Charm or No?

READ SHORT STORY BELOW (about 2600 words)

On a scale of one to ten, with 10 being the best, the likelihood that she would court management favor would occasionally encroach negative numbers.

If it was absolutely necessary to work overtime, she might leave early. (Even though she worked overtime, on her own, more than most).

If the Vice President of Sales requested that the next monthly reports provide a sales forecast for 180 days instead of 90, she would be the only sales rep to not do it. Instead, she would submit her regular 90-day report and state that she can’t meaningfully forecast six months ahead and didn’t want to fabricate numbers as a hypothetical exercise.

If it was highly urged that she attend the annual company holiday party and awards presentation — because she was being honored as the top sales rep of the year — she would offer a plausible excuse to be unavailable.

If you only knew of her eccentricities, as told by others, you would wonder how she could hold a job at all.

And yet, the very answer to that would be revealed by meeting her and/or seeing her in action. For in spite of everything, she had one quality which seemed to make everything OK: A certain charm.

She would not only make fun of herself, but at the same time, she seemed to capture those in her vicinity with a warm glow of infectious geniality that would engage even the most distant and introverted engineer or imperious executive with a sense of ease and connectedness.

Having said that — and putting aside any warm and fuzzy stuff — she was also consistently one of the top salespersons in the global company, in spite of routinely disregarding best practices for cultivating top-brass favor. The fact of her routine successes at bolstering the company’s bottom line provided her a level of job security unavailable to most employees. Of course, her lack of managerial respect was an occasional matter of bewilderment to her boss, the VP of Sales.

Yet, if it seemed she wasn’t overly concerned about management, she showed the utmost courtesy to everyone else, especially the engineers, sales assistants, customer support team, shipping crew and even fellow sales reps, who were otherwise notorious for competitiveness.

Josie’s style was her own. She didn’t position herself as the most knowledgeable or product-focused rep, although she seemed to know more than she let on.

Certainly, she was well informed as to the benefits of her company’s business-to-business software-as-a-service. As a 500-person global company, Tribinket Provision Systems, or TPS, was well-regarded for its data science and artificial intelligence solutions for complex business problems. But she let the detailed questions be administered by in-house engineers, especially since those asking the questions were often other engineers from prospective clients. Based upon her experience — and the school of hard knocks — she had learned that a certain amount of men prefer to hear particular answers from other men. So, she leveraged that for mutual benefit.

Nevertheless, her particular focus was on building relationships, not software.

In that regard, Josie excelled at listening. She excelled at listening to everything every prospect had to say, whether related to business or not — including what they weren’t saying. She excelled at listening to what they wanted, what they didn’t want, what they hoped for, what they were trying to solve and always gently probing for cues, verbal or otherwise, about a prospect’s budget realities and what they understood about the competition. Each and every clue could help lead to a closed deal. But most importantly, she excelled at letting them know they were heard. And if she ascertained that her company’s services were indeed an ideal fit, she could bring to bear a seemingly supernatural ability to provide the resources required to prove it and get the contract signed.

But to be clear, her style wasn’t always effective. Case in point, “The Greek” incident, as it came to be known by some of the engineering team, was not one of her finer moments.

Josie had been working for weeks to get Adem Arsian, the owner of a Turkish-American import firm, to visit the TPS main office for a presentation. Arsian’s company imports Turkish fruits, nuts and other edibles and resells them to retailers across North America. He had built a successful business and was arriving as a result of Josie’s urging to explore the potential of streamlining their delivery operations across the continent with TPS software.

She had her team prepare an analysis of specialty food distribution to demonstrate how they could speed up Arsian’s delivery network and save money to boot.

