Building A Salesperson From The Ground Up

Developing a sales training plan

Most entrepreneurs believe that we can create or build whatever model our business needs. A little tweak here, a little tweak there, and we can create a business model, process or solution that works. Why then, can’t we build a better salesperson? According to GAWDA members, we can.

Like all sales articles, this one may include many of the best practices that we all know. It also includes best practices we may need to be reminded of. If salespeople are developed and not just born or “discovered,” it makes sense to examine how GAWDA members are developing their sales superstars over a period of years. Take a look at your existing roster of sales superstars. Are any likely to retire or leave within the next year or two? If so, the steps outlined below may be just what the doctor ordered to ensure continuity and the right talent, paving your sales efforts for when that day comes.

First, You Hire
The first step to building a great salesperson is finding the best candidate for the job. We all know that is easier said than done. When faced with a bevy of potential recruits, it is helpful to build a standardized profile for the position. Remember, the salesperson will become the face of the company with your customers.

Lampton Welding Supply President Guy Marlin (center) is joined by (from left) Field Engineer Eric Herrera, Area Manager David Cogdill, Inside Salespeople Mark Jordon and Vanessa Foster, Sales Trainer Brad Lampton and Field Engineer Jim Herriage.

Distributors differ on the emphasis they place on what are important attributes of a potential sales hire. Lake Welding Supply (Muskegon, MI) President Ike Spriensma places heavy emphasis on technical skills. “We try to hire people who have formal welding training, then groom them to be salespeople,” he says. “That strong technical background is a real leg up when it comes to understanding the products we sell.” Furthermore, Spriensma explains, a background in welding reduces the likelihood that a salesperson will be deterred by the industry itself. “If a salesperson doesn’t like the industry, it makes no difference how hard you train. When you start out with people who have been exposed to welding, they know what they are getting into.” Within that pool of candidates, Lake Welding Supply looks for someone with strong interpersonal skills and a positive outlook.

Other distributors emphasize selling skills. “You can have somebody who knows everything there is to know about the technical side of the product, but if he lacks customer service skills, he won’t do you any good,” says Dan Taylor, vice president of welding and safety at Norco (Boise, ID). “I look for someone who wants to learn the business, has an outgoing personality and has ambition.” Eighty percent of Norco’s sales force came from other positions within the company, most with at least five years’ employment history at Norco.

As a rule, new salespeople cannot be expected to go out and achieve success on day one. This is an important factor that should not to be overlooked when developing a plan for hiring. Bill Proctor, president of nexAir (Memphis, TN), echoes this sentiment. “The initial training program lasts for six months to a year, but I believe it takes a minimum of three years to really become adept. Mentoring, coaching, product and sales training, and developing customer relationships all contribute to the salesperson’s development.”

Working Your Plan

Where do good salespeople come from? They don’t grow on trees!
Here are three different plans for developing them:
Plan A: New sales recruits at nexAir begin their careers wearing steel-toed boots and hard hats, ready to load and unload trucks. After two to three weeks, they are well-versed in various cylinder sizes and gas types. From there they work a stint in the production plant, filling high pressure cylinders for several months. Over the course of 12 to 18 months, they work at a variety of jobs from purchasing to counter sales before hitting the field.Plan B: All Norco employees participate in a training program in which they learn “Customer Service, Norco Style.” They learn how to answer the telephone and how to interact with customers. Company executives continually monitor those employees who will move into other positions within the company after completing this initial training. Once a potential superstar is identified, the future sales executive is invited to participate in an extensive training program which incorporates training as an inside salesperson, mentoring and eventually shadowing his predecessor in the field in his soon-to-be-assigned territory.

Plan C: When Lake Welding Supply is looking for sales recruits, they look for technical welding and cutting experience first. Sales experience is a bonus. Once they have absorbed basic training which focuses on sales skills and safety compliance issues, they move on to the product training provided by manufacturers who further their technical knowledge. The fact that the potential salesperson already posses technical knowledge means that they have a shorter learning curve, allowing them to contribute sooner.

“Someone with sales experience and knowledge of the industry is more likely to be able to contribute fairly quickly,” says Gary Halter, vice president of sales at Indiana Oxygen Company (Indianapolis, IN). Indiana Oxygen Company minimizes the turnaround time for training by targeting individuals with these attributes. “A seasoned rep can come in and start selling within two months,” says Halter. “Without industry experience, it takes two to three years to really understand this business.”

Guy Marlin, president of Lampton Welding Supply (Wichita, KS), says it takes five years for a salesperson to be fully equipped with the knowledge and experience needed to become superstar material. Says Marlin: “This is why we actively educate and train employees who are waiting in the wings in anticipation of a potential opening.”

Technology is being used more and more in training because it is thorough, convenient, saves on travel time and expense, and presents concepts in a format young people are used to working with. Here are some examples of how GAWDA members are using technology in their sales development programs.

GAWDA University

GAWDA University is an online training program for employees of GAWDA member companies. Topics range from FDA regulations to safety compliance. Find GAWDA University under the “Resources” tab at


Virtual Welding
A virtual welding machine offers a safe way to train salespeople on welding skills without creating a spark. They can get a feel for MIG, TIG, stick and other processes on one machine, watching their progress on a computer screen.
GAWDAwiki is a great tool for a salesperson to continue learning through a formal training period and beyond. There are instructional videos, white papers, spec sheets and a wiki of almost 2,000 industry terms and definitions. New and experienced salespeople can be assigned the task of adding terms or adding material to existing wiki pages, as part of their training and evaluation process, insuring that the company is the reference for information added. GAWDAwiki is search-engine-optimized, and your company’s name is listed as the expert.

