The following is the first in a series of retailer and contractor forumsFloor Trends is doing over the course of the year.

These “roundtable” discussions will focus on a specific topic, such as the sales hiring process for this inaugural piece. For the story, we interviewed owners, managers and other executives of retail operations around the country to get their input on the topic of the day. These businesses are of all different shapes and sizes—from the single-unit mom-and-pop to the multi-store operation, from still being run by its founder to multi-generational—but in all cases successful operations with their own rich histories.

The idea is to put forth a series of best practices. While there are certainly a variety of answers that came from the different dealers what is fascinating are the similarities that came up among these successful retailers. Yes, some of the differences can provide you with a true nugget of an idea to implement in your store, but we encourage our readers to pay attention to similarities—and more important the reasons given—to ensure you are at least doing these as it is clear one of the reasons why these businesses are the success they are is they follow a certain strategy.

In the area of retailers and their hiring and training process with regard to salespeople, we asked five questions, from the qualities they look for to the kinds of training they give to how they compensate their sales staff.

Here’s what they had to say:

What qualities do you look for when hiring a salesperson?               

Gary Cissell, Mill Creek Carpet & Tile: They need to exhibit a can-do attitude—whether they have flooring experience or not, as it’s all about their attitude. I want the interaction between sales and the customer to be positive. When the person has the right attitude 90% of the battle is won.

I do look for some selling experience—if it’s in floor covering all the better, but it doesn’t have to be as we can teach them how to sell flooring.

When I’m interviewing someone I use the STAR system—situation (ST), action (A) and results (R). I’ll ask them to give me an example of a customer they have had who was not happy, what they did to fix the situation, and what was the outcome.

If you ask enough of these you can weed out the people who don’t have the proper attitude needed to be a successful salesperson. Plus, I want to be surrounded by good people—something I think we all want.

Chris Cosentino, Nebraska Furniture Mart (NFM): We look for a highly motivated, very positive and upbeat person. The person must be professional in demeanor and appearance. We do not care if they have flooring knowledge because we can teach them everything they need to know. We want a person who is very easy to do business with. A friendly smile goes a long way.

Sam Roberts, Roberts’ Carpet and Fine Floors: I usually hire salespeople with significant experience in the industry and know how to measure and estimate jobs. For me, the relationship that is built in the store and then carries over to that same person committing the time and effort to go to a customer’s home and measure and discuss the job, carries an implied obligation for most customers to give that salesperson the job—all things being equal.

There is also clearer communication with less possibility for any misunderstanding.

Denise Fife, Fife Bros. Carpet One: It starts with a good phone interview as it gives me clues to their personality. Because we are in a rural area we tend to look more at the person’s attitude than their industry experience, as there are not many people here who ever worked in flooring. They might have worked in sales but not flooring, and while we can teach them about us and the industry, you can’t really teach personality.

Dennis Rowland, Primera: Integrity, first and foremost. This characteristic is part of who the person is. It cannot be “trained into” someone, and it will drive and determine behavior and actions in all situations.

Second, is team fit. Do I feel the applicant will mesh well with other staff members?

Third, work history. This provides for insight into the applicant’s ability—or inability—to apply oneself and “stick it out”

Last is industry experience. Applicants who come to us with industry experience provide for a much shallower training curve and overall smaller initial and ongoing investment.

Brett Schaechter, Carousel’s Flooring America: We’re a small operation and only have two salespeople so luckily we don’t have to hire very often because when we do hire someone we’re doing it for the long-term and not just a quick fix. So for us, personality and integrity are the most important, as we all need to get along and I don’t want a salesperson who will ‘slam’ the customer. We really want our people to sell with integrity from start to finish.

We will look for someone with experience because we do our own measuring so would like a person who understands the estimating/measuring part of the business. Plus, we like to close the sale in the house and have the person come back with the deposit, so it’s important they not only have the estimating skills but the personality and integrity for the customer to trust them.

Tim Schoolfield, Country Side Carpets and Interiors: The main two things I look for is personality and attitude. You can teach someone about the products but you can’t teach them to have the right personality and attitude for selling.

We’re not a popular destination like Target, so I want someone who will look a customer in the eye and be able to sell them the correct products for their situation. We like our salespeople to be really engaged, which includes going to the customer’s house and seeing for themselves what it is the client needs and is trying to achieve.

David Smith, Skaff Carpet One Floor & Home: We look at their attitude but also try to find people who are versatile and adaptable to different situations.

Some of the best people we’ve met were really good waiters and waitresses because they understand what it means to serve the public, not to mention dealing with a demanding public. They know which side the bread is buttered so these people are usually very adaptable because every table they wait on is different and they need to be constantly on their game to take care of the customers.

What happens during the first week/month after you hire a salesperson?

Cissell: First we evaluate their level of competency. If they have some level of flooring experience we’ll start them out with our measuring and installation people, as these are the last people to see the customer. It’s where the rubber meets the road and we want them to see how their actions impact the entire process.

Then they will be brought into our service department to understand how this area works. This will be followed by computer training and then learning the products and our sales process. We bring in local reps to help train on product knowledge (PK), but then we tie it into our sales process so they can better relate so how it all goes together.

