Total Quality Selling
by Joe Petrone
Total quality selling provides an accurate
assessment of both the internal environment
and the interactions between
customer and salesperson.
In the past, companies enthusiastically applauded their salespeople for
getting the big order. Today, as a growing number of sales executives are
asking for additional measurement criteria other than traditional sales
numbers, the applause is still there, but the enthusiasm is starting to
One president of a technology-based company wonders, are my sales a result
of my salespeople, or do the products' attributes drive sales? Another executive
wonders if the growing trend among manufacturers to dramatically reduce
their supplier base will affect his company. For example, Ford Motor Co.
has reduced its supplier base by 90 percent.
To answer these puzzling questions, companies are using customer-satisfaction
levels as measurements of successful sales. Such an approach runs counter
to the traditional sales credo-"Do whatever it takes to get the order"-but
the practice of measuring the quality of the customer-salesperson relationship
is gaining momentum. While traditional sales metrics focus on lagging indicators
such as revenues, percentage of business from new products and business
gained from new accounts, the leading indicators, such as the customer's
assessment of a salesperson's behavior, will predict future buying patterns.
Total quality selling provides an accurate assessment of both the internal
environment and the interactions between customer and salesperson. The heart
of this approach is using customer feedback, in the form of surveys, to
drive continuous improvement toward surpassing customer expectations.
Feedback from customer surveys gives managers and salespeople direction
regarding future improvement areas. By looking at both individual and group
feedback, top management can decide whether to use individual coaching or
In order to align all organizational elements, from reward systems to current
metrics, so that financial results improve from both existing and new customer
feedback, implement total quality selling in four phases (shown in Figure
High-performance model development
Return on quality through customer feedback
Each phase must be completed in chronological order. To assess whether a
sales culture is ready for total quality selling, more than 40 percent of
the time should be spent in phases one and two. These first two phases assess
cultural elements and align them with the drive for continuous improvement
and with the customer environment.
Cultural and business assessment
The cultural assessment aims to identify the culture type and the feasibility
of proceeding to phases three and four. By understanding two key areas-the
use of current quality systems and the performance-improvement climate-management
can diagnose the culture. If the actual and desired cultures are different,
they can recommend the appropriate interventions.
Performance improvement is a key area in the cultural assessment. If salespeople
cannot assess their managers' coaching ability positively, then coaching
salespeople to close their own performance gaps in phase four will be futile.
The adage "If you want your salespeople to improve, the managers must
improve first" applies to this total quality selling model.
An organization's quality systems is another key assessment area. Quality
systems include performance management, performance appraisals, hiring and
orientation of new employees, and using management scorecards for financial
tracking and reward systems. The reward system in a sales culture usually
receives the least attention, yet it sets the quality climate and reinforces
desired behaviors. Evaluate whether to use both formal and informal rewards
to align with strategies and continuous improvement.
Integrate into the informal cultural assessment interviews with key executives
from other departments that influence financial results or cause inefficiencies.
For instance, if manufacturing ships defective products, no matter how high
the quality of the customer-salesperson interaction, sales will decline.
Cultural model types
After assessing the quality systems and performance-improvement climate,
diagnose the culture according to one of four cultural model types based
on the alignment of these two factors. Of the four culture types shown in
Figure 2, the desired sales culture is the integrative culture.
Integrative. Integrative cultures not
only focus on numbers and goals, but on the ways the systems align with
strategies and each other. These solid cultures facilitate their salespeople's
ability to determine business priorities, their shareholders and the customers.
Performance is predictable and improves steadily.
The internal environment is strongest within the integrative culture. Because
systems are strong and performance-improvement incentives are high, salespeople
find it easy to understand the organization's values. They are working and
living within a quality work environment that promotes personal empowerment.
Procedural. In this type of culture,
following polices and procedures becomes the most important order of the
day. Once executives see the benefits of bringing established procedures
to manufacturing, the sales department becomes the next domain in which
all activities must be documented. Often, micro-management is practiced
in these cultures, where completing tasks becomes a priority.
Survival. Survival cultures are more
typical of small companies. Cash flow is all that matters. Usually, there
are no systems or sales goals. Ask the president for a sales forecast, and
you'll receive a verbal forecast. These companies may be profitable, but
they limp along year to year without developing their full potential.
Goal-Oriented. Most sales organizations
are goal-oriented cultures. The demand is constant for attaining sales forecasts.
Once one quarter's performance is completed and acceptable, and everyone
is about to breathe a deep sigh of relief, the refrain that's heard is:
"Don't tell me what you did for me yesterday, tell me what you will
do tomorrow." Ultimately, the urgency of booking business for the next
Usually, such cultures employ a variety of systems, but those systems don't
align with each other or with the organization's strategies. Without such
alignment, inefficiencies result from the wrong metrics recognized in an
outdated reward system.
Proceeding from the culture diagnosis
When diagnosing an organization's culture, biases are best left behind.
The assessment must focus on questions that identify the reason for the
existing quality-systems and performance-improvement practices. Such reasons
will indicate the forces that resist change.
Should the diagnosis reveal opportunities for the organization to transition
to an integrative culture, appropriate intervention is recommended. For
instance, if the sales-force ratings unanimously state that management doesn't
provide accurate feedback on salespeople's behavior, a coaching and feedback
workshop for management could help. If ratings show that only one manager
needs improvement in this area, a one-on-one coaching opportunity is more
appropriate. Whether with individuals or within groups, performance gaps
must be closed.
With action plans and a timeline for closing performance gaps, do an abbreviated
post-assessment two to three months after the initial assessment. The post-assessment
solicits salespeople's observations to measure changed behaviors. This closes
the feedback loop, and management leads change by its own good example.
