By accounting for both known and unknowable factors, managers can identify salespeople with traits that work best in different types of sales. Getty Images

When you're a manager, decisions barrage you each day. What product works? Which store layout entices? How will you balance the budget? Many of these decisions ultimately hinge on one factor: the skills of your sales force.

Often, when managers evaluate their salespeople they contend with invisible factors that may not show up in commissions or name-tagged sales rosters — intangibles such as product placement, season or simply a store's surrounding population. This makes it hard to fully evaluate a salesperson, or to spot which workers can teach valuable skills to their peers and improve the whole team.

But what if you could plug a few variables into a statistical model to spot your best sellers? You could then ask the star salespeople to teach coworkers some of their secrets. New research by Rice Business professor Wagner A. Kamakura and colleague Danny P. Claro of Brazil's Insper Education and Research Institute offers a technique for doing this. Blending statistical methods that incorporate both known and unknown factors, Kamakura and Claro developed a practical tool that, for the first time, allows managers to identify staffers with key hidden skills.

To test their model, the researchers analyzed store data from 35 cosmetic and healthcare retail franchises in four South American markets. These particular stores were ideal to test the model because their salespeople were individually responsible for each transaction from the moment a customer entered a store to the time of purchase. The salespeople were also required to have detailed knowledge of products throughout each store.

Breaking down the product lines into 11 specific categories, and accounting for predictors such as commission, product display, time of year and market potential, Kamakura and Claro documented and compared each salesperson's performance across products and over time.

They then organized members of the salesforce by strengths and weaknesses, spotlighting those workers who used best practices in a certain area and those who might benefit from that savvy. The resulting insight allowed managers to name team members as either growth advisors or learners. Thanks to the model's detail, Kamakura and Claro note, managers can spot a salesperson who excels in one category but has room to learn, rather than seeing that worker averaged into a single, middle-of-the-pack ranking.

If a salesperson is, for example, a sales savant but lags in customer service, managers can use that insight to help the worker improve individually, while at the same time strategizing for the store's overall success. Put into practice, the model also allows managers to identify team members who excel at selling one specific product category — and encourage them to share their secrets and methods with coworkers.

It might seem that teaching one employee to sell one more set of earbuds or one more lawn chair makes little difference. But applied consistently over time, such personalized product-specific improvement can change the face of a salesforce — and in the end, a whole business. A good manager uses all the tools available. Kamakura and Claro's model makes it possible for every employee on a sales team to be a potential coach for the rest.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Based on research from Wagner A. Kamakura, the Jesse H. Jones Professor of Marketing at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Keeping on track with trends is crucial to growing and developing a relationship with your customers, these Rice University researchers found. Getty Images

Rice researcher delves into the importance of trendspotting in consumer behavior

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Every business wants to read consumers' minds: what they love, what they hate. Even more, businesses crave to know about mass trends before they're visible to the naked eye.

In the past, analysts searching for trends needed to pore over a vast range of sources for marketplace indicators. The internet and social media have changed that: marketers now have access to an avalanche of real-time indicators, laden with details about the wishes hidden within customers' hearts and minds. With services such as Trendistic (which tracks individual Twitter terms), Google Insights for Search and BlogPulse, modern marketers are even privy to the real-time conversations surrounding consumers' desires.

Now, imagine being able to analyze all this data across large panels of time – then distilling it so well that you could identify marketing trends quickly, accurately and quantitatively.

Rice Business professor Wagner A. Kamakura and Rex Y. Du of the University of Houston set out to create a model that makes this possible. Because both quantitative and qualitative trendspotting are exploratory endeavors, Kamakura notes, both types of research can yield results that are broad but also inaccurate. To remedy this, Kamakura and Du devised a new model for quickly and accurately refining market data into trend patterns.

Kamakura and Du's model entails taking five simple steps to analyze gathered data using a quantitative method. By following this process of refining the data tens or hundreds of times, then isolating the information into specific seasonal and non-seasonal trends or dynamic trends, researchers can generate steady trend patterns across time panels.

