From the January 2007 issue of Entrepreneur

Michael Lacey is in the business of IT consulting, not creating weather. But the 38-year-old Plymouth, Minnesota, entrepreneur knows that hiring employees who can make it rain is critical to the continued success of Digineer Inc., the 87-person company he founded in 1998. Three years ago, Lacey brought on a new salesperson he felt would be a rainmaker--someone with a marked ability to attract and retain customers.

The company's rapid expansion since then--sales growth of more than 80 percent a year to the current level of $14 million--is due largely to the direct and indirect effects of adding that rainmaker, Lacey says. "If I had hired another salesperson, a good salesperson but not a great one, we would have grown," he says, "but I don't think it would have been as explosively."

Hiring a rainmaker is the most important task of any entrepreneur, according to Jeffrey Fox, a Chester, Connecticut, sales training consultant and author of Secrets of Great Rainmakers: The Keys to Success and Wealth. "Sales is job one," Fox says. "It's the critical first job."

Hiring a rainmaker starts with finding one, and that starts with defining one. To Lacey, a rainmaker is skilled at understanding customer needs and then dealing with customers the way the rainmaker would like to be dealt with. "The best way I could describe a rainmaker is somebody who understands the Golden Rule," he says. To identify such a person, Lacey looks at a candidate's track record, and he interviews intensively.

For Fox, a rainmaker can be anyone with great listening skills, tremendous energy and a hunger to prove himself or herself. He is less keyed on track record. In fact, he thinks it's so important for potential rainmakers to listen to and follow worthy advice that he focuses on younger hires who lack preconceived notions.

To hire a rainmaker, offer an environment that is focused on the customer, requires little bureaucratic paperwork and gives the rainmaker free rein. Oh, and be ready to pay through the nose. "Pay steak and eat hot dogs," is Fox's advice. Entrepreneurs should be prepared to pay a rainmaker more than anyone in the organization--including themselves--because rainmakers are motivated largely by money.

Structuring compensation is also critical. Don't just pay a big salary. Base most compensation on performance. Put salespeople on 100 percent commission if possible. And remember that not all rainmakers are salespeople.

Other types of rainmakers can be compensated with bonuses or profit sharing to provide motivation to constantly improve their game. Otherwise, they're likely to go elsewhere, Fox says.

A rainmaker who has the freedom and motivation to bring in business will likely be a happy rainmaker who stays with your company. But you might drive away rainmakers by saddling them with paperwork such as unduly detailed and burdensome expense reports. You may also drive them away by micromanaging.

One common misstep is promoting a rainmaker into a management job where he or she has little customer contact. Neither the rainmaker nor the company's sales will benefit, Fox warns. "Rainmakers should be allowed and encouraged to stay in the field, keep selling and keep ringing the cash registers."

Not all companies are ready for a rainmaker, in Lacey's opinion. Companies must reach a certain level of maturity and have a track record that lets the rainmaker leverage his or her skills and turn them into dollars. "You have to have enough success stories that they have something to trade on," he explains.

Perhaps the best news about rainmakers is that good ones can transform a company's entire culture, making it more customer-focused, more driven and more capable of attracting and keeping customers. But just as you can never have too many customers, no enterprise can have too many rainmakers, Fox says: "After you hire your first rainmaker, your job is to find another one."

Mark Henrickswrites on business and technology for leading publications and is author ofNot Just a Living.