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By Lynn Schleeter

Real estate professionals looking for a winning business strategy should take a hint from high performers in sales who responded to a recent national study -- called "Top of Her Game" -- that focused on success factors among top saleswomen. Although gender differences arose, the findings and insights are applicable to all who seek to build their business game. Here are four lessons learned from the Center for Sales Innovation at the College of St. Catherine to help you play hard and smart:

Lesson #1: Stretch your mind. Best practices among the "A" squad include many self-training activities, such as attending industry seminars and conferences, reading and getting help from colleagues. Top sales performers carry out these activities significantly more often than middle and bottom performers. Most commonly read are leadership books and industry e-newsletters.

To reach peak performance, go beyond sales e-newsletters and real estate trade publications by reading a variety of sources -- including what your local newspaper is saying about the housing market -- as preparation for client conversations. Seek out a source of localized market data and trends to pass along to your clients.

While driving, listen to today's best business books summarized on CD or audiocassettes. To take an innovative idea to the next level, it's possible to stretch your mental muscles by listening to sales nano books/podcasts via MP3 player during your daily run, walk or other exercise activities.

Top producers always want to elevate their game. Therefore in getting help from colleagues, know what you want and ask for it directly. Successful people are attracted to individuals who are focused and goal oriented - they will support you in reaching the next level. Both parties report benefits from the relationship.

Lesson #2: Power networking. Every level of sales performer values the power of networking yet the survey showed top performers do it more frequently and more strategically: networking at the businesses they are selling to (50%) and networking at professional associations (43%).

Overachievers tend to think about networking in all arenas of life: from attending leadership programs and professional association meetings to watching kids at the soccer field or volunteering at a church social. By listening for interests and common ground, a conversation that starts small socially can build to sharing business contacts and ideas.

The strategy for top performers -- across multiple industries, from technology to real estate -- is leveraging their centers of influence to build relationships among individuals with complementary services. Trusted partnerships develop over time with focused effort by working together on committees, boards and programs. Volunteering to work an event registration table provides the opportunity to meet and greet attendees. A number of software tools provide a systematic approach to timely, detailed follow-up in building a network. Varsity players use a contact management system to coordinate business development and give credit to partners who help them move the ball forward.

One survey respondent begins her fiscal year planning with three key steps: (1) set revenue goals (2) review her circle of influence and (3) target individuals to seek as business partners. Another wrote that she made contacts at a charity-driven event and, within two weeks, closed a big sales number without having to cold call or even "sell."

Time is the most common constraint on women, to which respondents reported they stay in touch through e-mail, phone and over coffee. These are shorter, personal times to maintain relationships versus a round of golf. Men do more social events while women do more "touching base."

Top producers know a specific purpose or goal is required before pitching a high-value prospect. They reinforced the amount of research and reflection time to be fully prepared. For example, I recently participated on a panel of businesswomen and decided to be purposeful in adding these women to my network through advance research of the other panel members. This provided a foundation for establishing common ground at our first meeting by pre-determining what I wanted to share and what questions I wanted to ask of them.

Lesson #3: Prove yourself. One major challenge faced by women in sales -- that their male counterparts do not -- is the constant need to "prove oneself." Yet all sales professionals can benefit from the anecdotal evidence that indicates those who can bring knowledge that their competitors do not have to the table can gain entry into business deals.

Being the expert is the price of admission and knowing more about your clients and the market results in long-term credibility. Effort is not enough -- it's the results and your reputation that are recognized.

You can also build credibility through someone that already has a relationship with the prospect. To continue expanding your web of influence, connect individuals together for business value and the network will reciprocate. Real value starts to come back to you in dynamic flow.

One unexpected "a ha!" in the data was how much women struggle with confidence levels. Respondents reported being intelligent, competent and accomplished yet still struggling with doubt and low self-confidence. To prove themselves requires a solid support system -- including real estate credentials -- to reaffirm their abilities.

Focus groups report that people who speak in a direct manner seem more composed and logical. Increasing your composure leads to credibility. Use focus in speaking by emphasizing the solution within a bottom-line context. State the issue, why the person should care, the impact to the individual/organization and, finally, what she or he needs to do. Be clear about the action to address issues. Sticking to the facts and bottom line numbers by using a straightforward approach builds credibility.

Each new client offers an opportunity to prove yourself. Listen to understand needs -- and all the emotions tied up with house buying and selling -- and then present the best solution. Across industries, active listening is the most critical skill to be able to move clients successfully through the decision-making process and deliver results. Active listening to hear, understand and actually communicate back that you understand what the client is intending.

Lesson #4: Put on your game face. The top three issues identified by the survey are all outside of top producers' control: getting customers to change; dealing with delayed decisions; and, pricing pressures. Rather than sit on the sidelines, these overachievers focus on controlling their own behavior to get positioned for success. For example, by keeping up on marketplace climate and street talk, they can think more critically about ways to improve their clients' options and opportunities. They also stay in touch with decision makers to be available as market conditions shift.

People are justifiably nervous and stressed out in today's economic pressures in the housing market. This makes it more important than ever to put on a game face of prudence and confidence. Be realistic by working smart versus working hard. Put multi-tasking and time prioritization skills into high gear. Acknowledge that success will take a high level of activity without direct payoff yet the ability to stay the course and dig deep to solve challenges for clients.

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For Further Reading:

Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury

Influencer by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, David Maxifield, Al Switzler

Beyond Reason by Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro

Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen

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About the Author:

Lynn Schleeter, Director, Center for Sales Innovation, College of St. Catherine

Lynn Schleeter ( spent 18+ years in a business-to-business sales career before entering the academic world. As a consultant to 3M, she worked with colleges and universities across the country to build awareness about sales careers through the 3M Sales Initiative. In Sept. 1998, she joined the College of St. Catherine to launch the Center for Sales Innovation. St. Kate's is the only college in Minnesota offering a four-year sales degree. Lynn is the director of the Center for Sales Innovation at the College of St. Catherine, the largest college for women in the nation. The Center for Sales Innovation is celebrating its 10th anniversary in preparing performance-ready sales professionals for business-to-business and healthcare sectors.

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