Turning Failures Into Opportunities For Improvement With Ed Eppley

When somebody in your organization fails or commits mistakes, do you instantly blame them? Or do you do something about it? Great leaders know how to turn failures to opportunities for improvement. Listen to this episode as Lance interviews his former coach, mentor, and business partner, Ed Eppley, founder, and president of The Eppley Group. They spend forty minutes recognizing and analyzing the entrepreneurial aspect of sales. Here, they touch on viewing failure as a signal to improve the process, where companies fail in their sales efforts, and two of the toughest challenges business owners will face in creating a high-performance sales organization. You’ll want to come back to this episode several times as you build out the blueprint for building your own sales team. So tune in and make a difference in your organization!

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Against the Sales Odds and Ed Eppley Reveal How to Turn Failures Into Opportunities For Improvement

I am probably excited about this. I’m always confused whether I’d call this an episode or series number because it didn’t start being this ultimately long thing, but it’s gone the distance against the sales odds. To say that the person I have on with me is not only one of my dearest friends but also a mentor and a coach to me, somebody we have been locked in legally in businesses together. We were formerly married. I’d like to welcome Ed Eppley. He’s the Owner of The Eppley Group. We go back a very long way to 2003 or ’04. Ed, tell everybody a little bit about who you are. What do you do? This one’s going to be a little bit different than we normally do.

I’m a farm boy who got lucky and made it into the world of training and development, a chance to be an entrepreneur and work with some great people, including yourself, Lance. What I do is work with teams, executives, owners and their teams. I try to help them be less political with each other, run better meetings, put the real issues on the table that they need to and deal with them with hopefully less collateral damage than there otherwise would be.

Ultimately, I find what people pay me for. When it’s all said and done, though, I make what appear to be complex things simple. I help them understand their talent around the table and whether they’re sufficient to let them get to where they’re trying to take the business. The last thing they pay me for from time to time is giving them permission or the confidence to make decisions they know they should be making.

Something you said there came out of our partnership. I knew this would happen very organically. I think Rockefeller said, “If your friends before you’re in business together, it’s a recipe for disaster, but if your friendship is built on business, you’ll be friends forever.” That’s where we are. He said something about what you do for clients. What I heard was reduced collateral damage to have constructive conversations that normally cause a lot of tension and you bring them out on the table. One of the things you always taught me is how bad and destructive artificial harmony is.

It’s funny you say that, Lance, because before you, I would have always erred on the side of the harmony, no matter what it took. It was only around you that I got comfortable with productive conflict.

I thought I felt better because of you.

We brought out the best in each other. I didn’t have enough of you in the way I managed and led. You probably didn’t have enough of me in the way you managed and led. You gave me the courage to go right at people nicely. I’ve learned to go right at people being around you. There were times I helped you knock a few of the rough edges off of your approach.

To give everybody a perspective, in 2002, I had purchased or invested in the Dale Carnegie business in Northeast Ohio. Ed was working for the Central Ohio operation and their number one salesperson of one and the whole organization driving 90% of their revenue. Ed and I met at a town hall meeting that I put together up in Cleveland with the Global CEO of Dale Carnegie Training.

To make a long story short, my goal was to dominate the universe. I’ve meant to gobble up as much of a highway could and things like that. I gave Ed a call, not the owner a call. I said, “You seem to be the key guy down there. Have you ever thought about buying the business?” Number one, you should understand, Ed is probably one of the best salespersons you have ever met in your life. If it doesn’t sell to you, buy from it. It gives you a choice. That’s how we got together. Aside from the sales ads, talk as the salesperson. You have a unique way you sell.

I started in sales working for a radio station in New Cyrus, Ohio, WBCO Radio. Wheat Beans Corn and Oats, we used to call it. Tom Moore was the owner of the station and he hired me. Tom was one of the guys I went back to after my career morphed. I went back and thanked him for all he did for me. I felt so glad that I got to have that conversation. When Tom hired me, he was so subtle. He wasn’t an instructor on the side for the Dale Carnegie courses in the original Dale Carnegie course. When he hired me, he hired me to be their sports director part-time, halftime and then sell halftime. We agreed on salary and everything. He pulled the Colombo close on me.

