Sarita, the CFO of a midsized sales organization, contacted me to ask for help with a problem. Her company’s customer base was getting increasingly diverse with many new clients from Africa and Asia.

Her sales team, who had been outselling their competition for the last several years, was starting to lose business. Almost all of the team were U.S.-born, white and male, and, for the most part, had little experience doing business with clients who were not originally from the U.S.

Their main competition was a newer company with salespeople who were a mixed group of men and women of different ages, races and cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

They discovered that several of the clients they lost were now doing business with the competition. The sales team was beginning to suffer from low morale, and had been complaining about “fickle” customers and lack of fairness.”

Sarita asked me what she and the rest of the leadership team could do to raise morale and "change attitudes." When I told her that while there were ways to create a better working environment, that wouldn’t solve the problem; she looked at me and said, "But you’re supposed to help create inclusive cultures where people love to work. That’s why I contacted you."

"You need to take the time to understand the cultures and needs of your clients. What is this other organization doing that you’re not? How is your team cultivating relationships with their clients? Are they curious about where their clients come from or who they are?," I asked.

She informed me that her sales team kept track of when their customers placed orders, and when they were running out. They knew when to contact people so they could reorder.

They didn’t think cultural or demographic information was important. In other words, there were no relationships being built, only transactions.

The other organization understood that many of the newer customers came from cultures where relationships were crucial to doing business. They took the time, effort and resources to send notes, birthday cards, ask about their business and families, as well as check-in by phone or email.

They made the customers feel that they cared about them as individuals, and not just for their dollars. They were curious, asked questions and listened to the answer.

Customers appreciated the time sales representatives took with them. They felt heard and referred new business to the other organization.

Sarita and her senior leadership team said they were open to change. The strategy included developing a plan to increase the diversity of the sales team and the rest of organization.

They wanted the demographics to reflect the diversity of the customer base, plus be a resource for the sales team and other employees.

During this process we found three challenges:

  • Many of the members of the sales team were resistant to bringing in new hires from different backgrounds. They were worried that new hires who were non-white would be favored because they were from similar backgrounds as the clients.
  • Sales team members thought that they would be uncomfortable with the new people and have nothing to talk about.
  • The sales team wanted more sales but didn’t see the importance of building long-term connections.

How we turned challenges into opportunities for business

We introduced the concept of curiosity. Curiosity about clients, their needs and their problems relevant to the product provided representatives opportunity to show interest in customers as more than sales targets.

It opens doors to discovering more ways to provide additional services and products, and expands the perspective and knowledge base of the representative.

Sales team members learned and practiced ways to ask questions that built relationships. In particular, the men felt awkward asking questions and then waiting for an answer. They thought it would make them look less competent, or waste time.

Asking the right questions, demonstrating curiosity in an appropriate manner, and being comfortable with silence as the other person responds are skills that can be learned and need practice.

We discovered that Sarita and other people on the leadership team had not been setting the right examples. Employees felt "commoditized," that the leadership team only cared about numbers, and not who they were as individuals (and they passed that lack of curiosity to their customers).

At the end of our engagement, morale was higher, 10 new people were added to the sales team, five were women, and the team looked more like the customers. Only one member of the sales team left.

We facilitated conversations about differences, so they could learn from each other, and become more comfortable asking questions and learning about different cultures. This made it easier to connect with clients from Africa, the Middle East and every other part of the world.

Several old and new sales reps formed a group that went to lunch or dinner at restaurants from different cultures. There was a new energy, and increase in motivation.

It was good they hired additional employees, because in three months there was an increase in new customers, several old customers returned and there was more of a demand for additional products and services.

In addition, there was an increase in five-star online reviews. The last time we visited the company, we were impressed by the level of engagement we observed amongst employees, the increase in knowledge about different cultures, along with more conversations between employees and the executive team.

Curiosity, asking the right questions and caring about the responses make customers, employees and everyone else feel valued and seen as individuals.

People like to buy and do business with people they can trust. People trust people with whom they have good experiences.