About two years ago, I wrote a column called ‘Beyond the call of commissions.' If you missed it, it was, in effect, a "lament." I shared the frustration of many builders who had tried in vain to crack the paradigm of the "typical sales person" in this business. I laid out the problems they experienced trying to get sales people to do more than simply focus on the customer sitting in front of them at this moment. These builders were wondering what they could do to change things in a genuine way. So I asked people to send me their ideas or success stories. I usually get 20 or 30 responses to a column - more if it’s controversial. That month, I got two. A couple of ideas, but no success stories. I had to conclude there weren’t any.
Last week I ran into the problem three more times, which got me thinking again. Early in the week, I had lunch with a builder who told me about the huge and expensive appreciation dinner he planned for salespeople and real estate agents. Out of 150 written commitments to attend, about one-third actually showed up! Even those who got awards didn’t show. The builder said he ate so much shrimp that his cholesterol level soared to a record high. (I’m guessing it was more the stress from paying for all that food that went to waste.)
Later that week, I spent the day with a new operations director for another client, giving him my take on what contributes to a builder’s success. We decided to drive around his city, look at both his and competitors’ product at various stages of construction and talk to salespeople. We went to one model in a highly competitive area. The salesman had a slew of salesperson of the month plaques on the wall and a couple of salesperson of the year awards. I was prepared to be impressed. But his lack of knowledge stunned me. When we asked how his pricing compared to the builder across the street (who was outselling him 2 to 1) he replied, "I dunno, I haven’t checked for over 6 months." He didn’t seem the least bit embarrassed. What’s wrong with this picture?
Then I got a call from a VP at a regional builder in the west who happened to find my old column. He said it spoke to the issues he was facing and was calling me so I could share the heart-warming success stories I had heard. He had just committed to trying something totally different with his sales force - he just didn’t know what it was. He wanted great examples from builders around the country and I pride myself at always being a good and ready source for such examples. I had to tell him the truth. I didn’t have any.
So here’s my question: Are there really not any great examples of a large sales force becoming 100% fully engaged with a builder doing extraordinary things - or am I just hanging out with the wrong people? This is not to say that I haven’t met some astounding salespeople. I have. I’m thinking right now of Sally in Michigan, Jeff in Colorado, Anne in Florida. They are out there. But what I don’t see is a large group in one company that totally knocks my socks off. (I love having my socks knocked off.) Yet, this has happened in construction, service, land development, finance and accounting.
What am I looking for? My sales dream team would have the following characteristics, behaviors and results.
They would know and understand:
Their customer - who they are, why they want to live there, what they want to live in, what they are able to pay.
Their market - unique features of the community, demographics, what the competition is selling and for how much, what is working and what is not working.
Their product - not just features and floor plans, but a solid understanding of what’s inside the walls. Generally speaking, true product knowledge among salespeople in home building is marginal, at best. Yes, I think a salesperson should know the difference between a sill plate and a jack stud. (I’m not making many friends here, am I?)
Process Improvement - continually involved in process improvement efforts of the organization, serving on teams trying to improve design, quality, process, production and service.
Community Management - be a key member of a community management team that makes important decisions regarding their project at the local level.
Paperwork - contracts, color sheets, option requests and any other paperwork would be done right the first time, every time. (Management should have a zero-tolerance policy in this area. The cost of mistakes is mind-boggling.)
Street-level marketing - continually be searching for ways to generate leads and business, whether canvassing apartment complexes for first-time buyers, contacting corporate relocation offices for potential move-ups or establishing strong relationships with the very best real estate agents and brokers. There are a million methods.
Managing the customer experience - salespeople should see the customer as their essential responsibility all the way through the process, from traffic through warranty. This in no way interferes with the roles of construction, closing coordinators, service people, etc. - it supports them. But someone has to provide a continuous security blanket for customers who are making six figure financial commitments, and the salesperson is in the best position to do it.
Model Presentation - the best salespeople see their models as extensions of themselves and are never satisfied with anything less than perfect. Does this put the onus on construction to match that level of perfection in each and every house? Absolutely.
Training - always exposing themselves to the best of what’s available, not just in sales techniques, but also in marketing and construction.
Sell houses. Of course! But let’s put this last because of the simple fact that everyone else puts it first and as a result, rarely thinks of anything else.
There’s a lot more we could add, but that should get us started in the thought process. In summary, I think we have to do a lot better job recruiting, training and managing salespeople in this business. It may be time for some "tough love," as they say. Many builders were in the same boat with construction personnel ten years ago and there has been remarkable, even dramatic progress. Why can’t we now do the same for sales? And I would love to write about someone doing it right, so contact me if you’ve got a story. If we get three or four, we’ll make it a feature in an upcoming issue of Professional Builder. If nothing else, tear this out and pass it around before your next sales meeting, gauge the reaction of your staff and send me their feedback. Could be fun.