Savage Strategy #5
Elevate the Salespeople,
Oh NO, Those Whiny Weenies?
Savage Strategy #3 to make more sales, more often is “elevate your salespeople.” I have a special spot in my heart for salespeople because that’s how I got started. I did a consulting project for Colgate Palmolive. The Senior Executive Vice President, Rod Turner, asked me, “Steve, your dad was a Baptist preacher, right?” “Yes,” I replied. “Well, why didn’t you become a preacher also and make some really big bucks?”
I laughed and told him, “Rod, my Dad was not that kind of preacher. He was a humble man who practiced what he preached. He had no money to send me to college. I had to pay my way through college selling books door to door.”
The Southwestern Company of Nashville, Tennessee, recruited college students to sell books door to door during the summers. I joined the sales force of 2000 young men, knocking on doors. By the time I received my MBA at Michigan State, I had spent six years in school and five summers in the school of hard knocks. Those five summers prepared me for life and for business more than six years in university.
The Southwestern Company of Nashville, Tennessee, specialized in recruiting college students for summer jobs. They had a sales force of 2,000 college students. They opened my eyes to a whole new world of possibilities. I learned that success was not a matter of luck. I was 18 years old, still a gullible wide-eyed missionary kid. I believed EVERYTHING they told me. They said to us, in their Tennessee drawl, “Boys, y’all work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week and ah guarantee ya’ll will go back to school this fall with enough money to pay your college tuition, buy a car and be the most popular man on campus.” I worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, for five summers. Straight commission, paid all my own expenses.
By the time I got my MBA I had paid all my college tuition, bought and sold three cars, furnished my first home and even bought my first few stocks.
My missionary father was proud of my success, although he worried about me. He wrote, “Steve, I’m mighty proud of you, but don’t become too obsessed with money and forget about saving souls.”
I never got the missionary call, but I did get an important phone call. Ted Welch, my sales manager at Southwestern, called and said, “Steve, how would y’all like to join us and become a Sales Manager? Your territory will cover everything west of the Mississippi.” It was an irresistible offer.
Within six months, I was making more money than anyone else who had gotten an MBA in my class at Michigan State. And I was having the time of my life. I even felt like a missionary. I felt like I was doing something important in developing the character of the young men I recruited, trained and managed.
Notice I said young men. Think back to the 60’s. You did not see many women in sales jobs or management positions. Southwestern was an all-male company.
One day I was interviewing a group of students at the University of Kansas. Dave Wright, our student manager, brought four candidates to the interview room at the Student Union. He also brought his lovely girlfriend, Cheryl McElhose. Cheryl listened quietly while I talked to the young men about the enormous financial opportunity, and the incredible adventure of meeting and dealing with people. I sold them on the idea that this would have a huge impact on their self-confidence and their ability to be successful in life.
The young men were excited and each signed a contract. After they left, Dave and Cheryl stuck around and we discussed the four candidates. Suddenly Cheryl spoke up and said, “Steve, I could do that!”
Have you ever noticed how sometimes a special opportunity just gets dropped in your lap? I looked at her and told her I admired her optimism, but felt it was my responsibility to tell her how hard it was. I said, “Cheryl, I’ve been bitten by dogs, I’ve had doors slammed in my face and I’ve been so depressed that I could hardly get out of bed. One week I didn’t sell anything for three days and I cried myself to sleep. I thought I’d never be able to go back to college.” On and on I went, telling her the dark side of the business. And the bleaker I made it sound, the more resolute she got.
“Just give me a chance, Steve, and I’ll show you.”
Once again, I thought about my Dad and his belief that everyone should be treated equally and given a chance.
“OK, Cheryl, but let’s make a deal. If I call my boss in Nashville and ask if I can recruit a woman, he will say no. Let’s just keep it quiet and you go ahead and do it.”
You have all heard the expression, “Better to ask forgiveness than ask permission.” I felt like I had really stuck my neck out.
That summer we had a sales force of 2001. 2000 guys and one woman. By the end of the summer, Cheryl was #3. Today the sales force is composed of 5000 students. There are still 2000 guys. But there are 3000 young women and they always outsell the young men.
It is one of my proudest achievements that I was the first to recruit a woman for that sales force.
I have started and built several businesses. Each business had a sales force at its core. And women were always at least 50% of the sales force. The salespeople were our heroes. We knew their efforts built our company. We praised them constantly, paid them well and sent them on exciting trips. And we made more sales, more often.
We have also had a lot of success recruiting women in Latin America. When I opened up our subsidiary in Venezuela, my attorney, Humberto Bauder, said to me, “Steve, I think I have a good candidate for your sales position. But I am not sure this person fits your profile. She is my sister. She has 4 kids, she’s 40 years old and she’s divorced.”
I exclaimed, “Perfect profile!”
Gloria went on to become our number one salesperson in Venezuela, outselling the men by a wide margin.
