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5 Sales Management Lessons From The Office

5 Sales Management Lessons From The Office

Michael Scott put Scranton, PA on the map. The lovable buffoon at the helm of Dunder Mifflin’s highest-performing branch entertained us weekly with his own delusional brand of comedy-based leadership.

He may not have known a thing about diversity or sensitivity, but if you look close enough, he had plenty to teach us about managing salespeople.

The Importance of Sales Coaching

For all of the crazy antics the self-proclaimed World’s Best Boss got himself into, Michael Scott earned his job as Branch Manager of Dunder Mifflin Scranton. He was so successful as a salesman that he was named Salesman of the Year two years in a row. Over the years, he takes advantage of his opportunities to show off his skills. Three examples, in particular, come to mind.

Closing the Big Deal

On one occasion Jan, one of Michael’s corporate bosses, is skeptical of Michael’s work ethic and methods. He starts his morning on a call with a client named Brent Coselli and uses the opportunity to try out his Bill Cosby impression. He talks to him throughout the day to close the deal. Despite his quirkiness and his utter lack of productivity otherwise, Coselli faxes over the contracts for the “huge sale.”

Reading the Situation

Later on, Jan and Michael woo a huge client at Chili’s — all of Lackawanna County. The meeting was originally scheduled for the Radisson, but as Michael says:

Michael: Here's the thing. Chili's is the new golf course. It's where business happens. Small Business Man Magazine.

Jan: It said that?

Michael: It will. I sent it in. Letter to the editor.

NBC's The Office Season 2

Photo from NBC's The Office showing a business meeting at a restaurant chain

While Jan has a plan for controlling the conversation and getting straight to the point, Michael reads the client and the situation and changes course. After a joke emergency, Michael eventually gets the conversation flowing over Awesome Blossom and Babyback Ribs. By the end of the evening, Michael gets the sale and the girl.

Throwing a Party

At the Northeastern Mid-Market Office Supply Convention, Michael spent his time planning the party that would have the whole convention talking. With his colleagues admonishing him to use his time wisely, he had the proper read on the situation, understanding why people come to these conventions — to have a good time.

His party wasn’t exactly a hit, but in sales, we all know that it’s not the quantity of the leads that matters, it’s the quality. He entertained a representative from Hammermill and signed them to a momentous deal.

Jan: “Well Michael, I underestimated you.”

Michael: “Yeah, well, maybe next time you will estimate me.”

NBC's The Office Season 3

Photo from NBC's The Office showing a business convention

The Lesson? Lead by Example

Clearly, Michael had the sales chops to lead and inspire his staff. His team saw him doing these things and, despite the quirkiness of Michael’s actions, everyone saw that he achieved the desired result. He led by example and encouraged his staff to achieve the same results.

The lesson here is clear. To manage yourself effectively, you must provide encouragement and enrichment opportunities. Be willing to put yourself out there for the sake of the sale, and show your sales staff how to close a deal. Be humanistic in your approach, and let your staff see this. Lead by example and help your sales staff grow and reach their full potential. Remember that you’re all in this together, so your staff’s quotas are your quotas.

Staying Focused

Michael Scott never passed up an opportunity to bring the staff together and take the very small, imaginary stage. Ruining any semblance of momentum or productivity with inappropriate discussions about all sorts of sensitive topics, Michael is the king of manufactured drama. Wasting your team’s time with useless meetings is a productivity killer, and that’s even before you get into the black hole of Movie Mondays.

Michael also could distract his employees without even pulling them away from their desks. When he found the new love of his life in a chair catalog, the entire office was pitched in an effort to help him find this woman. This was an entire day of work lost for the whole office. Of course, he did find his dream woman — in the local cemetery.

Michael Scott never passed up an opportunity to throw a party. Holidays are one thing, but welcoming back staff or throwing a huge parking lot carnival to send off his arch nemesis Toby pushes his love of parties into time-waster territory. In defense of Movie Mondays, Michael told Jan “People work faster after...to make up for the time they lost watching the movie.” Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it.

