From the November 1999 issue of Entrepreneur

It's probably entered your mind--and left it almost as quickly. Sales are sluggish, quick fixes haven't worked, and you're not sure where, or to whom, you can turn. Perhaps, you think, a sales consultant could help you get to the bottom of your problems. Don't dismiss the idea outright; consider the possible benefits of expert advice.

A good consultant can significantly improve a business' sales, whether it's by revitalizing a stagnant department or helping a sales force crack into new markets. The trick is to select the right person. In a field where, truth be told, anyone who has sold newspapers or worked at a department store can claim to be a sales expert, that may be challenging--but the outcome may very well be worth the extra time and effort.


Bill Kelley is an Arcadia, California, business writer and former editor of Sales and Marketing Management magazine.

What's The Problem?

The first step is deciding whether you need a sales consultant. While there's no specific criteria, there are a few signs to look for--the most obvious being results. If sales are down, a good consultant can provide you with solutions. Maybe salespeople aren't using their time well or aren't receiving effective training. Maybe they aren't up to speed on changes in the industry.

Sales don't have to be in a free fall before you make a call. In fact, if they are, you've probably waited too long. Consider a specialist when sales are 5 or 10 percent below the projections, not when they've hit 50 percent--at that point, you might be in the market for a miracle-worker rather than a consultant.

A consultant can also help if the sales department is flat. The numbers may be fine, but the team has hit a wall of sorts--an inevitable part of being in sales. As anyone in sales knows, a whole department can go through a slump, and sometimes it takes an outsider to come in and shake things up.

In addition, consultants can help when your company is evolving. If you're expanding into new markets, opening additional offices or hiring reps, a specialist can assist you in making a smooth transition. So once you decide you need a consultant, how do you choose one?

Who's Going To Solve It?

Once again, there are no set rules when searching for a sales consultant, but there are general guidelines.

1. In most cases, avoid pre-packaged programs. People who come in with software or a training program that isn't customized usually don't do much good. Instead, opt for a program or system that's built from the ground up for your company, or at least one that's modified to suit your needs.

2. Make sure the consultant asks a lot of questions. Instead of just pitching their plan, prospective consultants should inquire about the company. Insist on someone who is willing and eager to investigate the problem before offering a solution. The more the individual asks about your business, the more interested you should be.

3. Look for a "twist" or a new, innovative approach to a problem. If sales are falling short of goals, stay away from someone offering platitudes or warmed-over ideas about how salespeople should become better at making calls.

4. Avoid motivational speeches. Unless you're looking for a pep talk--which definitely has its place--stay away from inspirational speakers masquerading as consultants. It's unlikely they'll offer any real or substantial advice. Although it may be fun to listen to their war stories, these speakers generally don't address concrete problems or offer long-term solutions.

5. Check references. Talk to your peers about the people they've used, research the names you're given, and ask the references detailed questions. It's amazing, says one consultant, how infrequently companies that end up hiring him actually call the references he gives them.

6. Agree on payment before anything is done. Fees can range from a few hundred dollars for each salesperson to six figures for an ongoing program.

7. Don't expect too much.Keep in mind that no one person is likely to turn around an entire department, particularly if it's overrun with problems. Look for answers within the company, too. At the first sign of a problem, it's not necessary to run to a consultant. Still, a good one can prove to be an invaluable asset to your business. If nothing else, the individual will give you the perspective of an outsider, and in the politically charged world of most companies, that alone can justify the cost.

Web Site

http://www.justsell.com

By Robert McGarvey

Want to know who's offering sales training, when and for how much? Where to buy mailing lists? Get the answers, plus just about everything else key to sales and marketing, at justsell.com, a Web site that aims to be the portal for selling pros. Click on Entrepreneurs & Owners to find summaries geared for you. One intriguing site feature: a clipping service that summarizes articles of interest from online publications. The site also provides easy links for buying sales tapes and motivational posters and for hiring on-site sales trainers.