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Cooper’s Color Code and The Corporate World

During my first year as a sales desk manager, I spent a large amount of my time listening to the recorded calls our sales people made with clients.  Internal wholesalers on my team were making these calls to brokers.  To those not in the financial world this sales process can be compared to that of a pharmaceutical rep.  The pharmaceutical rep sells to the doctor and the doctor prescribes to the clients.  In the financial sales world, the wholesaler sells to the advisor and the advisor then presents to the clients.  The typical day for someone on my team consisted of around 75 phone calls in the hopes that fifteen people would be live on the line and speaking.  As you can imagine, some conversations went great, with the client getting all of the information they were hoping for and even some they didn’t know they needed. On the other hand, some calls weren’t so great, with clients getting poor service and no information that would help them or their business. It wasn’t until recently that I realized how relevant the concepts of behavioral analysis apply to environments other than safety and security.

While working with corporate clients of The CP Journal I have noticed moments during our work together when people really start to engage in the content of our training programs.   That first moment is typically when we walk them through Cooper’s Color Code.  Having not served in the military myself, I wasn’t familiar with the code until I started working with the Journal.  Retired Marine Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper developed a system of awareness that he called Cooper’s Color Code that describes the psychological conditions of awareness that people are operating in at any given time.  While you can learn more about Cooper’s Color Code by clicking this link, this particular post is meant to explain the applications of Cooper’s Color Code to those not in the military, outline how you can use the code personally to asses your current state of awareness and for leaders so they may use the code to establish frameworks for their team.

For those that have my attention span and didn’t click the link to get an in depth look at the code, it is broken down into different colors that each provide a template for the conditions of awareness that people go through during the day.  Check out this graph for a visual:

Coopers Color Code

In a customer service or sales environment people on your team can be assessed in one of the following states of awareness to help you build a framework for learning and development. The easiest way to explain how this relates to the corporate world is for me to walk through some typical customer service scenarios that I have encountered using the colors as our framework. In the corporate environment it is impossible to completely avoid high tension moments, but what is important is to quickly assess what is going on in the situation, to develop a plan on how to resolve the issue or present the solution in a form that the client will appreciate and then proceed through the sales or service process. When thinking about the color code, it is important to remember that while some conditions are more desirable than others, the goal is to be able to identify different color states and how to successfully transition from one to the next in order to achieve the greatest possible outcome.

Condition White

Condition white can be defined as a state of complete unawareness.  In my former role as a sales manager, condition white was a common state early on Monday mornings and when the team was distracted by something outside of work, such as the weekend ahead or the one that just passed.  The team was more aware of their Facebook feed on their phone and the Google news article in front of them than anything that even resembled actual work.  The phone was ringing and seventeen e-mails were sitting in their inbox, but they were so unaware and uninterested in the work in front of them that they ignored it.  If, during this state, the biggest client of the firm called or visited with an urgent issue or question, most people would be caught off guard.  They would not be ready for anything, and when I listened to client interactions when sales people were in condition white, the content wasn’t strong and the delivery was also weak. In condition white you are not aware of what’s going on around you or anticipating what could happen next.

Condition Yellow

Condition yellow is best described as being a state of relaxed alertness. In condition yellow, people are not aware of anything that is wrong and are on the lookout for indicators of a rising conflict. The client usually has clear thoughts on what they want and have outlined their expectations. Sales professionals in condition yellow are on the lookout for indicators of interest and opportunities to sell.

Most of the conversations that sales people initiate occur in condition yellow. They have a clear plan for the conversation and typically have to use client reactions to determine which direction to take. In this state it is important for salespeople to be ready for anything with confidence that they are prepared to go in any direction the client takes them. When operating in condition yellow we tend to be comfortable with what is going on around us while also alert for possible changes to our environment. By building a training program around what to look for in condition yellow you can help prepare your team for what lies ahead as conditions change.

