HBR: Listening to Your Customers When Your Customers Disagree 

What should you do when customers have conflicting opinions? Are you listening to social media channels? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Alexandra Samuel:

Listening to Your Customers When Your Customers Disagree 

Smart companies recognize that both their marketing and their broader business strategy need to be informed by carefully gathered customer insight. But what do you do when your customers disagree—especially if their disagreement echoes throughout your various social media channels? What if their needs or desires are mutually contradictory?

That’s the situation the airline industry may soon face, thanks to the FCC’s reconsideration of in-flight mobile phone use. Customers have long been clamoring for in-flight phone liberation, but since its announcement the FCC has also been flooded with comments from passengers who dread the prospect of noisily chatting seat mates. Should the FCC move away from its pervasive ban on in-flight phones, those conflicting views will become a problem for individual airlines—or even individual flight attendants.

When you’re faced with a decision that’s going to make some customers angry no matter what you choose, it’s hard to know which voices to listen to, or whether to listen at all.

There is no more valuable time to listen to your customers than when they disagree, however. If you take the time to dive deep into a controversial topic—ideally with a group of customers who have been providing ongoing input into your business—you have a better chance of identifying strategies that will either help you satisfy competing interests, or focus your attention on the most crucial customer groups.

In a survey of 1,014 Americans who weighed in on the topic last month(January 2014), we heard the following about mobile phones on airplanes:

  • 44% of respondents agree that the FCC should permit the usage of cell phones on planes in flight, while 45% oppose the idea.
  • 40% of respondents say they would be very likely or somewhat likely to choose airline carriers based on their in-flight mobile use policies. Of these, the majority (54%) would choose a phone-fee carrier; 29% would choose a phone-friendly carrier, and 17% would prefer a carrier with lower mobile rates for in-flight phone use.
  • 55% say the regulation of phone usage should be a joint responsibility of both airlines and FCC. Only 12% thinks it should be the exclusive responsibility of the FCC, while 15% thinks the airlines should establish the guidelines.

These survey results reflect the public divide on this issue—and also show that rules on cellphone usage can indeed sway people’s ticket-buying decisions. If you’re in the airline industry, you better be tuned in to your customers.

So what should a business do when customers have conflicting opinions? Often the answer lies in looking more closely for nuances and patterns other than the overarching disagreement. For example, our data shows that while customers are divided on the issue of whether cell phone use should be permitted in flight, they do agree on some issues. Most notably, a full 70% think that airlines should have at least partial responsibility for determining the guidelines, so airline carriers can’t stand on the sidelines and let the FCC sort it all out.

Here are best practices to help you find the best path forward among your battling customers—and that could help airlines navigate through this turbulent issue:

Find a middle ground. While the public is evenly divided on whether cellphone use should be allowed in flight, most passengers (80%) object to voice calls. At the same time, most would-be in-flight cell users primarily care about texting (72%) Internet access (69%), and email (65%); only 28% are interested in making voice calls.

Almost half (43%) of all respondents think that if cell phones are allowed in flight, it should be for data use only, and only 18% think phone use should be totally unlimited. Allowing data in flights but not calls therefore appears to be a potential middle ground.

Figure out which groups of customers feel which way. Only 25% of would-be in-flight talkers say they’d be prepared to pay roaming rates for in-flight phone or data use. But if these consumers fly more frequently than other consumers, it still might make business sense for airlines to try to meet the needs of these consumers. They should explore providing different offerings for different groups. Failing that, they will need to determine who their most valuable or strategically important customers are and target their approach accordingly. If they know that some customers are alienated by phone use, but others are prepared to pay richly for the privilege, you can at least make an educated decision.

Educate the opposition. While the overwhelming reason (80%) for opposing cellphone use in flights is that people don’t want to hear other people’s calls, half of those who disagree with in-flight phone use also worry about safety (54%). These stats suggest education on actual risks could soften opposition. If you end up making a decision that you know will make one set of customers unhappy, look for opportunities to change their minds. For example, the data-only solution may still make customers unhappy if they are worried about safety, but evidence suggest that the risks are low , so airlines may find that passenger education can relax some of those worried opponents.

