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The Salesman Versus the System

Tuesday, October 18, 2011 by Robby Slaughter

Robby Slaughter

I have a friend who works for a major consumer brand. I can’t name the company, but it’s certainly one you know. He’s a great salesman and I’m happy to come buy products I want from him in his store. Unfortunately, this makes for a terrible customer experience.

Let me back up. Here are the main points:

  • Everybody knows that Major Consumer Brand has the kind of stuff I like to buy, and my buddy works there.
  • My friend (I’ll call him Avery) can sell me this stuff. Avery is a great salesman, and he’s always making sure his friends and contacts know he can help them out if they come in.
  • Because Avery’s my friend, I know he won’t steer me astray. He’s only going to sell me stuff I need and will always let me know if there’s a good sale that matches my interests.
  • Avery gets a commission from my purchases, and it’s the same amount to me anyway so I might as well buy from my friend.

So how could this possibly go wrong? Oh, let me count the ways:

  1. Although Major Consumer Brand has lots of locations in my city, I still have to drive to Avery’s location if I might want to buy from him. It’s a long way over there.
  2. Avery can’t take orders over the phone, even with my credit card number. So I have to actually go into the store.
  3. Major Consumer Brand is first-come, first-serve, so I have to wait around for Avery to be available. He’s good at networking, so lots of his contacts are waiting in line ahead of me.
  4. Other customer agents are hanging around with nothing to do, but I have to wait for Avery. If I don’t, Avery won’t get the commission.
  5. In the end, it takes me three times as long to buy something just to do my friend a favor.

Yes, this is an absolute business process mess.

The problem is that the business model runs directly counter to the consumer model. The business wants to reward high sales, so it creates a system by which people win if they sell more. But as a customer, I’m most interested in getting great advice and fantastic prices. I have to do what’s bad for me (waiting, waiting, waiting) in order to help out Avery. In fact, I’m likely to get a negative opinion of the Major Consumer Brand while trying to help my friend make more money. What’s worse, Avery is making enemies out of his fellow salespeople. Why would they want to help each other if doing so only keeps them from succeeding?

I’m not here to say that all commission systems are broken. Rather, that whether you realize it or not, your business has a workflow. The customer and the employee both have a sequence of choices that are driven by individual incentives. If those values don’t align, friction appears. Business processes need to be consciously designed to reduce these issue and ensure that all stakeholders can actually collaborate.

As for my relationship with Avery, I am not sure where it’s headed next. I have to admit, I’m tired of driving halfway across town and waiting for him to be available.  But like the story of the tipsharing waitress or the tale of the end-of-month commission check,  there are probably smarter ways to work.  Hopefully the Major Consumer Brand will realize how to become more productive and more satisfied before their competition.

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Like this post? Here are some related entries from The Methodology Blog you might enjoy:

Friction Versus Frustration - Kristian Andersen of the Indianapolis-based experience design firm Kristian Andersen + Associates is ruminating on the latest business buzzwords. He thinks the notion that processes should be “frictionless” is “flat wrong.” Read on »
End-of-Month Mania - Sharon, a sales associate for a high-end consumer products store, recently spent an entire day stressed and overworked. According to the store’s corporate sales cycle, having everything completed before the first of the month is highly encouraged and frankly, expected. Read on »
Customer Service and Phone Calls - Over at the website, a commenter retold the story of the “best use of a cell phone” he has seen all year. The call was placed while standing in line to the same desk:
Read on »
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4 Responses to “The Salesman Versus the System”

  1. Chris Vanasdalan Says:

    I’d be interested in knowing if Major Consumer Brand allows salespeople to make referrals & share commissions. It would be nice if your friend “Avery” were able to recommend another salesperson at your local store and still make a cut of the commission.

    You could still consult with your friend when asking about certain products and not feel so guilty about making the purchase from someone else. It would also encourage salespeople to build better relationships and work together.

    I’ve never worked in retail or on commission, but it seems like there must be a better way to motivate a sales staff.

  2. Robby Slaughter Says:

    Thanks for the comments, Chris!

    According to Avery, the answer the is the there are no shared commissions at MCB. They do have store bonuses that are shared equally if the store beats projections, but that’s not much of an incentive to hand a customer to a friend.

    FYI: Some retail brands have tried eliminating commission entirely, such as Best Buy

  3. Ben Risinger Says:

    You have a very interesting topic. A person is great, but if I know what I want I will just go to Amazon or a similar website to buy it.
    A way around that system…I have a good friend who works in high end jewelry sales ALWAYS had commission until his company changed the way the system works. Every employee has a sales goal, but nobody makes commission off of any sale. Employees are instructed to hand off a customer if they don’t feel a vibe. He says it is a great way to work and everyone benefits.
    If the store as a whole hits their monthly goal, everyone (including management) gets their bonus. If the store doesn’t hit their goal…no bonus.
    This might be a better system for customer service…but you still have to drive to the store as a destination.

  4. Robby Slaughter Says:

    Thanks Ben!

    At first glance, that sounds like a pretty good system. It solves almost all of the problems with my friend Avery, except (as you say) having to drive across town to support him.

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