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Finding Loyal Salespeople

Given the expense to which an employer must go to recruit, hire, train and develop a salesperson, where do you suggest we look to find the best candidates? What do you look for when trying to decide if a potential salesperson will be loyal?
— Gregory A. Brown, president, W.W. Cannon (Dallas, TX)

Loren Swakow: Retention is a key issue every business owner must acknowledge, especially with key positions of sales and technicians. These are also the positions within our company that have the most customer contact and, consequently, have a large effect on the success of our activities.

With any job, there is a learning curve before the employee begins to generate profits for the company. This period needs to be looked at as an investment. Oftentimes, the higher the investment, the better the return. Yet a high investment in training also makes the employee more valuable to the general marketplace. The employee will be more valuable wherever he or she goes, and it is an investment we must make to keep our companies viable.

The key to your question involves loyalty. Loyalty is not given by an employee; it is earned by the employer. Job satisfaction, hence loyalty, includes not just compensation, but also environmental issues. The lower the quality of the environment, the higher the compensation needs to be to overcome these issues. Job satisfaction is composed of a myriad of issues, some small and some large. The key to retention rests with us as employers, not with the employee.

Dave Griffith: We look first to current industry candidates through either local knowledge or search firms. Next, we look at candidates with related experience from other industries. We do not look at someone from the outside with no industry or sales experience. We also look long and hard at inside candidates who have come up through the ranks in service or aftermarket. In many ways, these are our best prospects.

In all cases, we spend the dollars to train in technology, sales process to our model, financial skills and product training. MHEDA is a great source for much of this education. We also test all of our candidates, and the loyalty issue is one item reviewed. We have a Modern profile that we look for and we have several folks in the interview process. We do not ask for signed non-compete agreements.

We also try to have a company that provides strong income opportunity, solid benefits, open communication and professional development opportunities. This does more to breed loyalty than anything else we do. We also review industry performance for income and benefits to make sure we are where we want to be. We include them in the process of product selection and offerings.

John Cosgrove: The exercise of hiring a new salesperson can at times be very trying. Most of us have experienced both the thrill of victory and, very often, the agony of defeat. Our company for many years tried to hire people from within the material handling industry; for the most part, this has not worked for us. If a salesperson has value, most companies will do whatever they can to retain that person. We have found that you should hire the best possible candidate regardless of industry experience. However, this does not mean that we would not hire someone from the industry. If the candidate meets our criteria and has experience, we would definitely hire him or her.

You must first make a decision in regard to hiring a professional firm to help with your search. We have had some recent success using such firms. This process allows you to be concerned with selecting the best candidate and not spending all your time finding them. The professional staffing firm presents you with a list of candidates, and you pay the firm a percentage of the first year salary if you hire one. You are not obligated unless you hire someone, and by removing the material handling experience requirement, you have expanded the list of potential candidates.

Whomever you hire, make sure they have the following traits: energy, drive, initiative, overall talent, problem solving, organizational ability, character, values, commitment and goals. One way to determine if a person has these traits is by using a testing company to develop an Individual Development Profile. The testing company will evaluate the candidate and tell you the person’s strengths and weaknesses pertaining to the job. The MHEDA office can direct you to a testing company if you wish. At Progressive Handling Systems, we have found that these tests are money well spent. If you begin to think about the financial commitment that your company makes when hiring a new salesperson, the above suggestions are quite inexpensive and could provide you with the quality salespeople you need to grow your business.

John Maybury: The best candidates are often referred to us by other Maybury associates. No one else knows our business, culture and values like our own associates. In fact, sometimes the best sales candidates are right under our own roof. At Maybury, we post all open jobs internally before advertising outside and have transferred people from our operations area into sales, resulting in a win-win situation. We have also relied on traditional advertisement vehicles as well as Web postings. The key is applying consistent and extensive interviews, reference checks and pre-employment sales assessments to all of the top candidates. Omitting one step leaves us vulnerable to not capturing the full picture. Will he/she be loyal? We ask their prior employers.

Greg Morrison: Applicants have come from a variety of areas: within the company, family members of employees, acquaintances of other sales reps and even former customers. We also have a college intern program that has been an excellent source for sales reps as well as managers. We have a good reputation in the business community, and people seek us out most of the time.

After the initial reference checks and basic job interview, we do a series of psychological tests looking for the “Salesman Profile.” After we determine that the candidate has the profile we are looking for, we then have the candidate sit through a series of interviews with key management personnel. We look for someone who is articulate, outgoing, has a positive attitude, good work ethic, good test profile and can work within a team structure. A team player is essential.

A non-compete agreement is also discussed and is an important part of the employment requirements. Discuss long term goals/long term employment/big picture stuff. Don’t sell them on employment. Have them sell you on why they want to work for your organization.

The first year of employment is a lot of hand holding, mentoring, product and application training, account introduction, parts, service, etc. This is a big, big investment of time and resources.

