It just about killed Ken Moeslein when one of his best salesmen said he was quitting to go to college. The president of Pittsburgh-based Swingline Windows supported his employee 100% because he places a high value on education. But it didn't make it any easier to contemplate the idea of his leaving. So instead, Moeslein offered him a part-time position as sales manager to lure him back.
“I reached out to him and said, ‘Look, I know you have bills. I need someone to manage the staff,'” Moeslein says. “He has classes three days a week and works awful hard in the meantime. It's worked out really well for us. He's an integral part of our business, and it gives us some flexibility in payroll.”
Payroll savings are a benefit of hiring part-time salespeople, but beyond that, are there really any reasons to use part-timers? Experts aren't sure.
“The only real reason I've ever seen why people do use part-time sales people is the financial one; there are not a lot of other benefits,” says Les McKeown, president and CEO of Deliver the Promise, a California-based employee development consultant. “You can keep part-timers out of the benefit loop historically. There are no productivity or cultural benefits of having a part-time sales force. There are usually only disadvantages.”
Cultural Disconnect McKeown and other sales force experts say the primary drawback is a disconnect from a company's mission and culture. When you're not fully invested in the company's purpose and goals, you're not likely to put forth your best effort.
“People who sign up to be part-timers are at a time in their lives or have a mental attitude where they want to be able to leave,” McKeown says. “There tends to be more employee turnover. That's very costly to a company's productivity and culture.”
Changes in technology and responsibilities for salespeople have made it less realistic for part-timers, he says. Once a good profession for “people who didn't like processes and procedures,” it now requires much more administration.
“In building and contracting industries, there's integration between suppliers and distributors,” McKeown says. “For a part-timer, it's very hard to get up to speed with all that to justify your time involvement.”
From the employer's point of view, the administration time required for part-timers is almost as much as for a full-timer, which gives the part-timer less time to sell.
In addition, McKeown points out, the core competencies have changed dramatically in sales. “If people go into the building industry over 45, they can often be dinosaurs when it comes to technology and don't want to be bothered with it,” he says. “That's OK if you have a super star full-time performer bringing in $2 or 3 million a year. A part-timer can't do that.”
No Plateau But according to Stephan Schiffman, president of DEI Management Group, one of the world's largest sales training companies, part-timers can have a distinct advantage over full-time salespeople.
“Every sales rep you ever hire will plateau at some point,” Schiffman says. “They ramp up, get product knowledge, and plateau out. The advantage to part-timers is they never plateau. It's new to them. You're always bringing in fresh blood. The question is, can you get them started fast enough on the product knowledge?”
It's possible. The question is, is it worth it? Maybe, if the part-timer sees the job as a foot in the door to a full-time position. Otherwise, he probably isn't going to set any records.
“A part-timer follows the course,” Schiffman says. “A full-timer pushes the envelope.”
The question of company culture is a significant one, according to John Hawks, author of The 52-Week Sales Planner and president of Hawks Management Services in Lexington, Ky.
“What I've heard the most concerns about is integrating into the culture; it really doesn't happen with part-timers,” Hawks says. “They usually don't have benefits, so the money they're earning is the extent of the commitment. You have more connection and identification with the company's long-term success with full-timers.”
Make it Work Mark Chaikin, president of The Window Place in Fairfax, Va., doesn't see it that way. “Culture is culture,” he says. “It doesn't matter if you're full- or part-time. If you're not into the culture, you're not here.”
Chaikin's staff includes 16 full-time salespeople and two part-timers. They work within the same guidelines and with the same basic commission schedules.
The part-timers are given smaller sales leads and don't get floor time in the show room, but they can work any lead they generate on their own. He sees the use of part-time sales employees as “a good fill-in” to his regular staff.
“You can't build your operation on part-time, but they do have a role,” Chaikin says. “The business is becoming almost a seven-day-a-week business. Sunday is part of the equation. You need people to cover for you. You can't run people seven days a week.”
Chaikin has experience with two situations in which part-time employment works well — both for the employee and the company. The first is veteran salespeople who would like to cut back on their hours. The other scenario is college students or recent college graduates.
For them, part-time work is a chance to get a feel for the business and the company culture. “We get a chance to see them perform and they get mentoring from senior staff,” he says.
While Moeslein's sales staff is technically full-time, he says he feels there is a “huge blurring” of the line between full and part time for 100% commission staff.
Because he encourages his employees to continue their education, he's seen a need to adjust his scheduling. Employees can take a day off with two days' notice, and the sales staff can essentially set whatever hours make sense for meeting with their customers.
“We ask them to come in in the morning to get their leads, but I don't care what they do after that,” he says.
“We don't say, ‘It's 10 a.m., you have to go do this.' It's a flexible position the way we look at it. I've got one guy who has to go bowling every Tuesday night. He probably only works four days a week, but he's my number one producer. There's a lot to be said for having a happy guy.”
Words of Wisdom If your business does use part-timers, or plans to use them, the experts have some recommendations on how to maximize their value in the company.
The best place to look for part-timers is from your own ranks, McKeown says. Retirees from your company and former full-timers often make the best part-time employees, precisely because they already understand the goals of the business.
“There are people who are part-time only temporarily, such as women coming back into the work-place after having a child, and people who are relocating,” he says.
Part-timers will work best if you make them feel like they're an important part of the organization. Don't skimp on their training and don't leave them out of company activities, such as holiday parties and department meetings.
If you hold sales contests, make sure there's a category in which they can be competitive, such as percentage of sales closed or largest number of new accounts generated.
“In part-time, you have to go out of your way to make meetings happen,” Schiffman says. “The more you can involve them, shepherd them, and mold them into your vision — that is going to get you those successes. Ultimately, it comes down to delivering a product and the pride in working for the company,” he adds. “If you're a commodity, you're easily disposed of. If you share the vision, you're involved.”
Don't short them on commission levels, either, Hawks says. Sometimes there's a tendency to pay the full-timers more, but it's important to have a level playing field. Give them the same percentage per closed sale.
“If there's a huge disparity per closed sale, it's de-motivating for the part-timers,” Hawks says. “You want everyone to have the same opportunities.”
While part-timers rarely receive company benefits, you can offer them flexibility in their schedules. Whether they're college students, stay-at-home parents, or retirees, the ability to carve out their own schedule is valuable to them.
To help his part-timers feel like they're a valuable part of the team, Chaikin includes them in all company events and parties. They're also encouraged to attend department meetings, depending on their schedules.
Because that's often not possible, Chaikin says he meets with them individually about once a month “to keep them in the flow.”
Moeslein's advice to contractors who want to use part-time sales staff is to make sure they have “a commitment and a belief in the company. If they're just looking at it as a way to make a couple of bucks on the side, that's not good.”
The best way to ensure their commitment, he says, is to show them that their contribution is valued. He has a training and orientation for all of his employees, and everyone is included in monthly company meetings.
“They're not treated as part-timers,” he says. “We want them all to know they're an integral part of the business.
“If you don't do that, how can they feel part of the company?” —Pat Curry is a freelance writer in Watkinsville, Ga.