ASO 24 | Opportunities For Improvement
Opportunities For Improvement: When somebody is failing, you have to try to go to the system or process or the lack of training because one of those might be the problem.

He says, “One more thing, Ed. You’re going to be successful, but for you to be even more successful selling for us, I am going to have you take the Dale Carnegie sales course. The way we’re going to do this is it costs $575. I will pay for that upfront.” This was in 1975, so $575 was a lot of money at that point to me. He says, “We’re going to deduct half of it out of your payroll over time. If you stay a year, I will pay you back that half. You’re going to put skin in the game, but I’m going to reimburse you if you stay with me for at least a year.” Being a great negotiator at the time, I said, “Okay.” I didn’t know what to do.

I had no idea what he was asking of me. It wasn’t going to cost me anything right out of my pocket, so a little bit over time, I said, “Okay.” I went to the Dale Carnegie sales course and was probably the youngest guy because I was 21 or 22 at the time. This was about four months after I started selling, Lance. I was selling a little bit of radio, but I didn’t know what I was doing. I thought it would be nice. All of a sudden, they gave this model to me about what it meant to sell and the confidence I got in the class. As you know, back then, it was twelve weeks. You had to perform every week. They tested you and made sure you knew it.

Not only did I succeed at it, I saw my sales go up, but I won the sales talk championship. I kicked up a computer punch card guy’s ass, is what I did. I came out from there guns a-blazing. For a while, I lived that model. I lived and breathed it. I left the station and started my advertising agency. It has become even more important to be able to sell and be somewhat consultative at the same time. Everything I sold was intangible. If you’ve never sold intangible products, it teaches you to think about why they want the value of what I do?

They can’t touch it. It’s all about doing something important to them that helps them advance the business. I got good at that. It’s only belatedly I recognize that I’m morphed into being somebody who disrupted the status quo. I still make people recognize that they’re not necessarily aware of something, so they get some insight, awareness or understanding when I’m done talking to them that they didn’t have before. It may not result in them needing me, but I help them realize that things aren’t exactly what they think. They find the time they spend with me valuable.

As I think back to anytime I’ve ever sold with you, it’s always something if I think tactically about it. “Were you aware of this? Have you ever thought of what this would look like if it continued?”

Sometimes I focus on the avoidance of negative and other times. I talk about the opportunity to gain something.

It’s a shame that happened in sales. I got a big debate with a potential client. I said, “Why do you call it a needs analysis? You don’t sell anything anybody needs.” They’re like, “It’s nomenclature.” I said, “Teach salespeople that nomenclature is the last need-based questions, not opportunity-based questions. It’s a gap either way, but it’s always not a need. You were incredible. You would get me to do things by asking me questions.”

I would never do that.

The other thing that you have that’s very natural is you won’t get impatient with their lack of response. If you are an excellent negotiator, you’ll wait for them to respond. There’ll be more uncomfortable with their silence than you are ever. That’s such a classic move. I don’t know if you fly a fish. I can imagine beans, corn and oats. There are so many things that have made sense to me in this call because of the manager you were born in but I didn’t know, BCO. I’m blown away. It brings another level.

Let’s go to that concept, which talked about in selling intangibles. You and I used to kid around. We sell very expensively err because you’re selling the product or the value of the value. It’s not a course somebody’s buying or your subject matter expertise. It’s the hope of doing something different on there. Talk about selling the intangible more.

Build the courage to go right at people being around you in a nice way.

With the radio, they can’t see it. When they bought a commercial, somebody was talking about the organization but ultimately, oftentimes, may not exactly move the sales needle in the short time. They get to hear their commercial, but it may not necessarily translate from $1 spent to $1 or $2 back. You had to educate people on if you can’t prove it works, do you want to take the risk of running your business and avoiding that cost but not knowing if it could have done something for you or do you want to play the game?

In other words, you can’t win if you don’t play. That’s what it comes down to. It’s about which err do you want to make? Do you want to err on the side of reducing costs or do you want to err on the side of investing with some plan and strategic intent? If this advertising does for you what it should, it adds a piece to the puzzle that more likely means you get more business than you otherwise would. That’s what it came down to.