I’ll then have them do some shadow training with an experienced salesperson. It’s reverse engineering in terms of getting them up to speed on the company, our products and procedures before getting them on the floor and takes about three or four weeks.

Cosentino: New salespeople spend the first few weeks of their job shadowing an experienced flooring salesperson. We call this salesperson a shadow trainer and they are responsible for teaching the new hire about the computer system we use and some basic flooring knowledge. The salesperson should be able to identify the different computer screens we use and what they are used for.

After the first couple weeks we turn our new salespeople over to our installation department. First, they spend a couple days with a measure agent driving around to customers’ homes and watching that person measure jobs. Then they spend a couple days with an installation crew watching them install product. We then have them spend a couple days in our customer service department listening to flooring problem calls.

After all this they are re-evaluated to see where they are at and put back with the shadow trainer for more PK. At this point, we usually have a few key vendors come in to do some PK training for a week.

This all takes four to five weeks, at which time we let them out on the floor to sell but closely monitor them.

Fife: We try getting them immersed in the fundamentals of the company culture by first spending a couple of days on our visions and goals. We also let them be like a fly on the wall—job shadowing—so they can hear and observe what our process is like. One of the biggest things is getting them to understand how we answer the phones as we want everyone to be on the same page and treat callers in a consistent, professional manner.

We’ll do a lot of PK as not many of them have any flooring experience. For this we will involve our vendors and have them come in for one-on-one training. This really helps us out and also gives them a perspective of the products and companies we do business with.

Carpet One University’s online training is also a very valuable tool we use.

Since we have in-house installation crews we also get new salespeople acquainted with them and get them to understand what is required of them so they have a better understanding of the process.

We really try to mix things up, as we found at one point we did too much training and it got them scared. So we’ll mix in various things now, while showing them about the various processes in the business.

Rowland: Initially, new hires are provided an orientation into who we are and our company’s overall mission and vision.

Next, we show the new hire to Carpet One’s University online, where we can expose them to industry specific information as well as determining areas of strength and weakness to aid us in shaping our ongoing training.

Finally, we have the new hire shadow and role play with our expert sales manager for an undetermined time period before we “throw them to the wolves.”

Schaechter: Since we’re looking for someone with experience we’ll cut them some slack, but I take it upon myself over the first couple of weeks to highlight what we specialize in and how we work in order to get them on board with our go-to items—the things on which we make more margins.

We also have them log onto Flooring America University and go through some of what is offered, as it’s a very useful tool to get salespeople up to speed.

I will also listen and monitor them as well as jump in whenever it is needed to help them succeed.

Schoolfield: We work with all our vendors and do one-on-one PK as well as go over all the programs going on. The reps love it as it gives them the opportunity to promote their go-to items to the salesperson.

We also have them shadow our best salesperson. When we hire someone—whether its sales, operations, installation, etc.—we’re doing it for the long haul so we’re willing to bite the bullet and let them make mistakes. We’re not the least expensive in town so we will eat a mistake because we want the repeat business. Obviously, we monitor these things and make sure the person doesn’t repeat the mistake but hopefully learns from it.

Smith: It depends on their level of experience, but we’ll focus a lot on people skills before discussing products, including making sure they understand who we are and what we’re about as well as who our competitors are. They need to understand measuring and layout—that’s fundamental and we’ll spend a great deal of time on this area. We’ll have them go on both carpet and hard surface installations, and have them walk with the installer to the door.

We’ll also go over all our internal process, as well. Then, once we feel they are ready to hit the floor they will shadow an experienced salesperson for about two days and then we’ll start giving them more of their own rope—again, depending on their overall level of experience.

We also bring in reps for in-house PK training, and also take advantage of Carpet One University, as there are many things it offers that can help teach a salesperson.

Are your salespeople paid a salary or commission? Or both?

Cosentino: All of our salespeople are on commission, but at NFM it is a different system. The salespeople either make their commission or, if they have a bad month and sold nothing, they make $10.88 an hour.

There is no payback on the hourly wage if they sell nothing. But I can tell you if a salesperson is continually getting the $10.88 an hour that person obviously will not last long.

My average salespeople are making between $55,000 and $60,000 a year. Of course I have some higher and some lower. This is the method that has always been used at Nebraska Furniture Mart.

Fife: We have a base salary with a commission on top of it. This is because we have them doing a lot of things. Plus, most times the customer doesn’t make an appointment and she will usually make multiple trips so sometimes it will be a different salesperson helping her.

We tried doing 100% commissions and also 100% salary. With all commissions, we found there was a lack of respect for someone else’s customer, plus by having a mix it helps ensure they have some money coming in during good and bad times.

Rowland: We pay straight commission. The salesperson is allowed to take a weekly draw against earned commissions and then receive a monthly commission check of all earned commissions in excess of monthly draw total.

We pay on a sliding scale based upon gross profit percentage of the sale. We pay between 3% and 10% of the gross sale again depending upon the gross profit percentage.

We have tried both salary and commission but have found by paying on a commission structure we close more sales at a higher average selling price than when paying salary.

