So many variables go into building a successful portable spa business. Your store looks great. Your spas are displayed in a manner both efficient and aesthetic, and when customers walk in your door, they feel instantly as though they want one of your beautiful tubs, right. And then, the biggest variable of all walks on the scene, the face of your product: your sales staff. Even if the store sparkles, it won't make up for lackluster performance by your salespeople. Hiring, training and keeping a good sales staff is crucial to the success of your business. What steps should you take to make sure your employees' spa side sales techniques reflect the pride you have in your business. AQUA asked dealers, sales consultants and manufacturers to weigh in on the best ways to make sure your staff sparkles as much as your tubs.

Bring Them In

How to find and hire a good sales staff is, as sales consultant Rob Jolles says, "the $64,000 question." Jolles, author of numerous business books, including Customer Centered Selling , suggests that dealers often rely too heavily on arbitrary tests. "One half of the problem is that retailers need a good tool in their hiring interview, and different companies take different swipes at this. And these are some of the personality tests that they'll do," Jolles says. "I find those to be somewhat bogus, because I've bumped into people you would think can barely get their name out — they're that sheepish and quiet — and yet they're leading their company in sales. Because they figured out they don't have to be like the other guy." The best way to hire good staff, he says, is to "offer them good training and teach them how to feed themselves."

Alan Rigg is a sales consultant and author of How To Beat the 80/20 Rule in Selling . The title addresses the 80/20 rule in business, wherein 20 percent of people generate 80 percent of sales. He offers advice, as well, on how to hire good sales staff. "First of all I recommend that they really focus on asking performance-based questions when they're talking to potential job candidates," says Rigg. A lot of companies focus too much on whether or not candidates have a college degree, and how many years of experience they have, rather than focusing on "somebody's ability to rapidly learn about the product and how to ask the right kinds of questions, and pick out the important pieces from the answers," says Rigg.

Secondly, he says, employers often rely too heavily on subjective material when interviewing. Alternately, Rigg recommends relying on a series of objective tests, and subjective impressions, to determine whether a candidate would be a good fit for your business.

"When you look at a resume, it's somebody's subjective portrayal of his talents and experience. When you're in an interview, the interviewer is trying to form an opinion based upon his own feelings and judgment. The person being interviewed is trying to tailor his answers to make the best impression. It's all completely subjective. Unfortunately, when we deal with subjective information, we get fooled.

"What I recommend companies do to add objective information into the mix is to use some specialized assessments to look at things like an individual's learning rate, his problem solving ability and his interest in activities related to selling. With a properly designed assessment, they can't hide from it; it's going to find out what's under the skin. I always recommend that employers make decisions based two-thirds on that subjective information they gather using performance-based recruiting processes, and one-third upon that objective information they get from their assessments."

Both consultants agree that one of the key traits in a potential salesperson is the ability to listen. "We want to hire somebody that has good listening skills, or at least someone trainable, to teach them how to be a good listener, how to ask good questions and when to shut up and listen to what the customer has to say," says Kelly King, general manager of Mountain Hot Tub in Bozeman, Mont. "They have to let the customer finish speaking, even though they may ask the same question that you hear 10 times a day, you need to let the customer finish talking and act like it's the first time you've heard that question."

Though some people are gifted with natural conversational ability, for others it takes a little training. Training salespeople, once they're hired, is the next important step.

Train Them Right

Training your new employee presents a wealth of options. The line, or lines, that you carry probably came with sales training from the manufacturer. How heavily should you rely on that. Which is more important for your sales staff to cultivate: product knowledge or people skills. There are entire industries dedicated to deciphering the habits of successful salespeople; which traits are the most important for your staff. The answers to these questions, as with most, depend on whom you talk to.

Sales consultants Rigg and Jolles both make a strenuous distinction between "product training," i.e. what the manufacturer provides, and "sales training." Product training is very important, both said, but more important is teaching your employees how to sell.

"We teach people to listen and ask questions, and that's trite sometimes, but you can't imagine how much sales training a typical salesperson thinks they've been put through," says Jolles. "The problem is they get put through an enormous amount of product training. That spa company you're talking about will tell you immediately, ' Of course we sales train our people. We're not putting people on the floor to sell an $8,000 to $10,000 spa without being sales trained! So-and-so just came in and sales trained them last week!' The problem is, no they didn't. Someone came in and product trained them last week. They told them about the new jets, they told them about the two different pumps, they told them about the air injectors, but they never told anybody how to get somebody to want to hear that information, and how to earn customer's trust."

