With more than three decades in home building and nearly 22 years consulting, I get calls now and then asking, “You guys know anything about sales?”
By my accounting, there are more consultants focused on sales in home building than any other aspect of the business, and by a wide margin. I know quite a few of them personally, and each is well-respected with dedicated followers, but I have never sat through one of their workshops.
When the caller is clearly looking for sales training, which most are, I advise them to research the providers (they always have great websites) and explore the field for the best fit. Next, they should talk with peers, such as NAHB 20 Club members, about who they use for training and their approach, to narrow the options. When down to two or three, I advocate calling each candidate to start a conversation and learn first-hand how they sell. Builders are rarely an “easy close,” so a consultant who convincingly sells his or her services to you is likely to be good at teaching your people to sell to homebuyers.
There are those few builders calling to better integrate sales with the rest of the organization; other times it’s more of a marketing agenda, trying to determine the price/value equation of square footage, features, options, and selections. For those folks, our years of Lean implementation can help.
Fully integrating sales is something few builders do well, and as such has become one of my pet peeves. The old school views the salesperson as a hired gun with one role and one goal—“set ’em up and mow ’em down.” Closing is everything.
But is it? I have been both frustrated and amused by the aberrant behavior a builder will tolerate from a rogue salesperson as long as he or she keeps selling. Over the years, I’ve seen sales behavior beyond the pale, yet if the salesperson is a top closer, he or she will usually live to sell another day. If not with that builder, then another.
Tale of Two Elizabeths
So what is most important for salespeople, in addition to closing? While pondering this, I thought back to a column I wrote 15 years ago, “A Tale of Two Elizabeths,” to capture the differences in salespeople and how they operate. It was based on two real salespeople, working for the same builder; neither was actually named Elizabeth, but they did have two versions of the same name. I decided to update it, write a new version. But when I looked back, I was surprised to find the comparison between the two salespeople still rang completely true today. Here are the two original Elizabeths. Has anything changed?
Beth: At the On-Site Sales Center
10:00 a.m. In her five-year-old Cadillac, Beth slowly turns into Fairfield Glen, passes the entrance monument, and cruises by the models and down the paved streets of Phase 1. Entering Phase 2, the pavement drops a couple of inches, and the Cadillac bounces. The 60-ish driver feels the shoulder belt tighten against her body, shakes her head, and grins, thinking, “After seven years I should have learned!” Beth pulls up to a cul-de-sac of homes at various stages of construction. As she pulls to a stop, the Caddy emits a friendly “honk-honk,” but a group of workers is already converging on the car before it is in park. Beth gets out with a big basket in her arms; she is conservatively dressed but quietly stylish.
By now, 10 or 12 guys have gathered around Beth, all smiling. She opens the basket to reveal a large container of homemade cookies, still warm. The guys seem more like little kids as they fuss over both the cookies and Beth. Thanks all around, and a few even offer hugs. After five minutes of chit-chat with Beth asking about their families, all but one walk back to their jobs, happy and wiping crumbs from their mouths and beards.
Russ, an HVAC foreman, lingers and points between two houses, using his hands to gesture out the distance between a compressor pedestal and a large side window. He shakes his head and makes rapid, fluttering motions with his hands. He is concerned about something. Beth nods her understanding, pats his arm in a reassuring gesture, and they part.
Back in the Caddy now, Beth slowly cruises the rest of the project, especially the homes near completion, jotting down notes and thinking how she’ll have to wash the car again today. At 10:15 she stops by the construction trailer and walks in with another batch of cookies. Beth asks the project manager about the status of an entrance door that seems to be missing on one home and, on another, whether the noise from an AC compressor near a big window of the house next door will upset the neighbors. She emerges 10 minutes later with a big smile on her face and a roll of plans.
At 10:30, Beth unlocks the model, flips on her computer, picks up the Windex, paper towels, a pen, and a pad of paper, and starts her patrol. At 10:45 she reviews the phone messages. By 10:55 the overnight e-mails have been reviewed. A couple of quick messages to the home office, and she gets up to greet the first prospects of the day, a young couple entering with a crying 2-year-old desperately needing a nose wipe. “What a beautiful little boy! I had two myself!” Beth exclaims and invites them to sit down in her office and relax. Beth hands the mom a package of tissues, saying again how the crying and fussing do not bother her in the least, and begins asking questions about what they’d like in a new home. Two hours later, she makes the sale.
Liz: At the Office
10:15 a.m. Liz, a tall, perfectly manicured and impeccably dressed woman in her late 30s, charges through the building. You can almost see the energy field that surrounds her. She drops a stack of papers on the sales administrator’s desk and barks, “Mandy, those need to be copied before I leave here!” Having finally found the nerve to confront Liz about constant errors in her paperwork, Mandy speaks up. “Liz, remember you said we could talk this morning? Well, I …” But Liz is already strutting down the hall, telling Mandy they’ll talk before she leaves.
