Fast-paced workouts that take the yawn out of sales training. By Iris Richmond

Getting fit is never easy, but it's a must for out-of-shape salespeople used to a fatter and happier time. Some builders beat the downturn to the punch with a new training regimen that began as long ago as last spring. Strong sales in the second half of 2001 were the payoff.

Boot Camp

Sales training, like exercise, requires a commitment to be effective. "When business is really good, people don't take sales training to heart. It's just human nature. You think you're the best at your job," says Millie Allen, vice president of sales for Ideal Homes' Oklahoma division.

A year ago, Allen organized what she hoped would act as a deterrent to the lull in business felt after the holidays. "When the market is a little slower, salespeople need something to get them back in shape," says Allen. Ideal's budget didn't cover the cost of bringing in a consultant, but Allen had recently read Semper Fi. The life of the Marines inspired Allen to rent cabins for her sales staff of 14 and hold Ideal's first three-day boot camp.

Denim and khakis are the uniform, and cell phones are checked upon arrival; wake up is at 6 a.m. Training lasts the entire day and consists largely of single-elimination games, which, according to Allen, makes the camp more "survivor-like" and prevents salespeople from becoming complacent. In a game of elimination, different feature benefit presentations are pulled from a Jack Daniel's bag. "If it's our plumbing system and they don't know it inside and out, then they're out." Victors win bragging rights.

Capitalizing on what before had always been down time, the camp, which cost $2,500, far exceeded Allen's expectations. "It made a huge difference in our first quarter. We went from 113 in the previous year to 133 [in 2001]. We expect this year's camp to have the same effect."

Efficiency Exercise

Scott Jagoe, president of Jagoe Homes in Owensboro, Ky., decided last summer to get his sales team past the technology curve. Although the group had been using computers for four years, they hadn't seen a boost in productivity, and promising software hadn't delivered. After changing platforms and installing new software, Jagoe was ready to try again. "If you're a builder not up on technology, it leads to lost time and lost sales. Technology doesn't stop time but it leverages it."

Enter Key Stone, an online learning system Jagoe integrated into his sales training last August at a cost of $2,500. Over a 60-day period, his sales team completed 19 online courses (the benchmark decided by Jagoe) and is now proficient in advanced levels of the basics -- Word, Access, Excel, and Outlook -- as well as Publisher and PowerPoint, to name a few. There was initial reluctance by his sales team because of past failures, but once everyone realized what was coming to fruition by taking the courses, they climbed on board, says Jagoe, and nobody was left behind.

"I don't know that we're leading the industry, but we're ahead of the curve now," says Jagoe.

Being better equipped to handle a changing market, Jagoe Homes had 104 sales contracts in the fourth quarter, up 28 percent from the previous year. Jagoe attributes this success to the computer training. "A sales team can handle more people being technology based. We gained in incremental sales through organization, and we closed the communication gap between sales and production. We're no longer doing things by hand. And very simply, there are [fewer] mistakes."

Process Aerobics

Pulte Homes' management believes that process is the biggest factor in a company's success. "Our selling process is very basic. We've gotten a lot of accolades but it's a very simple process," says Leo Taylor, vice president of human resources and sales development.

Like most builders, Pulte deepened its discounts at the end of last year but still expected to get more sales. "Just because you reduce your sales price doesn't mean you'll get the sale. You still need the process. We don't think there's a magic banana," says Taylor.

Pulte relies on its all-star team of Top Guns, made up of the company's top 300 salespeople. They guide new hires through Pulte's training regimen, which lasts anywhere from 12 weeks to one year.

Monetary upshot? Pulte will spend $650,000 on sales training this year (which includes training Del Webb in the Top Gun process), down from its pre-Top Gun days, when sales training -- all of which was outsourced and done independently by each division -- totaled $6.5 million.

Maryland-based Winchester Homes brought in a sales consultant last fall to help remind its sales team of the basic fundamentals of the selling process. "When you stop growing, you're done in this business," says Rich Rudnicki, division sales manager in Fairfax, Va.

"When the market was strong, we were going as fast as we could just to meet and greet. What happens in sales is that people are human, and they start shortcutting parts of the sales process. You can't miss those steps in a slow market," says Rudnicki.

In October, Rudnicki's sales team covered the basic steps of bonding and greeting, finance options, closing, and even practicing wording. "We're working smarter, not harder. You can't wing it these days. Faults aren't forgiven in a slow market." Winchester, which builds 600 homes yearly, saw results within two months and raised its closing ratios by two points in the fourth quarter.

Workout Equipment

To get more aggressive with his sales training, Dan Witt, president of Dan Witt Homes, Omaha, Neb., leased video conferencing equipment last November. "We've all been to seminars that get you all pumped up, but then you leave. We wanted the frequency."

Once a month, video conferencing connects Witt's sales team with 15 other companies who come together to hear their sales consultant speak; eight times a year, the consultant conferences with Witt's company alone. "We're taking smaller bites with training. Helps you digest it better."

Witt pays a monthly fee of $400 for the equipment and $380 on top of that for the six phone lines it requires. He says the video investment will cut his sales training fees by 37 percent this year.

Accountability for prospecting, sales, follow-up, and smart data collection is back in vogue. If your salespeople's brows aren't damp, they're probably not working hard enough.

Wise Words From Sales Mavens

"Because the market had been so good, people were grossly confusing their skill level with the size of their paycheck. ... In many cases the sales have been made in spite of ourselves. We're going back to a normal market, where sales are going to be made, not just facilitated." --Bob Schultz, president of New Home Specialist

"There's been too much glitter and generalities. [We] need practoids: a practical application that's specific and can enhance the selling process." --Tom Richey, president of Richey Resources Co.

"Experience isn't what it used to be. Builders need salespeople [who are] amenable to sales training." --Nicki Joy, president of Nicki Joy amp; Associates

BIG BUILDER Magazine, March 2002