Iowa State University nameplate

Inside Iowa State
Gold bar
January 26, 2001

The road to success

Research helps sales force become more effective

by Kevin Brown
It's time to buy a car. You walk into the showroom and are greeted by a salesperson who makes a living from commissions. How does knowing that affect your decision and your relationship with the salesperson? That's what Tom DeCarlo wants to know.

DeCarlo, associate professor of marketing, researches how and when such revelations may affect consumer habits. His research indicates that suspicions of a salesperson's motives reduce consumers' acceptance of the sales message, and increase the buyers' negative feelings toward a company, in general.

However, it's not all bad news for the salesperson. DeCarlo's research also finds that the strength of the sales message influences suspicion levels and that more experienced buyers are less affected by the commission information than novices.

He uses such information to help salespeople become more effective. All his research focuses on managing a sales force, including ways to help managers identify those people who will become top salespeople.

Scripting success
One way is through "scripting," a series of open-ended questions or scenarios that assess a salesperson's knowledge and helps managers identify performance differences between higher- and lower- performing salespeople.

DeCarlo currently is studying the scripts of 150 sales professionals at Allstate Insurance agencies from Texas, New York, Florida and Indiana. He has identified significant differences between higher- and lower- performing salespeople. DeCarlo hopes the findings will be a useful teaching aid for lower-performing salespeople, as well as helpful for managers recruiting salepeople.

"Employers today are demanding core competencies from their sales employees," DeCarlo noted. "Those competencies include self-manage-ment [characteristics such as integrity and ethical conduct, personal drive, self-awareness and management skills], strategic planning, team building, coaching, a global perspective and use of technology. They want employees to show a proficiency in these areas before they are hired."

With his co-authors, DeCarlo just completed a major overhaul on their textbook, Sales Management, to include these "competencies."

Understanding the market
DeCarlo also uses his position as faculty scholar in the ISU Business Analysis Lab to continue his work on sales management. He handpicks graduate and undergraduate students to work on special projects. Many of the projects involve the 3M Corp., which founded the lab several years ago.

The colleges of Engineering and Education are collaborators on the lab, and DeCarlo frequently works with Doug Gemmill, industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, and Dennis Field, industrial education and technology.

"Much of the work we do focuses on gaining an understanding of the market for new technologies," he said. "I am involved in at least two projects a semester, with the students doing all of the work and making the presentations to the client firms."

"This is one of the most unique educational programs in the country," DeCarlo said. "Students in Business, LAS and Engineering are put into teams to work together on a project that has real consequences for a company's operations."

One project was an indoor air quality study for 3M to determine what's important to consumers.

Through two focus groups, students obtained good professional and quantitative information, DeCarlo said. It helped 3M, partnering with another company on this project, to learn how people, especially those with allergies, deal with poor indoor air quality.

Measuring performance
Another 3M study measured the performance of marketing depart-ments within the company. DeCarlo said his students used a three-pronged approach: reviewing academic research, developing a questionnaire for telephone interviews with executives, and interviewing high-level 3M, IBM, Hallmark and Motorola executives.

"This project was unique in that it provided the students with great exposure to top marketing personnel and how they think," he said.

According to DeCarlo, the students' research findings have had some impact on 3M's planning and development process.

Most of the projects require the students to travel to 3M headquarters in St. Paul at the end of the semester to present their findings to company executives.

Checking word-of-mouth
DeCarlo plans to tap into the business lab for another research project that has caught his interest. He would like to know how negative word-of-mouth communication affects consumer thoughts about a product.

Past research suggests such communication would have a negative impact on the brand. But DeCarlo and fellow researchers recently published a paper suggesting it depends on what consumers thought about the product before hearing the negative comments. If consumers had a high regard for the product, they often will think negatively about the commenters rather than about the brand.

DeCarlo also is studying how companies measure customer perceptions of service quality.

And does all this research affect DeCarlo when he buys a car?

He won't say.

Tom DeCarlo standing by a car
Tom DeCarlo studies ways salespeople can become more effective. Photo by bob Elbert.

... Becoming the Best
Ames, Iowa 50011, (515) 294-4111
Published by: University Relations,
Copyright © 1995-2001, Iowa State University. All rights reserved.