Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Influence

Vital Behaviors for Entrepreneurs

Dear Crucial Skills,

In reading Influencer, it’s clear the process starts with identifying the vital behaviors that drive the change you’re looking for. Having access to data that has pre-identified the correct vital behaviors for a given problem is of great use.

My challenge is to grow my sales very quickly. I am a one-man manufacturer’s rep organization that depends on full commission sales. I have a wealth of experience and have been successful working for others but this is my first entrepreneurial venture. The way I see it, there are vital behaviors I can influence on myself and the bigger challenge is changing vital behaviors of customers.

Any insight would be most appreciated.


Dear Entrepreneur,

This is a great question. The Influencer approach asks you to invest everything in just a few behaviors and then employs influence strategies from the six sources of influence to improve these behaviors. Before I answer your question, I’ll review a few broad points.

What Makes a Behavior Vital?

There are many factors that can turn a behavior from “important” to “vital.” I’ll highlight three conditions:

Vital behaviors lead directly to results. An executive in Florida told me he knew the vital behavior for winning Dragon Boat races (a large outrigger canoe driven by 20 paddlers). When I asked about the behavior, he answered: “Paddling.” He explained that when racers debated about technique or strategy someone would inevitably shout, “Shut up and paddle!” and that’s when they’d win. Many vital behaviors are similarly obvious. They are the most direct route to the results you care about.

Vital behaviors break self-defeating patterns. Let’s look at the life cycle of the Guinea Worm. African villagers drink water infected with Guinea Worm larvae; the Guinea Worm hatch and grow inside them; after several months the worm emerges, causing excruciating pain; to lessen the pain, villagers soak their burning limbs in the water source and re-infect the water. A team from the Carter Center found the three vital behaviors that broke this self-defeating cycle: 1. Filter the water before drinking; 2. Don’t put infected limbs in the water source; and 3. Hold everyone accountable for these first two behaviors.

Vital behaviors cause many other positive behaviors to follow. Vital behaviors are often the most difficult to adopt. However, if you can get people to perform them, many other positive and easier behaviors follow. For example, when Mike Miller tried to build a culture of accountability at Sprint, he focused on just two vital behaviors: 1. Hold bosses accountable and 2. Hold peers accountable. He didn’t need to add “Hold subordinates accountable” because this behavior followed as a result of the vital behaviors.

How Do You Find the Vital Behaviors?

There are many strategies for finding and testing vital behaviors. Look for experts who have already identified and tested the behaviors. Look for positive deviants—people who are already succeeding at the behavior. Or, track your own successes and failures to determine what works for you.

Whatever the vital behaviors you choose, set a challenging goal and measure your improvement. In addition, track the results you care about. Analyze and adjust to fine tune the vital behaviors.

Answering the Question

I’ve used the “find the experts” method to identify vital behaviors related to your success as a manufacturers’ rep. Specifically, I searched the Internet for about an hour. I broke your task into two elements: 1) you are a first-time entrepreneur. There are behaviors that separate successful from less successful entrepreneurs. 2) You are a manufacturers’ rep—a unique job with unique behaviors.

Entrepreneurial Behaviors: I visited a credible site, Harvard Business Review, and entered the search terms: entrepreneur “manufacturers rep”.

One article popped up and it had a few nice rules of thumb:

  • Use your own experience. 71% of entrepreneurs start ventures that solve problems the founders have grappled with personally.
  • Take action quickly: Entrepreneurs don’t get bogged down in research or planning. They move quickly to action. They try simple and inexpensive solutions and adjust on the fly.
  • It’s about hustle, not proprietary advantage. This isn’t always true, but it’s true for you. As a manufacturers’ rep you won’t have proprietary advantage, so your success depends largely on your hustle.

Though helpful, these points aren’t vital behaviors nor are they very specific to your job.

Next, I went to Google Scholar and entered the search terms: “manufacturer’s rep” skills.

Most of the hits were academic articles that describe the economic reasons a manufacturing firm might choose to distribute its products through manufacturer’s reps. But I focused on a single article that seemed to point toward behaviors, The Independent Rep As A Source Of Competitive Advantage: An Actionable Scale For Rep Selection (Gruben and Coe, 2003). A few key points:

  • Manufacturer’s reps are most commonly used to sell niche products that are simple and inexpensive within a fragmented marketplace. Often they sell commodities that are used in specialized applications.
  • Suppliers contract with reps because of the reps’ extensive contacts and tight relationships with multiple customers. Commonly the customer has greater loyalty to the rep than to the supplier.
  • A customer’s loyalty to their rep is not based on the products but the customer service. The article dissects the customer-service behaviors required of a manufacturers’ rep.

We are now getting close to vital behaviors. You need to: 1) Create a wide network of buyers; 2) Fill small-batch orders accurately and on a just-in-time basis, and 3) Provide excellent customer service.

Now if these are the three best practices, how have you grappled with them as a customer or employee? What are the problems you believe you can focus on solving? If it were me, here are the vital behaviors I would start with:

  1. Build my network: Each week contact at least five viable potential customers for products I already represent.
  2. Fill orders: Contact each of my customers at least once a week in a nonintrusive way to make sure I understand their current needs.
  3. Customer service: Have face time with at least one important customer per week. Meet personally with each customer at least quarterly.


I researched the field; I read a few articles to find best practices; I examined myself to consider the obstacles and approaches I would take to act on the best practices; and finally, I would hustle to drive these behaviors through the roof, meanwhile tracking my sales to see if it’s working. I’d continue to analyze and adjust my vital behaviors, especially during the first few months, until I found what worked for me.

Best of luck,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Influence

14 thoughts on “Vital Behaviors for Entrepreneurs”

  1. Mary Dondiego

    I love that I can now comment on the articles in the Crucial Skills newsletter. Nice job!

    1. Peggy Bushey

      Although I am not considered an entrepreneur, I am able to apply this principles to the healthcare environment I manage. Identifying “vital” behaviors, choosing areas to focus on and touch bases with my direct reports would most definitely support the collective culture I am trying to promote among the different sites. I do think, however the best advice was to keep track of what does and doesn’t work….duh!

      thanks for your insights!

  2. Pace McCulloch

    Thanks David, I really appreciated your insights. Keep em coming please.

  3. James

    This piece was very helpful to me as an entrepeneur, thanks for your insight and wisdom each week!

  4. Daryl Watkins

    Thank you for breaking down how you would implement this skillset. To “see” your thought process in action is very helpful. Bravo!

  5. AndrewBoldman

    I really liked this post. Can I copy it to my site? Thank you in advance.

  6. JaneRadriges

    The best information i have found exactly here. Keep going Thank you

  7. editor

    Note from the blog editor:

    You have permission to use content from the Crucial Skills Newsletter in your employee communications, provided you include the following notice: “Crucial Skills BLog, DATE, VitalSmarts, L.C., All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.”

    The following guidelines must also be met:
    Blog content may only be distributed free of charge and for personal use.

  8. GarykPatton

    Hello. I think the article is really interesting. I am even interested in reading more. How soon will you update your blog?

  9. Ryan Critchett

    Some good takeaways. I like the idea of looking strictly for vital behaviors so you can cut out the fat.

  10. Terri Johnston

    Thanks for spelling out your process! That is very helpful in pointing the way to some quick research for other questions.

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  13. Ed

    Great practical knowledge, I think your best article yet. Thank you! You guys do a great job tackling these tough problems, which are relatable to most of us.

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