Recruiting a Competent Sales Staff

The days when a "Help Wanted" ad kept me busy all week answering phone calls seems like a distant memory. In the 1970s, at least half of the applicants were reasonably qualified, so I could afford to be discriminating in my interviewing.

From what kitchen and bath distributor and dealer principals tell me, today's business climate presents quite a different picture in the many areas of our country where unemployment is less than three percent. The hi-tech industry,which is known for favorable compensation and benefits, seems to be siphoning off the cream of the crop. When I ask cabinet "whotailers" about their plans for expanding their number of satellite showrooms, they always predicate their future expansion on being able to recruit competent personnel to man - or "woman" - new locations.

Before starting this column, I spoke with a number of dealer and distributor principals about their approach to staffing. Following are some of their thoughts.

One whotailer I spoke with depends to a great extent on temporarily utilizing inexperienced applicants in clerical and support roles, while they are gaining a background in the kitchen and bath industry. This approach gives his executives an opportunity to evaluate these new people for initiative, personality, accuracy and attention to detail, while the individual is productive in an inside job. Those who qualify are ultimately promoted into more challenging, better paying jobs. Those who lack upward mobility are released, or remain in a clerical capacity.

This distributor - whose organization merchandises building materials as well as kitchen and bath equipment - has come to the conclusion that top-producing salespeople are rarely strong in both sales and detail work. Therefore, he has management people sell multiple-unit jobs while his sales representatives service these accounts and take responsibility for most of the detail work.

In addition, these sales representatives sell the smaller and individual jobs on their own. They are compensated on a salary basis. Their incentive to perform is a year-end bonus and consideration for an increase in salary.

In qualifying new applicants, he utilizes professionally developed personnel aptitude tests as a factor in deciding on the most likely-to-succeed candidates. I, as manager of a distributorship, used some of these same tests, and found them quite revealing as to the strengths and weaknesses of the applicants. (A catalog of these tests can be obtained from E. F. Wonderlic Personnel Test, Inc., 1509 N. Mil-waukee Ave., Libertyville, IL 60048; tel: 800-784-1542; fax: 847-680-9492.)

This same distributor sells all jobs installed. Rather than compound his personnel requirements, he's made arrangements with competent subcontractors to do this work - something that's critical to satisfactory completion of jobs.

The team approach
Many other cabinet distributors and some dealers use the "team approach" to kitchen and bath sales with good success. Team members typically include a salesperson who provides a plan view and a suggested layout, as well as a designer who prices, designs and produces presentation drawings using CAD software. Additionally, some companies utilize an installation expert to take job measurements and note special job conditions pertinent to planning, pricing labor and ordering materials related to the installation.

The installation supervisor is also a team member, and helps to coordinate the work and establish installation dates. In many organizations, the actual ordering of equipment from suppliers is in the hands of yet another individual. This has the advantage of redundancy, since the purchasing agent, - by simply reviewing the layout and the actual sales order - may pick-up errors earlier, before they create a costly problem delaying completion of the job.

In the team approach, the salesperson generally receives a lower commission rate than in those companies where he or she performs all of the above functions. This enables management to properly compensate the support personnel, and still show a profit. However, for the salespeople, there's a bright side: They ultimately sell so much more by limiting their detail work, that they still show a substantial increase in income. While $500,000 to $700,000 in annual sales is generally considered a satisfactory performance for those selling to builders without support personnel, $700,000 or more is common for those with support from others. I personally know of retail and custom-builder salespeople with support who exceed $1 million in annual sales, and volume-builder salespeople who exceed $2 million annually.

Hiring competence
Distributors and dealers alike have found hiring of untrained and inexperienced kitchen and bath salespeople for immediate entry into the sales force an expensive and risky approach. The consensus is that it takes such new employees up to six relatively unproductive months before they are either competent to sell on their own, or to determine that they just aren't ever going to meet expectations. This is quite an investment to make! And then sometimes those you train are seduced away by other employers who are willing to pay more once the training process is completed.

Acquiring a competent staff is one problem; keeping them happy in their work and loyal to your company is another problem - and one that is at least equally important. A motivational speaker at a recent conference stated that it's vital to make employees feel they are important to your business. Recognition is sometimes more important than money. Pursue a policy of promotion from within so employees know they aren't on a dead-end street.

I believe that a letter of employment for salespeople with incentive pay is a must. It should describe the nature of their assignment, as well as the need to keep current on reports requested by management. It should also outline your policy in the event of terminating the salesperson, and cover the compensation on jobs quoted or sold prior to termination. This may avoid future litigation and hard feelings.

As a manager of a distributorship, I've always felt that personnel was the most important factor in our relationships with customers and suppliers alike. From my recent contacts, I am convinced that staffing and management of personnel is even more important in today's economy.