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Training For Growth

Every E&S dealership pins its success on its sales staff. For the three dealers profiled below, the implementation of imaginative new training programs for these employees has been a key contributor to the growth recorded in our 2004 Distribution Giants report.

2003 was a year when dozens of the country's top dealerships posted sales that were either lower than or flat compared to the year before. A few dealers, however, reported impressive gains that they attributed largely to new staff and additional training.

Foodservice Equipment & Supplies contacted a trio of these companies to find of what their training programs consist. The responses show a reliance on tried and true methods, such as mentoring, as well as new, more innovative programs such as project management training.

Stafford-Smith, Kalamazoo, Mich. The 16th largest foodservice E&S dealership in our '04 rankings, Stafford-Smith grew its sales by about 9% in 2003 to $65.4 million. According to the firm's responses to the 2004 Distribution Giants survey, much of that gain is attributable to the company's sales training.

Yet, many of Stafford-Smith's most innovative and ambitious training programs have been undertaken just in the past few months.

Newest among these initiatives, according to David Stafford Jr., the company's executive vice president, is a 23-week sales training program the dealership is currently in the process of designing.

Under the program, salespeople will meet once a week in their respective locations (Stafford-Smith has nine) during non-business hours. During these meetings, they will be instructed on a number of topics, such as specific product features and applications presented by local manufacturers' reps and health-code courses conducted by representatives from area Health departments. In addition, three of the 23 weeks will be dedicated to ServSafe training and, for those salespeople that are not already certified, ServSafe testing.

While some salespeople might be tempted to not take this training regimen seriously, the method by which Stafford plans on measuring training performances likely will encourage dedication.

"Everybody gets a binder and information from these presentations will go in there," Stafford Jr. stated. "When the [full 23-week] program is done, they have to take a test." And the motivation for performing well on the test is simple: pride. When the company conducted a similar program a few years ago, all salespersons' test scores, good and bad, were posted on the company's intranet for all colleagues to see. Such an approach will likely again be deployed after the current training regimen is complete, Stafford indicated.

Another training program the company has adopted was conducted for the first time this past January. Recognizing that the challenges that bog down projects can also erode profitability, the firm conducted a one-day project management training course.

"What you sell a project for is only one part of the challenge," commented Stafford. "How we make money after we sell it is just as important. It is vital we know how we are going to manage the job. If we sell it at 10%, we have to keep it at 10% when we close it."

This course's curriculum was as follows: Stafford-Smith's salespeople were given a project and the cost to the company of the project's components (equipment, shipping, installation and related services).

Salespeople were then divided into groups of six to eight. DSRs from different offices and with different levels of experience were teamed in order to encourage the exchange of new ideas.

Recognizing that sloppy record-keeping can lead to margin-eroding errors, every enrollee was then challenged to create a project file with key information, such as their own availability times and the project's customer service contact.

The participating groups were then asked to set the margin on the project. Afterwards, they were presented with 22 different problems that could arise and reduce a sale's profitability, such as a change in shipping requirements by the customer or a doorway being too small to fit equipment through.

Out of these, 15 challenges had to be addressed. At the end of the day, one member from all groups presented their solutions, followed by a discussion of the findings among the salespeople.

Such exchanges, Stafford indicated, can be the most useful training of all. "What I find works best is bringing all our salespeople in a room and getting them talking. Let them talk amongst themselves," he stressed. "You'll find that the guy who's been at it for 30 years will be able to share a good way in which he's done some project aspect, but that a younger person who's been at it for a year might have a better idea."

Action Sales, Monterey Park, Calif. Led by its strong cash-and-carry operation, Action Sales grew its sales last year by 8% to $31.6 million, making it number 32 on the 2004 Distribution Giants listing.

In order to keep up with this growth, the firm, which has 20 salespeople, added some eight staff members in total, two of whom were in its sales department. Like Stafford-Smith, Action Sales relies on regular, after-hours meetings to train its salespeople.

Action's meetings, which are conducted once every three weeks at the close of business, can follow a number of formats. Most basic are product-knowledge meetings. These, said Jack Chang, the firm's vice president, can take a couple of different forms. Usually they are conducted by area factory reps who explain the features and benefits of the lines they carry.

Occasionally, though, the company's sales staff will meet in a product demonstration room at their local gas or electric company, which is a big plus since the firm does not have its own test kitchen.

"We can actually see the equipment and usage demonstrations," Chang stated. "They have about 200 pieces of kitchen equipment there, so we can do training or bring our customers in if they want to try the equipment."

Another meeting format aims to improve not product knowledge, but salesmanship. Often for these sorts of meetings, the company will rent videos from business libraries that cover pertinent topics, such as communication skills or specific sales techniques. A discussion of the videos follows each viewing.

