Fuel prices soaring? Housing sales in the tank? Commodity prices squeezing your margins? The state of affairs in the field is rough, to put it mildly. But rather than forcing a retreat, these hard times are even more reason to make sure your sales team is as capable as possible of closing a deal.

"As a sales trainer, I find that most dealers have simply decided that training must be cut from the budget because times are tough," says Rick Davis, president of Building Leaders Inc., whose Chicago-based company and its sales techniques focus on the construction industry. "These are the same dealers that tell me there was no time for sales training when times were good."

Some LBM veterans say that before the downturn, times were so fat for so long that many sales reps were glorified order-takers rather than real salespeople. Most never had to earn a commission in hard times. As a result, these veterans say, sales reps either never learned or forgot some of the core skills they need to do their jobs.

Now, some dealers are making sure their teams get that schooling. Harbert Lumber in Grand Junction, Colo., uses as many industry programs and online tools as possible, says Richard Goodman, senior vice president. For instance, his kitchen and bath crew stays abreast of education that the National Kitchen and Bath Association offers, while the building material sales staff uses both national and regional sales programs.

A pratfall Goodman has seen time and time again is sales people stepping onto a jobsite offering a bid and takeoff, yet the builder has no intention of buying from that salesperson. "The builder just wants them off the jobsite," Goodman says. "I've seen a lot of salespeople that have become professional estimators and not pro salespeople."

One method Harbert Lumber uses to combat that situation is placing its salesmen with framing crews and paying their salaries. The experience lets a salesman better understand the needs of a builder, recognizing the process in three dimensions.

Another area Davis has seen dealers neglect repeatedly, when it comes to drumming up sales, is prospecting new clients. While some astute sales people aggressively prospect, others rest on their laurels, claiming to know everyone in the market.

"Our owner always says 'follow up, follow through,' " says Goodman. Harbert pushes its sales staff to ask for orders, follow up on them, and call customers back to ensure a smooth process.

And while Davis suggests that dealers find ways to measure prospecting efforts within their database, Harbert has that covered as well. The dealer tracks the number of quotes its sales staff receives and the orders that result from them. With both numbers, Harbert can produce leads-to-quotes and quotes-to-orders ratios.

"A lot of junior sales people like to run out and give a quote to everyone," Goodman says. "They don't get paid to give quotes; they get paid to make sales. You don't want to estimate until you know the person is going to buy from you."

T.W. Perry, a Chevy Chase, Md.-based dealer, also takes a back-to-basics approach. "It's like any athletic endeavor. You have to block and tackle," says Rich Cortese, president of T.W. Perry. "You have to do the core things right."

As for using prizes and points as incentives, Cortese isn't buying into it. "That's mostly fluff," he says. "You have to have competitive prices and knowledgeable sales people."

T.W. Perry has not lost any ground regarding the size of its sales staff, which is 80 people strong, despite tough times. "We've hired people," says Cortese. "Sales are a team effort."

–Andy Carlo

"A lot of junior sales people like to run out and give a quote to everyone. They don't get paid to give quotes; they get paid to make sales."

–Richard Goodman, senior vice president, Harbert Lumber, Grand Junction, Colo.