While performing the informal cultural assessment, do a brief business assessment.
This assessment identifies the environmental factors driving revenues (such
as technology, economics and government). Understanding the influence of
these factors answers the question: What else can impact financial results
besides improvement within the sales force?
Aligning the quality systems with the organization's strategies was mentioned
earlier. In most companies, as strategies change, the same quality systems
remain in place. The strategic sales plan serves as a reference point for
adapting quality systems.
Additional information from the business assessment includes understanding
customers' motivations to buy, revealing the organizational strategies and
operational tactics used. This information will be used in the high-performance
development model in phase three.
High-performance model development
Phase three identifies the exemplary sales behaviors that will both exceed
customer expectations and give a competitive advantage. In this phase, it
is important to avoid prejudices based on the actions of top sales performers
in other organizations.
There are popular selling models that show salespeople how to master a best
practice, such as asking technical questions until specific financial needs
are identified. It is tempting to use these models as part of developing
the high-performance model. But this temptation can be a dangerous trap.
How does an organization pinpoint the right best practices? First, collect
baseline information from sales management and top salespeople. In getting
at their best practices, it will be tempting to listen to what should happen
in hypothetical situations. But, by identifying real sales situations and
asking top salespeople what they do, exemplary behaviors can be recorded
To get consensus from sales management on the best practices could be tricky
because each manager is very different. Using taped interviews of three
to four customers during fact-gathering stages provides direction and guides
consensus. These fact-based customer interviews will balance managers' instincts
and help create a formidable best-practice list.
After listing and ranking the best practices, survey a random sample of
at least 50 customers. Ask customers to rank the listed best practices and
include the frequency that the competition and the organization's salespeople
use them. This provides valuable information on the use of best practices
compared to the competition. More important, the survey results sort out
the "keeper" best practices from the "discards." Phase
three's keepers are used to develop phase four.
Return on quality by customer feedback
Phase four requires customers to complete a survey that rates each salesperson
according to the best practices. This feedback drives professional and financial
performance. In the survey, customers are asked to assess a salesperson's
best practices on a five-point scale, ranging from "much better than
expected" (5) to "much worse than expected" (1). Send the
survey to customers at a time predetermined by senior management and the
consultant. Don't tell salespeople or sales managers when the survey will
come out. This prevents the "halo effect" commonly seen prior
to a performance appraisal-an occurrence where a salesperson's behavior
improves dramatically one to two months before a performance evaluation.
Selection criteria for surveyed customers must be linked to the program's
goal to show a return on quality. The best customers to survey are those
who interact with the salesperson at least four times a year. Collect a
minimum of 10 survey responses. When selecting a customer, financial impact
can be shown, provided the customer's buying behavior is not based solely
Product attributes being more important than
quality of sales interaction
Word of mouth from an influential third party
Selecting the lowest-price vendor
For a clean correlation to financial impact, these variables must be minimal
relative to the quality of sales interaction.
The heart of total quality selling is identifying where the salesperson
is rated less than "much better than expected." Meeting expectations
are the initial objectives of a quality program, so merely meeting customers'
expectations isn't enough. Customers who are "highly satisfied"
are six times more likely to repurchase from a company than customers who
are just "satisfied." The only truly loyal customers are totally
Process the customer-feedback surveys quickly and thoroughly. If the surveys
indicate that most salespeople need to improve in common areas, group training
is called for. Should the responses be dissimilar, establish individual
coaching opportunities between manager and salesperson. Whatever method
you use to close performance gaps, be sure to create action plans with timelines.
For individual salespeople, a performance management system can help improve
targeted areas. The system gives the manager and salesperson an opportunity
to interact on a monthly basis to monitor progress regarding two types of
goals: economic and value-based.
Value-based goals link to what is most important to the organization. Many
organizations regard quality as a value. If a salesperson needs improvement
in a best practice, a value-based goal is established within the framework
of the performance management system on how the best practice will be rated
by the customer.
The use of performance management systems has been reviewed by various organizations.
In a 1994 study of 437 companies by Hewitt Associates, many of them, of
all sizes, reported that they use a performance management program. When
their financial performance was compared with companies that didn't use
performance management systems, Hewitt found in almost all cases that "companies
with performance management have higher profits, better cash flow [and]
stronger stock value than companies without performance management."
Setting value-based goals is a major departure from traditional management-by-objectives
and goal-setting programs. By accomplishing value-based goals, key economic
goals and strategies are realized more quickly and effectively. Most important,
the organization will observe a financial return on its quality efforts.
One high-tech manufacturer of storage devices realized an annual $3 million
increase in sales from its quality-sales initiatives.
Economic goals are the minimum standards for the organization to hit its
financial targets. As an example of a minimum standard, most organizations'
sales forces must prospect for new business. Striving to maintain the minimum
number of prospects to attain financial targets could be an economic goal.
Performance management systems should be used as an ongoing developmental
tool. After salespeople accept value-based goal setting and show signs of
improvement that both they and their managers observe, make plans to repeat
the survey. This repeat assessment is a key step to closing performance
Total quality selling represents a change in the way to manage the sales
profession. One executive calls this approach "reinventing the sales
process." Most executives of truly quality-driven companies are excited
about the increased accountability of their own and their salespeople's
actions. By adding customer metrics into flexible sales cultures, organizations
will be using a leading indicator to future financial growth.
About the author
Joe Petrone, author of Building the High Performance Sales Force,
has more than 20 years' experience in sales and marketing. All of his assignments
have involved building new businesses into sustainable, profitable businesses.
Petrone specializes in bringing TQM principles into the sales and management
environment. He speaks, trains and consults for associations, Fortune 100
companies and leading-magazine conferences. Telephone (510) 846-1272 or
fax (510) 426-7065.