Here's the process:

  • First, gather individual indicators by assembling data from different sources, with the understanding that the information is interconnected. It's crucial to select the data methodically, rather than making random choices, in order to avoid subjectively preselecting irrelevant indicators and blocking out relevant ones. Done sloppily, this first step can generate misleading information.
  • Distill the data into a few common factors. The raw data might include inaccuracies, which must be filtered out to lower the risk of overreacting or noting erroneous indicators.
  • Interpret and identify common trends by understanding the causes of spikes or dips in consumer behavior. It's key to separate non-cyclical and cyclical changes, because exterior events such as holidays or weather can alter behavior.
  • Compare your analysis with previously identified trends and other variables to establish their validity and generate insights. Looking at past performance through the filter of new insights can offer managers important guidance.
  • Project the trend lines you've identified using historical tracking data and their modeling framework. These trend lines can then be extrapolated into near-future projections, allowing managers to better position themselves and be proactive trying to reverse unfavorable trends and leverage positive ones.

It's important to bear in mind that the indicators used for quantitative trendspotting are prone to random and systematic errors, Kamakura writes. The model he devised, however, can filter these errors because it keeps them from appearing across different series of time panels. The result: better ability to identify genuine movements and general trends, free from the influence of seasonal events and from random error.

It goes without saying that the information and persuasiveness offered by the internet are inevitably attended by noise. For marketers, this means that without filtering, some trends show spikes for temporary items – mere viral jolts that can skew market research.

Kamakura and Du's model helps sidestep this problem by blending available historical data analysis, large time panels and movements while avoiding errors common to more traditional methods. For managers longing to glimpse the next big thing, this analytical model can reveal emerging consumer movements with clarity – just as they're becoming the future.

(For the mathematically inclined, and those comfortable with Excel macros and Add-Ins, who want to try trendspotting on their own tracking data, Kamakura's Analytical Tools for Excel (KATE) can be downloaded for free at http://wak2.web.rice.edu/bio/Kamakura_Analytic_Tools.html.)

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This article originally appeared on Rice Business Wisdom.

Wagner A. Kamakura is Jesse H. Jones Professor of Marketing at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Houston ranks among fastest growing tech hubs amid the pandemic, report finds

When Americans think of tech hubs, Silicon Valley or even Austin may initially come to mind. However, Houston appears to be making a play for tech-hub status.

Citing data from career platform LinkedIn, the Axios news website reports that Houston has seen a healthy influx of tech workers since the start of the pandemic. In fact, Houston ranks second among 14 major U.S. labor markets for the number of relocating software and IT workers between March 2020 and February 2021 compared with the same period a year earlier.

Miami grabs the No. 1 spot for the gain in software and IT workers (up 15.4 percent) between the two periods, with Houston in second place (10.4 percent) and Dallas-Fort Worth in third place (8.6 percent), according to the LinkedIn data.

"Young engineers and recent college graduates see Miami, Houston, and Philadelphia — not San Francisco, New York, or Seattle — as the hot new places to jumpstart a technology or creative economy career," Axios notes.

At the bottom of the barrel sits the San Francisco Bay Area, which suffered a loss of 34.8 percent when comparing the arrival and departure of software and IT workers. Interestingly, Austin experienced a loss of 8 percent in this category.

The shift from traditional tech hub to emerging tech hub is likely to continue as employers and employees alike further embrace remote work. A survey commissioned in April by the nonprofit One America Works found 47% of tech workers had moved during the pandemic. In addition, 3 in 10 tech workers anticipate living somewhere different than they did during the pandemic.

The CompTIA tech trade group says the Houston metro area is home to 243,908 tech workers. The Houston area's tech workforce grew 12.3 percent from 2010 to 2019, according to the group.