Equip your employees. Flight attendants are right to worry about what cell phones would mean for their workload: 55% of people who believe in setting some limits on in-flight phone use think flight attendants should be the ones to help enforce those limits by warning violators. While many also think that signage (44%) and signal jamming (41%) should be part of the picture, there is clearly a widespread expectation that flight attendants will be a key part of enforcement. This highlights the need to educate your people in the front lines: Whichever consumer group you end up siding with, equip your employees (including your social media community managers) with the information and the tools they need to answer people’s questions and address opposition to your decision.

Ultimately, any business dealing with conflicting customer opinions will have to understand the factors driving people’s attitudes. Should the FCC change its rules on in-flight phone use, the airlines that will benefit will be those that understand not just the broad dimensions of disagreement among their customers, but the specific preferences, concerns and purchasing patterns of each group—otherwise they will be flying blind.

 

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S+B: Three Promises Every Sales Team Needs to Make — and Keep

Are you focusing on what matters to your customers? Are you providing value to build profitable, lasting relationships? Below is a blog from s+b Blogs by Elizabeth Doty:

Three Promises Every Sales Team Needs to Make — and Keep

Customer loyalty has always been the holy grail of organic growth. The fastest way to increase revenue and margin is not to push sales and marketing teams to land new customers, but to stop leaking customers. In their classic study, W. Earl Sasser Jr. and Frederick F. Reichheld found that reducing customer churn by just 5 percent could increase profitability between 25 and 85 percent, depending on the industry. Loyal, satisfied customers usually cost less to serve, are willing to pay for quality, bring more of their business your way, and are more likely to refer other customers.

Today, however, as the sales model shifts further toward subscription-based services, longer-term relationships have become more critical than ever before. Under a traditional, product-driven model, suppliers receive all their revenue up front. But with subscription-based services, customers pay as they go and can usually switch suppliers easily. In many cases, accounts are not profitable for suppliers until the second year. This means suppliers need to ensure they keep customers happy just to maintain their revenue streams over time.

To reduce customer churn, many experts promote techniques for convincing unhappy customers to stay. But what they should be asking is: Why do customers want to leave in the first place? Often, it’s because they feel the company has not delivered the value that was promised. Despite the current focus on continual innovation, what customers tend to value most is reliability, as Reg Price and Don Schultz wrote about in their book, Reliability Rules: How Promises Management Can Build Your Company Culture, Bid Your Brand, and Build Your Bottom Line (Racom Communications, 2009). And, as marketing legend Christian Grönroos has explained, building relationships requires making and keeping promises throughout the process of engaging your customer. The next logical question thus becomes: Who makes promises on behalf of your firm?

Ultimately, it’s your own salespeople who are responsible for your company’s promises. Marketing may craft your brand promise, but your sales team makes the commitments that count for specific customers — what your company will deliver, when, and with what level of quality. In the past, faced with pressure to meet a quota, salespeople might have been tempted to say whatever they thought it would take to close a deal, then move on to the next customer. But sales strategy expert Steve Thompson, who coaches both buying and selling organizations, suggests that “in a world of relationships, a different kind of salesperson succeeds.”

To win in this new world, sales teams need to focus on whether customers are receiving the value promised — and whether their firm is getting credit for the value delivered. Thompson proposes three specific promises that can help any direct-sales business build longer-term relationships.

