You're never supposed to bring up touchy topics like politics or religion in a business setting. It's simply verboten.
Miss Manners would tell you this, and her rationale is excellent. These topics provoke strong emotional reactions, and discussions about them can quickly get out of hand, seriously damaging business relationships. And with all the controversy they stir, these discussions hardly ever change minds.
Yet it's tough to follow Miss Manners' advice about this. Some events are so riveting that avoiding talking about them is essentially impossible. The Cuban missile crisis, John F. Kennedy's assassination, Watergate, O.J. Simpson's trial and eventual acquittal, and the Sept. 11 attacks are all examples of events that captivated almost everyone's attention.
Momentous events like these bring "business as usual" to a screeching halt. Everyday conversations seem trivial, and people's innermost feelings, usually well concealed, quickly rise to the surface. Think back to the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, and how impossible it was to have a conversation about routine business matters--or sports, or office gossip, or any of the hundreds of topics that we chat about at the proverbial water cooler.
Of course, war is one of those events that grabs us by the throat and overwhelms our everyday concerns. But unlike Sept. 11 or Kennedy's assassination, which tended to be unifying experiences, war usually inspires divisive opinions, as do such topics as abortion, affirmative action, and gun control.
As of this writing Americans' attitudes about a possible war in Iraq are clearly divided. According to a recent Gallup Poll, 53 percent of Americans believe the situation merits going to war, 42 percent don't, and 5 percent have no opinion. More than one half of Americans are worried that war could lead to additional terrorist attacks against the United States. So, whatever your feelings are about such matters, about one half of the country disagrees with you.
Quite naturally people's feelings will intensify if and when the shooting starts, especially if the war is prolonged. And the salespeople you manage might find themselves in the midst of an emotional cauldron as they try to go about their daily routines. What advice can sales managers give to their salespeople as they try to conduct business in the midst of such inflamed circumstances?
Set the right example
Understand that you and your reps aren't immune to world events. Like everyone else, you might find your own feelings intensifying. As a manager you must find a way to vent, and it's preferable to do this outside of work. If you are angry or upset at the day's news, find a way to let your emotional concerns dissipate. Write a letter to the editor, discuss things with your spouse, or argue with a friend who is not a coworker. The point is, do something to cool down.
It's important for you to do this because your salespeople may need to vent their feelings to you. After all, it's often better for them to air their opinions or concerns with you rather than with their customers. In fact, these venting sessions might actually offer opportunities to build closer relationships with your salespeople. But the key is to listen to them rather than spout your own opinions.
Some managers make the serious mistake of thinking that their powerful positions give them pulpits from which to broadcast their own political views. But managerial pronouncements on political, moral, or religious topics can shut down communication with sales reps. Remember that two of your most important responsibilities is to provide some sense of emotional equilibrium to your reps and to help them prepare for what they might face with their own customers and prospects.
Help your salespeople understand their role
Many of your best salespeople have established close relationships with key accounts. These relationships frequently extend beyond the boundaries of business--yet they are still different from purely social relationships. Sometimes customers act like your reps' friends, but they have expectations of them that they would not have of their friends outside of business. There is no mantra that states "friends are always right," but everyone knows that "the customer is always right."
In the same way that your salespeople need to vent their feelings to you, customers might want to vent their feelings to your sales reps. When customers bring up touchy subjects, especially if the sales rep has a different viewpoint, a negative situation can quickly develop, and a long-standing relationship may suffer.
When a customer--or anyone for that matter--brings up a point of strong, personal concern, what he or she usually wants is to have these feelings or viewpoints understood or validated. At they very least this customer might just want to talk and have someone listen. These occurrences usually aren't invitations for open exchanges of ideas.
Just as it's important for you to listen to your reps' concerns, you must help your reps understand that their role with customers often requires them to listen and convey understanding. When emotions are high, it's never a good time for debate. But this is hard advice for some sales reps to follow. After all, they are paid to change people's minds, and many of the best reps enjoy doing just that. Also, many are loaded with self-assurance, so they want to convey their opinions.
When we were interviewing sales reps for Discover Your Sales Strengths, one veteran told us about his early days as a salesman in South Carolina during desegregation: "I had just arrived--freshly transplanted from the Northeast--as a brand-new salesperson selling hospital supplies. It was right at the time when the federal courts had mandated the integration of schools and many public facilities, including hospitals. Up until then hospitals had been completely segregated. Even smaller towns that could barely afford to have one hospital had two--one for white patients and another for black patients. As a Yankee, I had never encountered anything quite like it.
"The forced integration of black patients into previously all-white hospitals created an incredibly tense situation, and it was all people talked about as I went from one sales call to the next. As much as I was personally aghast at the idea of segregation, I also realized this was no time to have argumentative discussions with my customers. I also realized I couldn't simply avoid the topic, since on almost every sales call customers initiated discussions about what was going on in their hospital and how people were reacting.
"I quickly learned that when the topic came up, the best tactic was to just keep quiet. I listened to what they said, and I tried my best to understand their perspective, even though it was one I could never personally agree with. After a while I realized my customers didn't necessarily want me to agree with them. They just wanted to have an opportunity to get their feelings off their chests."
The lessons this sales veteran learned more than 40 years ago clearly apply to managers and salespeople as we move precipitously toward war. People with loved ones, friends, or family in harm's way might have strong opinions--either for or against--military action. The intensity of their feelings is understandable.
Great salespeople and great managers alike recognize that there is an opportunity to forge even closer relationships during such occasions. Those relationships will be enhanced by listening to others' points of view, not by defending, arguing, or presenting your own.
Copyright 2003 The Gallup Organization, Princeton, NJ. All rights reserved.
About the Authors
Benson Smith is a consultant, speaker, and author for The Gallup Organization and an expert in the area of sales force effectiveness. Tony Rutigliano is a senior managing consultant, speaker, and author for The Gallup Organization and an expert in the areas of sales force effectiveness, organizational effectiveness, and talent assessment. Smith and Rutigliano are coauthors of Discover Your Sales Strengths: How the World's Greatest Salespeople Develop Winning Careers