As a sales manager, conducting ride-alongs is a crucial part of improving my teams’ performance and close rate. But not all ride alongs are created equal. After two decades of selling designs to homeowners, and making a lot of mistakes along the way, I’ve learned a lot about creating successful client interactions, and helping others to do so as well. Here are seven tips for making the most out of ride-alongs.
1. Conduct ride-alongs with every team member, regardless of performance or seniority. Even the best salesperson can improve, and having someone there occasionally to provide an outside perspective is helpful. When I first became Design Services Manager for Neil Kelly, I scheduled a ride along with every designer. (I did two a week so it wouldn’t take all of my time.) I then arranged for a second round on a case-by-case basis.
Some of these follow-ups I scheduled for two weeks later, some for six months. It depended on the individual designer.
2. Make sure every ride-along is a first meeting. You don’t gain the same perspective if you observe any other type of client interaction. When you sit in on the designer’s initial meeting with a homeowner, the strengths and potential areas for improvement quickly become clear.
3. Don’t tell the homeowner that you’re a manager. I ask our designers to always refer to me as a colleague. A designer once introduced me as her manager, and it skewed the whole meeting: The client would look past her to me for confirmation, and I didn’t get to see how a sales call goes for her when I’m not in the room as a manager.
4. Use the time in the car beforehand. It’s essential that you and the designer ride together to the client’s home. Pulling up in two cars is off-putting and can set the wrong tone right at the start of the meeting. Also, the conversations I have with a designer in the car before and after the sales call are often very productive—we call it “windshield time.”
On the way to the client’s house I ask the designer to tell me about the lead. How did you get it? What do you know about the project? About the homeowners? Do you have a particular strategy going into this meeting? What’s your end goal today?
As a manager, it’s important to blend these questions into a general conversation, so the designer doesn’t feel like they’re getting the third degree. You want to help her or him self-analyze and get in the mindset to make this a successful call, but you don’t want to ramp up the nerves.
5. Don’t talk during the sales call. The most important—and definitely the most difficult—part of a ride-along is for the manager to stay quiet. You’ll gain a lot less insight if you take over when it feels like the designer is floundering. Rescuing the meeting may help in the short-term, but you won’t learn as much about where you can help the team member improve, and they won’t learn as much about how they can grow.
There are a handful of times when I will break the silence rule. Every once in awhile, if a designer is really struggling, I will ask a question to gently nudge them in the right direction. In one case, we were looking at a basement, and I knew the designer had done plenty of basements in the last year, but he hadn’t mentioned any of those projects to the client. So I said, “Haven’t you done a lot of basements?” That got him moving in the right direction to finish the call successfully.
Along those lines, in my experience, the biggest mistake I see salespeople make is they don’t ask for the business. On a ride-along, I will allow that to occur. I’ll quietly leave the house with them rather than jumping in to push for a close.
6. Use the drive back for immediate follow up, and do a full debrief at the office. When we get in the car after the meeting, it’s time for a general, open-ended conversation. Before I give any feedback, I always start by asking the designer, “How do you think that went?” “What do you think you did well?” “What do you think you could improve for the next call?” I save my own observations for until we get back to the office. That way the designer can take notes and listen more effectively.
When giving feedback, I always start with at least a couple of things the designer did well. This makes people more receptive to feedback, and also communicates that you’re on their side. I then like to ask the designers what they believe the client thinks are the next steps, especially in situations where the next steps weren’t clear to me—and were probably unclear to the homeowners, as well.
Not long ago, I rode along with a designer who has been doing this successfully for 30 years. After the sales call I asked her what she thinks the client expects in terms of next steps. “I told her I was going to get her everything by Friday,” she said. I responded that I didn’t actually hear her say that, and after we talked about it a little more, she ended up writing an email to the client providing a timeline and laying out the next steps clearly.
With newer employees, there’s a bigger learning curve and the process is more formalized. I provide additional coaching, a roadmap for success, and clearly defined goals.
7. Create review presentations for the whole sales team. I’ve found it beneficial, for me as a manager and for my team, to gather my observations from all the sales calls into a presentation after a round of ride-alongs. I share photos of the designers and cite examples of things they did especially well. I then talk about areas that need improvement, but without ever singling anyone out. These monthly meetings not only help the designers learn from their colleagues, they also provide a great opportunity for team building.