It’s such a perfect statement. I was on with one of my salespeople with a company in Ohio and he said, “Lance, you started this conversation that we’re going to lose 1 out of 3 people in the call center but you’re charging me $1,000 to assess him. That doesn’t make sense.” I go, “If you think you’re going to lose them, on the flip side, how much money could they do, $350,000, $400,000? That’s your role.”

You want to make sure you lose the right ones.

I want to make one other comment you made me think of something. I don’t want to make this too tactical, but you’d box people in. You ask multiple questions and build these little walls around them that you’ll see what wall they gravitate to, but they always feel like they’re making a choice. To me, it either shoots or ladders. You’re going down a shoot or ladder, but you got out and shoot even though it’s the goal of the game.

One of the things inside the Dale Carnegie Network was an anomaly because the deals Ed would sell were 6, 7-figure deals. He would negotiate these big contracts. When he would get and negotiate it, he would always say, “I’m not going to put a charge that will give you that.” You would say no charge. You’re going to see the value still, but I’m going to give you a day for free or something.

I would never go off the original price I quoted. I will never reduce the amount of the original quote.

You would reduce the base.

I would add something if the buyer or decision-maker didn’t feel there was sufficient value. I would sometimes throw additional things in, but I never wanted somebody to think that I haven’t come to the table with my best offer.

It was big BMW financial deals you would do. You would never provide a number. Sometimes, I’d be like, “Sell the thing.” You’d never lower your number. Let’s move the needle. To give everybody a perspective, Ed’s not only very good at what he teaches and consults on. He’s a pretty good entrepreneur. It’s some background on the businesses we own together. We grew organically by almost 270%. Through the acquisition, almost 900% of that was about 84. You have a lot of experience. You worked in radio, ran an agency, started to work in Carnegie, then you became an owner of a franchise system and a big one at that. Talk about how your leadership style evolved and changed over time?

ASO 24 | Opportunities For Improvement
Opportunities For Improvement: Entrepreneurs put their capital at risk to employ other people.

The most important thing I learned before we formed our partnership was that I didn’t want to manage people. I became aware that the work that it takes to do a great job of leading and managing a team was something that I was not built to do. I could do it. I had twelve salespeople reporting to me when I was at Ohio transmission and pump. When they talk about me, for the most part, they say I was a good boss, manager and leader for them.

The energy it took was not intuitive. It was not natural for me to do the things that you do intuitively, love to do, and therefore so much better and can do it every day. The big change in me over time was one, stopping and wanting to manage other people. The second thing is when I see somebody failing, in the old days, it was off with their heads. I would be quick to blame the person. Now, I almost immediately go to the system or process or the lack of training as being the problem.

Let me give an example. I travel a lot. I still frequently travel by air. Even during COVID times, I’ve been on a plane 7 or 8 times since Memorial Day. I get to see routinely people who are bad at their jobs and the travel industry. I had a terrible experience where I will quit using rent-a-car because of an experience I had, but I was not angry at the person who was unable to do for me what I wanted. I blamed the system that this poor lady had to use to try to take care of me.

It wasn’t her fault, but it also was evidence that their systems were broken after the 2nd or 3rd time with that car company. In the past, I would have blamed her. The evil Ed would have been frustrated with her. I feel bad for her because I know how hard she was trying to help me and was handcuffed. That’s the big difference for me.

This is a question I ask all leaders. In your opinion, what’s more critical, ship or crew?

The ship.

The ship represents what?

The systems, processes and culture.

If you don’t take care of the ship, you’re going to have issues. I think back distinctly one day that we were together and it was interesting. I don’t remember moments like this and you talk about wanting to deal with people or not deal with people as much. That’s why from a leadership perspective, maybe you didn’t want to get in there. We have our biggest group of people together. I don’t know if you remember this and we had our office in Cleveland.

We pulled this big town hall meeting together and had about 25 people at that point and probably 15 salespeople, ops and service people. I want to know, were you praying that day? What were you doing? You had to get up and talk. Did you realize we had so many people and were being thrust back into that? What’s the thought there?

Entrepreneurs are risk-takers. You can’t win if you don’t play.

