Marilyn Ounjian explains how she keeps tabs on her salesforce using a simple written report

Marilyn Ounjian knew her company was doomed the day she hocked her diamond engagement ring to pay off mounting debts. Today, nine years later, the owner and chief executive officer of Careers USA, a $20-million company that was on the 1988 Inc. 500, Ounjian remembers the humbling disintegration of her first company as if it were yesterday. "I had overzealous expansion plans," she admits, and that forced her to beg creditors for extended terms. Then she laid off all 20 employees and retreated from the plush office tower to her dining room table. "I was utterly devastated," she recalls. "It's an experience I've moved beyond but I'll never forget."

That is exactly why Ounjian's antennae shot up when she saw trouble brewing two years ago in her second business. On the face of it, Careers, a personnel-placement service based in Philadelphia, looked more than healthy, with 23% growth and 3 new offices in 1988. Behind that good news, however, lurked turnover of nearly 50%, a 40% loss in repeat business, and shrinking profit margins in many offices. "I thought, My God, please don't let that happen again." The culprit, Ounjian decided, was her own success. With Careers sprawled over 21 offices in nine states, she visited some branches as seldom as twice a year. Used to being on-site, patting salespeople on the back or egging them on, she worried about her long-distance management. "I'd lost the touch," she recalls. "I couldn't keep track of our clients anymore."

Eager to regain control, she crafted a system of written reports. The most treasured of all is the outside-sales summary. Receiving them by fax daily -- "FedEx is too slow" -- Ounjian pores over the forms searching for trends, anomalies, and discrepancies. "Financial statements tell me the past, but there's not much I can do about that," she says. "I want to know what's happening now. Salespeople are on the front lines. If they're not growing, we're not growing."

Below, Ounjian prioritizes the items on the daily flash reports, but first she offers these tips:

* "Simplicity is key. One piece of paper tells it all. I don't ask for anything on this sheet that's not absolutely necessary. Location isn't important, for example. All I want to know is that they use time efficiently, which I get from the time in, time out column."

* "Sure, there's room for bullshit in these forms, but after you've seen enough of them, it's easy to spot. Plus I'm a salesperson myself, so I know the games."

* "Even though this information is eventually entered into a computer, I ask for the handwritten version faxed to me daily. I encourage salespeople to take 20 seconds to fill it out directly after the call is made, when thoughts are fresh. If they wait until the end of the day to enter the call into a computer, impressions would be stale, if not forgotten."

Priority #1 -- Type of Call & Rating of Customer
"What type of calls are my salespeople making? I don't bother with the totals at the bottom. I just scan the mix of cold calls, appointments, and presentations. Most client contact begins with a cold call aimed at finding out the name of the contact and the sales volume that client might generate for us. It's superb when a salesperson persuades a cold call to watch a presentation on the spot.

"This [one particular] salesperson worries me because she's got a lot of cold calls but no appointments. Every week she never has enough appointments. Salespeople need to hit a weekly quota: 50 cold calls, 20 appointments, two lunches, and four presentations. If they all do that, then I know I can count on a weekly 10% sales increase for the office.

"Are they spending time with revenue producers? I don't want to see a B- or C-rated client, who produces annual revenues for Careers of less than $75,000, being taken to lunch too frequently. I want to know the lunch expense will be recouped by fees generated."

Priority #2 -- Comments

"This is bullshit, plain and simple [ "Always happy with Careers temps. Calls us first. Has nothing today."]. She records gushing comments detailing glowing meetings and orders yet to come week after week. I get suspicious when I see too much of 'Always happy with Careers, will come to us first, but has nothing now.' This guy has been a star client, yet suddenly we're not getting orders. I don't buy it. If they think we're so great, why aren't we getting orders?"

Priority #3 -- Time In, Time Out

"Cold calls should take only 5 minutes; appointments should last no less than 45 minutes. I don't want salespeople just to get their foot in the door. They should get their whole body in. What's the quality of the calls? If an appointment lasts only 10 minutes, that might mean a salesperson is intimidated and rushes the call. How much time is spent between calls? I've seen salespeople waste three hours driving. That's no good. Calls should be near one another."

Priority #4 -- Telephone Number
"Phone numbers and contact names allow headquarters to do monthly quality-control spot checks to see how the client is doing and whether there are any problems. Last year one salesperson was handing in stellar reports, but her orders were declining. So we called her clients to try to uncover the problem. The first call, we asked for the contact listed and were told he hadn't worked with the company for six months. We called the next contact only to hear no such person existed at the company -- and so it went through all her forms. Still not sure what was up, a manager trailed her through a day. Sure enough, she came into the office from 8:30 to 9:00, then left to 'make her sales calls' but instead went directly home. At 4:00 she returned to the office with a full report of all the clients she'd seen that day."

Priority #5 -- Client Name

"Have they rated the client's revenue potential correctly? Sometimes I know the client and can offer a hand if the salesperson is being stonewalled. For example, a supply house we get our office supplies from had also been a great client for our temps, but then the contact there stopped calling. I knew the owner, so I called and discovered that he hadn't seen our rep in weeks."

Priority #6 -- Client Status

"It's too easy to take for granted established customers. If I don't see a good mix of new and old customers under the status column, I know we're falling into this trap."

Priority #7 -- Orders In
"I don't care as much about orders because if everything else is going right, orders will come."

Comments: "You have to read between the lines. This write-up, for example [ "Uses a service they are happy with, but will review our literature and consider."], reveals a passive sales posture. Rather than outlining her next plan of action, she tells of the client's intention. Never leave a sales call without setting the stage for your next meeting."

Comments: "Here's an active approach [ "Ed not around -- call back next week to set appointment."], since the salesperson reminds herself to call back next week. She's not waiting around for the client to pick up the phone and call her. She's already laying the groundwork for her next visit.

"These blurbs can alert you to unhappy salespeople. This person [ "Left note and card."] may not like banging on doors for a living, since she doesn't seem to convert many cold calls. When I called her to talk about it, she admitted she hated her job."

Comments: "The reports can also be a tip-off to new, creative sales tactics, which I like to highlight in our company newsletter for all to read and perhaps try. Unable to get past the lobby security guard for a cold call, this unshakable salesperson [" Moving office end of Sept. to suburbs. Couldn't get by guard, so left pack of Carefree gum."] left a pack of Carefree gum for her prospect with a note reading, 'Use Careers, and all your temp needs will be carefree.' "