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The Game Before the Game: Lessons for Sales Leaders

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Football is something that I watch occasionally on TV.  The Eagles (“Iggles”) to see what people will be talking about on Monday morning.  An occasional SEC matchup—“Go Dawgs”  and “Roll, Tide, Roll” as I’m folding laundry on a Saturday night. The truth is I’d rather watch reruns of the English Premier League on the Fox Soccer Channel anytime.

So when my youngest son invited me to join him at a Big Ten football game last October I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself in to.  All I knew was that it was going to cost money—my son isn’t at the stage in his life where he can spring for tickets.  But when your  teenage offspring invites you to do anything on a Saturday afternoon (maybe other than relieving him of his duty to cut the lawn) you’ll happily drive 7 hours to do it.

 The prospect of watching a game with 110,000 other people wasn’t quite as daunting as the challenge of parking within walking distance of the stadium. Armed with directions from a local banker, though, I managed to find the designated lot and my son without too much difficulty.

Chris had warned me about the tailgating rituals that accompany all home games. Probably because he didn’t want me to become too familiar with how he and his buddies spent every other Saturday in the fall, he quickly ushered me into Beaver Stadium, home of the Penn State Nittany Lions, a good 90 minutes before kickoff. At least 109,950 fans were still tailgating when we took our seats.

What was unfolding before our eyes was fascinating—the game before the game, the warm-up drills that both the Penn State and University of Michigan teams were engaged in to steel themselves for the contest. This wasn’t a desultory layup drill before an NBA basketball game. These guys were really working up a sweat rehearsing game situations.

Punters were launching 60 yard spirals; running backs were taking pitchouts on simulated sweeps; linebackers and defensive backs were covering pass receivers. To my surprise, there was even some spirited blocking and tackling to prepare for the game.

The coaches—and boy, there were a lot of them—were very much in evidence. The days when football teams had a head coach, an offensive coach, a defensive coach and somebody working with special teams are long gone. I’m guessing that each squad had 12 to 15 coaches, each working with a handful of position players.

Nothing that was going on hadn’t been practiced many times before. The last minute instructions to starters and scrubs alike probably contained no new information. So why such an elaborate pre-game ritual?

There is a physical component to be sure. Stretching under the watchful eyes of trainers is designed to cut down on injuries.  But my hunch is that the real benefit is mental. Coaches are trying to create the focus and discipline that teams need to be successful in pressure situations. Every handoff or passing drill is choreographed with the assumption that this could be “the play” that determines the outcome of a close game.

So what does this have to do with managing a sales team? Aristotle wrote that “We are what we repeatedly do.” While he hadn’t ever seen a Big Ten game either, he was right about the long-term benefits of repetition. If you want your sales team to be ready for their Saturday showdowns, steal this from Joe Paterno’s (or Bobby Bowden’s or Pete Carroll’s or fill-in-your favorite team’s coach’s) pregame playbook:

  1. Work on sales situations with small groups. Role-play if you think it will help people get ready for difficult calls. Simulations inspire confidence.
  2. No matter how many calls your sales team members have made in the past, they need to be mentally prepared for the next one. Their success—and yours—depends upon it. Ask yourself whether you are doing enough to make sure they’re in the right frame of mind.
  3. Great coaches are skilled at breaking things down for their players. You need to show people how to accomplish the task at hand whether it’s getting a first appointment with an elusive prospect or negotiating a loan agreement with a longtime customer. It’s about helping your team master the little details.
  4. Each week you can influence your team through sales meetings and one-on-one coaching. Plan in advance what you need to communicate.  Sales meetings need agendas that drive home the messages that your team needs to hear. Coaching sessions also need to be orchestrated with definite goals in mind.

Treating the game before the game seriously will make your team more successful. And that’s what leadership is all about, whether your team is composed of 300 pound linemen or business bankers.

A postscript: This was October 2008. Penn State prevailed in the game. I found my car in the parking lot. If Chris invites me back for another game, I’ll suggest we get to our seats early to watch the teams warming up.


For more on coaching the prospecting process, check out the new Prospecting Clinic webinar series.  In eight 30 minute sessions you and your team will get practical techniques and tools that will help them in the following areas:

  • Building a prospect list
  • Working effectively with gatekeepers
  • Preparing for the first call on a prospect
  • Getting referrals from satisfied customers
  • What to do on a first appointment with a prospect
  • How to build a relationship with a CPA
  • How to restart the conversation with a prospect after “losing” a deal to the incumbent bank
  • What to do when the prospect stops returning your calls

For more information about the series or to arrange a complimentary preview of “Building a Great Prospect List,” call Susan Lersch at 610-296-4771 or email her at

Are Quarterly 1 on 1 Reviews Micromanagement?


