The Color-Coded Priority Setter

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


* The Color-Coded Priority Setter

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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."

This article originally appeared in Inc. magazine in June 1995, and was written by Christopher Caggiano.


* The Color-Coded Priority Setter