  1. “I will focus on what matters to you.” The sales process begins with an exploration. What outcomes are your customers trying to achieve? How will they measure success? Without this context, you cannot advise them on the right solution. Unfortunately, customers often find this exploratory phase frustrating. They invest time and share information, but too often, reps do not listen or focus only on the products or services they want to sell. In this type of situation, you can differentiate yourself by taking a serious interest in your customer’s business and aiming to create value throughout the sales process. Thompson explains that “90 percent of the time, the buying organization isn’t clear about what they need. Right off the bat, a sales team can create significant value by helping them clarify their needs.” And if their desired outcomes are not ones you can deliver, you build credibility by telling them who may be able to.
  2. “I will craft the right deal.” The next phase involves crafting and presenting the right solution, and negotiating an agreement. “When salespeople focus on features, the discussion often devolves to price,” warns Thompson. “We turn our products and services into commodities by the way we sell them.” Instead, design a few possible solutions, each tied to a customer outcome. Make sure you can articulate exactly how each component is necessary. Then ask the buyer: Which option do you like best? How could it be improved? Now you are negotiating, but not as opponents. As you work together to adapt your solutions to their priorities, they will gain confidence that you can deliver, and pricing will be based on a win-win division of value. Crafting deals in this way also helps suppliers avoid the need to discount to close a sale to meet a quarterly deadline. For example, as one sales manager told me, “Our most successful sales reps are focused on the customer. These reps do not rush to recommend products until they are sure they would truly meet the customer needs. They are in it for the long term. And that means they can set their own prices.”
  3. “We will focus on delivering these outcomes.” If you want to keep a customer for life, stay invested after the deal closes. This is the moment when most sales reps move on to the next prospect, leaving customers anxious about whether they made the right decision, and operations staff in the dark about the details of delivery. The sales team, which consists of your organization’s promise-making units, needs to be joined at the hip with the delivery team, your promise-keeping units. The sales team, your organization’s promise-making arm, needs to be joined closely to the delivery team. Sales staff can dramatically improve delivery reliability by involving service staff early in the process, which helps service staff know the customer and why they are buying. Once you have delivered, you solidify the relationship by self-reporting on the outcomes achieved. This demonstrates accountability and protects the buyer from a superior who might ask, “What did you spend all that money on?”

Focusing on what matters to your customer, crafting a deal you can deliver on, and providing outcomes all help you build profitable, lasting relationships. Of course, sales teams alone cannot make this shift. It requires organizational changes in management focus, delivery processes, and technology tools — with an eye toward customer retention, revenue, and relationships, not just costs. Sales compensation may also need to change, to reward reps for the long-term relationships they develop. Moreover, as your company delivers more reliably and self-reports, you earn the right to ask customers about new needs. “There is a whole lot of sales pipeline sitting there that companies don’t know about, because buying organizations are not voluntarily offering up the information,” laments Thompson. What richer source of leads could there be than your own happy customers?

 

HBR: Ineffective Sales Leaders Can Cause Lasting Damage

Is your vison or strategy going in the right direction? Are you retaining the right talent? Are you serving your customers? Or managing your sales team badly? Is your culture wrong for your vision and strategy? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Andris A. Zoltners, Sally E. Lorimer, PK Sinha.

Ineffective Sales Leaders Can Cause Lasting Damage

Success in a sales force requires having strong talent up and down the organization. A weak salesperson will weaken a sales territory, a bad sales manager will damage their team and dampen results in their region, and a poor sales leader will eventually ruin the entire sales force. For even the most seasoned among us, it can be difficult to recognize the signs of a poor sales leader and the possible damage the person can do — especially when they appear to do some good early on.

Consider two examples.

An education technology startup hired a sales leader who came from a large, well-respected firm. He had extensive market knowledge and a stellar track record. Although good at scaling and operating a sales organization, the leader was unable to succeed in a rapidly changing environment that needed experimentation and nimbleness. The mismatch between the startup’s need and the leader’s capabilities set progress back at least a year.

A medical device company hired a vice president of sales with an intimidating management style. He ruled by fear. Achieving goals was everything. He tolerated (and even encouraged) ethically questionable sales practices. Results looked excellent at first, but the sales culture became so unpleasant that good performers began leaving in a trickle, and then in a flood. The average tenure of salespeople dwindled to just seven months. The damage to the company continued for years after the VP was replaced.

The reasons that sales leaders fail fall into four categories:

  • Direction. Poor understanding of the business, leading to errors in vision and strategy
  • Talent. Inability to pick and keep the right people for the team
  • Execution. Poor processes serve customers and manage people badly
  • Culture. Inappropriate values damage the very core of the organization

When such failures are coupled with a leader’s egotism or lack of self-awareness, it’s unlikely that the leader can lean on others to overcome his own deficiencies.

Yet ineffective leaders can do some good in sales organizations. They can bring about needed change quickly. Leaders who lack sensitivity have an easier time eliminating poor performers. Leaders who are intimidating can use their muscle to implement difficult changes that past leaders avoided — for example, an organizational restructure that disrupts an existing power hierarchy.

But unless a poor leader can overcome or compensate for his deficiencies, eventually the bad will overpower any temporary good. A tyrant, for example, may fix some things in the short term but create other problems at the same time. For every gain, there are likely to be multiple missteps with the sales force’s vision, team, execution, and culture. A key and very visible marker of ongoing or impending trouble is when talented people on the leader’s team become frustrated and depart the company.

