Woodie Bryan, sales development manager at Vidalia, Ga.–based VNS Corp., doesn't like making promises he can't keep. And he doesn't want his salespeople to do so, either. As the man responsible for training and mentoring new sales associates at VNS, a 12-unit dealer operating under the Choo Choo Build-It Mart brand name, Bryan works hard to make sure each member of his sales team knows the “Choo Choo” way of doing things.
“The first thing we do is run them through the whole gamut of our stores, and show them exactly how our operations work,” Bryan says. That means a new sales associate works in the dust of the yard for a few weeks and rides shotgun in each different type of truck VNS owns to gain firsthand familiarity with how loads make it to the jobsite. Long before making his first cold call, or even tagging along with a seasoned outside sales rep, that associate will be back inside the store, processing orders and receiving material. Then he'll shadow an inside salesperson to gain insight into the particular challenges of that crucial support position. “I want them to have a full understanding and appreciation of what the people who make them successful are doing,” Bryan says. “The theory behind it is, if you understand every aspect of what it takes to get the material there, you can't overcommit yourself out on the jobsite.”
Then, to make sure the associate can talk knowledgeably to his builder-customers, the salesperson attends Bryan's quarterly takeoff classes to learn blueprint estimating so he can understand what builders actually do in their jobs. “If you understand the nomenclature and the terms that they use out there in the field, it's going to be a lot easier for you to sell that guy,” Bryan says.
That type of careful, step-by-step approach to training and sales is a hallmark that runs through every facet of the selling strategy at VNS, which ranked as the 11th fastest-growing dealer among the 2006 PROSALES 100. From bringing its salespeople up through the yard to identifying each of its customer's unique needs and targeting untapped opportunities it sees down the road, VNS' premeditated approach to training, prospecting, and closing deals not only exemplifies a deliberate, repeatable sales system, it led the company to achieve 29 percent sales growth in 2005, compared to an average growth rate of 11.7 percent among all members of the PROSALES 100. Its $162 million in sales were generated by 36 outside salespeople who implemented VNS' systems to achieve that goal. “What they're doing at VNS is building great salespeople,” says Building Leaders' Davis, who has run training seminars at the company.
For VNS president Gary Campbell, one of the biggest determinants of his firm's success isn't only ensuring his salespeople understand the inner workings of the company, it's making certain they know their customers' business, too. To help in that regard, VNS' top brass meet regularly with the company's largest clients, while its sales team develops what it calls a Customer Needs Analysis (CNA) for each account. “That CNA involves a wide range of facts, from who the superintendents are to knowing a little bit about their families,” Campbell says. “More importantly, though, it's got information in there about what kinds of products and services they want and need. It tells us what's important to them.”
The company then takes that information and disseminates it to its three-pronged sales organization. Its corporate sales team targets production builders in their executive suites, at the division vice president level. VNS' pro sales team goes after both custom and production builders at the field level with superintendents. Finally, the contractor sales group offers support to both groups, while prospecting on its own accounts. Contractor sales also serves as a springboard for junior associates to hone their skills before moving up into the pro sales group. All of the teams are supported by inside sales coordinators.
A commission-based pay scale, grounded on a percentage of gross profits, keeps salespeople motivated and focused on margins, not just revenues. Bryan makes sure everyone stays on track and meets their goals, acting as a mentor and tutor while holding associates accountable to set their targets. Implementing a process that Davis introduced at the company called “pipelining,” Bryan sits down with associates individually on a monthly basis to make sure they're identifying all the potential business that's in front of them. By looking at the closing rates they have with existing customers, and then applying that ratio to unserved customers in their markets, the team identifies what their total sales potential is. From there, it's up to the associate to go out and snare that business.
“It allows you to plan for the future and get away from fear-based selling,” Bryan says. “But the fascinating part about it is guys who were selling about $4.5 million per year, when we got finished with pipelining, they had over $18 million in business all around them. They just said they had no idea that it was out there.” Bryan says pipelining is a key component of the firm's strategy going forward, to expand its market share and grow revenues, even as the overall market slows.
In the end, it's VNS' methodical approach to training its sales staff and prospecting its current and potential business that has helped it develop the type of sales team—and system—that should help it continue to thrive, even in tougher times. Bryan's shepherding nature can't hurt, either. “You don't wait on somebody to give you an answer. You go ahead and take charge and make it easy for them to do business with you,” Bryan says. “That's the way I use it in my sales technique, and that's the way I train my guys to do it, too.”
Vital Statistics: Company: VNS Corp.
- Year founded: 1947
- Headquarters: Vidalia, Ga.
- Number of locations: 12
- Number of employees: 440
- 2005 sales: $162 million
- Pro sales percentage: 98 percent