When times get tough, though, sometimes your staff needs to be distracted. In the case of the impending demise of Dunder Mifflin, Michael busted out a murder mystery game to keep everyone’s mind off their uncertain future. Jim fought tooth and nail, but Michael proved to him why it was the right call. (I do declare!)

Above all else, Michael needed to be the center of attention. Sometimes — okay, a lot of the time — that need to be inconvenienced the entire office. A good boss allows his sales staff to shine, rather than hogging the spotlight for himself.

The Lesson? In This Case, Don’t Be Like Michael Scott

The here lesson is to not follow Michael’s example. Good sales managers know how to rally their team and keep them focused — especially a challenge in the high-performance, highly competitive environment of a sales team.

Photo from NBC's The Office showing a a businessman

Anticipate the distractions and pitfalls that will sidetrack your staff and prevent them from reaching their quotas, and nip them in the bud before they have a chance to flower. While every staff needs things like team-building, picnics and group events, the general goal is to keep everyone focused on the tasks at hand.

Avoiding distractions also requires you to develop a rock-solid sales plan and proven process. Help your sales staff keep their eyes on the prize. Keeping your processes streamlined will cut down on the time your sales staff spends on paperwork and administrative tasks. Communicate clear expectations to your staff to help them focus on the process and the goals. Plain language that explains sales commission compensation can also keep your sales staff focused. We only get so many hours in the day, and your competitors are maximizing their time. Make sure you are maximizing yours.

A Good Manager Doesn't Fire People — He Hires People & Inspires People

For all his faults, Michael Scott cares about his employees. As he told David Wallace, his greatest weaknesses are “Sometimes I work too hard. I care too much. And sometimes I can be too invested in my job.” Shameless false modesty aside, Michael’s best moments of his seven years on the show were the moments when he showed just how much he cared.

Michael’s biggest stage is the most prestigious awards show in all of Scranton. Every year, the employees of Dunder Mifflin Scranton get together at any restaurant that will still have them. Awards are presented for Whitest Sneakers and Longest Engagement. The skits are bad, and the song parodies are cringe-worthy. But how many of these employees were ever going to get an award in their lives? How many Dundies served to boost confidence? Okay, maybe none. But Michael’s heart was always in the right place.

When Michael left Dunder Mifflin to start up the Michael Scott Paper Company, Pam followed. Her only condition: she wanted to be a salesperson. Michael agreed, and he never thought of her as a receptionist again. He believed in the ability of all his employees to reach their full potential, whether they think they have that potential or not.

When Michael left, he gave Andy his ten largest clients. He showed confidence in Andy despite Andy’s own lack of self-confidence.

Andy: You know I'm the worst salesman here right?

Michael: But you're the best salesman on the inside.

Phyllis: What does that even mean?

Michael: You sold us all on Andy, a product that nobody wanted.

NBC's The Office Season 7

Dwight tried to make a play for Michael’s job after Jan caught the office enjoying Movie Monday. When Jan spilled the beans, Michael had Dwight at his mercy. Rather than firing him, Michael punished Dwight with some chores and made him promise never to do it again. Then later, when Dwight took the fall for Angela missing a deadline, Michael reached out to him and brought him back from Staples.

Through all the madness, the Scranton office was consistently the highest performing branch in the company. Clearly, Michael’s methods worked. CFO David Wallace said it himself: “You guys are the only thing about this company that works.”

The Lesson? Trust Your Staff

Managing your sales staff is not always about having the right answer. It’s about trusting in your staff. Michael put it best when he said “And I knew exactly what to do. But, in a much more real sense, I had no idea what to do.”

Image from NBC's The Office showing a businessman

Michael clearly cares a great deal about his employees, and his management style is best described as “trying too hard to be friends with his employees.” While we don’t advocate crossing as many lines as Michael does, a good manager does care deeply about the success and welfare of their employees. A happy office is a productive office, so never lose sight of office morale.

