Right culture can keep workers from wandering

Friday, September 1st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Any word-association game might join "salesman" and "traveling."

But few sales workers go door to door these days, and they certainly aren't all men. Still, sales reps have a reputation of job-hopping as they look for the next hot product.

It doesn't have to be that way, sales career and compensation consultants say.

"If the company treats the salespeople like mercenaries, then that salesperson is going to continually shop the market to sell their services," said Don James, who runs the consulting firm Human Dimensions Inc. and is part-time marketing instructor at Southern Methodist University and the University of North Texas. He has worked in sales for 28 years.

Mr. James says companies can build a committed sales force if they focus on job satisfaction and a sense of pride as much as they do on salaries, bonuses and prizes.

A study from Aon Consulting Inc. found that an "organization's ability to create a sense of pride and spirit in an organization" was the most important factor in keeping workers on the job.

The survey of 1,800 employees in the United States found that workers who made the most money, more than $100,000 a year, were not the most committed to their companies. The most loyal employees were those who made between $65,000 and $74,999 annually.

"We have tended to look at a lot of salespeople as only wanting extrinsic rewards, but there is a way we can use intrinsic rewards as well," said Aon senior vice president Carl D. Jacobs.

Mr. Jacobs said the current job market has encouraged companies to treat their sales employees like guns for hire. But that mentality can carry high costs, he said.

"It costs a lot of money to hire and train salespeople," Mr. Jacobs said. "If you are the type of business that has long-term customer relationships, they don't want to keep seeing new faces."

He cited one of his clients, a mortgage company, as an example of how to build a committed workforce.

The mortgage industry is notorious for high turnover, but "this company just doesn't lose people," Mr. Jacobs said.

"Their compensation is acceptable, but it's not the highest in the industry," he said.

Instead, the company provides a good support system for its sales workers – providing everything from training to the latest in customer relationship-management software – and listens when they relay customers' concerns, Mr. Jacobs said.

Sales & Marketing Management Magazine cited other winning strategies in compiling its recent list of the nation's top 25 sales forces.

One of the top 25, Northwestern Mutual Financial Services, had less turnover in 1999 than any year since 1988, and it's a company known for its veteran sales force.

"We look for people who want to make a career with us," said Al Angell, a Dallas agent who has worked with the company since 1968 and who helps recruit and train other local agents.

"The way you get a loyal policy owner is you find the right person and sell that person in the right way and then service the person well," he said. "If that's true, then the parallel for the general agent is you find the right person and train the person well."

Mr. Angell said Northwestern keeps its sales reps because it gives them the space to develop their own business and provides support when needed.

Northwestern's agents are the only people who can sell its products, and that policy demonstrates company loyalty, said agency development vice president Dick Richter, who has been with the company for about 30 years.

He criticized insurance companies that now sell their policies over the Internet or through brokers.

"If the company is selling their products in other ways, the sales worker will ask, 'Why should I maintain my loyalty?'" Mr. Richter said.

But Mr. Jacobs said workers still must look out for themselves when making career decisions. It's not always best, he said, to stay with one company for an entire career.

"Loyalty, is staying with the organization while you are effective," he said. "Some salespeople can work for 10 years and some can be with the organization forever."