In an industry renowned for both the ruthless poaching of staff and the lack of long-term training (could there be a connection?), no area has been harder hit than the salesforce. Stories abound of companies failing to invest in sales staff, only to find them leaving the company in search of better opportunities elsewhere.
Nevertheless, a number of larger dealers are taking the time to train sales staff, and many smaller specialists are making an equal effort to train technical staff to ensure they understand the products they are selling. PC Dealer polled a cross-section of UK dealers on recruiting and retaining good sales staff and was given an insight into the views of a number of industry heads.
Michael Kianfar, managing director at Systems International, says: 'It is very difficult for any reseller to get cost-effective salespeople.
The key question is, does the industry create a good climate for training staff? The answer is clearly no.'
Kianfar says there is too much poaching and too little loyalty in the channel. Few resellers can afford the time to train sales staff who might later be poached by a bigger reseller paying higher salaries, so they often skimp on sales training and career development. 'The average amount of time a technical person stays with us is about 18 months,' says Kianfar.
'That's just long enough to train them.'
The figures for sales staff retention are complicated because some staff are pushed out for under-performing, but that is all part of the vicious circle. 'Perhaps they should have been trained, rather than just hired and expected to perform. That might have made a big difference,' he says.
The other factor that affects the standard of sales staff in the channel, Kianfar says, is the way salaries are artificially inflated by greedy recruitment companies, hyping prospects to get a hefty commission. 'Another question to ask is what level of training should you give a sales person earning u70,000 a year? The answer is you shouldn't have to, but you don't necessarily get good people, even for that much money,' he says.
Kianfar claims that Systems International would rather pay sensible salaries and put sales staff through training. One of the schemes he is looking at is by the Swiss-based Institute of Management Development which operates a sales diploma leading to an MBA. 'It would be a significant investment for us. We would need to know that the person would stay with us.'
Martin Hellawell, head of marketing at Computacenter, says the problem of sales staff being poached can be avoided by creating the right environment for career development. In a recent survey, which Hellawell insists was strictly anonymous, 97 per cent of Computacen- ter's 350 sales and support staff said they felt the company was a 'very good' employer and that they were happy with the available career opportunities.
The UK's largest reseller has a reputation for paying monster salaries to its top salespeople. Hellawell
says that some of the figures that have been bandied about are on the mythical side, but the salespeople who bring in large amounts of business do get paid pretty well. This is done to retain them and to encourage other sales staff.
Hellawell says the days of the old-style, box-shifter salesman are over, and Computacenter is now more concerned with recruiting professional account managers who can deal with senior people at customer sites. He says the company is always on the lookout for experienced people and graduate trainees. It currently has 20 recruits enrolled in its graduate sales trainee scheme.
'The average age of our sales staff is about 32,' he says. 'We have a number of young graduates being trained, but we never put them straight on to the largest accounts.' This average age is considerably higher than that of most of Computaenter's rivals, which may reflect the ability of large dealers to hold on to the most successful sales staff with large salaries.
Lapland marketing director Martin Clark says the notebook-only dealership recruits its sales staff on their ability to communicate, within the company and outside it. 'The best people to hire tend to be those without much computer experience,' he says. 'We have sales staff with banking, financial services and distribution backgrounds, as well as a few graduates.' The most important thing, he says, is for the sales staff to be confident without coming across as having an attitude. 'There is no room for sales people with egos the size of a house.'
The industry is inherently cheap when it comes to sales training, agrees Clark. He says trainee sales staff need three separate types of training; selling, product training and training in the way the reseller works so that they feel part of the wider organisation.
Clark believes that poaching will always be a problem. 'Some of the people you train will invariably leave.' Lapland's recruitment policy assumes that 20 per cent of sales staff will leave each year, and anything less is considered a success.
Nazir Jessa, Watford Electronics MD, has one of the youngest sales teams in the industry, with an average age of 23. 'They're mostly young, dynamic men with some computer experience.' Trainee sales staff attend product training sessions four times a week to get to grips with Watford's 4,000 item product range. 'It's not easy to recruit. We are constantly on the lookout.'
Jessa believes the industry shortage of good salespeople stems from a lack of vocational training at school. 'School leavers don't know what industry expects of them. Many think that business is just about taking orders and have no understanding of active selling.'
He adds that staff leaving can be a problem because it takes about six months before a new recruit can sell well, while the average time for staying with a company is two years. This is not so much because sales staff get poached, says Jessa, as it is because they get bored easily.