It can take years to repair the damage done by an ineffective sales leader.

First, it takes time to replace the leader and reconstruct the sales team. When a health care company hired the wrong leader for a sales region, it took more than three years to rebuild the team and recover from the initial error of putting the wrong person in charge.

Second, it takes time to reverse the questionable decisions that ineffective sales leaders make, especially decisions that affect sales force structure or compensation. Weak leaders at a technology company made a decision to restructure the sales organization using a model from their own past that did not match the current situation. Again, it took more than three years to undo the damage.

Third, it takes time to rebuild the culture a poor leader creates. Poor leadership at a medical device company had allowed an unhealthy “victim” culture to pervade the sales force. Salespeople had no confidence in their leaders, and managers were willing to accept salespeople’s constant excuses for poor performance.

Bringing about change required replacing the company’s president, followed by more than two years of sustained focus on transforming the sales force using the following process:

  1. Create a fresh vision, reflecting a culture in which salespeople trusted their leaders and in which all salespeople were held accountable for results.
  2. Communicate the vision using every opportunity, including sales meetings, videoconferences, and the company’s intranet.
  3. Rebuild the team starting with a new vice president of sales who had integrity and judgment, and was willing to replace anyone on the sales team who could not adapt to the new culture.
  4. Realign sales support systems and rewards by overhauling the systems for recognizing and rewarding performance and creating accountability.

These four steps are a good starting point for any company seeking to recover from poor sales leadership.

Bad sales leaders can sometimes bring about change in a broken environment and make temporary gains. But they will wreck a sales force unless they are replaced quickly.

HBR: The Value in Wowing Your Customers

Are you using the Net Promoter system? I would like to hear about your “WOW!” moment. Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Fred Reichheld.

The Value in Wowing Your Customers

A friend of mine in Dallas loves the local Chick-fil-A restaurant. The reason? An employee named Jose once asked my friend’s three-year-old to help with the mopping — and proceeded to give the boy a ride around the restaurant on the mop. For my friend, this was a “wow!” experience, the kind of out-of-the-ordinary event that you want to tell people about — and that inspires you to recommend the business that provided it.

One of my favorite examples of this happened at Rackspace, the managed hosting and cloud computing company. An employee on the phone with a customer during a marathon troubleshooting session heard the customer tell someone in the background that they were getting hungry. As she tells it, “So I put them on hold, and I ordered them a pizza. About 30 minutes later we were still on the phone, and there was a knock on their door. I told them to go answer it because it was pizza! They were so excited.”

I’d have been pretty excited, too, if I were that hungry customer. Another “wow!” moment.

Maybe you noticed something about these wows: They don’t cost much. I call them “frugal wows.” A company that brings a smile to the face of its customers in this manner builds a huge reservoir of goodwill and positive word of mouth at very little expense.

Why would an employee make that kind of a gesture? No doubt the individuals involved are good-hearted folks. Doing well by others makes them happy. But there are plenty of equally good-hearted people in other companies who would never think to offer something extra to a customer. It just wouldn’t occur to them to go beyond their usual duties.

What distinguishes Chick-fil-A and Rackspace is that both companies have created what might be called a “Golden Rule” culture. Employees treat customers as they would like to be treated if they were in the customers’ shoes. Rackspace calls it “Fanatical Support” and views it as a cornerstone of the company’s competitive advantage. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy says, “We strive to deliver something for which there is unlimited demand — being treated with honor and respect.”

Both companies regularly survey customers using the Net Promoter system. They disseminate the scores and responses throughout the organization. They follow up with unhappy customers, and they make a point of acting on the feedback they receive. In other words, they take their commitment seriously.

So it’s hardly surprising that employees of these companies would come up with imaginative ways to wow the people they serve. It isn’t only their own good-heartedness or their personal commitment to the Golden Rule — they know that’s what their employer values as well. And they know that their actions will ripple outward through the recommendations their customers provide.

Barbara Talbott, the retired head of marketing for the Four Seasons, tells the story of acts of intelligent kindness: a pot of tea delivered gratis to the room of a guest with a bad cold, a vaporizer for a mother with a croupy child, and so on.