"Houston has been a center for world-changing innovations in energy, life sciences and aerospace for over a century. With science and engineering breakthroughs ingrained in the fabric of Houston's economy, the region has become a thriving hub of digital technology talent and companies thanks to our access to customers and expertise," says a report released in March by the Greater Houston Partnership.

One employer taking advantage of that talent is Bill.com. In 2019, the digital payments company opened a Houston outpost — the company's first office outside Silicon Valley.

"Though the city's technology industry is still developing, it offers a breath of fresh air compared to overcrowded late-stage tech markets like Austin and Denver. Ultimately, the breadth and depth of Houston's talent pool and the neighboring educational pipelines made it an ideal location for a second home," Vinay Pai, senior vice president of engineering at Palo Alto, California-based Bill.com and a Rice University graduate, wrote in April 2020 on LinkedIn.

Energy giant makes Houston sole headquarters in massive move

HQ move

Power player NRG Energy is laser focused on Houston. The Bayou City will be the energy giant's new sole headquarters; the company will no longer split between Houston and Princeton, New Jersey.

The move to a single headquarters simplifies business operations, as a large number of the company's employees and customers reside in Texas, the company noted in a press release and report.

The company, having recently acquired Direct Energy, will maintain regional offices in the markets that it serves and "evaluate real estate needs and consolidate as appropriate," the report adds.

Mayor Sylvester Turner welcomed the news in a statement, relaying that he and his team have had "substantive conversations" with NRG president and CEO Mauricio Gutierrez. "I believe the decision is confirmation that Houston is a smart city for business," said Turner.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also chimed in, adding in part:

With this move, NRG joins 50 other Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Texas, including 22 in the Houston area alone. America's leading businesses continue to invest in Texas — and grow jobs in Texas — because of our welcoming business climate, low taxes, reasonable regulations, and our young, growing, and skilled workforce.
I thank NRG Energy for designating Texas — the energy capital of the world — as their corporate headquarters, and I look forward to our continued partnership as we ensure a more prosperous future for all who call the Lone Star State home.

Turner noted that more than a year ago, the City of Houston committed to purchasing 100 percent renewable energy through a renewed partnership with NRG Energy as the City's retail electric provider. "The plan is helping us build a more sustainable future, save over $9 million on our electric bill, and reduce emissions," he said.

NRG Energy boasts some 3,000 employees in Houston alone. In its report, the company reported a net loss of $83 million due the impact of Winter Storm Uri.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — tech, health care, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Emily Cisek, founder of The Postage

The Postage — a Houston-based company that's streamlining afterlife planning — has rolled out a new app. Photo courtesy of The Postage

Emily Cisek had a mission when she founded The Postage. She wanted to make afterlife planning simpler — and she's taken one giant step toward that goal with the company's new app.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple."

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app. Click here to read more.

Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima Clinical Research

Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima Clinical Research, say his company transform from uncertainty to almost uncontrollable growth in just 12 months. He shares what happened on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Proxima

After a huge dip in business due to the pandemic, a Houston company focused on supporting innovative life science companies saw 12 months of unprecedented growth. Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima Clinical Research, says that's not only a good sign for the future of his business — but also of the future of Houston's life science sector.

"We're a good barometer for what's happening not only locally but across the country," Coker says. "As Proxima has grown, it's really show how the Houston life science market is growing."

Coker shares more about Proxima's growth and Houston's potential of being a major life science hub on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Sylvia Kampshoff, founder of Kanthaka

Sylvia Kampshoff has launched Kanthaka's first crowdfunding campaign. Photo courtesy of Kanthaka

Sylvia Kampshoff has lofty goals for her company Kanthaka, a platform for connecting users to personal trainers across over a dozen cities. With the launch of a new $1 million crowdfunding raise, Kampshoff is one step closer to growing her business according to these goals.

"Our vision is to become Amazon for health & fitness and the go-to provider to live a longer, happier and healthier life," Kampshoff says. "We couldn't be more excited about this journey." Click here to read more.