Aggressive And Ambitious

Top Lucent saleswoman supercharges telecom giant's sales.

Nina Aversano has structured her sales force to meet next century's challenges and -- some say -- impossible goals. Aversano, the high-energy president of Global Commercial Markets, one of Lucent Technologies Inc.'s largest sales channels, stays up nights worrying about old-school salespeople who can deliver an entertaining product presentation, but fail to pull together the combination of equipment and services from a number of sources demanded by some of today's, and, Aversano expects, all of tomorrow's customers. "When you set aggressive goals, some people are not going to rise to meet them," she pointed out during a September presentation at the Conference Board's 1998 Conference on the Sales Organization: Building Tomorrow's Leading Sales Organizations, sponsored by the Alexander Group. Aversano, who won't reveal her age, but has worked in telecommunications for over 30 years, disdains corporate politics and spends as much time as possible in the field on customer calls with her army of 2,500 sales employees. She tries to show them what Lucent's clients need with market research and with coaching. She gives her salespeople a range of products and services to offer clients -- financing, technical support, even help going public. Her strategy works: boasting 1997 revenues of $8 billion (out of Lucent's $26.4 billion total), the Global Commercial Markets division is one of Lucent's most successful units. When Aversano left IBM Corp. to join Lucent in 1976, the telecommunications giant was still called AT&T. She remembers it as a monopoly with a distinct corporate culture dictating what customers would buy and when. Traditions forced managers to hold onto salespeople whether or not they ever made quotas. Aversano took control of the Global Commercial Markets division in 1991, and quickly replaced vestiges of the company's bureaucratic history with basic sales practices. "We had to learn who our customers were," recalled the winner of AT&T's Catherine B. Cleary Management Award, which honors women managers. Today Aversano expects her sales army -- organized into 11 teams around large customers or groups of them -- to know their clients intimately, down to the amount it costs to service each one of them. Every team has its own profit and loss statement. They can negotiate on prices without management approval up to a certain point and for many clients, Aversano's Global Markets division develops marketing plans to help them sell to their customers. The ambitious approach has paid off in 20% annual revenue growth since 1996. Aversano expects her teams to not only understand their clients, but also their competition, which includes Motorola Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc. "I want my people to know where their competitors live, how successful they are, how much they're making," Aversano told the Conference Board audience. Knowing customers and the competition as well as mastering Lucent's product lines takes patience, hard work, and certain sales skills that not everyone has. Twenty-first century salespeople will possess an ability to address a customer problem, not just sell a piece of equipment or a single service. "This is the time of year when the whining begins," Aversano said. When salespeople come to her complaining about tough competition, quotas that are impossible to reach, she often asks them to set up a sales call. Aversano and the salesperson or team meets with a customer in hopes of achieving "breakthrough" -- Aversano's word for a meeting where a customer reveals its five-year plan or other major strategy, enabling the Lucent team to devise a path to help the customer reach that goal. Salespeople who don't meet Aversano's standards don't survive long. They're compensated when they make their numbers and when they pass the extensive customers satisfaction surveys. Aversano is hard on her division because Aversano's superiors are hard on her. "They'll say, 'Here are your numbers, Nina. Good luck," she explained. Salespeople find out where they stand in regular four-hour operations reviews where Aversano or another division executive will go over market share data, the competition's progress, and what the individual needs to do to improve. "If, after a few months, they don't get it, they go somewhere else," reported Aversano, who worries that her plans aren't aggressive enough.

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