Her point is that if you hire good employees, they will seek out opportunities to be kind. They know that when the line at the front desk is five deep, then they must be intelligent and move the line expeditiously, but if there is no crowd, then that is the time to add a little flare and conversation.

All this sheds light on the ongoing conversation about employee happiness. Most people are happiest when they get a chance to do something that others truly value — when they can act according to their best instincts. More and more companies are making sure that they support those instincts with the right team structures, leaders, tools, and training. And they put in place systems that give employees immediate feedback about how they have enriched a customer’s life — or why they fell short and how to fix it.

For an employee, that support is likely to mean a chance to make a real difference in the life of a customer. How fitting that the employee’s company gains from this as well.

 

HBR: How Top Salespeople Land Hard-to-Get Meetings

Are you connecting with your customers for the long term or just for the sale? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Stu Heinecke.

How Top Salespeople Land Hard-to-Get Meetings

Richard Branson famously said, “Succeeding in business is all about making connections.” Mr. Branson surely has little trouble getting anyone he wants on the phone, but the rest of us could use a little help.

While I was researching my new book, How to Get a Meeting with Anyone, I asked the top 100 sales thought leaders in the world, “When you absolutely must reach someone who is very important but nearly impossible to reach, how do you do it?” What I discovered was a shadow practice that has been extremely effective at breaking through to critical contacts, but no one actually had a name for it.

I dubbed it “contact marketing,” and found it to be a surprisingly effective marketing technique. Based on my interviews, reported response rates averaged from 60% to 80%, with some campaigns actually hitting 100%. What exactly is contact marketing? It’s a fusion of marketing and selling, employing specific campaigns to connect with specific C-level executives and top decision makers. The idea is that you only need a few dozen of the right high-level relationships to change the scale of your business. Contact marketing can take many forms, but there are five takeaways you can use to make your own high-level connections:

Deliver something of value. Here’s your chance to stand out, to be audacious, and to create a meaningful connection. The objective is not to attempt to bribe someone to meet with you, but to deliver something that makes a difference to the recipient. It should express your brand personality but contain absolutely no pitch. Your first mission is simply to create a connection, to establish yourself as someone they’ll want to listen to. While you might use search results and social media postings to try to determine an executive’s specific challenges and desires, there are also some simple assumptions you can use to open doors, based on universal desires shared by most business leaders. We all want more success, recognition, and income, but we also want to do the best job we can and leave a mark. For example, I’m a cartoonist, and I’ve found that my cartoons can touch upon all of these markers in a very personal way. Sending a personalized cartoon, like the one below, has become a can’t-miss way for me to connect with virtually anyone, but anything that recognizes the recipients’ desires, helps them do their job more effectively, or enhances their business in some way can be highly effective.

Offer something of further value. As your request for contact is received, it’s a good idea to include something additional as a reward for taking the proposed meeting or phone call. Some campaigns split a gift in two — a remote-control model sent with a note explaining that the withheld control unit will be delivered during the meeting, for instance. Although this has reportedly worked, it can come off as being too pushy. A far better approach would be to offer relevant research, a white paper, or a free audit of some aspect of the target executive’s business when the meeting takes place, as a way to provide the incentive you may need to actually get the meeting. The point is to continually add value to the connection building between you in a way that helps the executive do their job more effectively.

Include the executive assistant. Many sales reps do their best to avoid, circumvent, or trick the executive assistants they encounter, but that is a fatal mistake. Don’t think of assistants as gatekeepers; think of them as talent scouts, always on watch for extraordinary opportunities their executives would otherwise miss. Once they’ve rendered assistance, be sure to thank them with a modest but meaningful gift. If an assistant has been helpful to me, I often send a card with one of my cartoons personalized in their name and a handwritten note of thanks. Whatever you send, don’t make it look like a bribe; a dozen roses is way too much, but a gift card for a few lattes is perfect. Just make sure it expresses your appreciation for their help.

Secure the meeting. Arranging a call or meeting can be painfully tedious as all parties attempt to coordinate openings in their schedules. You can either suffer the details or use one of many productivity tools on the market to get your meeting on calendars, such as Calendly, Assistant.to, ScheduleOnce, and TimeTrade. I recommend x.ai, an artificial intelligence agent that makes the necessary arrangements via email, from the initial request right on through to confirming meeting times on everyone’s calendars.

