3 lessons sales managers can learn from professional kitchen chefs

by Ramin Assemi

This is a post by Brad Smith, a freelance marketing writer who gets sales. 

Kitchens are uncomfortable.

They’re insufferably hot.

Closed quarters. No windows or natural daylight.

15-hour days are common, with several rushes throughout the night. Not to mention, an abundance of short tempers and steel blades.

Sales teams are not that different. Today’s highs are tomorrow’s lows. One day, they need a hug and the next, a wake-up call.

Here’s how kitchens manage to deliver hundreds of meals each night of the week (and how sales managers can apply the same principles to run high-performing sales teams).

How team organization affects efficiency

Le Guide Culinaire is part cookbook, part textbook.

It’s a complete distillation of French cooking that’s like a how-to bible for recipes, techniques, and kitchen management.

It’s used in many culinary schools today, referenced in the prestigious Certified Master Chef program. It also continues to guide the way today’s professional kitchens think, run, and act.

Not bad, considering it was originally published in 1903.

The author, Georges Auguste Escoffier, is considered a godfather of French cuisine.

He was equal parts chef, restaurateur, writer, and philosopher; whose greatest contribution wasn’t a particular recipe or dish, but in dictating how a kitchen should perform.

Specifically, like a well-oiled military unit.

Prior to Escoffier in the 19th century, most restaurants chose what diners would eat each night (similar to pre fixe menus at nice restaurants today).

That meant cooks, similar to old-school sales reps, largely operated as their own islands. It was every man or woman for themselves. They didn’t require as much oversight or need rigorous documentation in place. But there was also no collaboration, and organization was a nightmare.

As time and consumer behavior evolved, Escoffier saw the benefit in adopting an à la carte approach; where diners could choose different dishes from a menu of items.

The power, then, shifted towards buyers who became more knowledgeable and discerning.  (Sound familiar?)

This approach introduces complexity, though. In order to respond to different dishes that required different preparations and different cooking methods, the kitchen had to be choreographed and in sync.

The result was the Brigade System; transforming chaotic kitchens into an assembly line, broken down into specific functions that resembled a military hierarchy.

That means you might have a saucier (the sauté cook), whose only responsibility is flipping stuff in pans and making sauces. Or the patissier (pastry chef) who literally just does deserts.

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In 2009, almost a century after Escoffier introduced the Brigade System to kitchens, Aaron Ross introduced Predictable Revenue.

The story of Salesforce’s rapid ascent contained such blasphemous ideas as, “salespeople shouldn’t prospect”, and that sales teams should be broken down into specific roles or functions.

Just like kitchens have been doing for decades.

Turns out, he was onto something. Many of today’s fastest growing companies (including Acquia which Deloitte named the fastest growing private company in America in 2013) have used this approach to great success since.

Acquia, for example, grew new business pipeline by 75% with the introduction of a dedicated prospecting team.

Ross’ model leaned heavily on the "assembly line" approach, which not only reduced sales cycle complexity, but also made lead nurturing a "repeatable" event.

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These developments increase efficiency, but the assembly line also made it easier to bring on new hires to scale (along with pinpointing problem areas when they popped up).

A downside, however, is that extreme specialization can remove reps from the overall business objectives (both literally and figuratively). So much focus is placed on individual metrics and performance that it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.

As a result, the "pod" model evolved the concept.

A "pod" is a small team of related disciplines that excel in larger organizations looking to prioritize versatility over efficiency.

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Pods get team members to focus more on the customer journey (rather than their own numbers). So communication improves dramatically. Pods are also more agile, which makes pursuing new opportunities (like markets or verticals) easier.

However, that reduction in specialization can hurt efficiency, which could be a huge drawback when still competing against other assembly lines that focus exclusively on production.

How processes increase performance

Restaurants sell an experience.

You order, and stuff just shows up at your table a few minutes later.

The chef stands at the ready, calling out new orders as they come in off of each "ticket." Each cook responds quickly, repeating parts of the order each station is responsible for (or simply replying “Yes Chef!”).

Here’s where things get tricky.

Because you have different items, ordered at the same time, which all require completely different times and temperatures to prepare. And yet they all have to magically come out at the same time.

Salads or soups might only take a few minutes to cook, while that duck breast needs much longer. It also needs to sit and rest when it’s done, so that when you cut into it the juice and flavor doesn’t run all over your plate.

The chef stands at "the pass"; organizing and expediting between stations. Different dishes for different diners are prepped, chopped, blanched, braised, sauteed, garnished and plated. The chef might get one last glance before the food is sent out.

And the kitchen gets completely overrun by the next table’s orders.

Somehow, every single element needs to be perfect on every plate, for every table, to be delivered at the same time.

Not to mention, each and every dinner service is different. Just as each sale is too.

Problems are inevitable.

Ingredients run low. New specials take longer than expected to prep. Cooks get cuts and burns. And they’re always overbooked.

Yet most of the time, it all works perfectly.

How?

Extreme consistency.

A kitchen is designed to maximize the output of production. Stations are organized based on function, so that items can be made the same way, in the same spot, each and every night.