Schaechter: We use a combination of a base salary plus a commission based on profitability.

Right now we have one female and one male salesperson and sometimes we need him to help in the warehouse and she does pricing so we give them different tasks beyond selling to justify the salary portion, as we don’t want them to starve during the slow times.

Schoolfield: We pay commission but use a sliding scale based on gross profit. Everyone is allowed a draw and sometimes we’ll forgive it—such as during the height of the recession when we lost 60% of our business in one year. Luckily we started to diversify and also started to get lean so our people didn’t have to consistently take a draw and we didn’t have to always eat it.

Smith: We pay commission but use a combination of profits and what they sell. We will allow draws against it if the economy is bad or there is a slow period.

How do you reward/acknowledge your salespeople?

Cissell: They can take part is manufacturer spiffs. But we also hold various contests; such as grouping stores into teams and having them compete against each other. Then we’ll reward the best team, but within that, we’ll also reward the best salesperson on the team.

We also hold holiday parties and other events where we recognize people with various gifts for their different levels of performance.

Cosentino: We have a monthly incentive program that each salesperson has a chance at hitting. This is a lump sum per month.

We also do contests for mill trips and giveaways during the year.

Fife: We used to run a quarterly contest but that lost its excitement. So we’ll do various things to keep the interest level up. For instance, if we launch a sale we’ll do a poker thing where you get to draw a card after a sale and then the one who has the best hand is the winner and we’ll give them a prize.

We’ll also run competitions between our showrooms.

One of our better ones was a contest to see who can place the most yard signs. We gave away a meal ticket for Subway saying “have lunch on me” and it’s amazing how popular this has become. Now everyone is doing it and trying to get the voucher.

Rowland: We have set a quarterly baseline as well as target a total sales amount of achievement for our sales staff. We pay a quarterly performance bonus of an additional 2% commission on all sales that exceed the target amount. We make this target amount realistic and achievable providing the salespeople apply their knowledge and talents, and commit to the required effort.

Additionally, we call out and congratulate our top performer at each weekly sales meeting. It is important to do this in a manner that does not marginalize the efforts of the rest of the team.

Schaechter: With my dad still very active in the business we have more of an old school mentality, so we don’t do much of anything besides what they earn with their commissions.

We gave out bonuses one year and then the next year we weren’t able to but everyone expected it so we stopped that program. Similar to when we tried getting into the builder segment; we had a bad experience so never did it again.

We will let them participate in mill programs; with many of them that are short-term we don’t track, but if the salesperson wants to participate, it is bringing in more business, but only if they are using it with integrity as we really stress the importance of having our salespeople sell with the highest of integrity.

Schoolfield: We’ll give bonuses based on volume or gross profit. We also allow our salespeople to take advantage of any spiff program they want—the more they sell the more it helps us.

Generally, though, we have a rich commission and bonus structure and so long as our salespeople are meeting the needs of our customers these can be achieved.

Smith: Every month we honor someone as our Salesperson of the Month, and then also have an annual winner. In each case there is a cash incentive as well as the overall acknowledgment in front of the whole company.

We’ll also do ongoing contests—especially if we’re promoting a product. We’ll have sales contests between departments, and sometime even team competitions.

We even do things to try and involve their families because we want to keep things fresh, as then the people are excited or motivated. We get more lift by doing this.

What kind of continuing education do you provide for your salespeople?

Cissell: After their initial training, about a month later we’ll go through another round of PK training. This is actually an ongoing process as there are always new things, so we work with our reps to make sure they keep our people up-to-date on the latest products.

Cosentino: During the course of the year we use mill trips, vendor schooling/certifications and ongoing vendor meetings and PK classes. For example Shaw’s Floor Tech is unbelievable training and we send people to that every year. Flooring education at NFM never stops. We strive to have the consummate professional salesperson.

Fife: We do quarterly sales meetings offsite. We tried doing them on Thursday mornings as that wasn’t a busy time but, of course, it would get busy, so now we do it away from the store.

Because we have three stores we try to hold the meeting someplace in the middle to make it easy for everyone. We’ll spend three hours with everyone in the room, as we want everyone in the company on the same page and having the same learning experience. Our sales manager spends a couple of weeks putting these together; she runs the show.

We’ll do e-meetings when something comes up. And we also work with our vendors by having one rep a week spend time with the staff. This is all scheduled through our sales manager.

Rowland: We hold monthly PK meetings facilitated by various sales reps and our sales manager. We rotate PK between product segments. We also utilize online training through Carpet One University as well as available vendor training.

We seem to get the greatest bang however, from one-on-one training facilitated by our sales manager. This takes place in real time as opportunities present themselves each day.

Smith: About a month to six weeks in, I’ll talk with the people to see how they are doing and what they feel they need more help with. We’ll also revisit certain things as there will be things that come up where they might not be experienced in yet and their only training came a few weeks back when they first started. We try to make sure all the bases get covered and make them well rounded to handle all types of situations.  

Editor’s note: In March we will hold our first Contractor Forum on the topic of Moisture Mitigation.