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Building Star Salespeople

When explaining how to cultivate a strong sales force, Stephen Reitter, general manager of Hudson, Mass.-based Encore Party Rentals, compares salespeople to musicians. "You can't teach somebody who doesn't have coordination to play the drums," he says. "Being able to sell is a talent that you have or you don't."

What are some characteristics of people with that prized skill in sales? "Attentiveness, along with the ability to listen and to ask good fact-finding questions," Reitter says. "They're not afraid to say, 'No, I don't agree with you; here's why, and here's what I suggest.' If a salesperson is always saying yes, he may not be able to deliver."

With the right people on board-Encore has two outside salespeople and one inside person, who also serves as a coordinator and receptionist-Reitter stresses a fair, supportive workplace. "We work as a team and watch each other's back," he says. "Nobody says, 'Hey, I'm not making money on this job, so I'm not pitching in.'"

Over the years, Reitter has come to believe in the power of the sales commission. "When I hired my first salesperson, I set the base higher than it is now, but it was not enough to motivate him," he says. "The salesperson was too content to make the base and not go for commissions. Now we have a sliding base; as time goes by, the base decreases to a fixed level as their commissions grow. They don't come in on Day One and make all their money. It takes a year or two to get a good understanding of this business."

Roger Hansen, general manager of Ahern Party Rentals, Las Vegas, agrees. His force of three outside and two inside salespeople works on a 100 percent commission basis. "We pay more than other companies around," Hansen says. "But the bottom line is that my salespeople don't make money if I don't."

SELL AND DELIVER Hansen also backs up his sales force with effective execution. "Sales-people will feel happy and successful if they are confident that when they sell something, it will happen," he says. "We have production meetings every week so that the production team understands what was sold and what the client was told. It's more than just selling a table or chair; everyone needs to know what the setup will be. Communication is a big deal; the more information, the better."

He also keeps his salespeople grounded in reality. "Salespeople love to say yes, so sometimes we will have the salesperson set up the job," Hansen says. "It teaches them what it takes to get the job done."

The average tenure for salespeople at Edison, N.J.-based Miller's Rentals and Sales is seven years, and that can be a challenge on its own. "The longer people stay, the more creative you have to be to keep them and inspire them," says president Steve Kohn. With a sales force that has grown to more than 40 full-time staffers, Kohn says his company is more people-oriented than it used to be.

MORE THAN MONEY "I allow my people to be creative," he says. "After we do an event, I ask not only my customers how it went, but I ask my people, too. I always commend them when they do something right, but I also make sure to let them know when they have done something wrong."

Kohn acknowledges the value of money: "Financial perks always come into play," he says, "even if it's a small job." But as a motivation tool, money isn't everything. "Absolutely not," Kohn says. "People feel there's more to life than just money."

Cindy Labuhn, sales manager for The Party Place, based in Portland, Ore., agrees: "Money can take you only so far. If you're not happy, it won't work."

Part of the payoff for salespeople at her company includes flexible work schedules. "Lots of other companies will require 60-hour workweeks and weekend work," Labuhn says. "That just doesn't work for everyone."

Instead, The Party Place relies on a sales staff that includes part-time employees and working mothers. "The college students like flexible hours, while the mothers need holidays off," Labuhn says. "We listen to our employees to find out what they want."

The company also takes a flexible approach to job duties. "We let everyone have a taste of everything," Labuhn says. "Salespeople assist in putting in orders and help customers. We don't have just one person for one thing." She also broadens the background of her sales force by sending them to local industry events.

The company has three dedicated salespeople, "but we consider all counter people as part of sales," Labuhn says. "Anyone who picks up the phone needs to have sales skills."

Most party rental operators say that the golden rule is the best motivator for a sales force. "We treat them right," says Jeff Scurlock, owner of JRS Rentals of New Orleans. "I try to be very fair."

JRS has a staff of three full-time salespeople. Scurlock stresses that keeping quality people costs money, but it pays off in the end. "I pay well compared with other companies," he says. "You've got to. Other companies may go cheaper and cost me some business, but then the clients come back to me because they realize that we do a better job."

Resources: Ahern Party Rentals, 702/891-8533,; Encore Party Rentals, 978/562-0022,; JRS Rentals, 888/216-8328, 504/468-8368,; Miller's Rentals and Sales, 732/985-3050,; The Party Place, 503/292-8875,

Most experts agree that you can't transform a lousy salesperson into a great one. But you can make a good one better. An effective sales program is dependent for 70 percent of its success on hiring the right people and the other 30 percent on appropriate incentive programs, according to the Bank Marketing Association, based in Washington.

Once you have hired people who like to sell, help them by:

* Training them to be responsive and proactive with your customers.

* Providing the incentives they want to receive. Money talks for many, but other salespeople will value comp time or flexible schedules far more.

* Setting goals that the sales force understands and believes in.

* Supporting the sales force with quality products and reliable service.

* Fostering a team environment.

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