Can’t, Won’t, Don’t know how…

Throughout my life I have seen this and witnessed it time and time again.  But I didn’t fully understand it until I became a sales manager.  You have heard the old adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, this principle gives you a checklist to determine that.

Cant, Wont, Don’t know how, sounds better than teaching an old dog new tricks or teaching someone any tricks that doesn’t want to learn them. I am not sure exactly where my first exposure to this set of rules came from, but it is an adopted practice that I use almost daily to assess and re-assess poor performers. When things change, who can adapt to the changes, as we all know people have trouble with change. Let’s start with don’t know how.

Don’t Know How:  In all areas of management especially as a younger leader you are going to inherit sales people who have been in your line of business for many years, and in some cases many decades.   These people have a process that they like, they know, and aren’t willing to change it for anything.  Now you come along and try to change the game on them. For example:  My company purchased a new database information system that required our sales people to now get rid of the paper and sticky notes, and required everyone to start using the new system to track all of their contacts, activities they conducted, and all the other things related to the sales process.

So this new system was a fundamental change that everyone must adhere to, there was no compromising on this subject.  This is a core business change that is not up for discussion.

I had an employee (well several of them) that were not using the system at all when I inherited them.  I could not hold someone accountable to something they did not understand.  I scheduled several hours of training to be conducted with this group, and especially made sure the one employee was included.  After the initial training, I made sure everyone understood what the expectations were going forward with the new system, and how they would be held accountable to managing this system effectively.  I soon found out that the one employee still did not understand.  So I scheduled some daily accountability goals for this person that included me calling them and walking them through some of the procedures.  As this went on for several months, I learned that the employee was not retaining anything from the training sessions, and they thought that their results on the sales side of things (they were mediocre) would be sufficient.

I gave the benefit of the doubt and said that this person was a Don’t Know How.  So I provided training ( a lot of it) but after all of the effort and training they received they eventually became a CANT (CAN NOT).  So the individual was terminated, due to the in-ability to do their job.

CAN’T (CAN NOT) Can’t is the contraction of cannot: which means cannot do something, can’t complete it due to physical, mental, or other difficulties that prevent them from accomplishing the desired task.  We have all seen this and most likely have some of these limitations in our own personal life.  For example:  I can’t become a Kentucky Derby Winning Jockey, because of my height and weight.  I have physical features that would prevent me from being successful in this arena.

The individual I used to describe the DON’T KNOW HOW theory, eventually became a CAN’T (CAN NOT), they had limitations that prevented them from successfully carrying out the necessary job requirements in their position as sales person for our company.  Now this person was successful in this position prior to some of the changes that had taken place, but the job changed when the new system was adopted , and these changes were necessary and mandatory to be carried out in that role.

As a sales manager when you inherit people or hire people your job is to determine pretty quickly if they fall into the category of DON’T KNOW HOW.  All new employees are going to be some version of a DON’T KNOW HOW, but during the interview process you will learn how willing they are to learn and if they can learn, or at least you should be able to determine this.  If they don’t learn the job, then they may become a CANT (CAN NOT).  Once you decide this, you have another decision to make and that is can they do the job you are asking them to do effectively even though they can’t complete a certain task for you.  With a new employee, I believe you cut and run, at least in that position for that person, but with an inherited successful employee you need to determine is this a critical thing to your business process and requirements of the job.  If so, you will have to determine what to do with that employee.

So by now you should understand the DON’T KNOW HOW, and CAN’T (CAN NOT) theories pretty well, so this brings me to the last part of the checklist, which is WON’T.

I won’t spend much time on this one (pardon the pun).  Won’t is the contraction of WILL NOT.  Meaning will not do something.  If you inherit a sales associate and they have this attitude, then they leave you very few options.  Now I assume whatever you are asking them to do is supported by your company, and fits the rule of thumb of legal, moral, and ethically the correct thing.  During the first weeks of my tenure as a young leader on this same team going through the changes, I had a person that just refused to listen and do the things that were asked of them.  Again, this was a person who had many years with the company and had been successful in that position.  However, I do not compromise my core beliefs and when a person is unwilling to do something, they give you no choice but to do each of you a favor and cut ties.

Can’t, Won’t, Don’t know How this is a basic checklist that all sales managers can adopt when you inherit a team.  You are going to make a lot of changes most likely and when you are implementing these changes ask yourself these things when analyzing the performances of your team.

Cant:  They can’t do it because they just don’t have the mental or physical abilities to carry out the task.

Won’t:  They just refuse to do it, cut your losses on this one.

Don’t Know how:  With all employees give them the benefit of the doubt.  Provide them training and follow-up, to see if they can do their job.

Brian Willett


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