Connect, don’t pitch. Once you’ve gone through the trouble of arranging the meeting, it would be a waste to ruin it with a misguided pitch of your company’s product or service. So don’t do it. Instead, be ready to have an exploratory but informed conversation about an issue by researching news stories or mentions in their social media feeds. Share other cases in which you’ve helped companies in their industry gain new competitive advantages, but never start the meeting assuming your offer is right for them. Be human, explore, and have a conversation.

Here are two stories of how others have used contact marketing to inspire a few ideas for your own campaign.

Dan Waldschmidt’s swords. Dan Waldschmidt is an extreme athlete, an author, and one of the top sales bloggers in the world. But his core business is turnaround consulting. To connect with prospects, he scours the business news for stories of missed earnings estimates. When he finds one, he has a beautiful sword made with an engraved inscription in the target contact’s name. It’s sent in a fine wooden box with a handwritten letter telling the CEO he’s got his back in the next battle — but says nothing about his turnaround service. This offer has generated a near 100% response rate and numerous multimillion-dollar engagements while beautifully expressing the value Dan delivers and the personality of his brand.

NoWait app launch. The founders of the NoWait app, which allows you to put yourself on the waitlist of your favorite restaurant from anywhere, used Contact Campaign as the basis of their entire launch strategy. They targeted the CEOs of 30 top restaurant chains with a brilliant campaign that used personalized videos delivered on iPads in custom NoWait packaging. Their highly targeted approach allowed the company to focus on the people who could do them the most good, using a minuscule $30,000 marketing budget to achieve their objectives. As a result the NoWait App is already used by more than half of the targeted chains.

I’ve always used my own cartoons to connect with great effect, but you don’t have to be a cartoonist or send expensive gifts to break through to important contacts. Just produce a contact marketing campaign that makes you stand out as someone the recipient really needs to get to know. Do your research and figure out the sweet spot between what your future client needs most and why you’re the best person to help them reach their goals.

 

HBR: Let Your Frontline Workers Be Creative

“The researchers found that the creativity of front-line service employees directly affected customer services ratings.” Are you facilitating creativity in your employees? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by David Burkus,

Let Your Frontline Workers Be Creative

We know that creativity and innovation fuel new products, services, even strategies. But too many executives make the mistake of assuming creativity is just reserved for a certain department or just the white-collar knowledge-workers in their firms. New research shows how important it is for all employees to be creative, even if they’re not high up on the org chart.

One new research paper looked at how creativity, or the lack thereof, affected customers’ perception of customer service. The researchers found that the creativity of front-line service employees (which they called “service creativity”) directly affected customer services ratings. “Service creativity allows employees to delight customers in unusual ways or solve problems that existing protocol falls short of addressing,” said Jing Zhou, a co-author on the study and professor of management at Rice University. “The findings suggest that service creativity is a powerful avenue through which customer satisfaction can be achieved.”

The collaborators collected data from 3,550 customers and 380 hairstylists across 118 hair salons as part of a large chain in Taiwan. While that may sound like an odd source for customer research, it is actually a perfect setting for studying service creativity. The researchers chose it because generating novel yet practical hairstyles for a diverse set of customers is a fundamental skill needed by stylists. In addition, the interaction between stylists and customers lasts long enough to study the interaction between employee and customer and observe the employee’s creative performance. The data were collected through observations by the researchers and surveys completed by both the employee and the customer. (The researchers limited themselves to two interactions per stylist per day in order to avoid response fatigue.)

They found that the service employees were rated both more positively and more creatively when they showed customers they were responsive to feedback. But it wasn’t just about making the customer feel good by being approachable – it was about gaining actual insights and ideas from customers, which in turn allowed the employee to promote new options and solutions tailored to the customer. “Because front-line employees engage in contact with customers on a daily basis they may have a better sense of the issues that customers are concerned about and how to solve these problems in a novel and practical way,” said Zhou.

Managers can play a key role in facilitating the creativity of front-line staff by expressing confidence in their service employees and seeking out employees’ opinions on resolving customer issues or providing service.

