“If you wouldn’t think twice about poaching a highly profitable customer from a competitor,” Daryl Lucien asks, “why would poaching a high-profit employee be an issue?”

Lucien may have a point, but it’s a painful one for lots of dealers. It’s commonplace for LBM operations to hire sales reps from another competitor, particularly when a company wants to increase market share or hamstring a rival. Still, the deed rubs some dealers so raw that a rule of etiquette has emerged: While the poacher must never make a first direct call to the target, the poacher can leave so many hints that the desired rep would be blind not to notice.

“If they reach out to me, then it’s fair game,” says Mike McDole, senior vice president of sales at Mansfield, Mass.-based National Lumber.

“If someone met me in the parking lot at 6:30 a.m. with coffee and doughnuts to introduce themselves as looking for a sales job, I’d make a territory for them,” declares Lucien, director of sales and marketing at B&B Distributors near Cleveland.

Mike Butts, general manager at Jackson, Mich.-based General Materials, says he doesn’t use job-posting websites or classified advertisements to get the word out that he is hiring. Instead he just tells his vendor reps he has a position available.

“The vendor reps are in every lumberyard in your community,” he says. “They know you’re looking for OSRs and maybe talking to someone who is expressing a little dissatisfaction at their current situation.” Vendor reps like to talk, Butts notes, and that means he has no doubt that his message will get shared.

Ken Sandlin, sales and operations manager at Sunex International, a high-end windows and doors dealer, says he hired some of his competitors’ top salespeople after they were laid off during the downturn. “In another case, we recruited a top performer from a competitor who was unhappy,” he says. It’s a routine occurrence; some of the experts who provided input for this story revealed that many times an unsatisfied employee will come to them looking for a new job.

“Back in the good times, I knew of many successful ‘steals,’” recalls David Burgess, a sales consultant for Trussmax in Winchester, Va. “In today’s economy, however, I would caution sales representatives considering playing along with poaching. It can and has backfired. I have several friends and acquaintances who were lured away only to find themselves in a worse position, demoted, let go, or end up returning to their previous employers.”

Whether you should look inward when filling open sales positions is a matter of debate. David Luecke, vice president of sales and marketing at Forge Lumber, Erlanger, Ky., likes promoting from within because he already knows that person’s strengths and the internal candidate understands and follows company procedures.

In rebuttal, Bill Hofius, New England sales manager at Riverhead Building Supply, headquartered in Shirley, N.Y., says one has to be careful to avoid invoking the Peter Principle, which declares that employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence. And Lucien notes that “field sales is not a natural progression for many,” even if they would come to the outside sales rep job with deep knowledge of your products.

Hofius says dealers who actively recruit remind him of the story of the boy who was so ugly that his parents had to tie pork chops to his ears just to get the dog to play with him.

“Hiring packages and pork chops have a short shelf life,” he says. “Eventually you have to look at who you are playing with. If your company is as ugly as the boy, then you better have plenty of pork!

“Companies that have developed a strong and positive brand with customers and employees do not recruit or poach a competitor’s sales force,” Hofius says. “Getting the word out that we are hiring is usually good enough to draw quality resumes.”

Then he adds: “And yes, we are taking applications for outside sales positions.”

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