One of the major paradoxes service businesses face is that most such businesses would be perfectly competent doing the job someone might hire them for but have a terrible time getting hired to do it.

Yet sales is something too many service and consulting businesses understand too little about, says Phil Rhodes, a retired sales and consulting professional who now volunteers for SCORE. Rhodes will lead the first of SCORE’s new roundtable series on professional development, “Building an Effective Sales Force” on Wednesday, November 9, at Pellettieri, Rabstein & Altman, 100 Nassau Park Boulevard. Cost: $25. Call 609-393-0505.

Many service companies fall flat, or at least do not generate the level of business they want, Rhodes says, because they do not know how to build or maintain an effective sales team. Too many do little more than just hope for the best when they hire new salespeople and when they send teams out. But blindly throwing darts is a poor sales tactic. Rhodes recommends starting from the basics and considering new steps along the way.

Building from square one. “If you don’t get the right people from the start, you’ve lost already,” Rhodes says. Any good sales team starts with the best salespeople you can get your hands on.

But here’s the conundrum: Good salespeople who can generate new leads and make good money typically already have jobs. Therefore, a known commodity is hard to come by. Rhodes says new sales hires often are an exercise in faith — and at least half are not going to work out. They might not enjoy the job, they might not like what they’re selling, or they might move when a spouse gets reassigned. “Building a sales force can be very frustrating,” he says.

But there are certain characteristics good salespeople have. “They should be personable, obviously,” Rhodes says. “They should have a lot of drive and be well-organized. And they should be optimistic. They’re going to get a lot of nos.”

#b#Training and incentive#/b#. There are lots of books explaining how to close a sale, Rhodes says. Car salesmen, for example, can use the “What color do you want?” question that gives the buyer the sense that the deal is already done.

But these books are predominantly oriented toward product sales or retail — types of sales made when a customer walks in, makes a single purchase, and then leaves. Service business sales do not work this way, Rhodes says. Service, particularly consulting, customers are in it for a longer haul. Some deals, Rhodes says, take three to six months to close if you’re dealing in expensive software programs that rely on longterm relationships between buyer and supplier.

Part of the training must involve recognizing good prospects, Rhodes says. Good salespeople are attuned to what makes a prospect promising and the skill can be honed, but it starts with knowing the culture and needs of a company as well as you know your own service or product.

Then there is the matter of incentives. One flat commission, Rhodes says, is not a good thing. “The hardest thing to develop is a new account,” he says. For this reason, paying the same commission for a new account and a longtime account offers no motivation to land new clients. Salespeople can just coast on the clients they have and never find new ones to help the business grow.

#b#Structure and support#/b#. Sales can be a lonely profession. You know lots of people and talk at length with all of them, but when it comes right down to it, you are on your own, expected to close deals and generate business for your employer.

One of the things some business owners overlook, Rhodes says, is staying in touch with the sales team. As a sales executive at IBM, Rhodes used to bring the team in every Monday for a meeting to go over numbers and strategies and to stay focused.

#b#Reporting#/b#. Sales professionals are like anybody else — they tend to hate paperwork and reports. But reports are made for a reason, Rhodes says. The data collected on reports and in databases helps the salesperson understand who he’s talking to and will help the next salesperson who has to deal with an account.

Reports also help the company know what’s working or not. And under it all, reports help show clients that there is a real company and a real service behind the sale.

#b#Size matters#/b#. There is no one perfect size for a sales force to be. The arbiter is whether the sales force is a sustainable size. If the team as a whole is generating new leads and closing deals regularly, the size is right for the firm.

#b#Support, part two#/b#. The sales support staff is just as valuable to the sales team because supporting players help sales professionals do the selling. This could mean paperwork or report building, or it could mean prospecting where prospecting is toughest — cold calling.

“Everyone hides behind their voicemail these days,” Rhodes says. This makes it tough for sales staffs to get through to people and takes valuable time away from their actual selling. You want your sales staff to do as little cold calling as possible, he says.

Rhodes, who grew up in Westchester, New York, went to the University of Michigan to study physics because he liked “quantitative stuff.”

The taste for hard numbers was in his blood. His father was a lawyer who held a degree in mathematics and his uncle was a theoretical physicist. But rather than go the academic route, Rhodes went to work in the sales department at IBM in New Haven, Connecticut. He then got his master’s in industrial administration from Yale, where he studied economic modeling in the business environment.

Rhodes move on to Lilly Laboratories and then into senior management at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, where he was the product manager for two major systems. After 40 years in various sales roles, Rhodes retired and started volunteering with SCORE about five years ago. He plans to stay because service businesses need him.

“Most people with service businesses are in service and consulting,” he says. “They don’t have the foggiest notion about sales.”

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