This stands in contrast to how many customer service departments operate, especially call centers where employees follow standardized flow charts and are encouraged to close customer support tickets and end phone calls as quickly as possible. “Empowering employees — rather than closely monitoring and controlling them – may be a more effective way to enable employees to provide satisfying service,” said Zhou.

The exemplar here is Zappos. Unlike most online retailers, Zappos actively drives customers to contact them via phone, displaying their customer service number prominently throughout their website. Employees receive seven weeks of customer service training. Instead of giving employees scripts, managers encourage call center employees to go to whatever lengths are reasonable and necessary to please customers, including browsing competitor websites if a customer is looking for a specific item that Zappos doesn’t have. One time, when Zappos was out of stock, a customer service representative even visited a brick and mortar retailer to buy the specific shoes and hand-deliver them to a customer.

Especially notable from a service creativity standpoint, Zappos is one of the few call centers that measures average call time but doesn’t reward employees with the lowest averages. Instead, they praise the employees who set length records. That’s important given that creative ideas often take time to develop and that productivity and creativity are often at odds with one another.

While stories about Zappos and extreme tales of customer service aren’t new, this new research helps strengthen the case that it’s not just about doing it differently … service creativity helps companies do it better. Today, creativity is everyone’s job.

 

HBR: What Makes Great Salespeople

Below is a blog post from Harvard Business Review. Do you have the right customer engagement?

What Makes Great Salespeople

What behaviors drive successful salespeople? Last year, research by my people analytics company VoloMetrix identified three things that were highly correlated with top performing reps: More time spent with customers; larger internal networks; and more time spent with managers and senior leadership. These three behaviors persisted regardless of region, territory, or sales role, suggesting that they are foundational ingredients for success.

We came to these conclusions after studying the sales force of a large B2B software company using six quarters of quota attainment data for several thousand employees. We then correlated it against 18 months of VoloMetrix-created people analytics KPIs. Since then, we have had the opportunity to work with several more companies to perform similar and much deeper analyses.

Building off of the earlier findings, we have developed a broader framework for each of the behaviors we idenftified (two of which we combined), plus an additional one:

  1. Customer engagement.This not not only includes overall time spent with customers, but also factors in the number of accounts touched; time spent with each; frequency of interactions; and breadth and depth of relationships built within them.
  2. Internal networks.We’ve found that it’s useful to break internal network characteristics into three sub-categories:
    • General: This includes overall number of relationships within the company; time spent interacting with other colleagues; and influence within the network.
    • Support resources: A set of metrics focused on the relationships reps built with sales support staff, including pre-sales specialists, inside sales reps, and others.
    • Management: A set of metrics concentrated on relationships between reps and their direct managers, as well as broader rep engagement with company leadership.
  3. Energy:This new angle, which is very much related to the previous two, includes a collection of metrics that measure overall time and effort exerted by salespeople.

In total, our new analysis suggests that sales success requires the right engagement model with customers, the right relationships within your own company, and putting in the needed time and energy. These insights may seem intuitive — and in many ways they are — but, according to the data, the details matter. Here’s how our findings play out:

Customer engagement doesn’t just mean spending time with more customers. We’ve stated before that top performers spend up to 33% more time with customers per week which, depending on the company, is typically 2-4 additional hours of time.  It’s clear that time with customers matters. However, through further analysis we’ve found that degree of focus can matter as much or more than total time. For example, in one large B2B technology company, top performers spent 18% more time with customers per week. Yet they interacted with 40% fewer accounts over the course of a quarter allowing them to spend more time with each of those accounts relative to lower performers.

In other words, depth trumps breadth when it comes to accounts — top sellers focused on building deeper relationships with fewer customers rather than casting a wider net of shallower engagement.

Of course, these metrics are not one size-fits-all and the right balance varies by company based on what they are selling (e.g., highly consultative sales processes benefit most from depth whereas more transactional models can benefit from breadth). Regardless, these key metrics relating to time spent with customers and account relationships have emerged both as strong predictors of sales outcomes as well as highly actionable metrics for sales leaders to track, incorporate into territory design and use to help their teams improve performance.

A bigger internal network is generally better, with some nuances in sales support. No matter how we cut the data, top performers have significantly larger networks within their company (30-40% larger, which typically equates to 10-20 more people they interact with regularly), higher centrality (a measure of influence within the network), and spend more time with leadership. When you think about the level of complexity in a large organization, it makes sense that people who find ways to build more relationships get exposed to more ideas from across the business, are able to access expertise quickly when needed, and have more context about what’s happening. All of these things help them to be successful.

