Credit: Illustration: Chris Gash

Custom Remodelers, of Lino Lakes, Minn., once hired a salesperson who didn't exactly bowl over owner Craig Carpenter. The new hire seemed timid and offered an indifferent handshake. “I told my sales manager, ‘I hope you know what you're doing,'” Carpenter recalls. He did. That hire became one of the top guns among the company's 35 salespeople. “He ran into the right customers early in the game and got some recognition and confidence,” Carpenter says.

The moral of the story: Never judge a book by its cover, whether assessing a sales rep's potential or the relative value of a lead. In either case, there are opportunities to be pleasantly surprised. But, most home improvement contractors say they've learned from experience to expect only moderate gains in any salesperson's productivity, which depends as much on personal motivation as on any amount or kind of training.

That training does raise the bar, however, is something that all the contractors interviewed for this article agree on. Each has consistent and ongoing classroom and field training in place, and all regularly measure sales reps' performance. “We meet with our salespeople to ensure that they are meeting company standards as they relate to overall sales,” says Charlie McCurry, director of sales for S&K Roofing, Siding and Windows, in Eldersburg, Md., whose salespeople generate anywhere from $1 million to $4 million each. At S&K, a closing ratio under 40% of leads issued is unacceptable, and sellers are expected to self-generate half a dozen leads per week.

Contractors say that training can help them to spot productivity-inhibiting patterns in salespeople's behavior. Leaving aside the usual suspects — complacency, family problems, substance abuse — salespeople typically are less productive when they shortcut their company's selling system to get through a call more quickly.

One such shortcut is the seller's inability, or unwillingness, to listen. “God gave each of us one mouth and two ears, so we should listen twice as much as we talk,” says Bob Priest, president of Burr Roofing, Siding & Windows, in Stratford, Conn. Tom Casey, sales manager for Home Town Restyling, in Hiawatha, Iowa, agrees that inadequate listening skills can be a seller's biggest deficiency. Some reps spend so much time showing off their expertise that they never find out what the homeowner actually wants.

“If a salesperson is struggling, it could be because he's not developing a relationship with the customer the moment he gets [to the home],” observes Phil Wiley, general sales manager for ImproveIt Home Remodeling, in Columbus, Ohio, who is writing a book about in-home selling. “By building rapport, the customer will be more open to what the salesperson has to say. But if you're just doing an infomercial for two hours, then you're not doing your job.”

Of course, that presupposes that the salesperson ever gets inside a customer's house in the first place. Sellers reduce their productivity, company owners say, by picking and choosing which leads to pursue. And with home values declining and general economic conditions tenuous, such selectivity can really hurt.

“We've had a record number of leads last year, but more people are putting jobs off,” says Eric Kent, owner of Archadeck of Charlotte, in N.C. Still, Kent says that his eight salespeople don't always pursue the leads the company provides them. He recalls one homeowner who called the company complaining that she couldn't get a salesperson to come out to her house for a deck rail she wanted installed — a relatively small job. “So I went myself,” says the owner, who parlayed that visit into a $10,000 brick fence installation.

“Until two or three years ago, our salespeople were spoiled by strong demand,” notes Bill Conforti, owner of Siding-1 Windows-1 Exteriors, in Chicago. “But now there are a lot of challenges: more competition, more companies with misleading ads. It's so tough to get leads these days, and if I was still selling, I'd go on every damn lead I got.”

STARTS WITH TALENT As Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” But, for salespeople, that last 20% is the big challenge and it reveals exactly where their true skills reside. At Mid-Atlantic Waterproofing, headquartered in Laurel, Md., the 75 salespeople who support the company's six offices close an average of 20% of their issued leads and generate between $75,000 and $125,000 each in sales per month. But one of the company's “superstar” salespeople closes more than 45% of his leads and does between $250,000 and $300,000 per month. “It's just talent,” says Charles Levine, Mid-Atlantic Waterproofing's marketing director. “He sticks to the program, and he's easygoing.” The other sales reps, Levine says, need constant training, “going over leads one by one.”

But many contractors are convinced that training will increase a salesperson's productivity only so much. Chris Edwards, president of Total Remodeling, in Union, N.J., thinks this is the inevitable result of a natural-selection process. “In the last two years, we in the industry have kept our best producers and trimmed off the less productive or least coachable. That's left us with people with a standard that we're not likely to impact significantly.” And Carpenter, who wrestled in school, sees analogies in that sport for salespeople who “can learn all of the moves, but some guys are just better athletes than others.”

Talent, as defined by contractors, can be a state of mind, and the common thread among big producers “is that they think they can,” Carpenter says. When salespeople fall short of expectations, it's often because they have psyched themselves out. “What is it that Yogi Berra said ... ‘Half the game is 90% mental,'” Priest says.

David Normandin, executive vice president with the Boston window contractor Newpro, is convinced that most productivity problems “are in [salespeople's] heads. They're reading too much about the bad economy, and it gets to them.” Normandin likes to remind his salespeople that the customer called Newpro, not the other way around. “So they're going to spend money, either with us or with someone else.”