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

Houston voices

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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Exclusive: Houston blockchain startup closes $4M series B round led by new investor

money moves

An industrial blockchain-as-a-service startup based in Houston has closed a series B funding round thanks to support from both new and returning investors.

Data Gumbo Corp., which uses its blockchain network GumboNet to optimize smart contracts for oil and gas supply chains, announced its first close in its $4 million series B funding round that was led by new investor L37, which has operations in the Bay Area and in Houston. The round also saw contribution from returning investors Equinor Ventures and Saudi Aramco Energy Venture.

The funds will go toward growing Data Gumbo's sales team, which has been busy with the company's growth. While providing their own set of challenges and obstacles, both the pandemic and drop in oil prices meant oil and gas companies are prioritizing lean operations — something DataGumbo is able to help with.

"The opportunity in all this is companies have got to cut expenses," Andrew Bruce, CEO and founder, tells InnovationMap. "What's happened to us is our sales have absolutely exploded — in a good way. We have a huge number of leads, and we have to be able to deliver on those leads."

Bruce says leading the sales growth is Bill Arend, who was hired Data Gumbo's chief commercial officer this spring. Data Gumbo also recently announced that Richard Dobbs, 30-year veteran of McKinsey and former director of the McKinsey Global Institute, has joined the board as chairman.

"Dobbs is a recognized strategic industry thinker," Bruce says in a release. "His distinct expertise will lend structure, support and validation to Data Gumbo as we experience aggressive company growth."

Of course, fundraising in this unprecedented time, isn't easy. Bruce says he and his team were able to succeed thanks to a new investor, L37, which came from an introduction within Bruce's network.

"Data Gumbo is the category leader for industrial smart contracts, which is an inevitable next step in digital transformation of the oil and gas industry," says Kemal Farid, a partner in L37, in a statement. "There is a lack of transparency, visibility and accuracy between counterparts of contracts that increases the costs of doing business and this has been greatly exacerbated by the current business landscape. We look forward to applying our experience to propel the company along its journey to bring transactional certainty and cost efficiency to commercial relationships."

Additionally, Bruce says he's very proud of his company's return investors, who are also clients of DataGumbo.

"[We also have] the continuous support by our original investors — Aramco and Equinor — they invested in us not just once but twice," Bruce says. "They have been tremendously supportive, not just from an investor perspective, but also proving the value. We've got multiple projects starting with both of those companies."

Bruce says he already has eyes for another venture capital round — perhaps sometime next year — for Data Gumbo, which has raised $14.8 million to date. However, the company isn't far from profitability and growth from that avenue too.

"We're going to have the luxury of choice," Bruce says. "We want to grow as aggressively as possible so we are probably going to go the venture capital route."


GumboNet: Smart Contacts Made Simple www.youtube.com

Houston coworking space to donate office space to startups affected by COVID-19

need some space?

A Houston-based commercial real estate company in the historic East Downtown District, is giving away free space to two startups who have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.

The Headquarters is currently accepting submissions from startups, founders, and entrepreneurs to be considered for free office space through Friday, October 2, with recipients set to be announced the week of October 5th.

Founded in 2014 by brother and sister duo, Peter and Devin Licata, Headquarters provides flexible office space and suites to startups and young businesses in a variety of industries. Inspired by creative office spaces in Denver and coworking sites to create a completely new way to work.

Devin and Peter Licata founded Headquarters six years ago. Photo courtesy of Headquarters

"For Devin and I being local Houstonians," says Peter. "It was very exciting to bring a product to Houston that we had never seen before in the city. When we started the search for a building, we had a very specific idea of how we wanted it to look and feel, and the amenities we wanted to provide."

The building located on 3302 Canal St, was repurposed from an old warehouse built in the mid 20th century. The Licatas spent about eight months designing the building, which had sat vacant for seven years. The design features, evoke a feeling of a corporate campus but for small business which works perfectly for COVID-19 social distancing measures.

"One of the things we wanted was really wide hallways," says Devin. "Typical hallways here are about seven feet, when we were working with our architect we said, double it. The specific visuals are there to invoke a feeling, with an interior courtyard, and lots of natural light.

"Our architects weren't used to working with clients in commercial real estate who were designing based on an office where we would want to work, instead of a client who wanted to maximize every square footage."

The coworking space is adhering to social distancing recommendations. Photo courtesy of Headquarters

The wide open spaces, with hallways over 13 feet wide, high ceilings about 18 feet tall, and HVAC unit that does not recirculate air, along with the office suites that are on average 2 to 3 times larger than other coworking spaces allows all of their tenants to practice social distancing in a safe environment.

Headquarters is monitoring infection rates locally, while following safety guidelines to operate their facility safely. All guests are required to answer health screening questions upon entry and wear face coverings. They continue to clean all common areas and high touch surfaces with EPA-approved products and provide hand sanitizer at all points of entry.

With 35,000 square feet in total and 45 office suites, the Licatas say they chose the East End as their headquarters because of its close proximity to downtown and renewing growth of the community.

"The East End was an obvious location for us, we had been looking for buildings in the area for other development opportunities," says Devin. "Given it's proximity to downtown and its access to three different freeways, from a commuter standpoint it was really important as well as the community aspect."

Headquarters is located just east of downtown Houston. Photo courtesy of Headquarters

Mental health gets a spotlight at free online summit for Houston employers

Mental Health Matters

While the world's population has been focused on the physical effects of COVID-19, there hasn't always been as much attention paid to mental health amid the pandemic.

Every socio-economic class, demographic group, and industry has felt the strain, brought on by social isolation, job instability, and increased stress.

"It quickly became clear that these preventative measures, while recommended for reducing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, were not providing the feeling of security for company employees that we had hoped for," says Next Level Urgent Care's chief medical officer, Karen Rakers, MD. "We needed to address employee mental health."

Next Level Urgent Care began COVID-19 testing across its 15 urgent care locations in March, and shortly after expanded into Houston workplaces, providing onsite COVID-19 testing and temperature checks for large employers in the Houston area.

When it became clear that mental health required more attention than it had been getting, the Next Level Health and Wellness team worked with clinical psychologist Ilyssa Bass, PhD, to assemble a group of diverse mental health and workplace wellness professionals.

Together, they worked to address mental health stigma in the workplace and educate employers on how to implement creative solutions to address employee mental health issues.

One of the major results is the Prioritizing Workplace Wellness Summit, a free five-day virtual event taking place September 28-October 2.

Attendees can look forward to interviews with more than 25 interviews experts, including such as Sally Spencer-Thomas, Psy.D; Daryl Shorter, MD; Craig Kramer; Liz Kislik; Bill Judge, JD, LL.M; and Jeff Gorter, LMSW.

Here's a taste of what you'll discover during the summit:

  • How a multi-faceted approach to improving the mental health of an employee group leads to success
  • Which qualities make organizations resilient when responding to crises including the pandemic
  • Leadership skills and techniques that help maintain a strong workforce
  • Threat assessments and multidisciplinary workplace violence prevention programs to keep an employee group safe
  • How now, more than ever, technology can help reach the masses and deliver easily accessible solutions for common mental health issues
  • Steps employers can take to reduce stigma in their organizations
  • Why the time for action is right now during the pandemic

As a bonus, each free ticket also comes with access to an exclusive new report, "The Top Workplace Wellness and Mental Health Strategies."

Sign up to discover what's working today to optimize mental health in the workplace — your employees will thank you.