Duncan Murphy: There is no one best source for salespeople, or for any person you need to fill a vacancy in your company. We treat all job searches the same and try not to leap after the first warm body. If you are not certain, wait. We have edged away from industry veterans unless they have a very good reason for making a change. Your company culture and products will be different, and in your environment, the star can easily become a bust. A record of high performance and a personality match with your company would allow you to proceed with a possible hire. Similarly, we rarely try to transform an inside sales person into an outside sales person because specific talents required for success for one are not there for the other. Search firms and ads can get you candidates, but you should also encourage your sales manager to interview anyone showing interest even when you are not looking.

Once you have candidates, test them, using general tests and specific tests on products, computer capabilities and personality. Involve a variety of people in the interview process, including managers, inside and outside sales, and even service. Impressions will be left on all participants unique to their frame of reference.

If you make your firm into an attractive place to work, combining success, culture, training and excellent products, people will gravitate to you and will wait for an opening if the timing isn’t quite right. More important, top performers will not leave, even for more money, because they like where they are and what they are doing. This makes loyalty one of the top jobs of the CEO because they create the company structure.

Stay on top of your people’s ambitions as well, so you can move them up the ladder if they have the talent, or enhance their role to fulfill their needs and still match their talents. Your best salespeople are not all cut out to be managers.

Jack Phelan: Currently, we are looking at junior military officers who are leaving the service and have expressed a desire to get into sales. These men and women typically possess all of the qualities that we look for in a sales representative. Not leaving anything to chance, we run them through a battery of tests which consist of IQ, personality profile and the Caliper profile.

I feel that loyalty comes from an appropriate compensation plan, fair treatment of your employees and mixing in a little fun while they work.

Bill Rowan: We utilize local newspapers, Monster.com, and local college and university job boards. We do not necessarily look for people with experience in the industry. We have found experience means they were employed for a certain period of time and not always doing things our way. We have had good success with candidates just out of school or people relatively new to the job market who think they may be looking for a career in sales. The initial cash investment is less, and these candidates are usually eager to please and succeed. However, we often have to go through two or three hires before we find the right fit. We factor this into our true cost of hiring a new salesperson.

I don’t know that loyalty can be quantified, and I am not sure loyalty can be predicted. However, we do try to avoid “job hoppers.” We feel that if we hire a candidate that “feels right” and we treat them fairly and compensate them well for their performance, most employees will develop the loyalty we expect.

Stan Sewell: The best and most loyal sales candidates are sometimes the employees who are already on our payroll performing other jobs. They know the company culture, and they have demonstrated their learning abilities, work ethic and personalities. This enables us to determine whether they have what it takes to be successful in sales. We have many successful salespeople who began their careers with us in the parts or service departments.

However, bringing in external salespeople helps keep the organization fresh with new talent, energy and ideas. Good candidates have come to us from suppliers, former customers caught in layoffs, and our informed community network of employees and business groups. We advertise in various publications and conduct some job fair recruitment.

There are plenty of assessments, profiles and tests on the market that help us gauge the likelihood that a new employee can and will do the job. In the end, salespeople who fit the job and believe the company provides them with learning and growth opportunities, support and recognition will most likely be successful, loyal, long-term employees.

Bob Weeks: There is no single source that enables you to find an excellent sales candidate. Good salespeople are very hard to find. Following are some of the ways to find good people: referrals, recruiters, Internet job postings, networking, newspaper ads and word of mouth. Let it be known that you are looking for sales candidates.

With regard to loyalty, the candidate’s rÇsumÇ is the first place to look. How many jobs and how long they stayed with each employer are good sources of information. The interview process should include questions that help answer the loyalty question. People will usually be loyal if you create an environment where people can excel and you treat them like you want to be treated.

Ken MacDonald: To search for a salesperson, you must be on a constant lookout and use all sources available. You can use traditional newspapers; others have done Internet postings with dedicated companies that specialize in searches. The military also can provide job postings for those who are transitioning out of military service.

As far as loyalty is concerned, you can only try to provide a work environment that is superior to competitors and competitive industries. Unfortunately, statistics show that the average person will change companies seven times in his or her work career. Not a comforting thought. I have talked with suppliers, customers and younger personnel who state, “I will work five years in this position and then move up or out.”

As we move forward in an improving economy, our industry will compete with other industries for limited quality people. We will have to provide competitive income and growth potential so that we can attract and maintain our personnel. Demographic studies and declining new equipment profitability indicate that this is likely to be a challenge for all.

With all that said, the only thing you can control is your company, and that is where the difference in loyalty will reside. Perhaps as we go through the evolutionary changes of the material handling salesperson, we may be able to provide a better employment environment and income when the end- user realizes that there are too few qualified salespeople and support companies. Their value must be restored. Once again, the old supply and demand laws will rule.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association

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