When Arsian and his 3-person team arrived in the lobby, Josie was there to greet them. She gave the visitors a 20-minute tour of their facilities and brought them up to the conference room where she had four engineers waiting to aid her presentation. She also had snacks and coffee, including a tray of baklava, which she had noted from earlier conversations was Mr. Arsian’s favorite dessert. However, unbeknown to Josie (or anyone else not part of the Arsian team), the napkins, which were from the same bakery, stated: “Best baklava in the world” with the bakery’s name. And for those less involved in international relations, the napkins also featured the unnoticed coup de grâce: a Greek flag.

An independent observer would have noted Josie leading Mr. Arsian and his team into the conference room while facilitating introductions among the engineers.

Mr. Arsian was all smiles and jovial until Josie directed his attention to the baklava whereby he immediately frowned and started to turn red. He glanced at his team who were already backing up towards the conference room door.

The Turkish boss could not contain himself and burst out in accusatory anger at Josie, “You brought me all the way here to offer insults!” At first, she wasn’t sure if there was a joke she missed but all doubt was gone when he continued, “The best baklava in the world is from Turkey, not from Greece.” He looked as if he was going to slap her, but instead, he marched towards the door, “Do not ever call my company again!” His group followed down the stairs with Josie catching up trying to grasp the situation while apologizing for anything she did wrong. The parade of indignity marched through the lobby, and out to their car, with Josie still offering apologies, while dozens looked from the building’s windows to the departing vehicle, leaving Josie standing alone in the visitors’ parking area.

Later she learned from the baker that had he known her guests would be from Turkey, he would have advised against Greek baklava as its history represented a point of a centuries-old conflict in the Mideast.

At least the engineers and other employees enjoyed the pastry.

However, the Greek Incident was one of the few exceptions to the rule. She worked hard, she worked smart, she continually brought in new clients for TPS and was the darling of the corporate rank and file.

In three of the past five years she was one of the top two reps in the company and last year she was number one, out of a total of 33 around the world.

And of course, the other contender for the top slot was Brent Brooks.

Josie and Brent were in a league of their own. In recent years, each had been so far ahead of the third-best performing rep, that it was really a two-horse race for number one.

Although they interacted on friendly terms, their styles were notably dissimilar to all who cared to observe, regardless of any knowledge of sales. Brent was a product expert and although he didn’t know as many of the details as the engineers, he was well acquainted with how the software provides benefits to clients and excelled at communicating such with simple analogies. He was friendly and carried himself with confidence. But he considered that the company revolved around him and expected all to cater to his requests with precision and speed. Although he offered training to the other reps, as required by management, here is where his difference with Josie became more apparent.

Brent offered professional training advice with an emphasis on product knowledge. Josie offered practical tips with an emphasis on empathy and sometimes made fun of management, or at least some of their rules she considered trivial. She also went out of her way to help other sales reps close deals, without expectation of anything in return; at least for those who asked for her help.

Anyone who has worked in a corporate environment may respect that any amount of marginalization directed at management may court disfavor from those very persons who might have a say in your future career, not only in the same company but sometimes, even via an unenthusiastic referral to another company in the future.

So, it may come as no surprise that when the VP of Sales was occasionally required to adjudicate the requisition of resources to Brent or Josie when they both were under time pressure at the end of each month, favor would seem to gravitate towards Brett, even if it was not every time.

Make no mistake, the VP of Sales would do his utmost to support all reps, especially Josie and Brent since he made a commission on all sales. Hence, it was in his best interest to ensure each and every sale was closed in as timely a fashion as possible.

But there are times when the reality of logistics limitations or operational challenges establish a seemingly insurmountable barrier.

For example, this year the race for “Top Sales Rep of the Year” was close. Since the fiscal year for TPS ends on the last day of September, it’s also prior to the company’s annual celebration, usually over the second weekend in October, which includes an afternoon of catered BBQ and rented kids’ games for employee families and a Halloween theme. Often the determination of who would win was clear early in September – and sometimes a few months prior.

This year wasn’t that way.

