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How listening into sales calls can give you that “back to the floor” experience

Rory Shedden is one of Tenzing’s Sherpas, a team of commercially experienced talents deployed into our portfolio businesses. In this article, he reveals how listening to sales calls can be the closest thing your company’s leaders can get to a virtual “Undercover Boss” experience.

Before the TV show “Undercover Boss”, there was “Back to the Floor”, where a CEO would spend a week working on the front line of their business. Watching it as a (slightly geeky) teenager, I remember being fascinated at the disconnect between the choices a leader had made in the boardroom and the reality they encountered.   

How those leaders reacted to these experiences was insightful. Often the CEO would witness the unintended consequences of well-intentioned decisions they had made. Other times they’d be humbled as they learnt how the most diligent of staff found ways to persevere around those. Occasionally, the executive would dig in and argue that the challenges they witnessed were unavoidable. Each episode would close with the boss reporting back to their leadership team with their take on what the audience had just watched.

There’s a lot to be said for regularly stepping away from your desk. It helps you understand how things actually work and affect your staff on a day-to-day basis, to gain the right insights to improve customer experience and business performance. In rapidly growing PE-backed companies, it’s easy even for the most focused Founder or CEO to lose touch with the reality on the front line.  

Know – and share – the who, why, when, how and what

Now, I’m not suggesting every business leader go undercover on the production line. But getting back to the floor is worthwhile. A great place to start is listening in to sales calls. This is especially true in growth-focused PE-backed businesses where it’s so important to be optimising your sales process. 

There’s no reason for this to be covert. In fact, it’s best to be completely honest. Make your sales teams aware this is something you’re doing. As well as why, how often, who exactly is doing it, and what you plan to do with any feedback. 

So let’s go through some of those key points. We covered off some of the ‘why’ when we talked about the merits of the “Back to the Floor” concept. For me, it’s one of the closest things you can have to that “front line” experience. It’s about getting a feel for what your sales teams are doing, how they’re doing it, and how your customers or prospects react and interact with them.

Because when you’re in a senior role, it’s easy to hypothesise about the best ways to sell or present the value proposition. But actually having to say those words out loud to a complete stranger you’ve just cold-called is really difficult.

Even as a silent listener, hearing the recipient bristle and push back can be uncomfortable. So regularly listening in breeds empathy with what the sales teams are doing and how hard their job is. 

Equally, it’s a fantastic opportunity to see how the business truly operates. Does the value proposition resonate with prospects? Are we consistent in our messaging? Should we be more standardised? Is our selling method and technique appropriate? Could it be more consistent between different salespeople? Should it be less consistent between different salespeople to play to their strengths? Does it feel like we’re following a script? These are all elements of the sales process that could be enhanced or fine tuned just by listening in.

Then you can turn that lens around to say, “Well, how does this process work for our prospects and customers? How do they feel? What are the right metrics we should track for them rather than for us? Are there any ways to reduce friction in the customer journey?”

Again, it’s easy to hypothesise from the boardroom on what metrics we need to track for sales to be successful. But hearing the real live voice of the customer or prospect is much more powerful. 

No science behind it – just consistency and action

How often should you be listening to sales calls and what should you do with feedback? Dipping in for 20 minutes a day for a few days is pretty compelling. In my role at MPLC, I got access to shadow the calls of a selection of the sales team for 10 days. Most phone systems have the functionality to do this without needing to invest in any new technology. I kept a list of live calls on my monitor. If I had 10 or 15 minutes between tasks then I would just click on them and listen in. There’s no real science behind it.  

I would deliberately only make generic notes about what I heard, not about the specific person or who they were talking to. This shouldn’t be about an anonymous Big Brother looking to catch anyone out for making a mistake. I then share my insights with leadership. We discuss where we could adjust our approach, train and invest more in our people, and help them grow and develop.

Getting buy-in from senior leadership to go “back to the floor”

There will be some who say, “I’m not in sales. I don’t need to do this.”

But, arguably, all senior leadership should take part in this type of programme. It shouldn’t matter whether or not they’re in a sales or client-facing role. 

If you’re in a back office role, it’s arguably even more important to understand the front of the business. You never know, the legal team may realise they can simplify the T&Cs to smooth the buying journey. Or the IT team may notice small system changes which would make it quicker for the sales team to get the data they need and close a deal. The opportunities are endless.

I once worked in a business which serviced companies large and small all around the country. The top 100 or so people in the company had to spend a day a year on a delivery van to be eligible for their bonus. It helped ensure every person around the table in a meeting had insight into the reality of the business.   

The experience should demonstrate that there is a culture of learning, openness and collaboration. There’s no reason you couldn’t also have staff job swapping or shadowing other teams for a broader learning experience. But, in private equity, where the aim is to grow a business quickly, improving the sales process is usually the top priority. 

So, I’d encourage you to ask yourself and your team how much you truly understand the way staff on the front line do their job. What are their challenges and how you would feel if you were a prospect or customer? 

If you haven’t spent any time on the floor recently then chat to IT, slip on a headset and get ready to listen and learn! 

Our Sherpas deliver strategic projects that help our portfolio firms grow faster. Find out more about them here


Picture of Rory Shedden

Rory Shedden

Rory Shedden is one of Tenzing’s Sherpas; a team of experienced commercial talents who are deployed into our portfolio businesses early in their cycle to help the business grow sooner and faster. He loves working in companies going through rapid change and is fascinated by company culture and how it can make or break the success of a business.
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