Have you ever worked for a company that mangled a great idea into something unrecognizable by measuring too much?
In my second year working in sales for General Electric, my account grew by 500%. A number like that draws attention and I was invited to our corporate office to share my “secrets.”
I had nothing magic to offer — hard work, prospecting, and working with my local field engineers for new leads. The last part got his attention.
“Tell me more about how your field engineers help you sell.”
A Business With Natural Teamwork
Our business sold expensive equipment that required highly trained engineers for installation, startup, and ongoing service contracts.
We had 100 sales reps and 800 field engineers spread across the United States. Customers were often agnostic about the product but purchased from GE based on the talents of a particular field engineer.
In most offices, we had incredible relationships. Our goals were aligned, and we did each other favors on a regular basis.
Sales reps didn’t want to spend days working in manufacturing plants, huddled up in electrical panels. Field engineers had zero interest in our commission plans, prospecting, or dealing with management in weekly status calls.
But we both had a vested interest in securing as much business as possible.
Good sales reps kept field engineer’s billable hours high. Those with the highest billable hours made the most money. Conversely, a field engineer sitting in the office all day becomes expendable.
For the sales rep, hitting the sales quota meant more money and potential for a bonus. But missing quota meant losing your job.
I raved to this executive about my “guys.” I had 9 in our local office, and I loved that crew. When I first started, I spent as much time as I could with them.
Most worked in the industry for 20–30 years. They knew the potential customers and they could tell me how these companies made decisions.
I would be a fool not to tap this wealth of knowledge for help. And they would be silly not to help the new kid, given that my sales kept them busy.
A Process That Didn’t Need Fixing
I started every day by checking in with my field engineers.
- How were their jobs going?
- Did they need my help with anything?
- Did they hear about any new projects coming up?
The best opportunities came from emergency calls. Several engineers were always on-call. If our equipment failed, our engineers made a service call to get the diagnose and solve the problem.
What better time for me to visit a customer than immediately following a stressful event? Most of the time, failing equipment required an upgrade. Cha-ching!
The engineers would often email or text me right from a job site.
“I’m at the Ford plant in Chicago Heights working on a motor. It’s in horrible shape. I told the maintenance manager you would call him.”
I get a lead to follow up on, and the engineer has a potential job that could keep him busy for the month. We made a great team when we communicated like this.
It’s Not a Process Until Someone Takes Credit
After explaining this process of teamwork, I could see the wheels spinning with this executive.
“How can we leverage all of our field engineers in the same way?”
I should have sniffed out what was coming when he slyly replaced the word “teaming” with “leverage.”
“Most sales reps are doing the same thing that I do. We might want to come up with a way to say thanks to the field engineers that are good at this.”
He called several other sales reps who gave him similar feedback, expanding on the working partnership.
Within a month, an email came out to the entire organization. Our business was rolling out a new recognition process where field engineers received credit for leads they offered to the sales team.
At first, this was a marginal win. I felt proud that I was helping our engineers receive much-deserved credit.
At our annual meeting, several of these field engineers received awards in front of the company for being selfless teammates. It was nice to see them get their due.
This story would be beautiful if it ended here, but in business, no good deed goes unpunished. Measuring was about to become “measuring too much.”
Shortly after that meeting, the process had a corporate name. Local teamwork was now officially coined “Field Engineer Lead Generator.”
What came next was not received well.
The Carrot Becomes the Stick
Every field engineer received a monthly “quota” of leads to reach. The dashboard that started as a means to give kudos became a scoreboard.
Field engineers had to attend weekly calls to talk about their leads, just like the sales team. Those lower on the list were harangued as not being team players, even though some of those field engineers at the bottom were among our best for billable hours.
Teamwork was no longer altruistic, it was a forced burden.
The company weaponized the reporting, beating field engineers who weren’t generating enough new business. Some field engineers disdained the process so much that relationships with the sales team were soured.
Other field engineers started taking credit for leads that had nothing to do with them. They might work on a project with three other field engineers and rush to claim the lead. Field engineers fought over who got “credit” when more than one worked on a project.
We were clearly measuring too much, but the situation worsened.
Soon, the corporate brain trust started looking at some sales offices with skepticism. With so much pressure to help the field engineers avoid scrutiny, we were giving “lead” credit on just about every new sale (deserved or not).
Now I had to get on another call to explain why I wasn’t prospecting.
“Well, it looks like 100% of your business is coming from field engineer leads. If this is accurate, why do we need a sales rep in that territory?”
It was a classic example of corporate greed destroying a good thing.
Are you measuring too much?
This is a step-by-step process of corporate greed going unchecked:
- Executive introduces a new initiative.
- The new initiative appears to generate early returns.
- Executive brags about his great process to senior executives.
- Executive gives it a catchy name to brand his great accomplishment, maybe something like “Do it right the first time.”
- Senior executives approve, then raise the executive’s budget for the next year. Imagine what they can do with a full year!
- The executive doubles down and starts measuring too much.
- Front-line employees are probed and micro-managed until every drop of juice is squeezed from the golden apple, along with employee morale.
That initiative almost tore the company apart. Two years later, a new VP abolished the process, hoping to make his mark with a new initiative.
Greed often starts with good intentions and twists into something unrecognizable over time. I’ve written about why teams hide bad news from their manager. But in a business with executives who behave as they did in this story, your team will quickly start to hide good news as well.
For executives and managers, if you find a great idea from the front line, keep talking with those people during implementation. Understand the consequences before you start to measure, report, and compare people.
Just like that third plate at a buffet, measuring too much can have similar consequences in business.
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