourself and make a plan for the ride along. Here are Bill's recommendations.
What's the goal of the ride along? Ride alongs provide a great opportunity to "bond." However, don't forget that the number-one reason you ride along is to help field techs improve their performances. Therefore ...
Get current performance data. Raymond asks, "How is this tech doing? What are his average sale, closing rate and total sales numbers? How do his numbers match up to goal and budgeted figures? Get the facts. And pick a statistic. What performance measure do you want to improve?"
Use simple, standard systems for sales and troubleshooting. Do you have a formal sales training program at your shop? Do you have a written diagnostic checklist?
"It makes it much easier to communicate if you are all using the same vocabulary and systems," Raymond says. "Take sales and technical training classes together. And apply what you learn together in the field."
Use a checklist. Document what you are looking for in the field. Does your company have service standards? Go over the checklist with your techs ahead of time so they understand their priorities.
Suit up. Walk a mile in his shoes. In fact, wear the uniform, shoes and shirt-the whole nine yards. Bill says, "When I put on the service uniform, you bet my techs check it out. Wearing the uniform gives you more credibility with your techs."
Communicate your purpose and expectations. "I tell my technicians, ‘I'm here to help you. And you're going to teach me something today.'"
When to go: "Schedule one day each week to ride along. Stick with the crew for the whole day. You can't judge a crew's skills on just one call. They might be uncomfortable, so make a day of it. Give them a chance to loosen up."
With whom: "Start out with your under-performing techs. If someone has a low closing rate, that's a priority. However, don't neglect to go with your top techs. They can teach you a lot about what's working. Often, we ignore our best people. They need support and acknowledgement, too."
Basic game rules: Look, listen and learn. "You can't learn anything if you are doing all the talking," Raymond says. "My job is to keep my mouth shut and observe." Also, stay and work. Pitch in to get the work done.
What to watch for: "How does he greet the customer? How does the tech reduce the duress and gain the trust of the customer? This can be subtle. Look for indicators that the customer is relaxing and starting to trust and like the tech: smiling, laughing, breathing easily, and talking easily. Or negative indicators: frowning, not talking, arms folded across his chest."
Other items to watch for...
• Did the tech ask good, information-gathering questions?
• Did he talk too much? Too softly? Did he really listen to the customer?
• Did he stand too close? Did he use positive eye contact?
• Did he use the price book?
• How did he present the company?
• How did he handle objections?
• Did he complete the paperwork quickly and accurately?
• Was he efficient with his trips to and from the truck?
• Did he have all the tools and parts needed?
• Did he present add-on items, upgrades or service agreements?
• Did he check the work afterward and communicate that to the customer?
How to give feedback: "Wait until the call is complete and the work is all done," Raymond suggests. "Then, radio the dispatcher to let him know that you'll be out of the loop for an hour. Go get coffee, or stop for lunch.
"Use your checklist to organize your comments. Then, break down each point of the sales process. If it went well, have the tech relive the ‘win.' If it went poorly, have the worker analyze what went wrong and what could have been done differently. Go through the technical trouble shooting process the same way.
"There are behaviors that will help the sales process, and the troubleshooting process. And there are behaviors that will shoot you in the foot every time. Pinpoint the behaviors that help, and practice them in a ‘role play.' Then, try them out on the next call.
"And let the field tech talk. The more time you spend together, the easier it is for the tech to trust you, and share vital information about what really works and doesn't work in the field.
"The ride along is a great opportunity to get to know each other," Raymond continues. "Learn about his kids and hobbies. One of my workers said, ‘I've been working here a long time but never really knew you.' It made me feel good to finally connect with this guy on a personal level.
"You can't motivate people to do what you want them to do. But you can create a culture where people want to play the game your way. If things aren't going right in the field, there is one person to blame: yourself. You can blame yourself for not training, for not holding people accountable and for not creating a compelling vision for your team. One of my techs said that working for Frank & Lindy is like being a Navy SEAL. He said it proudly, meaning it in the best way. That's the culture I want to develop."
Bill concludes, "We expect more and more from our service technicians. We want them to be kind, polite, helpful, punctual, clean living, and technical wizards-with a great driving record. Gosh, we even expect them to smell good! We are demanding a lot of our workers. The least you can do is get out there and appreciate their efforts."
Abe would be proud of Bill.