Randy Leeds, president and owner of Thermo-Tite Windows, Port Chester, N.Y., hired from within, in part to assure sales team stability.
Credit: Photo: John Emerson Randy Leeds, president and owner of Thermo-Tite Windows, Port Chester, N.Y., hired from within, in part to assure sales team stability.
Ray Van Buren, sales manager for Thermo-Tite Windows, Port Chester, N.Y.
Ray Van Buren, sales manager for Thermo-Tite Windows, Port Chester, N.Y.

In the fall of 2004, Rick Duggan was dismayed to receive a call from his sales manager announcing that he was resigning — immediately. “He'd been with me 13 months at the time,” says Duggan, president of America's Best Home Remodelers, in Golden, Colo. It was the eighth sales manager Duggan had hired since starting his company 13 years ago.

“This is one of the toughest positions to fill in a home improvement company,” he points out. “A talented manager who can hire, recruit, train, and retain. For someone who can do all that,” Duggan says, “the rewards are phenomenal.”

They are, of course, should you care to earn them. In fact, it was his sales manager's willingness to settle for only a part of those rewards — to earn just a portion of the perks and bonuses built into a fairly elaborate compensation plan — that suggested to Duggan that sooner or later the guy would leave.

There were other signs. The sales manager was loathe to fire anyone, even grossly underperforming employees. In one instance, a new sales hire burned through 28 leads, finally made a sale, then quit the next day. The sales manager spent lots of time at his desk. “He would train [salespeople] in the classroom and then turn them loose on leads by themselves,” Duggan recalls. “He didn't take them out to begin with and show them how to close, and when he was riding with them, he'd never step in to help them close.”

By contrast, the best sales managers are people who “love a lot of action,” according to Grant Mazmanian, president of the Pinnacle Group, a Pennsylvania recruiting and management firm with many clients among home improvement companies. “They like 14 balls in the air. And they're never satisfied.”

Crucial Position Experts agree that once a home improvement company reaches a certain sales threshold — say $3 million or more — it's time to start looking for a sales manager. Sometimes the position includes marketing or other responsibilities. Many, though not all, owners also want their sales manager running leads.

Whatever the job description, the sales manager position is key to the success of your company. Consider the consequences of hiring the wrong person. Your best salespeople leave. You have to get rid of incompetents hired by the sales manager. And you have to hire a new sales manager. All this on top of damaged company morale and the loss of new sales growth.

Yet many owners hire for this crucial position without knowing exactly what they want the sales manager to accomplish, without properly testing or profiling candidates, without subjecting candidates to a thorough interview and background check, and without knowing whether or not their candidate can actually handle the job or will thrive in the company's culture.

Set the Expectations Hiring a sales manager starts with deciding what you want the person to accomplish for you. Want to grow from the $4 million you're doing now to $6 million in three years? Analyze your market: How many homes are there? What's the average age of those homes? What percentage of them may need new roofing, siding, or windows? If you're now selling 300 siding jobs a year at $10,000 per job, can you increase that to 400? Or 450? Do you want to move your sales curve from 5% to, say, 15% or 20% annually?

“Always start off with some set of expectations,” says Gary Ikeman, a principal at Walden Personnel Testing and Consulting, in Montreal. “What do you want out of your business and what do you think you can get? Then hire somebody who can do that.”

Ideally, you also want to hire someone who, in addition to having selling, training, and motivational skills, shares your values. Is that person already one of your employees? Maybe. Many a top salesperson is chomping at the bit to manage. Experts say you shouldn't rule out an internal hire. But just because someone can close at 50% doesn't mean they can teach that skill to other people. Selling and managing are not the same skill. Salespeople, for instance, are often great communicators, but fall down in other areas, such as organizational ability.

“I will say it's few and far between,” says Drew Nietzer, president and CEO of LGH Corp., in Alpharetta, Ga., which includes five gutter protection franchises in as many states, each with a general manager responsible for sales. “There aren't many who can make the transition from selling just for themselves, who can rise above that to train, teach, motivate, and discipline.” Nonetheless, Nietzer says that when seeking to hire branch managers, he starts by looking within.

Ask yourself: What strengths or characteristics does the job require? Make a prioritized list of these traits. A sales manager, for instance, must be a problem solver, a decision maker, and a goal-oriented person. Other characteristics you should seek include drive, work ethic, and level of intelligence. Candidates for sales manager will also possess certain skills as a result of past experience. For instance, the ability to motivate.

“He's got to be a good listener, a good communicator, and a good motivator,” Nietzer says. “Not every salesperson has a great month, and they have to stroke that top group of salespeople and lift the ones on the bottom.”

And that's only part of it. In addition, your candidate should be someone with a broad view of the operation, who can coordinate between marketing and administration. “You want a strategist and a big-picture thinker,” Mazmanian points out. The best sales managers are “people who are multi-taskers by nature,” he says. They're goal-oriented and are used to making decisions and solving problems.