There are as many different relationships between CEOs and their sales forces as there are businesses in America. But there are right ways and wrong ways, good relationships and better ones. "What works for Rhino doesn't mean that's the way it should work for other companies," says Ted Castle, president of Rhino Foods Inc. in Burlington, Vt. And while Castle feels comfortable in his relationship with his sales force now, he acknowledges he may feel differently five years from now.
Interviews with Castle, Gewirtz and others revealed special and diverse relationships and challenges that business owners face with their sales forces.
Gewirtz has just five employees. All are considered sales reps, though just one has the title. In a small shop, he finds it's best to be flexible. After offering an aggressive bonus for a new publication that missed its opening date through no fault of the sales rep, Gewirtz felt obliged to partly compensate the employee despite the revenue shortfall. But when reps misdirect their energies, Gewirtz notes, "I'm hell to be around."
Castle, with 15 years and 75 employees in the specialty-desserts business, relies on his director of sales and marketing to sell Rhino's biggest line, its ice cream products. He also maintains a nationwide network of 15 brokers to push smaller lines such as chocolate chip ice cream sandwiches, bakery good and cheesecakes. "You really have to work closely with your director of sales and marketing," Castle says.
Max Carey, CEO of Corporate Resource Development Inc., has 40 employees in Atlanta, about half of whom he calls "consultants." These salespeople are governed by a detailed process Carey has developed to maintain control over price and profit. "The biggest mistake made by sales forces in general is that they lose control of the sale very early on," Carey says. "What we've learned is often it's not the behavior of the sales force, it's the design of the sale."
Michael Marchesano, president and CEO of BPA International, the New York City-based circulation auditing firm, has a far-flung network of regional salespeople across the United States, in London and in Canada. They report to his senior vice president of marketing, who reports in turn to Marchesano. He relies heavily on his marketing managers for new business development, communicating with sales reps through e-mail and meeting his reps as a group no more than twice a year.
Each of these business owners agrees that sales results are the paramount responsibility of their sales staffs. But they also rely on their reps for additional help. Castle depends on his reps and brokers-and on his own personal interaction with sales calls-for intelligence on how the dessert foods industry is developing. Gewirtz expects his salespeople to take the closing off his hands so he can concentrate 60 percent to 70 percent of his time on business development.
Each entrepreneur faces his own sales challenges, despite the similarities. "In an economy that's going strong, making sure [salespeople] don't get picked up by another company" is a major effort, according to BPA's Marchesano, reflecting a similar concern about getting and keeping good help expressed by Gewirtz: "It's proving to be a real bear."
"The biggest thing is the focus," says Castle, of organizing a far-flung sales force. "[Focusing on] what business we are in, so we don't try to be everything to all people, and yet delight the people we do serve." For that, the CEO is the indispensable person, Carey believes: "I don't think the entrepreneurial CEO ever fully could or should delegate the sales function out of his office.... Nothing else in the economy happens until someone leans across the table, shakes hands and makes the deal."