From the April 2002 issue of Entrepreneur

For the briefest moment, New Economy inmates were running the talent ward of the asylum. Managers scrambled to attract and retain talent, whispering sweet nothings of stock options, fat salaries and jeans five days a week. Those days now seem to be a short-but-sweet chapter from some antiquated history tome, and we're all questioning the reliability of our recent memories like that poor guy from the movie Memento.

Entrepreneurs, while not immune to the necessity of belt-tightening, are forward-thinking enough to see the upside to a prodigal labor market. If you're accustomed to running lean, you may be well-positioned to leverage current circumstances by bringing in top-tier sales talent. At a time when chasing every lead is crucial, your reaction to adversity shouldn't be huddling in the fetal position under your desk.

"You can't grow if you aren't selling," says Betsy Buckley, president of sales coaching company What Matters? in St. Paul, Minnesota. Buckley, who caters to business executives wanting to improve their speaking and leadership skills, thinks it's a great time for entrepreneurs to hire sales professionals. You can take advantage of the sting felt by the many downsized workers who are getting axed from large corporations. "They want to work for business owners, not big organizations where they'll just get lost again," Buckley explains. Pick the right talent, and your new salesperson will pay for himself or herself many times over. After all, Buckley points out, because your ability to make sales is the "engine that drives growth," salespeople are "pay-for-themselves-type expenditures."

Employment expert Paul Falcone, author of The Hiring and Firing Question and Answer Book (AMACOM Books), shares Buckley's view that a recession could be an ideal time for you to hire new talent.

"Hiring in a recession goes against business logic at first glance," Falcone admits. "Payroll is the largest expenditure on a company's P&L, so when revenues sink, costs have to be cut to maintain equilibrium." However, he notes, if you're fortunate enough to be in an industry that could potentially benefit from the current economic conditions (like pharmaceuticals, security firms or aerospace manufacturing, for example), then aggressively adding to your staff may be the right move. "If you can add to revenues, then there's no need to cut costs," he explains. "Companies that perform well in down markets, like outplacement firms, hire salespeople in recessions all the time." Even if your company isn't one of the few directly benefiting from the slowed economy, hiring new salespeople may still be a good way to boost revenues. If your entire industry is in a cold cycle (like the type mortgage bankers see when interest rates are soaring), then hiring salespeople may not be wise. But unless you're in that extreme scenario, beefing up your revenue generators during a recession may make perfect sense.

It's understandable if you're nervous about taking on new hires right now, but Falcone says it's important to stay the course. You can boost your odds, he says, by hiring proven performers. "Sales skills are transferable," he explains, "but hiring ex-stockbrokers to become auto sales executives or headhunters makes for lower-probability hires." After all, it's one thing to learn the nuances and terminology of a new line of business; it's another thing for new hires to face this pressure combined with expectations that they immediately meet sales goals.


Kimberly L. McCall is president of McCall Media & Marketing (www.marketingangel.com), a business communications company in Freeport, Maine.

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