'Even bonuses can get boring for them,' he says. The answer is to keep staff interested by providing incentives that will keep them keen and loyal.
Mohammed Siddiqi, Infoproducts business development director, says the expand- ing reseller found it difficult to recruit good external sales staff last year. It recruited six salespeople direct from PC vendors in a bid to boost the skills gap.
'Within the channel there are few salespeople with the skills for consultative selling,' says Siddiqi. This year, Infoproducts is putting a lot of effort into improving its existing sales staff with extensive training. 'We can't just continually get staff from vendors.'
Siddiqi says the key sales skills he looks for are negotiation technique, business awareness and a genuine under- standing of how a customer's business works. 'We have to make sure we have done our homework when we go out to visit a client. That's more important than having a high-pressure sales technique.'
DRESSED FOR SUCCESS
The key, he says, is that salespeople have the skills to manage the customer relationship, and that is often achieved best by sales staff who have been with the reseller for a while.
'We have excellent sales staff retention rates,' says Siddiqi. 'If people feel they are valued and have a future with a company, they will stay.' He believes that staff poaching is a bigger problem with technical staff, although he claims that a num- ber of staff who did leave came back within six months.
Although large resellers are fuelled by high-pressure direct-sales staff, smaller specialist resellers have different needs for sales staff. Redditch-based Lans is typical. Managing direc- tor Derek Keenan says the Novell reseller sells mainly to small businesses that are installing a network for the first time. 'It's not about low margins and box shifting for us,' says Keenan. 'We train our engineers to be salespeople.' He believes that having technically accomplished sales staff gives the customer reassurance.
Many technical accreditations, such as the certified netware engineer (CNE) qualifi- cation, do not cover selling. But Keenan says that it is much easier to train a technical person to sell than it is to teach a salesperson about the intrica- cies of networking.
'You can tell which of the technical people will make good salespeople.
They are usually the ones that are well dressed, outgoing and helpful.' Not all technical staff are keen or competent enough to sell and he believes the key is in being able to spot the per- son's qualities.
For Lans, having technical salespeople is part of a personal service for customers. 'Ordinary salespeople would just look at the bottom line and make a deal,' says Keenan. 'We do our own support on the networks that we sell, so we have to take a long-term view.'
LEARNING THE ROPES
Harry Thuillier, chairman of Fraser Associates, has a more relaxed view on sales staff than some of the biggest dealers. 'Getting hold of good sales staff isn't a problem for us,' he says. 'We can afford to take on people who are second tier.'
By this, he means the legion of competent and efficient salespeople below the level of the top-class, big earners making a killing for Computacenter or SCC. 'We recruit and train local people and also take on sales staff who have worked at large dealerships but found their margin requirements too restrictive,' he says.
This gives the sales staff a chance to get a bigger picture, away from the short-term sales drive of larger dealers. 'Technical knowledge can be taught, but commercial awareness is impossible to teach. You either have it or you don't.'
The average age of Fraser Associates sales staff is around 26, which is slightly high for the industry. Thuillier believes sales staff must look at all aspects of a customer's business to determine what it needs.
'We are not on the receiving end of poaching from other dealers, and we don't do much poaching ourselves,' he says. Despite this, Fraser Associates does get regular approaches from sales staff at other resellers. Thuillier agrees with other dealers that the real industry recruitment problem is with technical staff.
A shortage of good sales staff can be a problem for niche dealers as well as remote outfits situated far from major centres. Newton Abbott-based reseller All Voice, one of the few UK dealers specialising in voice recognition systems, has had difficulty recruiting sales staff. 'We need people who are able to understand how our voice recognition software works and what voice recognition technology is about,' says sales manager Don Bissell.
VOICE OF REASON
About 80 per cent of All Voice's business involves selling its own Keep it Simple voice software, bundled with IBM PCs. The rest is by conventional reselling to local businesses.
Such was the shortage of sales staff for All Voice that the local BBC station ran a piece on the company's recruitment problems. 'Since then,' says Bissell, 'the situation has vastly improved.' All Voice hires technical people and encourages them to learn sales skills.
In niche computing, such as voice recognition, it's impossible to separate sales and technical staff as the two are closely related. Sales staff also need an awareness of ergonomic and health issues, since part of All Voice's business is with an employment service to provide voice-operated systems to users suffering from limb disorders and repetitive strain injury.
Each system has to be tailored. 'Specialist systems like this are a world away from box-shifting,' says Bissell. 'It's not just about getting a quick sale.'
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