The Right Staff

Sales agencies are all about service. They don’t sell anything – they represent – so a sales agency’s biggest asset is its personnel. But as with all industries, hiring a good team is crucial to success.
The rise of the sales agent in the hardware industry can be linked to the growth of Bunnings. A large part of the Bunnings’ business model centres around cutting costs so that those savings can be passed onto consumer, with a little extra margin skimmed from the top to add to profits. So rather than employ extra staff to stack shelves and ensure that stock orders mirror in-store inventory levels, Bunnings insists that its suppliers do those jobs for them. How those suppliers incorporate that extra cost into their pricing is then their problem.

For suppliers to independent hardware stores, contracting a sales agency reduces the number of sales representatives they need to employ. The independent hardware stronghold is in the regional areas of Australia, where Bunnings is only beginning to penetrate. But those regional stores are located miles apart, in locations that aren’t always economical to service. Enter the sales agency, which will often have a sales force to call on in remote locations in times of need.

Sales agencies reduce the number of full-time staff needed on a supplier’s payroll. That, however, doesn’t stop some sales agencies from recruiting full-time staff in preference to part-timers or casuals.

“I prefer full-time workers as they are more dedicated to the work,” says Paul Balsillie, Managing Director for Sales Maximizer and a 10-year veteran in the agency business. “Part-timers could be people who are looking for a full-time job, but are taking the part-time job to make ends meet. As soon as they get that full-time job, you’re looking for another part-timer. Either that or they’re already financially independent and they are taking the job just to keep themselves busy.

“If things get too hard, they’ll just leave too. Every time someone leaves, you have to spend time and money training someone new, so I try to avoid part-timers as much as possible.”

That view is not necessary echoed across the board. Most sales agencies surveyed by Australian Hardware Journal like their staff members to be a mix of full-time, part-time and casual, largely because of the demands of the job. “Your model needs to be flexible, as it’s an ever-changing playing surface,” says Malcolm Rowley from Strikeforce Alliance. “We are called on by our partners to complete projects that require implementation in under 24 hour’s notice. It may be a ‘surge’ project in launching a new product into the independent channel that is seasonal and needs coverage to this market in a week. For example, one of our partners asked us to do a relabelling task in over 200 stores with one day’s notice.

“Each day brings challenges, but with how our model is set up with our Project/Relay teams separate from our Field Sales team, this ensures we have things covered.” “Our preference for Territory Sales Managers is full time. However, to provide clients the flexibility they require, we find casual staff best for Sales Merchandisers,” explains Lincoln Brokerage Managing Director, Gordon Sinclair, who has traditionally serviced the outdoor leisure and garden categories, with clients such as Seasol, Fiskars and Mr Fothergills.

“It comes down to the ‘best person’ for the job, not whether that person is full time, part time or casual. In today’s world, the best person may only want to work 20 hours per week, so we tailor work for that person if we want the best person.”

“It’s all about attitude,” adds A-Team Merchandising’s Lyn Coghlan. “We take a lot of pride in the fact that once we gain a client, they stay with us for the long haul, and we appoint staff members who back this up. “It’s not rocket science. We look for people with a ‘can-do attitude’ who are in for the long haul and get on well with people.”

Being a good people person, it seems, is an essential ingredient in making a good sales agent. Having a hardware background is an advantage as it means they can hit the ground running or have built up a network of contacts. However, having the right ‘attitude’, as Lyn suggests, is more important.

“We place a strong emphasis on employing staff who fit our culture,” she says.

CROSSMARK’s Brendon Walker agrees. “We look for employees who embody our core values of respect, service excellence, appreciation, team collaboration and honour,” he says. “CROSSMARK’s employees come from variety of backgrounds with a range of professional experience. While relevant previous experience is always highly regarded, fulfilling our values is essential.”

“We truly believe sales people are born not made, so finding someone with specific product or industry knowledge is secondary to finding the required personality traits,” continues Gordon Sinclair. “It is easier to train someone in the technical aspects of a product range or retailer system than to turn a naturally conservative or technically based person into a strong sales performer and problem solver.” “The hardware industry has its nuances,” says PBA’s Paul Baxter, who services clients such as ASSA ABLOY, Boral Masonry and Henkel along East Coast Australia. “To work in Bunnings stores, you really are at a disadvantage if you have not had previous experience with that distributor. The same goes with independents. If one has had prior dealings with – or was employed by – an independent group, the understanding of their processes, way of thinking and dealing with their business is there and can very much fast-track our team’s ability to provide meaningful and effective service to the customer and client.

“Being friendly and a smart operator are terms that come to mind [as preferred personality traits]. But those who show an understanding of the industry, a commitment to providing excellence in service, a willingness to do the ‘little extra’ and present as a great communicator will get the nod [from us].”

Sales experience, likability and keenness are all requirements in a potential sales agent, but a solid and stable resume is another prerequisite. Job hopping is a no-no.

“If they (job hunters) send in a resume and they’ve had sixteen jobs in five years, that proves they are either continually getting sacked or continually quitting. Either way, I don’t want them,” says Paul Balsillie. As for finding good sales staff, word of mouth is universally accepted as the preferred method, with recruitment companies used and online ads on employment websites or social media outlets supplementing the mix. Still, there can be problem areas, with mining towns such as Kalgoorlie or Mt Isa always difficult places to find workers because of the inflated salaries that industry is prepared to pay, particularly during the current mining boom where specific skills are in short supply.

Paul Baxter also believes coastal areas can be difficult for hanging onto staff because of the transience of their populations. Canberra is another problem area due to lucrative government positions luring people away from retail industries.

In the end, the problem of recruiting and maintaining good staff is something that all sales agencies experience. How they fit into that company’s work ethic and mindset is what matters most.
MD

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