Sales Reps and Sales Leaders can benefit from a few lessons from Jeff Bezos. Let me explain.

Amazon is on a tear lately. Actually, in my mind, they've been on an upward trajectory since 2004. When I was at Amazon, I remember the stock price at the time was in low $40s. Now the Amazon stock price is 10x what it was back in 2004. As a former Amazonian, this all makes sense to me. I loved my time at Amazon and consider my experience there as absolutely career-changing.

At bottom, Amazon is a place that is truly innovative and pioneering. That's not to say they are perfect - clearly they're not. They've had their fair share of failures: Auctions, Payments, and other more recent ones that have made the rounds around the news.

Amazon is far from ideal, but one thing I want to discuss today is something they are very, very good at and, dare I say, is the thing that sets them apart from other employers I've worked at and other companies that I've consulted:

They think clearer than others.

On its face, thinking clearly doesn't seem like much of a competitive advantage. I argue that it is because clarity of though infuses all their discussions around strategy, product, operations, sales, sales training, and customer service.

How does Amazon arrive at clear thinking so consistently?

The Narrative

For those not familiar with the Narrative process, it involves the presenter preparing a 4-6 page memo written as a document, not a PowerPoint presentation. Prose is the active word here: complete sentences, paragraphs, and complete thoughts in the introduction, supporting body, and conclusion.

In practice, it looks like this:

  • The first 20 minutes of a meeting is spent reading the document quietly as a group.
  • After 20 minutes, the group then discusses the content of the memo, often questioning the presenter very diligently - sometimes even to tears. But, the idea here is to truly debate the points made in the memo and let truth win out through a very healthy debate.
  • At the end, recommendations are discussed and decisions are made.

Often, one of the best questions is to ask the presenter "If you were to critique the memo, what are the strongest arguments against your recommendations"?

This type of thinking allows for truth to win out.

Clarity of Thought and PowerPoint

Much has been said around the use the Narrative at Amazon. Some have called it a mini dissertation defense. Others have called it prose. But hardly nobody knows what the genesis of the narrative really is.

Back in 2004, I was fortunate enough to be part of a group that once-in-a-while interacted with Jeff Bezos. It was during one of those times that this email went out. At the time, the email seemed innocuous enough and appeared to only address Jeff's senior team, or the STeam as it is called. Nobody expected that this email would then lead to a company-wide banning of PowerPoint as a means of communication.

The email below is from Jeff Bezos, sent to the STeam and a few others. It read:

From: Bezos, Jeff

Sent: Wednesday, June 09, 20014 6:02PM

To: [REDACTED]

Subject: Re: No powerpoint presentations from now on at steam

A little more to help with the question "why."

Well structured, narrative text is what we're after rather than just text. If someone builds a list of bullet points in word, that would be just as bad as powerpoint.

The reason writing a good 4 page memo is harder than "writing" a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what's more important than what, and how things are related.

Powerpoint-styel presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.

Jeff

Going back in history is important, but how can the rest of us apply what Jeff teaches to improve how we conduct business?

Applying Jeff's Clear Thinking Approach

There are many applications. I want to run through a few sales specific applicatons that may resonate with you.

1. Sales Enablement

A common practice in sales is that after you complete a demo of your product or services, the sales rep will typicall leave something with customer usually called a "leave behind" or the "zen presentation". This document usually describes the company, the products, and various aspects of the sales presentation.

The big problem with 95% of the sales enablement material and content out there is that they lack context; they lack exactly what Jeff describes - interconnectedness or ideas or how one product relates to each other and why the prospective customer should care.

2. Sales Management

I've sat in my fair share of sales presentations and quarterly business reports from sales reps. Some of the absolute worst ones I've seen involve the use of images with motivational sales quotes.

And. Not. Much. Else.

It's as if the use of the quotes is an adequate replacement for the sales reps' performance for the quarter. It's not.

Yet.

I've seen many sales teams and sales leaders accept this practice, as if it is actually okay.

Following Jeff's advice, a quarterly report should show performance; what happened in the reps' territory; what they've learned; what's in the pipeline; what strategy they will employ to do better next quarter.

3. The Sales Demo

Many times, I've sat in sales demos where the sales rep just wanted to get through their pitch deck. This is often at the expense of truly understanding the needs of the customer and how the sales rep might be able to help her.

Again, the missing bridge here is context: the sales reps' solution to the customer's problem.

Often, that bridge is never made.

It's no surprise that most sales reps don't hit quota.

Accountability to Develop and Idea

Ultimately, however, I think Jeff Bezos' approach leads to clearer thinking because it forces the team members to take an idea and completely think about its development and that person is held accountable to do so.

Because the healthy debate aspect of the Narrative is equally important to the process, this forces the presenter to fully develop his or her idea and also force them to question the recommendations they are proposing. By thinking of all the possible angles and perspectives, truth wins out.

Application for You

As a sales leader and business leader, think about ways you can apply Jeff Bezos' approach today. Give it a shot; see how it works for you.

Below is the email from 2004.

jeff-bezos-letter-narrative-powerpoint

 

Image Credit: SoundLawsSuccess.com

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