YouTube Videos
When it’s not economical for your salespeople to travel to a manufacturer’s headquarters to learn a new process or product, videos provide a visual medium for learning. In addition to providing free DVDs, some manufacturers post videos onto


Second, You Train
“Training is an investment in our future,” says nexAir’s Proctor. “Nothing happens quickly—we’re willing to take the time and invest the money to train our salespeople properly.” Manufacturer training programs offer opportunities to learn in person at the manufacturer’s location, or online at the distributor’s convenience. In addition to developing a better understanding of products, salespeople learn how to use the manufacturer’s literature and websites in their selling.

Some manufacturers offer courses that teach professional selling skills. While it may sound fundamental, training basic sales skills is valuable. “All Norco salespeople are required to take a manufacturer’s course in basic selling skills,” Taylor says. “It’s a good training tool, and many distributors are not aware that it is available.”

Norco Sales Team

Dan Taylor, vice president of Norco’s industrial division (third from right) is accompanied by (from left) Chad Mendenhall, marketing coordinator; Wendy Carter, executive sales assistant; Larry Booth, industrial sales manager, southern territory; Brian Anderson, safety sales manager; Keith Partch, sales manager, specialty gas division; and Kevin Joplin, vice president, medical division.

Lake Welding Supply’s Spriensma echoes the need to start training at a rudimentary level, and makes sure the company’s salespeople have a good handle on time management.

Halter from Indiana Oxygen Company points to follow-through as another skill that is important to teach. “If a salesperson tells a customer they are going to have a proposal by Friday, they need to have it to them by Friday or before,” he says. “Follow-through skills can make the difference between a nice personality and a successful salesperson who makes money for the company.”

nexAir has taken to the Internet as a means of making training more efficient. “Webinars save a tremendous amount of travel time and expense,” says Proctor, who uses webinars to teach sales skills.

To support a geographically diverse sales force, Norco developed Norco Virtual University to conduct online training for employees across all locations. “It’s very difficult to get everyone in the same place,” says Taylor, “as we span a geographic region that is 1,000 miles from one end to the other.” Based on this program, Norco helped to develop GAWDA University, which offers online training for other distributors.

Technology is a useful training tool, but Taylor warns of the need to diversify. “There’s really no substitute for hands-on training,” he says. Lampton’s Guy Marlin agrees: “Every opportunity I have, I put salespeople on a truck. More than anywhere else, they will learn about what customers need by riding on a truck and meeting with those customers.”


nexAir President Bill Proctor (front left) joins customer and sales support agents, who handle customer calls and support nexAir’s outside sales team. To the right of proctor are Ken Guffey and Mike Hammons. Standing (from left) are Patrick Galphin, Tony Dunn, Ted Allen, Jeffrey Goldberg, Eddie Miller and Ron Echols.

Third, You Evaluate
The appropriate evaluation of a salesperson’s job performance allows the employer an opportunity to identify areas in need of improvement, as well as areas of strength. It should be a part of the new salesperson’s training process, enhancing opportunities for the employer to provide valuable feedback and even motivation, where needed.

As nexAir employees move from one position to another during their first year with the company, their knowledge of the job duties associated with each position is evaluated. “They’re tested on everything from cylinder sizes and gas types to safety regulations,” says Bill Proctor. Test results gauge the salesperson’s understanding of what they are learning and provide a gentle nudge for those who need it.

Another important source of feedback is the customer. “Norco does ongoing customer satisfaction surveys to see how a salesperson is being received in the field,” says Taylor. “We also evaluate how he or she is perceived by fellow employees and managers. If we have any complaints, we sit down and talk with the salesperson.”

Potential salespeople at Lampton Welding Supply meet with a psychologist for a half-day evaluation before they come on board. “The psychologist tells us their strengths and their weaknesses,” says Lampton. “Then we build on their strengths and help them with their weaknesses.” The psychologist also assesses the salesperson’s verbal skills and vocabulary, critical skills for every salesperson to possess.

The evaluation process can help to identify those salespeople who have greater strengths in other areas. “Everybody thinks they want to be in sales,” says nexAir’s Proctor. “But along the way, we may find that their strength is operational. We never renege on our promise to hire someone into sales, but we can also offer alternate opportunities when it is appropriate to do so.”

Fourth, You Mentor
An integral part of the development of a strong salesperson is the mentoring process. “One of the greatest tools for training is allowing new salespeople to spend quality time with the people who have been around the business and out in the field,” says Lampton’s Marlin.

For new salespeople, mentors are an important source of knowledge and support. At Norco, the mentoring of a salesperson begins when he or she is appointed to a sales position. From the moment a salesperson starts at the front counter, he or she is mentored by the branch manager. Once in the field, the new salesperson rides with his predecessor for several weeks, and then with the sales manager until he or she is comfortable. “Sales managers mentor the new salespeople not only by making calls with them, but by furthering their technical knowledge in order to be more of a value-added asset to their customer,” Taylor says. Mentoring is a great way to make use of an existing resource—experience—and is a valuable source of continued training for a new salesperson.

Fifth, You Never Stop
You thought you had training covered? Think again. Your training plan should not end when your salespeople hit the pavement. As important as the initial training of a salesperson is, their continued education is even more vital. Establish a plan for veteran salespeople to continue learning about new products and processes, regulations and sales strategies.

“Never stop. Never quit training,” says Guy Marlin. “I’ve been at Lampton Welding Supply for 39 years. If I don’t learn something every day, I go home feeling like I had a bad day. If you ever stop training your people, you’ve made a serious error in judgment.”

Gases and Welding Distributors Association