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Don't Guess Your Way to Success
Business Journal

Don't Guess Your Way to Success

More than guesswork was required for this sales force to be named America's best

by Benson Smith
Coauthor of Discover Your Sales Strengths

A recent survey by Selling Power magazine asked readers who they thought was the most successful person on their sales team. Possible answers included the rep with (a) the best product knowledge; (b) the best sales skills; (c) the best customer knowledge.

No doubt, hundreds, if not thousands, of sales leaders will respond to the survey. In an upcoming issue, readers will find out what percentage of executives chose each of the answers. The answers that will receive the most votes are anybody's guess. But according to Gallup Organization studies, it doesn't matter which one comes out ahead. Why? Because each answer is wrong. And, no, the correct answer is not "all of the above." The correct answer is none of the above.

QUOTE: We realized we could not train average reps to greatness. We had to hire salespeople with the talent necessary to achieve exceptional results.

That's not to say that the three factors cited above aren't important. Unless your salespeople are selling in a fantasy land, they're going to require a good deal of product knowledge, a reasonable understanding of the sales process, and some useful information about their customers. However, if you do a little homework and compare your best salespeople to your average performers, you may be surprised to find out how similar they are in all three of these respects.

According to Gallup's studies of more than 250,000 sales reps, the three factors cited above are rarely the key differences separating your best from the rest. Sure, some of your best performers will possess exceptional product knowledge, while others will have flawless presentation skills. Still others may possess an almost overwhelming amount of customer knowledge. But you'll also find that the same things are true among your average performers.

A company that Gallup has studied tested all of its sales employees on product knowledge at an annual sales meeting. Much to the company's surprise, its top performers didn't score any better on product knowledge exams than did the rest of the sales force. The company also had each of the representatives perform in role-playing scenarios only to find out that their best people didn't necessarily give the best presentations either. And many of their superior producers didn't follow the company's scripted sales presentations. Even more surprising, the best reps didn't necessarily know more about their customers than did the rest of the sales organization. If you objectively look at your own selling organization, you will likely draw the same conclusions.

Still, the fundamental question -- "What's different about your best salespeople?" -- is one of the most important questions a sales executive can ask. Armed with a correct answer, executives can move forward to develop a strategy that will actually improve the quality of a sales organization. Without the right answer, company leaders will continue to dump resources into ever-more extensive product training sessions. Executives will find themselves heading for yet another "back-to-basics" sales meeting. And they will overspend on customer relationship software that -- assuming their sales forces even bother to fill out the information -- meticulously logs every customer burp. Any one of these initiatives will create the appearance that the company is "doing something," but none are likely to yield any tangible or significant improvements.

Making more than cosmetic changes

Senior executives at Marriott Vacation Club International (MVCI) grew tired of these approaches and wanted more than just cosmetic initiatives. Their goal was not simply to grow sales, but to transform an industry.

In the early 1990s, the whole timeshare industry was viewed negatively by the public. Sales teams relied on free gifts to lure prospects into arm-twisting sales presentations. Customers often felt trapped rather than engaged. For MVCI to accomplish its growth and transformational goals, the company recognized early on that the quality of its sales force was critical.

Led by its street-savvy no-nonsense senior vice president, Alan Cervasio, MVCI has achieved impressive results. As previously reported in the Gallup Management Journal, in 13 years, annual sales have increased from $75 million to more than $1.4 billion. In 2003, MVCI was honored with an American Business Award -- or "Stevie" Award, as it is more commonly known -- for being the best sales organization in America. (See "How Marriott Vacation Club International Engages Talent" in the "See Also" area on this page.)

Today, MVCI has developed a world-class sales force. How did they do it?

The first step, according to Cervasio, was to focus on talent, especially when it came to recruiting. "Like every other sales organization, we noticed significant differences in results among our sales associates," Cervasio says. "Yet all of them had been through the same [sales skills] training program. All of them had been thoroughly versed about our properties [product knowledge], and all were equally armed with similar information about each prospect they faced. Yet their results were quite different. Finally, we realized we could not train average reps to greatness. We had to hire salespeople with the talent necessary to achieve exceptional results."

Nurturing talent

With Gallup's help, MVCI developed a "talent profile," creating a model based on its best producers. This model has been refined over the years, but even from the beginning, executives could quickly see a difference in the potential of the people the company was hiring. More importantly, those observations were backed up by solid gains in sales-closing percentages and in sales volume per guest. The results illustrated that talent is a big driver of sales success.

However, Cervasio says that he eventually realized that talent is not the only driver of sales success. Sales talent, once hired, has to be nurtured and managed carefully if it is to benefit the organization. Indeed, talented individuals can present more of a management challenge in many ways; these stars can be more demanding, and they frequently have other opportunities to explore if they become unhappy. So MVCI turned to the second important key in improving the quality of its sales organization: improving its front-line sales management.

"We had to help our managers understand talent, how to develop it, and how to become effective coaches," Cervasio says. "We now saw the importance of turning talented employees into engaged employees."

Companies are far more likely to create a culture that promotes employee engagement when managers start doing the right things on a consistent basis. To help its managers develop employee engagement, MVCI trained more than 500 of its front-line managers to be Strengths Performance Coaches. These managers focus on developing their sales representatives' talents and building strengths rather than on constantly trying to shore up deficiencies. MVCI executives then carefully monitored the results achieved by sales associates who received strengths feedback and compared them to the results of those who hadn't received feedback. The difference between the two groups was impressive, according to Cervasio. "We call this our talent-on-talent approach," he says.

Of course, change in a large organization causes numerous challenges and difficulties. Getting people on board, refocusing resources into areas that make a difference, and monitoring progress are all part of the success story. To that end, MVCI executives deserve a great deal of credit for having the determination to build a culture that tries to improve every year. Like any significant change, the right strategy helps, but implementation is critical. And as Cervasio would attest, such success requires a lot more than guesswork.

Benson Smith is coauthor of Discover Your Sales Strengths.

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