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A cook’s responsibilities might be limited, but they’re also well-known, documented, and formalized.

An item in their scope is completed one way, and one way only. Each and every time. Even if that number goes into the tens of thousands over the course of a year.

Sales, too, is an organized chaos.

You’ve got reps that need to function on their own, without pulling you into doing the sales for them. They need coaching and mentoring, along with accountability to prevent problems like excessive discounting.

They need to be able to change messaging; from speaking to a CEO or selling the personal assistant on why they should schedule 15 minutes in their boss's calendar to speak with them.

The only way to keep it all straight—responding by instinct without over-thinking and blowing it—is through processes and documentation. (That allows for lots of repetition, which we’ll get to in a second.)

Two stats from a Harvard Business Review study illustrate this:

  1. 50% of high-performing sales organizations rely on formalized processes.
  2. While 48% of underperforming sales organizations reported not having any sales processes whatsoever.

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The easiest way to increase individual performance is to have them perform tasks the same way, each time.

Qualifying is a perfect example. While the people, personalities, and discussions might change, the same basic lines of questioning should remain the same. Each and every call. (Here’s 42 questions to get started with.)


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Same goes for handling objections.

Consistency breeds pattern recognition, to the point where each rep should see an objection coming from a mile away and parry it accordingly. It also has the added benefit of removing anxiety for reps, because their response should be automatic (reducing the potential for taking things personally or responding out of frustration).

Evaluations and feedback become a breeze for you because there’s no ambiguity.

Documentation and well-oiled processes get everyone on the same page so that expectations are clear to all team members involved.

How personal habits dictate productivity

Perfection is the end result of a restaurant experience.  

And it’s repeated throughout the night, multiple turns (or times a table might have different parties). It’s repeated tomorrow. The next day. And the one after that.

The only way this happens, reliably, is because each person is 100% prepared ahead of time.

That’s not easy. Especially considering that kitchens, unlike some sales staffs today, aren’t full of white-collar professionals fueled by cold brew and Kind bars.

Many times, we’re talking high school dropouts and people with no formal education. Only in the upper echelon, Michelin-starred joints can you expect a room full of culinary experts.  

Restaurants are notorious for high turnover, and many are full of people who literally speak different languages. Yet the best all move at the same speed, cranking out hundreds of dishes a night.

Now compare that to say, your team. The average tenure for most Sales Development Reps?

Two years.

Cooks, like SDR’s, enter with almost no formal education. They barely undergo any training. And yet they’re expected to hit the ground running to produce. Day after day, or night after night.

A cook does it, in large part, because of their mise en place.

One look and you might think it’s a simple organization of spices, ingredients, and tools. But you’d be wrong.

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It’s a philosophy. It ensures they’re ready to tackle any dish at any time. It’s a routine, like breaking down a rifle in under a minute, that get’s one in the right mindset.

And it’s an obsession, where touching or messing with another’s is a big no-no.

So you have this ragtag group of individuals from different backgrounds that speak different languages, all functioning as one group ... because they all rely on the same habits.

Sales performance, too, comes down to habits.

It comes down to the little things, like the weekly prep work to make sure everything’s been followed up on and that you’re ready to hit the ground running come Monday morning.

It comes down to good work habits, like organizing your calendar and guarding it with your life. Letting your days spin out of control or getting overrun by unimportant (yet "urgent") requests make it impossible to tackle the big obstacles first.

“One difference between the Top 10% and the Top 1%”, writes Jason Lemkin on a must-read Quora thread, “is the very top are extremely efficient with their time.”

He goes on to say that they “know exactly what they are doing going into every deal, usually even before they do the demo or pick up the phone.”

Awesome. But how?

Self-analysis, for starters.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of helpful tools or apps that will do the work for you. Time Trade, TopTracker, and RescueTime will run in the background of your machine, monitoring device usage and provide you with reports of exactly how you and team members spend workdays.

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These tools can also help you block (or prevent) distraction before they happen. Rescue Time’s "FocusTime" feature blocks all websites and apps that fall under the "distraction" column.

Like, Slack. Which is great for collaboration, but distracting as hell. It keeps you from the important things.

Like, phone calls. Measuring individual performance is a simple way to spot those team members with good habits from those that don’t.

With the right tools, tying end results (like sales targets hit) directly back to the daily activities that produce them (like the number of quality phone calls being made each day), becomes black-and-white.

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Conclusion

Kitchens start anew each day.

Every night brings hundreds of new diners, with hundreds of new orders, that require hundreds of new preparations. And yet, the people you never see in the back of the house manage to deliver the same exceptional dishes on-time, made-to-order.

Because they’re set up to succeed.

They’ve set themselves up to prioritize consistency. Which allows them to deliver at a high level every single night, no matter how many people come in, the number of dishes to juggle, or problems that occur.

At the end of the day, that’s the only thing that matters in sales too.

Performing, day in and day out, regardless of the big sales that closed yesterday or not allowing reps to take the easy way out through discounting (again).

Consistency is the path to sales success. But it can’t happen for reps without the right organization, processes, and habits in place.

Recommended reading:

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