At IFS, Roscoe and the other managers resented the way we treated our salespeople. Roscoe worked twelve hours a day because he thought it was his duty. He felt the salespeople should work equally hard because it was their duty. He did not understand the motivation of praise, commissions, bonuses and trips. Our operations people felt the same way. We had to sit down with them and explain, “Salespeople are unique creatures and we all have to support them. But we will give you bonuses and trips also.” We tried to make everyone in the company feel like a salesperson.
We elevated our salespeople in two ways. First, by making sure they got respect. Second, by giving them freedom to negotiate. If a salesperson could get a huge contract with an entire school district, the customer did not have to wait for approval from the home office. They got a decision on the spot. The salesperson had autonomy and prestige. Customers had confidence because they knew they were dealing with someone important.
This naturally got Roscoe very nervous. To calm him down, we designed an incentive plan that motivated the salespeople within a reasonable framework. We gave them a bonus based on the profit they brought to the company. If the salesperson wanted to give a bigger discount, he or she also took a cut in commission. That way the salesperson thought like an owner. He or she did not give away the store. Roscoe could never show us a case in which the policy had hurt our company.
The financial and operations people sort of got on board but they were not totally convinced. Then I came up with another angle. I said, “Let’s think of our salespeople as customers. We have three types of customers. The ultimate customer is someone who spends $10, the person who buys jewelry from the students. The next customer is the school that buys $5,000 worth of products. But the most important customer is the salesperson who buys $500,000 to $1 million worth of products each year.”
This idea changed their perspective. The operations and finance people started to treat the salespeople like customers. They handled them with new respect. There was much less tension between sales and operations. There was more cooperation with good will on all sides.
Think about your company. How do you treat your salespeople? Do you treat them as your most important customers? Or do you resent them because they make too much money and are pampered too much?
What happens when your salespeople come to your office? Are they greeted warmly, with enthusiasm, by all your office staff? Or are they considered a nuisance? Treat them well, with genuine enthusiasm, and you will make more sales, more often.
I wish you could have met Bob Aga. Bob was a junior high school teacher, 55 years old. He had spent his life as a teacher. He sponsored the Student Council. His school sold our fashion jewelry. In just three days, they sold $24,000. They earned $12,000 and bought the lights they needed for the football field.
My partners and I loved the way Bob inspired his students to work together to raise money for their school. We talked with him: “Bob, anyone who can raise $12,000 in three days is the kind of person we want working for our company. How would you like to join us?” He was fascinated, but said, “I love what I do. I feel like I have been called to be a teacher. I’ve spent a lifetime working with kids.”
Then we said, “Bob, what if you could keep working with kids and make three times more than you’re making right now?”
The following Monday, Bob and I were out calling on schools. He quickly became our star salesperson.
Imagine making $33,000 a year and tripling that to $100,000 per year. Bob often came to the office at the end of the day to tell us how he was doing. We three entrepreneurs loved to see him and lapped up his stories.
Not everyone was overjoyed with Bob’s visits. He began to irritate Roscoe and the operations people. They felt he was wasting their time. “Oh, hell, here comes Bob again! Can’t you tell him to stay away and let me work?”
We didn’t have the heart to tell him to stay away. So we switched gears. We asked the operations people to go out and make sales calls with Bob. As you can imagine, they didn’t like that idea one bit. “Are you kidding? I’ve got work to do. I don’t have time to go out in the field.”
We said, “Look, try it just once. We think it will give you a better feel for the business. Listen to what the customers are saying.”
People went out with Bob for half a day. It changed their perspective. They had a much better feeling for the customer. They also had a much better feeling about Bob. At the end of each day, they would take to me and tell me what they had seen. I remember Tom Krysiak, our plant manager, who had not liked the idea of making sales call. After working with Bob, he came into my office. “Wow, Steve, I never realized how hard he worked and what he had to go through each day. I have renewed respect. I also saw problems out in the field that were the result of operations errors. It will make me a lot sharper on my job. I want all my people to be more oriented towards our customers.”
We made a schedule so each person in the office, from finance to operations to customer service, each spent half a day in the field, every six months. We had to be rigorous, because it was easy for the office staff to find excuses not to go out. There was always too much to do in the office. It was never convenient. And they hated to meet Bob at 7:00 AM instead of coming to the office at 9:00 AM. We made it an absolute sacrosanct rule, a guiding principle of our company’s culture. We made a calendar six months ahead of time, and each person had to plan his or her half-day way in advance.
Don’t get me wrong. It was never easy. It was a constant struggle. It is not the kind of thing you do once and never have to do again. To make this part of our corporate culture, we had to talk about it all the time. We always talked to the staff after their visits with the salespeople. We asked them to give us their impressions. We thanked and congratulated them for going out and coming back with so many good ideas. Even Roscoe made sales calls. And he began to smile.
How about your company? Do the office people ever go out and make sales calls with the salespeople? If not, do it. Start tomorrow. Your company will become more vibrant, more in tune with the customer. There will be a bond between sales and operations. Your entire business will flourish. You will make more sales, more often.
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