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seal the deal

When dealing with salespeople, ‘coach them well, give them good direction, but don’t breathe down their necks,’ advises Jocelyn Berard, vice-president of leadership and business solutions with Global Knowledge.

For many small businesses, ensuring a steady flow of revenue falls to the sales team. The challenge, then, is to first attract, then retain, top-notch talent in the face of competition.

While there is no shortage of salespeople to choose from, there is a definite dearth of top-notch people who not only can step in and quickly get results but will stay and grow with the business. Identifying, recruiting, and retaining superstars can make the difference between a small business that stays small and one that grows into a Canadian success story.

"I would say that it is tougher to find them" than keep them, said James Palmer, vice-president of sales and marketing with the Great Little Box Company Ltd., who supervises a team of 14 salespeople in Western Canada and Washington state.

The company, which is based in Richmond, B.C., started out as a three-person operation in 1982 and has blossomed into a $40-million business with about 250 employees.

Mr. Palmer's approach to talent acquisition is straightforward: He considers every résumé that lands on his desk. "Whether we are hiring or not, I meet with them. I always have a stash of good people." The company's top sales rep, for example, is someone he sat down for a preliminary meeting with three years before he actually hired her.

The company has a well-defined picture of who it wants. In Mr. Palmer's case, the ideal sales rep has to have the right attitude, first and foremost.

"Instant likability is critically important," he said. "Someone who has very strong questioning skills, and someone who is a very good listener. I don't look for presentation people. In our world and in the current sales world, nobody cares about presentations."

Experience is important, but not critical, with sales training and three to five years of experience proving to be the company's sweet spot. "What we find often is that someone with 20 years of sales experience doesn't necessarily have 20 years of good sales experiences and their [bad] habits are harder to break," Mr. Palmer said.

The corrugated box maker is meticulous in its hiring, conducting seven interviews for each candidate. In the sales department, that means applicants are interviewed not just by Mr. Palmer but by potential colleagues.

"Somebody who is trying to not be themselves has a very difficult time doing that in front of seven people," he said. "Anyone who is trying to be dishonest can't keep it up through there. We find red flags."

The process has paid off. The average tenure of Great Little Box's sales team is seven years. "If you are a good company, you listen to your staff, you pay fairly, they are not that hard to keep," he says.

The company regularly opens its books to employees, discusses its business performance and offers many of the progressive perks of larger employers.

It also has one hiring advantage with which many companies can't compete: It is regularly cited among the best employers in Canada.

"We do get a lot of unsolicited résumés throughout the year" as a result, Mr. Palmer said.

He takes a fairly hands-off approach to managing and motivating his sales team, a strategy that one expert said is effective with creative and independent-minded employees.

"Salespeople like a good level of autonomy," said Jocelyn Berard, vice-president of leadership and business solutions with Global Knowledge, an international business skills training company.

"Coach them well, give them good direction, but don't breathe down their necks," said the Toronto-based training executive.

"They are a breed of people who say, 'Let me loose, let me perform, pay me.'" Sales types are generally more willing to embrace risk, he says, as evidenced by the degree to which their salaries can rise (or not) based on their performance.

They also do not appreciate a lot of administrative work. "In that way they are a lot like entrepreneurs," Mr. Berard said.

Reducing such paperwork also makes sound business sense, he added. "You are taking away the time that they have. The best thing they can do is to be out there talking to clients, not filling out forms."

Great Little Box's Mr. Palmer sees his people as "franchise owners" who run their own business because they receive performance-based pay. He gives them the latitude to structure their days the way they see fit.

"On the bigger level I need to make sure that it is an engaging workplace, that people have opportunity and that their concerns are listened to. And secondly I have to find out what motivates individuals," Mr. Palmer said.

Great Little Box's approach is supported by an American Express Canada small business study. It found that money is important to attracting and retaining staff, but the flexibility that smaller companies offer can prove to be a key advantage to winning the battle for top talent.

The study also found that flexible hours were as powerful a lure as higher pay. Also attractive were share or stock options and better health benefits.

With the aging of the baby boomer generation, the stakes are high for owners of small to mid-sized businesses, said Athena Varmazis, vice-president and general manager of small business services with American Express Canada in Markham, Ont.

"Almost half of small business owners anticipate facing a shortage of qualified job applicants as a result of existing employees retiring over the next five years."

While there is concern among those business owners, they have not done much to act. Nearly 70 per cent said they had established no programs to replace key staff now approaching retirement.

By the numbers

74 per cent: Percentage of Canadian small business owners who believe it is getting harder to find good employees

46 per cent: Number who anticipate a labour shortage in the coming years.

39 per cent: Percentage who believe it will be difficult to replace retiring employees

69 per cent: Share who have no plans to deal with this issue:

23 per cent: Percentage who expect to replace a significant proportion of their employees over the next few years.