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Q. I'm the founder and president of a 20-year-old $10 million publishing company servicing organizations throughout the greater Bay Area. We've been very successful over the years but as a result of the current economy our business is down 30 percent. I'm considering hiring a few sales reps to bring in new business but have not been successful hiring sales people in the past.

Can you help?

A. You stated that you have not been successful hiring sales people in the past. Do you know why? Many entrepreneurs who are self-made have a track record of making poor hiring decisions. Why?

Too often they expect everyone to be as passionate and knowledgeable about their business as they are, don't take the time to train or mentor and lack programs and process.

Turnover is expensive and painful. Replacement costs can add up to three times the annual base salary per position. This fact is based on loss of productivity and the time it takes to get new hires up to speed, which results in a loss of business and revenue.

Before you invest in additional headcount, take the time to investigate what went wrong in the past and make corrections.

The hiring process for any position within the organization is critical and requires an experienced recruiter to manage the process from developing job descriptions to on-boarding. If you do not have a qualified recruiter in-house I recommend that you partner with an experienced recruiter with a proven track record for working with small owner-managed companies.

Why does that matter? It's the law of attraction theory. You want to attract proven sales professionals who excel at working with small owner-managed businesses versus the hierarchy corporate infrastructure.

The first question you want you to ask yourself is, "What problem am I trying to solve?" The answer to that question will be your objective for hiring. If your answer is, "I need some sales help so that I can focus on the job of building my business," then focus on attracting someone who can, first and foremost, sell stuff.

Some companies sell complex products (three-to-six-month learning curve), but the best sales people jump in from day one, are eager to get on the phones and schedule meetings as soon as possible.

Successful sales people are quick to admit that they may not be experts on your products or industry but understand that they must develop alliances with their team (president, engineers, sales support) to help them fill in the gaps.

Most importantly, they don't fake it with customers who can smell a phony a mile away. Great sales people know how to establish relationships and start before they walk in the door for an interview.

They attempt to connect with everyone they meet, starting with the receptionist as they check in for a meeting.

They have researched your company and have knowledge about your history, milestones, products, services, customers, what challenges you are facing and are able to pitch themselves as the solution to your problems.

Great sales people should be successful at selling themselves during the interview, which is an indicator of how they will represent your company and sell your product.

Beware of people who don't sell themselves well during the interview. If they can't sell themselves, how are they going to sell your product?  If they don't do a good job preparing for the interview, haven't researched your company, then they probably won't do a good job selling your product. Beware of those who are too afraid to make the calls; they may not have what it takes to succeed in your environment.

The biggest failures are obsessed over learning every last detail of the product and industry at your expense. Companies don't usually let go of their star performers, so be skeptical when a sales person is unemployed, they need to have a really good reason, be thoughtful about this.

Someone once said "Past performance is the best indicator of future success." Focus on people who have demonstrated measurable sales accomplishments and can sell stuff.

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Jennifer Laxton is a senior partner and consultant with Executive Search Associates in Santa Rosa, www.esa.com. ESA is an executive search and consulting company. You can reach her at 707-525-1010 ext. 12 or jklaxton@esa.com. If you have questions with regards to your situation, send an e-mail to askjen@esa.com.