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Best Ways To Reward Salespeople

Furniture World Magazine


Tools and techniques to keep the best salespeople working for you instead of for your competitors

In his book, Thriving on Chaos, Tom Peters writes, "Few would take exception to the conclusion that our sales forces are not sufficiently cherished." Throughout this series on how to keep good salespeople we have been discussing and suggesting ways to cherish salespeople. So vital to the success of retail furniture stores is the habit of cherishing salespeople that I feel it proper to propose the following motto to store owners:

True, in the past, too many store owners have found it practicable (but not practical) to neglect this important practice. Today, however, in the midst of much more sophisticated competition, store owners would be well advised to become as aware of the importance of cherishing their salespeople (and all their employees) as they should be of servicing their customers. The words of guru customer service author Carl Allrecht ring as true now as they did when he first wrote them: "companies cannot expect to treat their customers better than the way they treat their employees."

A good way to start treating employees well is to provide for continued training and education. The logical way to do this is to first train your managers in interpersonal managing skills. As for salespeople, they should learn selling skills, product knowledge and the habit of a professional attitude.

Owners must be prepared to provide training and education on a continual basis. Too many store owners look upon this matter the way one parishioner is said to have looked upon the reading of the bible. When his minister asked him, "Bill are you reading your bible?" Bill answered, "No need to concern yourself about that, I have already finished reading it."

Owners, who regard training as a 'one-shot' expense or investment might just as well save their money. That just won't work.

On the subject of training their salespeople, owners should heed the words of Tom Peters, who wrote about one study of retail sales training which revealed that twelve times as many hours were devoted to "cash register techniques and the policy manual as selling skills." That won't work either.

Nor should owners be discouraged from training their sales staff because of the flack they might get from some veteran salespeople who feel they already know too much. Instead let owners be inspired by the reply of a young woman sales manager. When she was confronted by a long time salesman who challenged her ability to teach him anything, she asked, "Do you sell every customer who walks through the door?" "Of course not," he answered. "Then even you can improve," she added triumphantly. How true is the statement I use at the beginning of most of my seminars. "The tragedy of those who think they have learned it all is that they very probably have!"

Every time I come across someone who feels too experienced to learn new ways to sell, I am reminded of the farmer's son who had just completed his graduate studies in agriculture. "Dad," he said, "I can teach you to farm better." The father with one eye closed answered, "Son, save your breath. I already know how to farm twice as good as I am able to."

One final anecdote. They say a brash pompous saleslady with thirty years experience confronted a young sales trainer. "Sir," she gloated, "I've had thirty years of sales experience. How many have you had?" To which the young sales trainer responded, "My good woman, I know all about you. You have not had thirty years of sales experience, you have merely experienced the same year thirty times!"

Providing salespeople with ongoing training and education may be, the best investment owners can make. But is ongoing training and education more effective than incentive plans? In the September-October issue of the Harvard Business Review, author Alfie Kohn defends the title of his article, "Why Incentive Plans Cannot Work". In that article he presents evidence to back up the thesis that rewards are not ultimately successful in motivating employees to be more productive in the workplace. Mr. Kohn writes that rewards "typically undermine the processes they are intended to enhance." He adds that they "succeed at securing one thing only: temporary compliance."

By rewards the author means the traditional incentive plans companies offer to promote good job performance. These kinds of rewards tend to substitute for what employees feel they need in order to do a good job, such as being credited, getting constructive criticism, feedback, and all the other things which provide employees with the social support they need to do consistently good work. In other words, companies which use a Skinnerian reward system to motivate their workers are likely to find that their workers become less interested in the work itself. Kohn points out that some studies suggest that such reward systems are even counterproductive in that they promote a feeling among workers that the work itself is not worthy of their respect and interest.

Kohn's article is accompanied by a list of eleven other works which argue the same thesis: that extrinsic motivators cannot bring about enduring commitments to a company's goals; in particular such rewards fail to focus on a company's "problems with workplace productivity and morale." Only intrinsic motivators like those contained in the first 6 parts of this series can promote long-term productivity and morale.

While Kohn's article did not specifically mention our industry's long standing practice of offering spiffs or promotional money (PM's), it might easily have done so. Owners and managers who rely on a system of spiffs provided by manufacturers and their reps would be well advised to study Kohn's article. Who would dare argue that while spiffs succeed in motivating salespeople to sell those items that are spiffed, their intent is not really to motivate salespeople to sell what is in the best interest of the customer?

If it is true - and it certainly is - that the satisfaction of the customer's needs lies at the very heart and soul of professional selling, then a practice that reverses that principal and puts the satisfaction of the salesperson's needs ahead of the customer's, must be at the very least insidious and destructive. In law such inducements represent a conflict of interest and are punishable; in our industry they are too often lauded.

As I was putting the finishing touches on this multi-part series on how to keep good salespeople, I felt sorely tempted to list specific ways to practice the correct and intrinsic recognition of salespeople. I decided to resist that temptation, for I believe that such a list should come from the creative efforts of each furniture store. I would suggest that store owners take the following steps:

*Owners should first meet with their managers for the purpose of creating a list of the things the managers need to become long term, productive employees.

*Next owners should meet with their salespeople and other employees to find out what they feel they require for long term, productive employment. I would be greatly surprised if among other things, both lists did not include the following: Total Acceptance, Total Trust, Total Approval.

I know of no other factors that can better change a corporate culture from one of mere compliance to one of complete buy-in. I appeal to all owners and managers to do all you can to win your salespeople's Total Acceptance, Total Trust and Total Approval, because this is the best way to keep your good salespeople.

Corporate trainer, educator and speaker Dr. Peter A. Marino has written extensively on sales training techniques and their furniture retailing applications. Questions on any aspect of sales education can be sent to FURNITURE WORLD Magazine at editor@furninfo.com.