There are smarter ways to sort out your sales reps' priorities than to listen to the loudest voices

What manager wouldn't love to be able to read employees' minds? Well, George Gay, barring any precognitive miracle, may lack that power, but he claims he's found the next best thing: a graphic way to see inside the heads of his people, which makes his job a lot easier.

As chief operating officer of First Affirmative Financial Network (FAFN), a $1.9-million marketer of socially responsible investments in Colorado Springs, Colo., Gay spends a lot of time trying to satisfy the various -- and often conflicting -- needs of his 56 sales representatives.

Since the reps are independent contractors (FAFN takes a cut of the business they bring in), they're more like customers than like employees. "We can't tell them what to do. They wouldn't stand for it," says Gay. Also, they span 20 states, so pulse taking is a chore. And FAFN's specialization only added to the problem: the reps were as opinionated about how they wanted to see the company run as they were choosy about the investment products they purveyed. "We deal with passionate people," says Gay, "and they're not all passionate about the same things."

For example, several reps recently wanted FAFN to adopt more of a franchise business model. Equally vociferous were those who prized their independence. Gay knew he couldn't satisfy both camps. He also learned not to second-guess the reps. Once, after reading "all that Tom Peters stuff about customer ecstasy," Gay proposed directly polling FAFN's investors. "I thought it would be relatively innocuous," he says. The reps, who consider their client relationships inviolate, were furious.

So why didn't Gay just poll the reps regularly? Well, he did. He'd send them two or three surveys a year, asking what sort of support they wanted from the home office. But the response rates rarely got above 30%. And he usually heard from the same outspoken few, who called all the time anyway, or the reps who weren't too busy to respond. He needed something more representative -- something that would bring in some fresh ideas, too.

Gay had attended a conference at which he'd participated in an intriguing "game" that was designed to help large groups set their priorities. He decided to try a similar exercise at FAFN's annual conference in October 1994, knowing that most of the reps, as well as FAFN's four employees, would be gathered there.

The exercise, as FAFN administered it, went like this: Ten groups (of five or six people each) were given 90 minutes to brainstorm on what they wanted from FAFN over the next five years. There were no fiscal or practical constraints; reps and employees were encouraged to think as globally or as specifically as they wanted. The results were written up on six flip-chart sheets.

Then came the fun part. Attendees received 10 red and 10 green dots each (color-coding labels from the local office superstore), which they could place next to items they felt strongly about: green for high-priority items, red for low-priority.

The dots quickly pointed to what was crucial, doing so with a visual impact that numbers alone wouldn't have had. According to rep Richard Barr, "After you finished, you could just pull away 10 feet and see where the biggest needs were." Shoulder to shoulder, dots in hand, the reps also got the opportunity to influence one another's votes. Gay found that what people lingered over was as telling as their actual votes.

"Dot planning" has effectively prioritized Gay's project list. For example, the reps voted decisively for continued independence, giving Gay the challenge of building brand awareness without the framework a franchise provides. The exercise also catalyzed participation; since the conference, FAFN has established a rep advisory council. "This really reinforced the idea that people have a voice in what we do. We've seen even more willingness from the reps to offer suggestions," says Gay, "from both the old voices and the new."

You can view the Good Form as it appeared in Inc. magazine right on your computer. Goto Good Forms in Inc. Online's Virtual Consultant.

Sample Priority settler:

Directory of Resources: 23 green dots, 1 red dot

Group Health Plan: 1 green dot, 17 red dots

Have all reps use FAFN name: 2 green dots, 23 red dots

One-page Social Analysis: 17 green dots, 2 red dots

Conference: 5 minutes for each rep to talk: 1 green dot, 10 red dots

Increase Fee account compensation: 11 green dots, 11 red dots

System of compensating mentors: 8 green dots, 12 red dots

Free Basic Brochures to reps: 1 green dot, 7 red dots

Create rep advisory council: 13 green dots, 2 red dots

Marketing Materials: 0 green dots, 2 red dots

Develop two rep tracks: independent & Franchise: 8 green dots, 11 red dots

Directory of reps & specialties: 10 green dots, 7 red dots

Reps pay nominal cost for specialized materials: 1 green dot, 0 red dots

Having more rep-only sessions at conference: 13 green dots, 0 red dots

Write Product Manuals: 1 green dot, 0 red dots

Handbook on how to set up Fee Business: 22 green dots, 3 red dots

Increased Insurance Production: 1 green dot, 0 red dots

New Product R & D: 13 green dots, 1 red dot

George Gay shows how the dots help answer his big question: "What is the most important thing FAFN can do or develop to improve its services to representatives?"

This exercise helps you see how strongly people care about something. A lot of greens or reds is good; it tells you what people are juiced about. One thing that came through loud and clear was that we were not effectively communicating all the goods and services available to our reps, ranging from our publications and tapes to what discount subscriptions they could get. We were aware of that, but this score told us we needed to do something soon.

It also helps you see how much they don't want something. [e.g. Have all reps use FAFN name] We have a few people who believe it's important to use and develop the FAFN name as a "brand" and have all the reps use it. But a lot of people didn't want to be forced to use the name. We found we needed to reassure the reps that although FAFN's name was always there to add value, we weren't going to force them to use it.

It helps identify controversy. If there are lots of reds and greens on one issue, we know that's something we have to think very hard about. Here [ Increase fee account compensation], greens are saying reps want a bigger portion of the fees they collect, and reds are saying it's a fair split as is. Changing the split would have a big effect on our net margins. This is a participatory exercise, but it isn't a "majority rules" exercise. The management still has to decide if this is something we can do.

It shuts up the big mouths. We'd heard some vocal complaints about this [ Free Basic Brochures to reps]. But the dots showed that we had one who said it was important and seven who said it wasn't. It was interesting to watch some of the loudest folks see how no one was going for their stuff. It's a dramatic way for them to realize that their opinions aren't the only ones. We haven't heard about this at all since the conference.

It helps you see that some things don't need to be addressed right away. We had heard a lot from our reps that our marketing materials were not that good. When we'd surveyed reps previously, they'd given our marketing materials fairly low marks. Based only on that feedback, we might have thought we had to act on that immediately. But this exercise tells me that, even though our marketing materials might need some work, it's not a priority.

It identifies some no-brainers. Getting out a directory of reps and specialties won't take much time or many resources. Even though 7 people said this wasn't a high priority, it's a relatively easy way to make 10 people happy. Also, if reps want more rep-only sessions at our conference, that's easy to do. This system gives you some easy hits to keep people happy.

Just because it didn't get dots doesn't mean you can ignore it. Most people just didn't care about these items [ Reps pay nominal cost for specialized materials, Write Product Manuals, Increased Insurance Production]. But if an issue came up at all, it was important to somebody. When we repeat this exercise at this year's conference, we're thinking of identifying the source of each item that comes up. That way, if someone's feeling strongly about a particular item, we can address that individual directly.

Some suggestions are a bit more time intensive. Although many of our people do business on commission, we are changing a substantial part of our business to fee-based transactions. It's a totally different way to run a practice. The reps were looking for a turnkey handbook on how to do it, and putting one together is more difficult than it might seem. It doesn't cost a lot, but it takes up a lot of time. Still, it's important enough to the reps that it's something we're planning to do.

Some suggestions are downright cost prohibitive. There isn't a huge amount of choice in the social-investment industry. The creation of investment products is incredibly expensive. So even though our people would really like to see us do that [ New Product R & D], right now it's outside our reach -- not that it will be easy to tell them that!