Is Hiring More Sales Reps The Answer?

Sales are slow. While that's something most of us will agree upon, how we address the situation varies considerably. Conventional wisdom tells us to get more sales reps out there pounding the streets and knocking on doors, a practice that an increasing number of companies are turning to after coming off the dot.com boom of the last two years.

But what's the success rate for newly hired reps? One out of three? One out of five? It's a good guess that two-thirds of newly hired reps don't make it, even those who come on board with successful track records in previous printing or other sales environments. This can be expensive.

Exacerbating the problem, it can easily take six to eighteen months before companies can confidently determine which new reps won't make it, by which time they've paid out considerable dollars in salary and payroll taxes. Then there are the other costs attending a failed hire: lost opportunity costs, benefits expenses, management and training to name a few. After eighteen months, the cost to companies can be considerable.
There are also the costs associated with finding qualified candidates: ads, headhunter fees, interviewing and all the other time-related costs. And let's not forget possibly the biggest cost to a company resulting from a bad hire: customer dissatisfaction due to inept handling by the rep.

Hiring Practices That May (or May Not) Work

Many companies have determined that a strong sales rep in any field translates to a strong print sales rep. It ain't necessarily so. We've seen several clients hire from outside the industry, only to find that these reps cannot or are not willing to make the transition. Ours is not a simple industry to understand. Many outside-the-industry reps who have been very successful in former organizations find the continuous technology learning curve too high a hurdle. They've been trained to sell products, not a service that's always evolving and is customized to individual client needs. Others come to the printing company with great expectations that aren't immediately realized, and so they bolt.

Some print sales managers take to hiring people away from other companies, which again can lead to disappointment. Competitors' reps seldom bring as much business with them as they and their new employers hope. It's not uncommon for these reps to fall short of their former sales levels for several years, if not longer.

Low success rates and the high cost of failure are among the many reasons companies are re-thinking their sales structure, and looking at alternative methods to increase sales.

Focus on Increasing Productivity

In some cases, hiring additional sales staff is a necessity. You may want to open a new geographical market, or you've added a new service that demands a dedicated sales specialist. While these are potentially successful growth strategies, hiring for these needs comes with same above-described pitfalls. They also add more costs, like frequent travel expenses to the home office and even higher training expenses.

So, what are some of the alternatives to hiring a new sales rep?
First, take a good look at your existing sales and customer service force-I'll talk more about these important folks in my next column-and identify those who aspire to achieve more in their careers. Good candidates may simply want to make more money, which is a perfectly acceptable motivation to go into sales. Equally true, though, a great sales rep may be found in a person who's looking for a way to demonstrate they have what it takes to contribute more to the success of the company. They have a built-in commitment, since they've been with you for at least a couple of years, and they have the personal motivation to succeed in their jobs. With training and marketing support, they can achieve both their and your expectations.

Second, support your existing sales staff to increase their productivity. A stalled sales staff is the biggest issue faced by many companies. Marketing efforts that don't listen to and support sales reps are of little value. Very often, vice presidents of sales and marketing select marketing activities based on assumptions about what their sales reps need because it's what they themselves need. Many of these VPs also handle their own accounts and so, apply their interests and needs to all. While this can be advantageous in terms of expediency (these execs wear many hats), it can also lead to ineffective programming.

Listen, Program, Manage

Think about spending some of the dollars you're investing in finding and hiring new reps to provide stronger support for your existing staff. Here's a five-step course of action:

1. Conduct an independent sales and staff assessment. Sales reps and other staff are unlikely to share with management their misgivings about actions taken by their bosses or career goals that may threaten their existing jobs. Employ an independent firm to conduct an anonymous survey of sales and customer reps, and other staff you've identified as potential sales rep material. The goal is to determine sales support needs and potential sales candidates.

2. Institute a sales management program. Just do it. My columns over the years have talked about the high priority of getting a contact management system in place. While I admit this no easy task, I believe it to be the key to our future. While ACT! and Goldmine are standard starters, they must be Web-enabled, allowing communications to and from sales, management and customers to occur via the Internet. Your reps' and your ability to communicate in today's 1:1 business environment demands it.

3. Craft and execute an integrated marketing program that supports sales. While one rep may want a glitzier brochure, another may ask for letter-writing help. (The letter and email-writing issue, by the way, is a serious failing of many sales reps. Great at verbal communications, these individuals often lack writing skills, which can be devastating to a company purporting to excel in communications.) Here, continual, consistent, and professional messaging is critical. Help your reps by keeping your company's presence uppermost in the thoughts of customers and prospects.

  • Direct e/mail may consist of eye- and mind-grabbing postcards, laser-printed Letters from the President, email-to-Web case studies, and e/newsletters, among others, mailed monthly.
  • Phone-on-hold messages should inform and entertain. Not the cookie-cutter productions or the local top-40 radio station connection, effective phone-on-hold messages give listeners the value of information that means something to them. They should be professionally produced, bespeaking the quality of your firm, and should impart information that listeners want.
  • Sales support materials that tell your customers what you do and what they need. Complementing the standard company brochure and samples kit, case studies are a great door opener for reps, as well as a great Web-leader. I'll also talk more about these in my next column.

4. Manage those sales reps. You now have the contact management software in place. Track your reps' sales calls and the jobs you didn't win. Who were they lost to and why? Well-conducted telephone research will provide answers. Charting the responses often leads to unexpected and valuable conclusions.

5. Listen to your customers in forums designed for them. Frequently and regularly. Focus groups and online and offline customer surveys turn up extraordinary opportunities. They are used by companies large and small for very good reason.

As we enter Q3 of a year that's been a far cry from the exuberance of a year ago, we need to get creative and take a lesson from the dot.coms. More sales reps, like more eyeballs, may not be the answer to survival.


Charlotte Mills Seligman is president of Traversant Marketing Communications. The firm specializes in planning and executing integrated marketing programs for printing and allied graphic arts companies, with nearly two decades of expertise in the industry. Previous columns and issues of the company's Ti Monthly e-newsletter are posted on http://www.traversant.com. Inquiries should be directed to (415) 357-2929 or charlotte @traversant.com.

© 2000 Charlotte Mills Seligman

April 2001
Print & Graphics
Col#27, 6/01
Printing Journal
Col#27, 6/01
Hiring Sales
By Charlotte Mills Seligman

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