Your team is behind budget. Pipelines aren’t exactly where you think they should be. The economy isn’t making things easier.  So what do you?

While I’ll never discourage prayer—12 years of Catholic school taught me that “Hail Mary’s” occasionally work miracles—let me propose something else.  Regular quarterly reviews give Sales Managers a chance to determine what mid-course corrections are needed. They are another opportunity to drive home the important message that top- line revenue growth is critical to the bank’s success. They encourage team members to discuss their game plan for the next six to twelve months.  And, if you do them right, you will not be found guilty of micromanaging!

To get the most out of these meetings you need to do some homework. For each of your sales people, spend about 30 minutes before the meeting reviewing the following information for the last quarter:

  • Closed business report: Where is the individual versus plan? Where did the business come from? Is it mostly existing customers or do you see some new names? How familiar are you with the customers? Are there any additional opportunities that you should be pursuing?
  • Lost business: Why did we lose the deals? Do you see any patterns?
  • Current pipeline: Over or under target? Is the probability the RM is assigning to closing the business realistic? Do you like the mix of business in the pipeline? Ask yourself again about the sources of business.
  • Calling activity: This is not just about the number of calls made. You should be looking for patterns: Is the individual getting in front of the right customers, prospects and COIs? Is the mix right?

Ask the RMs to come to the meeting prepared to discuss their pipelines and their plans for the next six to twelve months. In addition, ask them to bring their lists of key and high potential customers, COIs and prospects along with any account plans they have done.  This is a coaching session, not a performance review. The focus should be on the future, and what the sales person plans to do going forward to generate more quality leads, close business and build long-term relationships.

Obviously, each one-on-one will be different. The approach you take with a high-performing 20-year veteran will be different from how you handle a bottom quartile rookie. In each case, though, your goal is to reach agreement on three things:

(1)  What specific areas the sales person needs to focus on;

(2)   What concrete things the Sales Manager can do to help the RM meet his objectives; and

(3)  What you both need to monitor/ measure going forward in terms of activities and results.

For example, if you agree that the sales person needs to devote more time to prospecting, you could propose the following next steps:

  • Meet to review the sales person’s prospect list.
  • Select five prospects that the RM hasn’t contacted yet.
  • In your upcoming bi-weekly one-on-one coaching sessions, discuss the sales strategy for each prospect including the game plan for getting the first appointment and plans for the first and second calls.
  • Have the RM schedule a minimum of one prospect call each week for the next month.
  • Debrief each prospect call and review the account plan within 48 hours of the call.

Is this level of detail and follow-up necessary? High performing Sales Leaders break the sales process down into manageable steps. And they definitely follow-through on their plans to help their teams get to the next level.

So get those one-on-ones scheduled. Your team’s success in the last quarter of the year—not to mention next year—depends on it.

Here are some recent blog posts on sales leadership that you might have missed:

  • Pipeline Targets for Relationship Managers: Tips for Sales Leaders
  • Bank Sales Leaders: What Stage Are You In?
  • Coaching the Core
  • Are You Adding Enough Value as a Sales Leader?
  • Advice for Sales Leaders: Simplify the Message on Prospecting

To read these articles—and others on sales leadership-- go to

If you’re looking for a speaker for a bank sales conference, call Ned Miller at 610-296-4772 or email him at



Building a Brand: New Video for Sales Leaders


If you’re managing a team of seasoned bankers, you may have to deal with a brand problem. No, it’s not your bank’s brand. Your people may need your help with their personal brands.

How can you assist the veteran banker whose niche in the good times was making loans to real estate developers and home builders? What if he wants to refocus his energy on a different segment? What coaching would you give him?

Check out Buck Bierly’s thoughts for sales leaders in a new video on our website by going to

You might also find additional ideas in a recent blog post on branding at

Upcoming live webinars:

Is Adding Value Just About Cutting Price?

September 19, 2011 at 11 AM Eastern, 10 AM Central

Many bankers think the key to winning new business is lowering their price. While true in some situations, bankers who sell on price struggle with business customers who value things like quality service and expertise and experience. Join Buck Bierly for a fast-paced discussion on:

  • Understanding tangible and intangible needs
  • The most common value propositions bankers use
  • Why success is about demonstrating how you add value, not talking about it
  • Positioning yourself as an expert in initial meetings
  • Asking the right set of questions matter
  • How to think like a business owner and win more business

Building an Effective Referral Network on October 17, 2011

Strategies for Sales Leaders on Coaching Commercial Relationship Managers in Challenging Times on November 21, 2011

You can register online at or call Susan Lersch at 610-296-4771 to sign up for any of the sessions.


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