Liz finds her next target, Ken, head of purchasing, on the phone. She looms large over him, staring down, tapping her foot. Ken refuses to look up and acknowledge her. In frustration, Liz turns to the estimator, engrossed in a spreadsheet on his monitor, squinting and entering numbers. “Lonnie! You tell Ken that there is no way the Mitchells are going to believe this countertop upgrade costs double what they can get it for at The Home Depot. That’s bull! I need this fixed today, or I’m gonna lose the sale!”
Then it’s on to Mike, director of construction. Liz ticks off 10 favors she has done for him, maybe three of which he remembers, then asks how he has the nerve to impose the cut-off date for selections on a client who has now bought three homes from her (she says, though two were when she worked for other builders). Mike holds up the new agreement every department head signed last month that cut-off dates will not be violated. Liz just rolls her eyes and turns to leave with a parting shot: “Pardon me, Mike, but you know what Dan’s boss told him about closings by the end of the quarter? Dan’s living in the real world now, and so am I. Care to join us?”
Down the hall, Liz spies Dan, the division president, emerging from the restroom. He looks at his watch, sees that it’s 10:30, thinks about the 35 minutes it takes to get to Liz’s model, even with her lead foot, and wonders what will happen if she gets one more speeding ticket and loses her license. Liz has been his biggest producer for three years running. Even if she is high maintenance, he can’t afford to lose any of her sales this year. He’ll probably have to hire a driver for her.
Liz startles Dan back to the present. “Dan! I need help with these lot premiums. If we cut the ‘view lots’ by 10 grand, I can sell five more this quarter. And if we get a loan program like Capital’s, there’s another five sales. Having to push our own mortgage firm is killing me. And I want to talk to you about my new field guy ... what’s his name ... Joe? Jim? Whatever. He can hardly talk and spit sunflower seeds at the same time. Boy, are our trades gonna eat him up! And one more thing. I heard certain management team members are carping about my ‘discounts’ again. Well, you tell them if they’d do their jobs and get this stuff priced right, built right, and in the right locations, I wouldn’t have to discount! And one more thing ...”
“Liz!” Dan stops her. “You have 25 minutes until your model opens, and it’s a 35-minute drive!”
Liz scoffs, “Not for me, it’s not! I’ll call you later.”
As Liz starts her Lexus, parked in the handicapped spot, Mandy comes running out, clutching a stack of papers. “Liz! Your copies!”
After making three “orange” traffic lights, driving 90 mph on the expressway, and cutting off enough people to elicit three “Liz is #1!” gestures from other drivers, she arrives at the model, breathless, at 11:05. A sophisticated-looking couple in their 60s is waiting out front. Fumbling with her keys while opening the door, Liz exclaims, “Sorry I’m late! Big traffic jam on the freeway! We have a big discount going on our premium lots right now, did you know? Let’s talk!”
More to the Salesperson Than Closing
Two very different Elizabeths. Which is more valuable?
Remember, in sales just as in construction, you must always consider “total cost.” In today’s world, with high-level customer focus and service as basic table stakes just to be in the game, it is not enough to be “merely” a closer. It takes someone who is proactive, anticipates customer wants and needs, and stays in contact after the contract is signed—and even beyond the closing, too. This level of support nips small questions and misunderstandings in the bud before they become significant disagreements that lead to customer dissatisfaction, buyer’s remorse, or customers trashing you on your survey and posting negative comments on Facebook or Yelp.
Maintaining strong relationships with your construction, purchasing, warranty, and administrative staff is critical as well. Finally, salespeople knowing their product, intimately and deeply, should not be optional. It’s all about prevention. Your great sales trainers teach everything about closing the deal. Who teaches salespeople about these additional, and no less critical, responsibilities?
Most builders pay at least lip service to these needs, but precious few demonstrate true commitment to them, so let me challenge you. Have you ever looked the other way when a top salesperson did not demonstrate the customer support behaviors you espouse or caused continual pain for others in the company? You need those sales, but do you have to put up with the brain damage? What do you do?
Tough decision, but more than any other group I have encountered in home building, new-home salespeople “read the tea leaves.” If salespeople are allowed to violate your standards or shirk their responsibilities with no consequences because they close the deals, the message is clear to all.
Of course, a “Beth” with great sales numbers is the best of all worlds, and in this case it was actually true. Beths are out there, and we have met many of them over the years in our Lean process workshops. Their contributions are invaluable, so much that we require sales participation to run our events, to represent the “voice of the customer” when construction and purchasing contemplates each improvement idea.
There is so much knowledge and talent untapped on the sales side. Ask more and expect more from your salespeople. Train them to deliver the “more,” and hold them accountable. Those who excel in all aspects of the job are worth far more than those who close sales and nothing else.
For Scott’s latest article PDFs, including “Bridging the Margin Gap” and “Grand Theft Homebuilding,” send a request via email to firstname.lastname@example.org with “PDF” in the subject line. Scott invites you to join the “Lean Building Group” on LinkedIn.
- This story originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Professional Builder magazine. See the print version of this article here.