Her name was Karen.
She sold the same prescription drug products as every other rep in her company. Her geographic territory was a nondescript slice of interstates, strip malls, aging hospitals and understaffed, high stress, fake plant-adorned doctors' offices, just like the other 450 reps in her organization.
Yet year after year, Karen came out on top. She beat all the reps in her own company, and she cleaned the competitors' clock. She'd taken a number three product and driven it to number one. Her customers adored her and she was the most profitable rep in the entire company for four years running.
I've coached hundreds of sales teams and Karen was the best I've ever seen. I wanted to know why.
So I asked her, "Why do you think you outperform everyone else?"
Her answer was unforgettable.
She said, "I always think about one patient."
She described how her product, a drug used to treat a variety of debilitating conditions, improved people's lives. She began to tear up as she described a patient.
"I'll never forget her," she said. "She came up to me when I was talking with one of my doctors. She told me how her whole life had changed. Now she's able to spend time with her grandchildren and she wakes up looking forward to the day."
By this point I was practically in tears imagining the lovely grandmother whose life had been transformed.
Karen went on, "I think about her every single day. Whenever I'm talking to a difficult doctor, or dealing with a frustrated nurse, or an uncooperative insurance company, my mind always goes back to that one grandmother. My mission is to help her and people just like her, and I know that everyone I deal with wants to help her just as much as I do."
Getting misty-eyed over pharmaceuticals might seem a little over the top. But let me ask you a few critical questions:
What would happen if half the people in your company felt half as passionate about your products as Karen does?
How many people in your organization care so much about your customers that they hold them in their heart every single day?
Now here's the real clincher -- compare mission-driven Karen with the average salesperson who is likely thinking about winning the year-end President's Club trip.
Who do you think is a more formidable competitor?
The salesperson who goes into meetings thinking about their compensation plan. Or Karen, who's on a personal mission to improve the lives of patients.
Who would have more tenacity? Who would be a better listener? Who would be more motivated to make that extra sales call on a rainy Friday afternoon?
Companies spend a fortune creating incentive programs to motivate their people in the hopes of gaining a competitive advantage.
But the truth is, the most formidable competitors are the people who actually care.
Instead of spending money on a fancy incentive program, companies would be better off training their employees to care.
People need to be paid fairly for their work. But passionate employees outperform incentive-driven employees every day of the week.
You don't have to sell life-changing drugs. All you have to do is to identify who benefits from your work, and decide who cares?? about them.
Karen loves her customers. Would you want to compete against that?
Lisa McLeod is author of "The Triangle of Truth: The Surprisingly Simple Secret to Resolving Conflicts Large and Small," a Washington Post Top 5 Business Book for Leaders.