No matter which form the company's sales training meetings take, however, there are some elements that are constant. According to Chang, the meetings always include a case study of a particular situation that can occur when salespeople deal with customers. The firm's salespeople then discuss how they would address the issue and other problems that may arise.

"We'll discuss our problems and the mistakes we've made so we can avoid repeating the same ones at the company level," Chang remarked. "For example, if a DSR messes something up and promises a customer equipment from a manufacturer with a long lead time or forgets to order requested options on some equipment, we bring that out so other staff can become aware and avoid the same mistakes." According to Chang, these training sessions are not mandatory. Desiring to improve their skills and increase their sales, however, nearly all of Action's salespeople attend the meetings, which are followed by a trip out to dinner as a group.

In addition to helping bring staff together and improving morale, Chang noted, Action has at times turned staff dinners themselves into training tools. If the operation at which the salespeople are dining is one with which the company has done business, after the meal they may take a tour of the kitchen. This, noted Chang, allows salespeople to see equipment in action, not in isolation, and listen to the concerns and complaints of operators about specific pieces' performance.

And Action, in fact, is considering other ways to bring its operator-customers' voices into its sales training. The firm, indicated Chang, is considering bringing operators into its sales meetings to discuss their experiences with Action salespeople.

"We are thinking of inviting customers to these meetings to have face-to-face communication with all the salespeople," he said. "From this, they can learn why operators like to do business with Action Sales and what we can further improve to serve them better."

United Restaurant Supply, Colorado Springs, Colo. United Restaurant Supply in Colorado Springs grew its sales by 28% to $13.8 million in 2003, making it number 66 on the 2004 Distribution Giants list. As president of one of the smaller firms in our rankings, United's Roger Boyles freely admitted that he is hesitant to dedicate the resources that would be required to send its sales staff en masse to off-site training sessions operated by manufacturers. As such, the company relies heavily on training programs provided by industry organizations that can be used in-house. Like most dealers, for instance, Boyles relies on manufacturers and their representatives to visit his headquarters and educate his salespeople on a regular basis.

Another entity to which United turns for its training is its buying group, Pride Marketing. According to Boyles, the group has created computer-based training modules that are now available to its members.

These modules cover a wide array of information, from technical, product-specific training designed to educate salespeople on the features and benefits of equipment to strategies and advice on how to sell goods. Recognizing that sales training is an ongoing process, Boyles plans to make product-specific training information available to his inside sales team at all times.

"There's a version of our training programs that we're developing for display on a kiosk screen," he explained. 'We have a computer set up in the showroom that constantly scrolls through a variety of training videos. I'd like to get it to the point where it's on all the time."

In addition to educating employees, Boyles added, such a tool can be used to show potential customers the features and benefits of specific products using a professional-looking medium.

There are occasions, though, when Boyles does commit the resources required to send an employee to on-site factory training. When he does choose to make that investment, it is usually to support a staff member who has already worked in the industry for at least a few years, he stated.

"If we have someone who is really good and really experienced, we'll send them to the factories. For some people, though, E&S sales just takes longer to learn and it would be a waste to send them to factory training during their first three months of employment. Two years from now, when they've got some experience under their belt and they'll be able to talk about this stuff in a wide variety of ways, then it would be much more useful for them."

Not all of United's training practices are developed outside the company, however. According to Boyles, the firm's sales manager meets with each salesperson on a weekly basis to evaluate their work. During these meetings, salespeoples' performance over the past month will be reviewed.

Each salesperson will also be assigned goals, to be reviewed in subsequent meetings, designed to foster improvement in a number of different areas, such as the average number of SKUs per account and number of customer calls completed. Many of these metrics, including those involving gross profit, which Boyles considers to be the most important, are established through the FEDA profit survey.

Another in-house program, which United is currently developing, will involve mentoring younger employees.

As Boyles views the situation, new employees need to develop what he called, "peripheral vision." When calling on an account, new salespeople often get so focused on selling a particular product that they don't notice other items their operator uses that United sells, he said.

On the other hand, salespeople that either naturally have or develop peripheral vision can visit an operator and, in addition to selling one or two key products, be able to notice the smaller items that customer needs, such as disposables, cleaning supplies and smallwares - the types of products that can bring an account to an entirely different profitability level. By sending experienced salespeople with this ability on ride-alongs with newer sales staff, veterans can also instruct newer employees on what to look out for and what they missed.

Of course, not every experienced DSR has the correct temperament to be a mentor. Obviously, patience is a key virtue in this situation, as well as a proper view of the overall standing of the company, Boyles stated.

"A mentor has to be somebody who sees the financial goals of the whole company and realizes that they're going to benefit through company profit-sharing. A lot of benefits are created when people work together, and I'm glad to say that we have a couple of people who see that."