Condition Orange

Condition orange can be defined as being in a state where you realize that something has gone wrong or a conflict has come up and you are actively making a plan as to how to deal with it. It is the condition that I would strive to perfect as a leader of a sales team.  In my conversations with other successful leaders, this is the condition that people think about when I ask them to picture their best employee.  These are the people that are engaged in the work that needs to be done, focused on how to do the work and that put a plan into action in a way that puts you as the leader at ease that your team is capable of handling any client concern and advancing the sales or service process effectively. Condition orange is perfect because your team is aware of what’s going on and is focused on doing the work that will move the business forward.  Operating in condition orange is also ideal from the client’s standpoint because they are getting the full attention of the person they are speaking to and all of their needs are being met. After receiving positive feedback from our clients after speaking with people on my team I would often pull those calls to hear what happened.  Three things usually occurred:

  1.  The salesperson on my team was listening to understand exactly what it was the client was looking for or missing, and they weren’t nervous that they had to have the perfect response to every potential issue that could come up.
  2.  The salesperson knew the concept or product inside and out, and they didn’t have to scramble to find words to make it sound better.  There was conviction in the delivery, and the client could tell.
  3.  The client said thank you.  Even today, in a world where people rarely communicate with each other verbally or in person, when people have a positive experience they appreciate it and say thanks.

Condition orange in the military world is often described as the state of awareness where people are proactively anticipating needs. Many of the corporate clients we work with have articulated a similar goal for their teams, and the ideal framework for building hiring, training, and development models for successful service and sales teams should begin with condition orange in mind.

Condition Red

Condition red occurs when you are executing the plan. Ideally this would be the plan you came up with in condition orange, it could also be how you are reacting to an unforeseen or unforeseeable conflict or problem. In condition red my team was working on a specific problem that often required intense focus and high levels of attention.  Most of the time they were problems that were hard to anticipate, such as a trading mistake, an incorrectly filled out form or a misstatement of facts and figures. In the corporate environment, as in the military, it is impossible for an organization to sustain while always operating in condition red. The highest levels of awareness and focus are great for short periods of time, but can lead to burnout and can also cause people to make silly mistakes because they are so focused on something specific and fail to see the big picture.  While listening to phone calls, condition red was clear when clients would call in with a complaint or a time sensitive issue.  The most painful moments in our business occurred in condition red because the client was visibly upset, sometimes yelling, or literally turning red in the face.  The best salespeople were so skilled that they could trust their knowledge by having mastered the process to quickly assess the situation and alleviate issues that arose in these instances. Again, it is impossible to completely avoid condition red, so the goal should be to reduce time spent in condition red as you develop your own personal skill set or those of any team you lead.

Condition Black

This is when everything is going badly, and in a hurry. Condition black occurs when the stress of an interaction has become so overwhelming that mental and physical processes start to break down, leading to a state of overall unawareness. In my prior role, condition black occurred when something was going horribly wrong with a client account and your rep was incapable of staying composed. Teammates of the rep were usually trying to help the situation, but your employees were so flustered that they would lash out and lose control. The stress of the situation was so overwhelming that they couldn’t think straight and the client experience was suffering because of it. While most organizations rarely operate in condition black, it can be the state where the worst client experiences take place. The goal for many organizations is to quickly identify exactly what to look for to identify condition black and then have a process built within your team to help get through it as fast as possible. In our experience the best way to develop this plan to quickly get out of condition black in the corporate world is to step back and put yourself in the shoes of the client and articulate the exact process that you would like to see. By also having your team walk through this process you can come together to outline exactly what to look for when condition black occurs and how to move forward in the best way possible.

Cooper’s Color Code can be an effective tool to help better understand states of awareness both in and outside the military. The code can be used to better understand your own states of awareness and for leaders to identify the states of their team in all of the different situations that can come up during the work week. Each member of your team during any moment of the day can be categorized by states of the color code. While it is impossible to always operate in certain states, what has proven to be most effective in our work with clients is being able to identify the various states of awareness and understand how to respond to each condition. By having a better understanding of the color code and how you operate within it you can begin to outline a plan to help everyone around you better understand the various states and how to respond to each.

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