When we talked about the operating agreement for the business and you said, “I want to be CEO,” I don’t know if you remember, I said, “Thank you.”

I didn’t hear it at the time, but I believe it.

I distinctly remember saying thank you. “I don’t want to do that. You want to do it. That’s great. I’ve been there.” For the audience that’s reading this benefit, I’m older than Lance. My point is that one of the things I did at that moment has been a Pontus Pilot. I wash my hands at the responsibility. When you said you wanted to be CEO, it was like, “I can go do what I’m meant to do, which is to sell, deliver and consult. My job didn’t change much initially when we started the business. It was done as much of that as we could. You can help fund the growth of the business. That’s what I was as a machine turning out some cash that allowed us to invest back.

Ed was personally responsible for 25% to 30% of our revenue brought through the door in our first three years. He was hard to copy because I couldn’t have people duplicate Ed.

You would say with people either when I would go with them or they would go with me, “Don’t try to be like Ed.” I didn’t quite get that initially, but over time, it became clear why. It was not a repeatable, teachable thing in a lot of ways. Back to that moment in time, that day when we had all those people together, you said, “You need to get up and say a few words.” I said, “I don’t want to.” You said, “No. You need to. They need to hear from you.”

I was not prepared. I had on my mind Ed divorce myself from that responsibility. You were ready to kick me if I didn’t go up there and say the right things. Hopefully, I said something acceptable. I have no clue what I was saying, but I don’t know that I’ve ever been more scared. I’ve spoken in front of 2,000 people before. I don’t know that I was anywhere near scared as I was with that group.

We are at that point. We’ve said this before, “What are you bringing to the table for breakfast? Are you the chicken or ham?” The chicken donates the eggs essentially, but the ham is committed to the whole thing. At that point, we both realized we were the ham. We’re committed to this.

Often, I say to executives who own businesses to entrepreneurs or owners of businesses that I thank them for putting their capital at risk to employ other people. You’re looking at the people whose lives were dependent upon what we did. With the commitment you made to making payroll happen every two weeks, that monster grew and had to be fed. It’s the enormity of that. People who’ve not done that before do not appreciate the pressure that predominantly you were under that we shared. That was real to me.

I respected less what I’ve done entrepreneurially, as opposed to anything. All of us took a lot of risks. You said capital risks to hiring other people. You suddenly realize the ladder is pretty high, but there’s no net. Let’s talk about the entrepreneurial side. You worked with so many growths and established firms. Let’s turn this in from Ed as a salesperson, selling the complex, having a predictable process and making the complex seem simple. You’ve always sold that way or when you sell to somebody, it’s not a comfortable conversation. I believe that coaching is not comfortable either because you have to answer. You even led that way internally.

Ed won’t tell me what to do. I go, “It’s called the Socrates method.” He will guide you to it and force you to choose. If you’re lazy, it’s not comfy. You lead and coach that way. You sell that way too, which is the theme. When it relates to sales and all the different types of companies you work with, you might want to throw in a couple of examples of verticals. Where do companies fail with their sales efforts? I’m sure you see some very big openings there. Where’s the gap? Where’s the hole? What consistently are you trying to suggest they fix?

ASO 24 | Opportunities For Improvement
Opportunities For Improvement: The normal people who run companies have no premise about what it takes to be successful in sales. They all believe in a way that you try to fight and combat that salespeople are born. It’s voodoo and black art.

They make it harder and more complex than it needs to be. If you didn’t teach me anything else, that was the whole idea that this thing has to be repeatable, predictable and scalable if what you’re doing to help your salespeople gain. I don’t know what the battle is but probably half the battle with salespeople is teaching them a model but then getting them to have confidence that they can do it and then it works is the other big part.

The normal people who run companies have no premise about what it takes to be successful in sales. They all believe in a way that you try to fight and combat that salespeople are born. It’s voodoo and black art. They don’t understand what it takes to create the skill and capability in somebody to have somebody who can create something from nothing. One that they can get the appointment that doesn’t exist and two, convert enough of those appointments into presentations and quotes that produce results. They don’t understand that, so it’s a simple thing. It’s not easy to do.

