Credit: Illustration: Isabelle Cardinal

K-Designers' 11 branches are supported by 160 sales reps, and Mike Burgess, vice president of sales for one of the home improvement industry's biggest companies, headquartered outside Sacramento in Gold River, Calif., says he wouldn't want to lose 90% of them. But since holding onto top salespeople boils down to providing them with new opportunities to make an above-average income, Burgess is convinced that the right way to ensure this is to provide “above-average training, so they have a higher probability of coming out successfully” at appointments. The more deals they close, the more likely they are to stay, and the better trained they are, the more likely they are to close.

Conventional wisdom has long held that salespeople go where the leads are. “If you don't give them leads, they aren't going to be here,” says Brent Jarvis, sales manager at Renaissance Exteriors, in Maple Grove, Minn., which has 18 reps, 10 of whom have been with the company for at least three years. But as business conditions soften and the lead flow slows at many companies, contractors must find other ways to keep their best reps from straying. A growing number of companies see a correlation between the depth and breadth of training that salespeople receive and their longevity.

Champion Window, with 400 salespeople across its network of dealerships, recently added a national training manager who conducts monthly sessions at the company's Cincinnati headquarters. Thirty to forty reps typically attend. Half of the 18 reps at State Roofing, in Monroe, Wash., have been with the company for at least five years. State Roofing's general sales manager, Mike Farina, attributes their tenure in part to the cross-training that the company provides its salespeople on the multiple product lines it installs. State Roofing also maintains two field training managers. “There are three types of salespeople,” Farina says. “Stars, the stable, and the challenged. But we can take a medium salesperson and make him productive by pairing him with one of our vets.”

Burgess thinks training is imperative not just for holding on to top sellers, but also because “the customer is evolving all the time and the Internet is a big influence.” All of K-Designers' hires, regardless of their experience, go through week-long training classes, then another week of field training. By the time K-Designers sends a rep into the field with leads, it will have invested $8,000 to $12,000 on four to six weeks of training. The company also conducts ongoing training through sales meetings it holds four days a week — almost unheard of in an industry where one sales meeting a week is the norm.

BARRING THE DOOR No one laments losing a mediocre salesperson, and even good reps are usually replaceable. But when top salespeople leave, their bosses like to know why, and the reasons vary widely. Leads are a major factor. “I just lost a 20-year rep who went to a basement finishing company where he could get four leads a day,” says Rhonda Love, director of sales for Renewal by Andersen of Colorado Springs and Denver. Love nevertheless remains unconvinced that having salespeople run three or four leads a day is productive. (Her company has 27 reps whose average tenure is four years, and roughly half generate more than $1 million in annual sales each.)

Other contractors say they've lost top sellers to burnout from travel, or because the salespeople can't (or won't) adjust to shifts in the company's business model. When Dial One Window Replacement Specialists, in Santa Ana, Calif. — which has one salesperson with 21 years' tenure, another with 18 — switched to Renewal by Andersen's program three years ago, that move exposed three salespeople's “apathetic” and “indifferent” work habits. “Salespeople have to be willing to accept the direction that the company is going,” says Dial One president Charlie Gindele.

Contractors face a more difficult retention challenge when top salespeople decide that the direction they want to go in is to start their own business. “Some are hell-bent on doing this,” says Jeffrey Fick, a vice president with Baltimore-based Fick Bros. Roofing & Exterior Remodeling. “They look at the prices they set and think there's a lot of money to be made.” Burgess says that salespeople lighting out on their own “don't have a clue how complicated this business is to run.” What these salespeople fail to understand, explains Hugh Harris, CEO of Dixie HomeCrafters, in Chamblee, Ga., is that “everyone is drawing from the same pool” of remodeling-minded customers.

OFFERING WORK PLACE STABILITY Most contractors agree that salespeople will stay wherever they believe they have the best chance of increasing what they can earn. But, says Camille Saleh, Champion Window's sales manager, “they have to feel comfortable in the job.” Saleh identifies about 35% of Champion's reps as being top performers, and all of them are motivated to stay on top. “But the whole atmosphere of the workplace has to be positive,” he says, and that includes helping salespeople manage their time better so they can spend more of it with their families.

“The stablest salespeople are the ones with stability in their lives,” observes Love. And in the workplace, that stability manifests itself in the “caring beyond requirement” that Love extends to her reps. “When they are out in the field, I'm available. And reps need someone they can vent their frustrations to without retribution.”

In that same vein, Farina says it's important for salespeople to sense they are being listened to, especially in State Roofing's system, which doesn't allow reps to qualify or confirm their own leads. Reps also need to know they aren't being undermined. “I hired one guy recently who said he was always competing with his boss,” Farina says, adding that State Roofing offers its reps the stability of a 40-year-old company that did $19 million in sales last year and has a 50,000-customer database.