High Performers: Staying on Top of the Game

May 06, 2005

They regularly close multi-million-dollar deals. They are liked and trusted by their colleagues. They are the first to learn that a client has finally decided to upgrade its storage system. And they know the competitors sometimes better than the competitors know themselves.


Who are they? In business terms, they are the high-performing account managers, the "best and brightest," who form the backbone of some of the most profitable corporations in America. And they never lose sight of their main goal: stimulating demand.


"They see themselves as relationship builders, not as specialists in software or some other technical competency," says Beth A. Walker, a marketing professor at the W. P. Carey School of Business, in a recent interview. Walker and colleague Michael D. Hutt, also on the marketing faculty, have been taking a close look at these frontline salespeople for many years. Their research is yielding insights as to what makes the high performers tick. 


The work of the two is based on large firms such as IBM, Lucent Technologies and Yellow Roadway Corporation, a global transportation company. But their research has implications for any company needing to stay competitive in today's global markets.


Did someone say 'networking?'


The data for the Yellow Roadway Corporation study was drawn from face-to-face interviews with 60 account managers: 20 high-performers, 20 average-performers, and 20 low-performers. "Depth" interviews (one-on-one telephone or face-to-face conversations) were transcribed, coded and analyzed. Carried out in two phases, the IBM research relied on a methodology similar to that used in the Yellow Roadway Corporation study: it was  based on interviews with 58 account principals and 61 sales specialists, with approximately a third of the participants classified as high performers, a third as average performers, and a third as low performers. Both the Yellow Roadway Corporation study and the IBM project were conducted as collaborative partnerships between the companies and the W. P. Carey School of Business' Center for Services Leadership. 


The two studies provide conclusive evidence that high-performing account managers are supremely adept at social networking, especially when compared to low performers. "They have more extensive communication networks within their own organizations," says Hutt. "And they also build more extensive networks of relationships within the customer organization." 


Hutt also says that the research conducted at both the Yellow Roadway Corporation and IBM indicates that exceptional sales people have been able to build these networks because they have the kinds of communication skills that enable them to build "interpersonal contracts" with their colleagues based on trust and commitment.


The high performers' networks also provide "social capital": access to information, support and knowledge that is crucial to managerial effectiveness. IBM's products are a complex set of solutions including networking, security and software. High performers use their social relationships within the company to navigate this complexity. They have access to individuals who will provide them with the knowledge and information they need when they need it to solve customers' problems quickly. In other words, their social networks become information networks.


Informal relationships: how work gets done 


The research carried out at Lucent Technologies by Walker, Hutt and their colleagues adds another dimension to the social network analysis. This research project looked at the informal communication networks of 268 people from marketing, R&D, manufacturing and other business functions.


Hutt and Walker illustrated the network of business relationships of the managers in the study by mapping their social connections. These maps demonstrated visually that the social networks high performers build within their own organizations are not the same as -– and often don't even overlap with -– the formal organizational structures of a company. "When we talk about 'social networks' these are, in fact, informal relationships…That's what so appealing about our work," Walker says. "This is really how work gets done within organizations."


The Lucent study also showed that "reputationally-effective" managers -- people who are known as winners and leaders in a company --  invariably have the ability to empathize with colleagues in different work situations. This ability to put themselves "in the shoes" of a colleague -- or customer for that matter -- is another characteristic of high performers.


A "finer-grained" understanding of customers


The way that high-performing account managers think about customers is also very important, according to Professors Hutt and Walker. Put simply, their "thought worlds" are not the same as those of other salespeople.


The Yellow Roadway Corporation study showed that high-performance managers have a "finer-grained understanding of customers" than that of average or low-performing managers, according to Hutt. They are able to categorize customers based on their specific needs or attributes, which ultimately leads to better performance, he notes. Based on the depth interviews with account managers, Hutt and Walker constructed maps of the way high-performers categorized customers and their needs. While the maps of the low and average performers were relatively simplistic, the maps of high performers were complex, revealing a keen understanding of customer goals and the drivers of profitability.


Competitive crafting: information is power


The high performer's ability to gather and use information also serves them well when they are competing with salespeople from other companies to win complex contracts. "Competitive crafting" refers to the set of behaviors that enables managers to use the information and knowledge they possess about the competition to create a winning business proposition.


IBM's best sales specialists often craft particular strategies to fit the nature of the competition. For example, when a successful salesperson is up against a niche rival, he or she will always try to broaden the scope of the customer's problem so that the competitor's solution will be too narrow, but IBM's just right. In other situations, the star sales specialist will gain the upper hand by changing the rhythm of the selling cycle -– speeding it up to edge out slower rivals or slowing it down to unfold a more comprehensive customer solution.


The IBM study showed that each additional act of "competitive crafting" performed by the salesperson increased the likelihood of winning the customer's business fivefold. IBM is now embarked on a training program to teach all salespeople the competitive crafting behaviors that come naturally to their high fliers. According to Mike Wiley, General Manager, Service Transformation, IBM Global Services and sponsor of the study, "Based on the ASU research, we enhanced the effectiveness of our sales strategy by streamlining processes and capitalizing on the knowledge and characteristics of top performers." 


High performers can be trained


In fact, Walker and Hutt have recommended to their partners that they offer training programs built not just on the "competitive crafting" idea, but based on all of the characteristics of high-performing account managers. Walker says that executives "intuitively" know that there is a defining characteristic of high performers, but they often assume that it's something innate, such as a personality trait or built-in ability.


"While there are certain people who are naturally stronger at account management than others, we have the perspective that you can train anyone and make everyone better."