In a previous position responsible for a 500-store AT&T Authorized Retail chain, I earned a reputation for always using the tagline, “Simply Insist.”
“Simply Insist” might seem a bit odd at first. After all, we often hear that our job as business leaders is to motivate and inspire our people. “Take care of your employees,” Sir Richard Branson says, “and they will take care of your business.” Business journals are abundant with articles talking about Servant Leadership, and Glassdoor asks employees to “rate the CEO,” as if she or he were running for Congress.
Supporting our employees and treating them equitably is critical, of course. Moreover, it is important to be humble, if that’s the true meaning of “servant leadership,” rather than to berate your people the way Alec Baldwin did in that famous clip from the movie, Glengarry Glen Ross. Leaders should also be open to employee feedback.
However, excessive emphasis on inspiration and motivation can sometimes deflect attention from the full range of a CEO’s responsibilities. Specifically, a CEO has 5 ‘Key Jobs’: (1) Articulating a Clear Vision; (2) Putting the Best People in the World in the Right Seats; (3) Owning Key Relationships; (4) Knowing the Company’s Cash Position; and (5) Committing the Company to Continuous Learning.
Those who are overly attentive to motivating alone can often find themselves distracted from ‘Jobs’ #1 and #2 above – Vision and People. What if we focused less of our energy on encouraging, persuading and explaining; and invested more of it instead in articulating a clear vision, and building a team that is 100% committed and able to carry it out?
As Jim Collins wrote: “People are not your greatest asset. The right people are.” Ultimately, Collins concludes, “the right people on the bus are ‘self-motivated’.”
My “Simply Insist” slogan was influenced by this very philosophy. Specifically, if you define a clear and reasonable outcome, if you have Jim Collins’ definition of the right people on the bus, and if you empower your leadership team, what would stop you from “simply insisting?”
The specific origin of my “Simply Insist” tagline dates to a time when the wireless market was undergoing a profound transformation following the introduction of the iPhone. As recently as 2012, smartphones held a mere 35% share of the US market. (Watch a 10-year-old movie and you will see nothing but flip phones). As AT&T spurred us to increase the share of smartphones we sold, they sharply increased compensation on smartphones and on calling plans with large data packages. Our company could earn considerably more on the largest data plans with “Wi-Fi Hotspot” capabilities. At the same time, compensation on basic or feature phones, and lower-sized data plans, were lowered drastically.
While larger smartphone data plans and Wi-Fi Hotspots are commonplace today, six years ago AT&T’s strategic shift was a big shock to wireless retailers: our business models would have to evolve. It was clear that the retailers that pursued this quickly would take advantage of a tremendous upside in the form of growing profit margins. Those that evolved too slowly would see their profitability dwindle.
We took a sample portfolio of our stores, and pushed aggressively to increase our smartphone market share, while ensuring that at least 25% of our smartphones carried the highest compensating “Hotspot” data plan. We offered intensive training, adopted new retail commission plans to incentivize what we wanted, and replaced store and district managers who stubbornly and demonstrably refused to embrace the new vision. Within a couple months, this trial portfolio of stores was leading AT&T nationally in both smartphone percentage and Hotspot attachment rate, and gross profits were through the roof. These stores even surpassed the goal of 25% Hotspot sales.
With these results, we decided to roll out the strategy nationally to all stores, and at first, it was met with considerable internal resistance. It was a fairly aggressive shift in the way our salespeople did business – going from “order takers” of basic and feature phones that were inexpensive, to asking qualifying questions and engaging in “top down selling” on devices and calling plans that cost more.
The good news was that they were offering something that customers needed and wanted – the ability to own a smartphone and use it without strict data limits; and furthermore, to pair their laptops to their phones if there were away from home.
The only bad news, really, was that it took some salespeople out of their comfort zones – especially on the very new Hotspot data plans. However, to hit our benchmark of 25% attachment, nearly 7 out of 10 smartphone customers could say “no thanks” when offered the plan, and the salesperson would still be considered an all-star with a 30% Hotspot attachment rate. Our salespeople simply needed to learn to talk about the new products, offer them professionally to every customer, and feel comfortable being told “no” most of the time. Similarly, District Managers needed to put employees in place who would absorb the training and engage in the new selling activities. Requests for role-playing and coaching should be respected, excuses from those who didn’t want to try should not be. My favorite excuse of “no one around here wants this,” usually elicited the same response from me every time: “Are you saying that before smartphones were invented and before AT&T launched a Hotspot data plan, everyone who didn’t want them already realized it, and decided to move near your store?” Without saying the exact words, I was simply insisting that our people try.
It was in the context of our strategy that my “Simply Insist” slogan was officially born. Shortly after the national rollout of our new strategy, I was listening to one of our more thoughtful Regional Directors (responsible for about 40 stores) give his quarterly portfolio review. His Hotspot attachment rate was terribly low, and it wasn’t improving. After hearing me question why store after store was lower than our target, the Regional Director asked me in exasperation, “How do you suggest that I get my store managers to accomplish this?” My response, without hesitation, was, “Simply Insist.”
While the Regional Director in question would later admit to being both flustered and frustrated by my response, he quickly realized what I meant: Show his salespeople and leadership how it’s done, ask them to do it, and if they can’t or don’t want to do it, put people in place who will get it done. He took the advice, and soon thereafter his market was among the highest performers in the company. In retrospect, the Regional Director reacted by clarifying our goal (Vision), providing the tools required for success, and upgrading his District and Store Managers to include only those who were “self-motivated.” In this case, they were self-motivated by the higher commissions and bonuses offered to those who hit our targets, and by the natural desire to see the team succeed. Not only did we win as a company, but our successful employees were handsomely rewarded for it.
In this case, I knew my Vision was both reasonable and achievable. It was reasonable because growing our profitability required that we make the shift. It was achievable because we had already proven that another portfolio of stores could get it done under capable regional leadership. If I had been overly sensitive to calls for empathy, due to the difficult nature of learning new things; and if we had taken a different approach other than “simply insisting,” we would have watched while another AT&T Authorized Retailer figured it out. Instead, we were the first to lead, we reaped the first financial windfall, and we were recognized as the leading Authorized Retail chain at that time. You can also bet that it wasn’t the last time that I used the slogan, “Simply Insist.”
Think about your own business. Are you passing up opportunities to “Simply Insist,” and therefore settling for less than you are capable of achieving?
Chris Larkins is a Partner at CEO Coaching International, a long-time active member of YPO, and has led large and complex businesses in retail, consumer services and manufacturing.