Gables Residential has sent "mystery shoppers" to its sales offices nationwide for more than a decade. These specially trained shoppers sit through a Gables sales presentation, then write a comprehensive shopping report that evaluates a sales rep's skills in several areas.
Two years ago, the company added a new dimension to the program. "We began equipping our shoppers with video and audio recording gear and conducting 'video shops' at each of our properties twice per year," says Gables Learning and Development Director Rob Rector. "During a video shop, the entire sales presentation is recorded on a video chip. Then, it's sent back to a member of our learning and development department for review."
The benefits of the video shops are numerous, according to Rector. "Not only do the sales associates have the opportunity to review the video and see themselves in a real sales presentation, they also complete a written self-evaluation of their performance, using our standard shopping report, while they watch the video." The learning process continues as the video and the associate's written self-evaluation are reviewed with one of Gables' learning and development professionals, says Rector. "Together, they dissect the presentation and look at the strengths and weaknesses of the sales effort."
Training recently spoke with Rector about the program, its impact and his tips for success.
Training: Why did you decide to add video to the mix?
Rector: We still conduct our paper-based mystery shops, which each of our properties receives 12 times per year. We decided to add video shops to the program because our paper shops are somewhat one-dimensional. When you're reading a paper report, you don't always get a sense of the sales associate’s body language or the flow and timing of the conversation that took place. The video shops enable us to evaluate these and all of the things that happen "between the lines" during a sales presentation.
Training: Has the video component improved the results of the program?
Rector: The results have been extraordinary. The videos leave little room for disagreement. The event is right there in full color. And because we take a positive and upbeat approach, it becomes a valuable and memorable learning experience. Our learning and development professionals also benefit, as their instruction can be need-specific and directed toward the learner’s revealed weaknesses. Finally, accountability is heightened because all sales associates know that video shopping will be a part of their training and that their chance to be recorded may occur at any time.
There are also strong metric results tied to the program. Our mystery shop vendor, EllisPartners in Mystery Shopping, produces a quarterly Ellis Benchmark Report that compares the shopping report performance of 42 large players in the multifamily residential industry. We have scored very well on this report during the past four to five years, typically placing among the top three. After adding video shops to the mix, our ranking performance improved significantly. This year, we have been in first place for several quarters. In December of last year, we set an all-time high score that broke not only our own previous records, but the scores of every company that has participated in the benchmark survey to date.
Training: What tips and best practices can you share with others who are interested in implementing something similar?
- Use video for performance improvement only—and stay positive. There are many different levels of accountability tied to our monthly paper-based mystery shops, such as bonuses, financial incentives, etc. While video shops are an excellent way to monitor sales performance and create accountability, however, we don't use them for those purposes. Their primary purpose is to provide training, evaluation and instruction to our sales professionals. There are no rewards or accountability tied to the program; it is first and foremost a training tool. We made this decision because we knew that if we wanted the program to work, we would need to keep the experience as positive as possible for our associates. As a result, they know that nothing bad will come of their performance on a video shop. The only thing that will happen is they will be given one-on-one help to develop their skills so they can be that much more successful in their jobs.
- Make it one-on-one. Once we receive a video, a member of the learning and development team reviews it and then schedules a meeting to go over the video with the associate. We keep this meeting one-on-one. It's just a member of the learning team and the associate. There are no regional managers or supervisors involved in any way. A member of our team simply sits down with the associate in a private room, and the two watch the video together section by section. While the video plays, each person fills out a blank shop report, and after each section, the two do an honest appraisal of the associate's performance, including what went well and what might be improved upon.
- Be prepared to address Big Brother concerns. When we launched the program, there was some pushback. Some associates felt that we were invading their space and were concerned about the Big Brother aspects of the program. To alleviate everyone's concerns, we held meetings with every associate from every region and explained the program’s purpose and how it was meant to help them get better at what they do. Explaining the benefits and goals of the program and addressing everyone's concerns helped us immensely in obtaining the buy-in we needed.
Gables Residential is a nationwide provider of rental properties and property management services based in Houston, Texas. In 2008, it placed 95th on Training magazine's Top 125 list, an annual ranking of organizations that excel at human capital development.