In my "Lesson's Learned" column last month, we spent a morning with two very successful salespeople — Liz and Beth. The magazine arrived just this week and I have already received e-mails from several people in different parts of the country saying, "Hey! I know both of them!" One person even claimed, "I know exactly who you are writing about," and went on to name names. When I told him that I actually did not know either of the two women he named, he was skeptical, but I take this as a good indication that many of you have experienced salespeople of similar descriptions and you are ready to ponder their impact on the organization.
I presented two very different Elizabeths. Liz was the top salesperson in dollars and units for three years and tore through the office, peoples' lives and freeway traffic like a level 5 tornado on a stormy Kansas afternoon. Her mistake-ridden paperwork was a mess, the company rules didn't apply to her and she had her own versions of cut-off dates, option availability and pricing. Quick to call others down on their shortfalls, she had little sense of her own foibles and was a master at getting others to cover for her in clever, often manipulative ways. At a distance, Liz was envied by her peers for they coveted her financial success. Up close, she was feared by many and loved by few. But she sold — and sold and sold. In fact, the annual sales contest had been nicknamed, "Liz's contest." And thus the company had begun to adopt current HR rage of "play to her strengths; don't try to fix her weaknesses" — to a fault. No price seemed too high to pay for what Liz brought in. Half the builders in town had tried to hire her away.
Beth was as different from Liz as Al Franken is from Rush Limbaugh. In fact, Beth and Liz had only two things in common; their birth name, Elizabeth, and their sales prowess. In Beth's seven years, however, she had never been number one in sales but she was always second or third and seemed fine with that. Beth had a way of making everyone see the bright side of things and many come to her for advice, even homeowners long after the closing sought her out and often about things other than their homes. Her referral rate was the highest the company had ever seen. When Beth came in the office, people were drawn to her — she didn't have to chase people down. Rather than tell the department secretary (Mandy, who we met last month) what she needed, Beth would always ask first what she could do for Mandy. Mandy couldn't recall the last time Beth turned in a contract or selection sheet with an error on it. Mandy's reaction was simple and mostly unconscious: Beth's work was always moved to the top of the pile.
To be fair, Beth had asked for one custom option in the past year and had gone so far as to suggest that the company do it at cost. That was when she found out that her customer's invalid mother would be moving in with her and required wider-than-standard doorways to accommodate her hospital bed and special fixtures in the bath. (The company did it for free. Beth and her two sons helped them move.) And then there was that time Beth asked for a two week extension on the selections cut-off date — a big company no-no. That was when a young wife was ordered to bed-rest to save her pregnancy. In both cases, every member of the office staff as well as the superintendents bent over backwards to help Beth's customers because that was the company philosophy, but even more so because they were helping Beth.
Yet, giving Liz her due, she was the top salesperson for three years running and there are clear and present benefits to that. So if it was your job and you had to choose between one or the other, how would you do it? What criteria would you use? What are the appropriate metrics? And don't forget Dr. Deming's famous admonition, "Some of the most important numbers for management are unknown — and unknowable." But let's be honest. Most of us would go for Liz. Sales are sales. Besides that, the idea of a salesperson baking cookies for the trades (see last issue) seems a little over the top, doesn't it? Even worse, how many of you raised an eyebrow at the idea of Beth intervening for an HVAC installer with a project manager over the placement of a compressor pad? Beth seems to be spending time doing unproductive things. Or is she?
Stop a minute now and think this through before you read on. How would you analyze this? At the end of last month's column I suggested you go through an exercise gauging the impact of each salesperson on your company. If you haven't done that, and especially if you haven't read the previous column, I strongly encourage you to do so. Pick out two of your very best salespeople who have distinctly different styles in the manner of our Liz and Beth. Here is a list of evaluation criteria I would apply to Beth and Liz and I suggest most of these criteria would work for you.
1. Total volume in units & dollars
2. Gross margin on sales
4. Customer satisfaction rating
5. Impact on and reputation with:
- field construction
- purchasing & estimating
- office administrative staff
- design center
- field service
- fellow salespeople
1. Accurate completion of required paperwork
2. Frequency and dollar value of discounts
3. Adherence to cut-off dates
4. Requests for non-standard options
5. Participation in process improvement efforts
6. Willing and effective at training new salespeople
7. Seeks to continually improve personal skills
When I began this column, I had 10 criteria and every time I reread it I add another, noting that question No.5 has become actually six questions, so I'd better stop. But no doubt you will think of more and I'd like to know yours so please e-mail them to me. This can become almost overwhelming and it's indeed tempting to just reduce it to "Sell, baby, we'll take care of the details." The hard truth about how much money you are making, however, is in the details. When evaluated by the criteria above, it becomes completely obvious that Beth's somewhat lower volume produces greater overall profit. Discounts, errors, omissions, non-standard requests, violation of cut-off dates and general brain damage to your staff all cost money. And treating everyone from secretaries to trades with dignity and respect has its payoffs. I'm not suggesting you necessarily fire Liz, but even your top grossing salesperson should not be permitted to operate outside of the boundaries others are expected to work within. She needs some serious work. The lesson of the two Elizabeths is that as an industry we must begin to see salespeople in a holistic manner, as complete
The lesson of the two Elizabeths is that as an industry we must begin to see salespeople in a holistic manner, as complete members of the team. It is no longer enough to simply bring in the bucks. The simplest model I can use to describe the "whole salesperson" is this and brings together all of the criteria cited above. They must continually develop in three areas:
- Management of Self
- Participation in the Team
- Care of the Customer
Those rare salespeople who keep a focus on all three are your most valuable players.
In summary, with all the attention being paid these days to construction and service personnel — and don't get me wrong, every bit of it is needed — I find that in comparison, little examination is being made of the sales force and how it fits into the equation of a successful builder. If a salesperson consistently brings in the volume, most builders will tolerate almost any behavior in a salesperson and in reality, few builders ask for anything more. Perhaps even more telling, few builders — ever reward anything more.
I have observed Liz, Beth and many other varieties of Elizabeth in many builders at different locations across the country. Liz and Beth do represent distinct ends of the continuum and most of your people will fall somewhere in between the two, with elements of each. The issues — and the exercise — are still valid. Start understanding the total impact of your sales force on the company and yes, demand more. The best salespeople will rally and respond, wondering why it took you so long to pay attention to all the factors that matter, not simply the number of units sold. Those that don't get it and can't change, well, plenty of builders retain their masochistic tendencies. There will always be a home for Liz.