When to Hire a Sales Consultant
Michael Davis knew it was time for a change. Although he had hired two salespeople, handling sales was still taking up most of his workday. That left precious little time for Davis to focus on other aspects of running his business, Savid Technologies, an IT security consultancy in Chicago. "I knew I could close deals," says Davis. "But I didn't know how to build and manage a sales team." He decided to hire a sales consultant.
The topic of sales consultants gets mixed reactions from entrepreneurs. Some CEOs swear by them, while others dismiss them as snake oil peddlers. Certainly, if you type the term sales consultant into Google, you will find thousands of men and women who claim to be experts on the art of selling. Although some are worth their salt, finding a good sales consultant requires a lot of shopping around.
Davis talked to four consulting companies before finding one he liked, Accountability Partners in Aurora, Illinois. The clincher: The CEO and lead consultant of Accountability Partners, J.R. Samples, used to be the head of sales at one of Savid Technologies's competitors. "I knew he understood our business," says Davis, who agreed to pay Accountability Partners an hourly fee and an upfront retainer of $5,000. Samples worked with Davis on mapping out a guide to sales operations, an 80-page document that details how the company makes money and how sales commissions fit into that structure. The document also lays out a variety of customer scenarios and suggests ways to approach a sale. "That document became our training tool," says Davis, who, with the help of his consultant, hired three new salespeople. Davis ended up paying about $80,000 for a year's worth of consulting services -- money he says was well spent. In the two years since he started working with Samples, annual revenue at Savid Technologies has jumped about 400 percent, to $2.5 million. And Davis no longer needs to close every deal himself.
Hiring a sales consultant can also be beneficial for small-business owners who find themselves in the role of company pitchman but lack sales experience. That's why Don Kennedy, owner of ProMaster Home Repair & Handyman, a Cincinnati-based remodeling and home-repair business, hired one. Kennedy, who had been an Air Force pilot for 10 years before buying his business, handles sales for the six-person company. But his close rate was abysmal. "I had great communication and managerial skills," says Kennedy. "But I didn't know the first thing about selling or what a sales process even was."
Kennedy scoured Cincinnati looking for a sales coach. But many of the consultants offered what he calls "cookie-cutter solutions." Some charged as much as $30,000 for a three-month class, he says. Kennedy didn't have the money or time for that. "I had real problems I needed to solve," he says. "I couldn't wait until I got to Module 14 or got my diploma before making some changes. I wanted someone willing to get their hands dirty inside my business."
Eventually, Kennedy asked fellow business owners for referrals and, after getting a few names and numbers, found Mike Roth of Sandler Training by Roth & Associates. Roth was willing to mentor Kennedy at his office. He helped Kennedy improve his phone closing skills and set up customer relationship management, or CRM, software. Roth also encouraged Kennedy to raise prices. "Mike worked with me on improving the skills and tools I didn't have," says Kennedy. "He didn't waste time on the stuff I was already good at." After paying Roth about $12,000 for a year of training, Kennedy has his close rate up to 60 percent, from just 17 percent prior to working with Roth. Revenue at ProMaster has increased from $220,000 to $700,000 a year.
Consultants can also help with managing technology like CRM software. That's what prompted Stefanos Damianakis to hire a consultant. Damianakis, CEO of Netrics, a Princeton, New Jersey -- based company that makes software for cleaning up data records, was having problems with Salesforce. His sales team was spending more time updating the information in the software than selling. "We became so obsessed with updating data," says Damianakis. "People were telling me, 'Our CRM is getting in the way of doing my job.' " Damianakis turned to a local firm, Princeton Sales Partners, for help.
Many companies struggle with these sorts of issues, says Jim Lewis, founder of Princeton Sales Partners. Lewis taught the salespeople at Netrics how to track only the most relevant client information in Salesforce and how to use the software to track one another's progress. Lewis also showed Damianakis how to use Salesforce to spot accounts stuck in the pipeline, as well as identify salespeople who were struggling, so that they could be coached. "If, say, one person is having trouble getting access to more people," says Lewis, "you can work with them by using role playing or other techniques rather than just telling them to make more calls." After the changes, sales at Netrics increased about 20 percent in 2009, leading to its acquisition by TIBCO, a software company, this year. "Now, we're doing less busy work and selling more," says Damianakis.
Like many consultants, sales experts typically consider themselves done after they have made their recommendations. Unfortunately, turning those recommendations into reality can be time consuming, particularly if sales isn't a founder's forte. If you need more hands-on assistance, a sales consultant may not be the best fit, says Shirley Balarezo, CEO of Tone Software, which makes software that lets companies monitor the use and cost of their digital phone systems. Last year, her Anaheim, California -- based company acquired a product called Streamline, a VoIP monitoring application. Her 10-person sales team was presented with a new set of products to sell. Balarezo also wanted her salespeople to start selling the new products overseas.
Although the team needed help, Balarezo was reluctant to hire a sales consultant. "I had worked with sales consultants in the past, and they write beautiful reports and research," she says. "But we were always left with the problem of how to follow through on their recommendations." Balarezo wanted someone who could lead the charge.
So she decided to hire a temporary sales executive. After hearing about Cerius Interim Executive Solutions, a firm in Irvine, California, Balarezo hired James Obermayer, a seasoned sales executive, on an interim basis. Obermayer stepped into the role of vice president of sales and marketing, if only temporarily. "I'm getting a professional I can count on to execute our plans immediately," says Balarezo. She has charged Obermayer with developing a sales process, as well as accurate sales forecasting and tracking. She also plans to begin looking for a full-time replacement for him, someone whom Obermayer can train.
Until then, Balarezo is including Obermayer in various company meetings to give him a broader understanding of Tone's objectives and challenges. She wants Obermayer to help other departments, such as engineering and marketing, make changes to help boost sales. "If you don't give this person some weight to make changes," she says, "then all you've done is hire another consultant."
For more on sales -- including how to hire and compensate a sales team, how to use online lead generation, and how to master the art of cold calling -- go to www.inc.com/sales.
Darren Dahl is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine, which he has written for since 2004. He also works as a collaborative writer and editor and has partnered with several high-profile authors. Dahl lives in Asheville, North Carolina.