In the beginning, most sales are made by one of the founding members of the company. He or she knows the business, its operations, its true capabilities and other nuances. He or she also is in a good position to suggest internal changes needed for future growth, which becomes more difficult to implement as a sales force expands. With the first salesperson in place and internal procedures honed, you're ready to start expanding your organization.

Taking the time to carefully select new salespeople is very important to your expansion. I have seen many entrepreneurs so intent on getting a sales force assembled that they often select the wrong people. This leads to disaster.

Before starting your search, recognize that there is a correlation between the skills needed to provide service to a client and the degree of sophistication of the product. At one end of the spectrum are commodity, highly competitive products and services. At the other end are sophisticated parts, systems and products that require a high degree of technical knowledge and understanding. As the sophistication of the product or service increases, it becomes more challenging to find the right people.

What type of salespeople are you looking for? Consider these three levels of expertise to hone in on the type of hiring you will need to do:

Commodity sellers: At the commodity, highly competitive end of the spectrum (products like steel, paper, cleaning supplies), price and quality are often considered a given. This leaves customer service and delivery as the determining variables. Basic product/service understanding, courteous personality and the ability to rapidly respond to customers' needs are the prime factors of building long-term customer relationships at this level. People skills, organization skills and the ability to follow through are especially essential skills in sales people catering to this customer group. Any technical skills required can be gained through in-house training.

Solution providers: As products and services become more complex, look for people with more advanced, specific skills. For instance, once you begin to take off-the-shelf products or services and to customize them to suit a customer's specific needs, your sales force needs to be able to understand the client's application and assist in developing a solution. While a sales person may rely on internal engineering and expertise for the ultimate solution, he or she must have the technical skills to be able to understand the application, and effectively and accurately communicate this back and forth between client and internal staff. A sales person's thorough understanding of your technical and production capabilities and those of competitors can assist in developing a customer solution that incorporates your strengths to the detriment of your competitors.

Technical salespeople: We now move to the far end of the spectrum. At this level your ability to deliver timely, on-target solutions is more important than price. The sales representative in this market normally is tapped for technical/engineering input, and to make product use suggestions. He is highly skilled and may have degrees in engineering, pharmacology or discipline that represents your industry. He also may be expected to make formal presentations to groups of people at the customer level, and often is considered a de facto member of the customer's team. An example here is the design and development of an automated system to produce and package drugs. The sales person is involved in all phases of development from design through prototype, test and evaluation, as well as concluding with full-scale production. Input is provided each step of the way. The sales person has an engineering background and is versed in a multitude of technical disciplines, as well as an understanding of various FDA regulations.

As you begin to build your sales organization, take a moment to put yourself in your customers' shoes. What attributes would you want in the person sitting across the desk to help build confidence, reliability and trust in a company? Keep those thoughts in mind as you look at and interview candidates for your sales team. Remember, as your company grows this person may be the only personal link between you and your customer. Choose well.

Coming next month — Use of manufacturers' representatives and sales lead development strategies.