They all get held hostage by salespeople too. They go, “I can’t work with this person because I can’t repeat that.” There’s magic.

Our friends at MB and how hostage bound they were for years until they realized it wasn’t. We’ve seen it time and time in companies. Number one, the biggest gap isn’t so much with the talent in the sales organization, as I think it is at the executive and ownership level of not understanding what it takes to have a repeatable, scalable selling model and process.

The extension of that, Lance, is the toughest job position of any executive and that is to hire the right person to run their sales organization. It’s a lot harder to hire a great VP of sales than a VP of ops, marketing, R&D, whatever it happens to be. Those positions are a lot easier and simpler to fill than it is to find the right person to run your sales organization.

I was doing some evaluation. It’s probably the greatest thing that will ever hold my company back because I’ve always been involved in the sales process. The hardest thing is going to find somebody to run the sales process because they won’t quite do it as I do. That’s the problem because I look at myself as that’s the person. Would you also agree on this to be true? I’ve also seen people and our friend, Bill, who oversimplify because they’re the entrepreneur, have the magic because they birthed the product or service. They can’t understand why people don’t do it as they do it. Do you get a little bit of that?

A lot of times, when I deal with business founders and owners in their closely-held company and they’re trying to transition, one of the things that disrupt the thinking is when we talk about what it’s going to take to replace them. I’ll say, “You need to understand that when you don’t occupy the position that you’re in as owner, president, CEO, whatever it is, the organization is probably going to need to divvy up the work you do into 2 or 3 people.”

You’re not going to be replaced by an individual because most entrepreneurs are unicorns. You’re not going to find another one of those. You honestly don’t want one. Your business is at a point where you want it to be more of a business. Part of the problem for most entrepreneurs is they’re so good at some things and the way you see them being good at is it is intuitive.

One of the things that came to me way too late, I wish I had known this when I was 40 or 45, but things that are intuitive for us, which means, number one, it does not work and is not hard. Number two is we underestimate how hard it would be for someone else to do it. The third mistake we make would be that we also assume anybody can learn it.

Consequently, when you think about what you bring to the table, Lance, what will be hardest to replace about you and whoever replaces you and your sales manager will be your skill at managing salespeople. That is so intuitive for you to be predictably unpredictable. The vast majority of VPs of sales could never do that.

Teach your salespeople a model to follow.

It’s hard to teach and we spent a lot of time teaching it. We talk so much about sales and stuff. We went through the first financial crisis together. I’ve been asked so many times from a sales leadership standpoint. I know as an entrepreneur, I made major mistakes and I freaking ignored it. I said, “We’ll solve our way through it.”

By the time we got halfway through it, we had run out of money and gas. We had to make life-changing changes and didn’t fail. We figured it out and were a different organization on the other side. I remember how hard it got to sell. It was your fuel, my fuel. We had to reduce the team. What do you think sales are going to be like moving forward? How are you going to be as a sales leader? How are you going to have to be an individual performer?

What we’re going to have continued going on is what I’ve recognized. You’re either in a tomb or a boom. The winners and losers are so different depending upon the industry and business. Back in 2008, 2009, 2010, everybody had a smaller business. Everybody was negatively impacted by the global financial crisis. That is not the case with COVID. Some people are killing it and some are struggling. You got to think about the marketplace that you serve. I posted a link on XpresSpa and how they reconverted their airport to being COVID testing. It’s a remarkable pivot, tremendously bright and courageous. I love the fact that they did it. What you’re going to have to do is revisit your strategy and say, “Are we in a temporary state? Is this the now and new normal for where we are? If we plot where we’re headed, is that what the business is going to look like?” How much of it is temporary versus how much of this is permanent?

Depending upon your business, I don’t know. It could be different. I love how when we go to the doctor, we don’t go in the waiting room and sit there with all the other sick people. I love the fact that I sit in my car and wait until they tell me I can come in there and I can communicate with my doctor by email and telemedicine instead of necessarily being there face to face. I don’t want that to change. I’m trying to give you examples of that.

You’re saying that your product and services are going to have to evolve to address the marketplace. You’re going to have to decide like that XpresSpa that had a new business. I still and you still do a little bit growing our businesses. How’s that changed for the individual salesperson?