But building relationships doesn’t mean attending lots of meetings, especially those with 20 or so attendees. When we measure relationships, it involves both a frequency and an intimacy component. To qualify as a “relationship,” you have to not only interact with someone frequently (at least 2x per month), but that it also has to be in a relatively intimate group (five or fewer people involved in the meeting or email). So to establish a large network, you have to interact with many people, on separate threads, frequently.

This takes a lot of time. The top performers we study typically spend anywhere from 10-15 hours per week interacting with small groups inside their companies. Often sales executives balk at the idea of their reps spending so much time internally instead of out selling, but the data suggests that it is time well spent.

When we work with companies, we help them find ways to minimize large standing meetings and instead create ways to enable broader networks consisting of smaller groups of people. The unfortunate truth is that top performers in most companies are finding ways to build these bigger networks in spite of the processes they work within rather than because of them.

Management relationships are another important aspect of internal networking. Generally speaking, more exposure to senior leadership correlates with successful sales outcomes. That said, we have found a lot of variation in the specific interaction patterns between sellers and front-line managers across regions, product lines, and companies. For example, in some companies we have seen an inverse correlation between front-line manager involvement and seller success, meaning that top sellers spend less time with their direct manager than lower performers do. However, even in these situations, the top sellers spend relatively more time with other members of senior leadership.

Lastly, in complex sales organizations, the relationships between sellers and sales support staff is an area where more relationships is not necessarily better. In fact, in some cases sellers who have more relationships with sales support workers perform worse. This is sometimes the result of inconsistent pairings in which, for example, sellers aren’t able to work with the same pre-sales specialist consistently and instead have to work with a different one each time. This can lead to more relationships, but a weaker team. We’ve also seen that there is a stronger relationship between the time spent with support relationships and the complexity and number of products being sold than there is to actual outcomes. In other words, sellers who are trying to sell a broader portfolio or simply have more complex offerings are more heavily dependent on support resources, regardless of their effectiveness.

Sales is hard work (but you probably knew that already). Consistently, we’ve found that top performers simply put in more time. Their weeks are approximately four hours longer, with up to 40% more time spent outside of normal working hours compared to their lower-performing counterparts. But the answer isn’t saying that everyone should just work harder; even low performers work an average of 50 hours per week.

The implication, instead, is that every hour is precious. So echoing some of the findings above, here are some changes that could be made at the company level:

  • If salespeople have 15 hours available to spend with customers in a week, focusing that time on five accounts at three hours each rather than 15 accounts at one hour each is likely to lead to better outcomes
  • To facilitate the growth of internal networks, start with onboarding programs. New hires should meet and interact with a large and diverse set of colleagues, and can be supported through collaboration tools, trainings, coaching, and other mechanisms.
  • Create a model where sellers have access to consistent support resources and staff. Having to start over with a different specialist in each account adds lots of overhead and reduces outcomes.
  • Know that every additional product line in a seller’s bag comes at the cost of requiring them to build more expertise and more internal relationships to have a shot at being successful. While offering a broad portfolio can provide a powerful value prop to customers in some situations, the implication on sellers needs to be carefully thought through.
  • The right approach varies by company, and these things can and do change over time; companies that gather objective data on a regular basis to inform decision making have a massive competitive advantage over those that rely only on anecdotes and gut feel. Organizations we work with, for example, receive automated weekly updates on all of these metrics aggregated by team without any manual data gathering.

Lastly, a note on causality. All of the above metrics are highly correlated with sales success, but we haven’t yet accumulated enough data to have confidence on which of these metrics are truly causal. So while it is true that top sellers spend more time with customers, it is not necessarily true that an underperformer would suddenly become more successful simply by spending more time with customers.

That said, rigorously proven causality is not a prerequisite for learning from these insights. Quite a few companies are enjoying immense value in the predictive power of these metrics, which typically account for up to 70% of the variance in sales outcomes quarter by quarter And having access to objective, up-to-date data on what behaviors works and don’t work within a specific sales organization is a powerful compliment to existing management tools and allows leaders to set their teams up for success.