Coaching up your employees also requires you to recognize that each member of your team has a distinct set of strengths and weaknesses. A good manager knows how to play to his team’s strengths. Process and planning are important, but forcing everyone into the same mold is a recipe for failure. Take the time to get to know your team. Recognize the strengths they have and build them up and coach them in their areas of weakness.

A Good Manager Doesn't Fire People — He Hires People & Inspires People

No, this section heading isn’t a typo. Every manager has two roads before them, each leading to opposite ends of the ideological spectrum: person-focused or data-driven. Too much of either can be a bad thing.

We are well past any discussion of the influence computer technology has had and will have on the world of business. These days it is a ubiquitous tool being put to good use in every industry. Smart businesses incorporate data into every decision they make, but like fire, it makes a much better servant than a master.

There’s also a downside to focusing too much on the human factor. Data provides an objective input to help guide your decisions. Michael never let data drive his decision-making. At times it was tough to figure out just what was driving his thought process at all.

Michael was the king of the human resources seminar disaster. Who could forget Michael Klump and Prison Mike? It was absolutely not Michael’s place to have those discussions, even if his heart was in the right place. Some other highlights include his talks on diversity and disability, where he brought in wheelchair-bound Billy as a guest speaker. His goal that day was to garner sympathy for the burn he sustained on his foot at the hands of his George Foreman grill while trying to cook bacon in bed.

At Beach Day, Michael’s main objective was to test his staff members to decide who would replace him after his triumphant promotion to corporate. Amazingly, he did intend to make a data-driven choice. How did he incorporate data into his decision? He set up a Survivor-style competition between Jim, Dwight, Stanley and Andy. They picked teams and completed a series of challenges. The old spoon-on-the-egg blindfold race, the sumo competition and the world’s worst hot dog eating contest.

So how did the leaderboard stand before the coal walk?

Michael: ...who's ahead in points?

Pam: I think they're even. At various times you gave Jim ten points, Dwight a gold star, and Stanley a thumbs-up. And I don't really know how to compare those units.

Michael: Check to see if there is a conversion chart in that notebook.

Pam: I really doubt it, Michael.

Michael: Please just check.

NBC's The Office Season 3

That’s Michael’s idea of a data-driven decision.

The Lesson? Strike a Balance Between Data-Driven and People-Driven

A company, branch or a sales staff that focuses solely on data and ignores people won’t get very far. But based on this example, it’s also clear to see that ignoring data is never a good decision and will produce poor results. As a manager, it’s critical to balance these two poles and let them work together instead of against one another.

Caring About Employees

There’s no doubt Michael cares about his employees. At one point, he says, “The most sacred thing I do is care and provide for my workers, my family. I give them money. I give them food. Not directly, but through the money. I heal them.”

Image from NBC's The Office showing wedding party

Time and time again, Michael comes through for his employees. After Pam’s disappointing night at her art show, Michael showed up and absolutely gushed about her drawing of their office building. He came through with the right show of encouragement at exactly the right time, which meant everything to Pam.

On his way out the door (the second time), he made an extraordinary effort to have a meaningful moment with each and every employee on the day “before” his departure.

It could be said that he cares about a fault. He tried so desperately to be a part of Phyllis’s wedding day. It might have gotten him kicked out, but at least he found her Uncle Al. Pam and Jim’s big day certainly wouldn’t have been the same without Michael’s unique brand of friendship.

The Lesson? Care About Your Staff

No one wants to work for a robot. Does that mean that as a manager you have to be everyone’s best friend? Of course not. But don’t forget that your employees are people, too. Take the time to develop meaningful relationships with them, and you’ll find that your staff is happier and more productive.

Managing Is an Improvisation

Not everyone has a concrete plan for managing salespeople. A good manager does have a lot in common with Michael Scott’s performer persona. Juggling responsibilities, leadership styles, and objectives, a good manager adapts to every situation.

Leading a sales team isn’t about being the best salesman in the room. It’s about using the tools available to you to put your team in the position to reach their full potential, whether you are talking about a sales commission software or the personal strengths of your individual team members.

Michael may not have been the world’s best boss or even the best role model. But he certainly taught us a lot in his own unique way.

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