There’s never been a better time for a person who does have selling skills. Do what you should, then you’re going to enjoy it. If you don’t, then you’re not going to enjoy it. Where we find ourselves as salespeople that are trained to sell are going to thrive, provided that their organization is willing to pivot in terms of what they offer or how they offer it. You and I both know and we’ve seen this so many times, a salesperson who can sell is never going to want a job.

If the company that they’re with won’t allow them to meet a need that the market is presenting that this salesman or salesperson has identified, they’ll go somewhere else to find an organization that will support them in meeting this need. The lack of sales training that’s still out there it’s horrendous and pathetic.

There are so many off the shelves, too, that one size tries to fit everybody. You got to understand what the business is and what it’s trying to do. You’ll appreciate this. I was on the phone with a very big brand in the NFL. It was one of the brands that went to the Super Bowl. They’re trying to get something in before the season started, a big seven-figure deal multiyear. I said, “You got to send the junior salesperson was on the deal and asked their counterpart if they would do the deal, how to do it over.”

The VP snapped back and went, “Lance, we’re not doing that. That’s negotiating against yourselves because I don’t even understand why you suggested it.” I go, “I was under the impression that you brought this deal because it was something important to get closed and time was the essence. You also said that we’re at an unprecedented time. You also told me buyers are acting on orthodox. The only thing that combats that is to act on orthodox. I didn’t say for you to go in there and change the deal. I said send him in and have an off-the-record and see if it moves.”

He got it, called me afterward and apologized. I go, “No need to apologize. You’re trying to figure out how to get across ways to get it done.” I think that’s well said. With the ability to be agile, move sideways and multiple strategies, a good salesperson has always done that. That’s what they’re going to have to do. Here are the last two questions to bring this bird for a landing. If you had a sales song that you played in your head, except for Puff the Magic Dragon, right before a big deal, what song would you play?

ASO 24 | Opportunities For Improvement
Opportunities For Improvement: It’s a lot harder to hire a great VP of sales than a VP of ops, marketing and so on. Those positions are a lot easier, simpler to fill than it is to find the right person to run your sales organization.

It’s Feelin’ Alright, Joe Cocker or I might go Sinister Kid by The Black Keys.

Pick one.

I’d probably go Sinister Kid. There’s a bit more evil with that and chip on their shoulder.

The last question, what book did you gift the most?

It’s As a Man Thinketh by James Allen. If it wasn’t that, it’s probably Albert E.N. Gray’s Little Known Secret of Success.

Ed, this has been great. It’s a great session.

Do you mind if I tell people how to reach me if they want to?

Please do. I was going to ask you that.

The best way to reach me is Ed@TheEppleyGroup.com. My website has my blogs. I write quite a bit and my podcast, which Lance has been on. Mini blogs, which go out every Thursday and the podcast go out Tuesday. Lance, it’s been an honor to be on this. Thank you so much.

I appreciate it, Ed. We’re going to do this again. This is fun, down memory and learning. Thanks, sir.

Thank you.

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About Ed Eppley

ASO 24 | Opportunities For ImprovementED EPPLEY is a leading global expert in professional management, sales strategy, and performance management. He is a former principal consultant for the Table Group, a Patrick Lencioni Company, and operates The Eppley Group. He has worked with executive teams at multinational companies across the U.S., Europe, China, Japan, and Australia. His clients include a “Who’s Who” of business category leaders such as BMW, DSW, Sara Lee, Bloomberg, Battelle, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, Speedway, Steamboat Ski & Resort Company, Value City Furniture, PSA Airlines, Emerson Electric, NECCO, Safelite Auto Glass, and others.

A life-long entrepreneur, Ed started an advertising agency and a manufacturer’s rep firm selling to the industrial and construction markets before creating Tyson Eppley Management, ProspeX, and The Eppley Group.

As a facilitator of the Course for Presidents at Aileron in Tipp City, Ohio, Ed helps owners of private businesses apply a system of professional management to identify and correct workplace problems. A professional career that has spanned more than 40 years, Ed has honed a skill for identifying talent, understanding executive challenges and spotting and improving problematic management.