The VP of Sales found himself in a difficult position. His niece was getting married across the country over the final weekend of September and he wouldn’t be available the last Friday, so he asked all the reps to close their final deals a day early so he could approve them before he left. However, he was seasoned enough to know that was not a happy plan for everyone, particularly his top two reps, which meant the office would be without his direction on what could be the most important (stressful) day of the year.

In the last week, Josie had a few deals in the pipeline that needed a final push to close before the deadline. Although the office tension was palpable, she did her best to keep things light, even if tempers occasionally flared as every detail of paperwork had no margin for error and quite a number of reps were demanding attention for their deals.

Every change in client requirements necessitated a rework of costs, delivery expectations, customer service responsibilities, contract rewrites and legal review. Throughout most of the month, any change would result in a routine one-week turnaround. However, at the end of the month and especially the end of the year, each rep wanted things done in 24 hours. Hence, the VP of Sales was mostly acting as an administrative referee adjudicating in real-time the priorities that would get the red carpet treatment and every other deal would simply be updated in the new month on a normal schedule.

Brent had remained confident that he would secure the top spot. He had a big enough contract pending that would clinch his victory and it was already greenlit for red carpet service if any last-second changes were required. At the water cooler, he was overheard telling a new employee that he would take this year’s award – again.

As the days ticked away, Josie put in long hours, calling in favors from engineers, support staff, and even her fellow sales reps. She went above and beyond to ensure her deals would close in time.

Brent noticed Josie’s relentless efforts and couldn’t help but feel a twinge of concern. He knew she had a way of pulling off miracles when it came to closing deals. As the final days approached, and minor delays continued to nettle his big deal, he started to feel the heat.

Like most months, there were always new contracts formally signed, or not, at the last instant. But the final hours of the entire fiscal year often represented a chaotic dance of high hopes and victory vs. despair. Every rep needed changes processed immediately since this was their last chance to bolster their annual figures – and bonuses.

The office tension had reached a fevered pitch. Employees and managers alike were scrambling. Every detail had to be meticulously reviewed, and no one wanted to be blamed for any sales that might fall through due to a departmental oversight or a personal error.

But without the VP Sales playing referee, nerves were getting frazzled as each rep independently made their own demands.

Josie, in her characteristic style, navigated through the chaos by lending a hand where needed and sharing lighthearted stories that provided momentary relief from the mounting stress. She offered impromptu pep talks, not just about closing deals but about working together to meet the looming deadline. Not only for herself but for others, wherever possible.

She also brought in baklava for all.

Amidst the activity, Josie’s ability to connect with her colleagues shone brightly. She listened intently to their concerns, offering words of encouragement and genuine understanding. It wasn’t just about the numbers or the accolades; it was about creating a sense of camaraderie and shared responsibility.

Brent was particularly energized, as there were still tiny client modifications delaying final signatures and he was not averse to throwing his weight around to ensure compliance with his demands for priority service, at the cost of any other pending orders. He was also irritated at the VP of Sales’s nephew. Couldn’t she have picked any other weekend of the year for a wedding? This was the one day, more than any other, that he needed upper management support.

With the VP of Sales unavailable to prioritize, the employees were left to make critical decisions on their own. The pressure was on, but Josie’s warm ways had a soothing effect on the frayed nerves of her coworkers, reminding them that they were all in this together. She also pointed out that the VP of Sales would not be able to hold anyone accountable for what they prioritized, since he wasn’t available. Furthermore, should he dare to point fingers at any department or person for their decisions, she would be a vociferous advocate for their cause – and no one doubted she would.

As Friday came to a close, marking the end of the month and fiscal year, the office continued to buzz. Although the results were still uncertain – the VP of Sales had to approve and confirm the final orders in the new week – one thing was clear: Josie had not only eased tensions but had also forged stronger bonds.

One engineer confided with another that if Josie won, Brent would blame it on the baklava the office was snacking on. “He might not be wrong,” said the other as they chuckled and got back to work.

by George Alger


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