A Sales Agent Named Stella

The entire company, starting at the top, needs to demonstrate consistent behaviors that will make difficult decisions easy for employees.
By Scott Sedam | April 30, 2006

It's a hot Friday afternoon in late July. As a third-year superintendent on a project that's holding its own even while sales have tapered off in your city, you have just experienced the month from hell. The monsoon-like rains last week left you way behind schedule, and you are desperately trying to catch up.

The boss has made it crystal clear he needs every closing scheduled on your job this month — plus two more. It's been one thing after another — bargaining for trades, negotiating with inspectors, trying to solve drainage problems, wondering who keeps vandalizing your construction trailer, keeping customers happy, training the new guy — and the list never ends.

Your once sensible schedule is now in shambles, but you've got a plan and think there's a chance you can turn this mess of a project around. Arriving by 6 a.m. and departing after 7 p.m. every day is not much fun, but you do what you have to do.

It's almost 5 p.m., and even this late there are still trucks snaking through the project, delivering materials for homes in all phases of construction. The mud from the rains has turned into dust kicked up by the traffic. Mixed with the humid air, the dust creates a dull, brown haze that hangs over the community, and the sweat stains on your shirt look like a bad tie-dye job.

But you are on a mission, and you have just enough time to walk the last three houses to confirm where you are on the schedule, update everything on the computer, finish the paperwork and leave the trailer by 6 p.m. You can make eight or 10 phone calls on the way home, shower, pick up the girlfriend by 7 p.m. and maybe, just maybe, get to the game before the first pitch is thrown out at 7:35. At the price she paid for those tickets for your birthday, you are thinking this would be a really good idea. You'll take her out for a late dinner after the game and try to make up for the neglect you have shown her of late.

It's now 5:15 p.m., and you cross the street looking much like a race-walker, narrowly avoiding a fork lift driven by a wild-eyed guy who is as intent on getting out of here as you are. You wonder, is his girlfriend mad at him, too?

You start up the drive of house No. 3 and just faintly, cutting through the roar of the receding lift truck, you hear it: "Honk! Honk!" You keep walking, but your body instantly reacts. You cringe, shoulders tensing and drawing together. A grimace crosses your face, your brow furls, eyes narrow. You hold your breath but keep moving. If you keep walking, you can pretend you don't hear it.

And there it is again: "Honk! Ho-o-o-onk." Awww crap! You want to believe that it's not really meant for you, yet you know it is. But who is it? Joe, the inspector who has been tormenting you? Chuck, your boss who has been on a rampage this month? Your squirrelly new assistant superintendent? Maybe one of your trades, wanting his check after he didn't show up twice this week?

Between you and the sound is a dumpster, a load of roof trusses and two portable bathrooms — there are enough obstacles that you can steal a glance without the driver's knowing you saw. At least you think you can. So you keep walking to maintain the ruse and sneak a look.

It's even worse than you thought: a white Buick Park Avenue with Stella at the helm and the Real Estate Prime magnetic sign on the door. Stella, about 50, always asking someone about something, always wanting this or that.

You're a superintendent! You're not supposed to know real-estate agents! But you know Stella because Stella demands to be known.

But not now. Not today. You resolve that today you do not know Stella because today you are going to get this last house inspected. Today you are going to get out of here by 6 p.m. Today you are going to make it to the game on time. You keep walking and disappear into the house.

Let's take a break for a moment. This young man, barely 25 and three years out of college, has just faced a moment of truth. He may not work for your company but someone very much like him does. What should he do right now? What do you hope he would do?

Have you trained him well enough to know? Does the entire company, starting at the top, demonstrate the consistent behaviors that will make the decision easy for him? Is the support there to back him up, every day?

Before you decide, let me give you some more details. Stella was the No. 1 outside salesperson for your company the past two years. She has pulled a ton of buyers in, especially from the highly motivated and often company-backed relo market. She is demanding and often difficult to work with, but the buyers she brings are eager and almost never cancel. Stella is money in the bank.

At about 3:45 p.m., Becky, your community sales rep, sent a text message to everyone saying that her son had broken his collar bone playing soccer and that she was closing office to meet her son at the hospital. Becky left a note on the door reading, "Family emergency, please come back tomorrow!"

There's a couple in the car, Doug and Beth Hartmann from Charlotte, N.C.. They are in town for a house-hunting trip and have money and flawless credit. The new employer is buying their old home and covering points on the new one. Beth is going overseas for two weeks beginning Monday, and they hoped to close a deal before they depart tomorrow on a 10 a.m. flight back to Charlotte.

They had searched the Internet, narrowing it down to five candidates and contacting Stella's firm, and Stella was now taking her to your project, saving the best for last.

Now you are in the house, walking into the master bath to see if the scratched-up fixtures on the Jacuzzi tub were replaced. Through the window you glance back down and see Stella on her phone.

You watch a moment as she presses it closed, turns to a middle-age couple in the car and throws up her hands in that "Can you believe this?!" motion. She throws the Park Avenue into reverse, turns around and starts back, but the fork truck has returned and she has to stop and wait for him to get by. And in that moment, the reality hits you, and you know what it's time to do.

You catch air in your throat, partially swallow a scream and start off down the stairs, three steps at a time through the family room, out through the garage down the drive.

Come on come on come on come on ... the fork truck is clearing and the brake lights go off, Stella is moving. Just a few ... more ... strides. ... "Stellaaaaaaaaaa!" you yell through the dust cloud behind her car, wondering if she can hear.

Author Information
Scott Sedam is president of TrueNorth Development, a nationwide consulting and training firm focused on quality, process improvement and organizational development. He can be reached at scott@truen.com.