Rigg has a specific name for the overly product-trained. "One of the biggest problems in sales that I see, over and over again, is people who don't know how to qualify opportunities, they're what I call feature-preachers," he says. "You push a button and they start yammering on about their product — it does this and it does that.

It's sort of a shotgun approach to selling, where they figure if they throw a bunch of stuff at you, maybe some of it will stick." An effective antidote to that approach, says Rigg, is training staff to determine what features a customer is interested in before telling him about a spa. These targeted questions let salespeople highlight those features "without putting the customer to sleep," says Rigg. "Salespeople can also determine whether the prospect has the issues that the product can address. Because if they don't have those issues, chances are you're not going to sell, and why waste your time and effort on somebody that isn't going to buy." Once a potential buyer's issues are on the table, salespeople can highlight the features designed specifically for that concern.

To effectively sales train your staff, Jolles shares what he considers five important areas to focus on. First, at the risk of beating a dead horse, he reiterates the importance of teaching staff to listen and ask questions. Second, dealers should allow staff to be true to their own selling style. Many dealers mistakenly mentor new staff confusing them about what selling style they should use. Having mentors for your staff is not necessarily bad, says Jolles, but "don't have someone emulate a style that's not their own. Very good technique goes a long way, and not trying to make someone over stylistically calms salespeople down a little bit and makes them feel better, because they can be themselves."

The third trait of a great salesperson may seem cliched, says Jolles, but it holds true. Salespeople must "believe in what they're selling. It sounds trite, but if they don't, none of the other techniques or processes will be of any value." Fourth, Jolles is a firm believer in sales processes, though he stresses that finding one process that works for your company is key. "Managers always say, 'I'm so proud, I have my sales team listen to a different set of tapes every month.' It's probably the worst thing they could do. Let's give the materials the benefit of the doubt; lets say that every sales book on the market is a good book, and every tape is a good tape. If each month you listen to another set of tapes from a different sales trainer, and then the next month and the next month, can you imagine what you look like after 12 months?"

Instead, find one sales process that works well for your team and stick with it. "Our style makes some of us a little quieter, a little funnier, but we're all speaking the same language in this company," says Jolles. "When we start believing in the process so much that we want a new one every month, I call it the flavor of the month syndrome, then they're in big trouble." Finally, Jolles says that needs-based selling, which gained popularity in the 1970s, is a model that businesses should strive to break. "When you learn how people make decisions, and you realize that they don't just wake up in the morning with a list of needs in their head, you understand that the concept of needs-based selling — defining selling as asking a client what they need, and then providing the solution to those needs — creates order-takers."

Manufacturer Training

Portable spa manufacturers recognize the importance of sales training and many have formal programs that work hard to dovetail the two different skill sets. Great Lakes Home & Resort launched a formal sales training package for its dealers last fall, and hired a full-time, dedicated trainer to train staff in their stores. The new package, as described by Lee Eilers, vice president of marketing and distribution, has three components. "You've got product knowledge, selling skills and competitive analysis," he says. As for product knowledge, the goal is "to get our dealer sales teams to understand our product so that when a customer walks in, he or she feels very confident that the salesperson is, without a doubt, an expert on the product." Employees are schooled not only on the features of Great Lakes hot tubs, but also, again, on the importance of listening to the customer. "We take that product knowledge and apply it to what [they] learn, through asking the right questions and being a good listener."

As for competitive analysis, "if there are any questions about a competitor's product, we'll answer those questions and make sure that our sales team understands the advantages of our product."

Kelly King, a HotSpring Spas dealer, utilizes the training provided by the company on and ongoing basis. "HotSpring offers a really good variety of sales training opportunities, from regional sales camps to more advanced sales classes that they hold in a couple of different places around the country, and of course at their factory in Vista, California," says King. "They offer us a lot in the way of sales training materials, from video and audio to printed information for sales training."

Sundance Spas also offers dealers a sales-training program. The company has a full-time national sales trainer who conducts regional one-day seminars throughout North American dealerships, as well as two-day advanced training seminars three times per year for more-experienced salespeople. The Sundance seminars address "product selling techniques along with merchandising, marketing, and doing business with Sundance Spas," says Dennis Gentek, national sales manager for Sundance. These company-conducted trainings are very important in creating an informed Sundance salesperson, he adds. "Without training, the innovative features and uniqueness of our premium product may not stand out among the other choices. Through effective training, sales associates are also able to expose consumers to the many benefits of spa ownership capturing sales away from other luxury items outside of the category."

As for dealers, there seems to be general agreement on the golden mean: Effective salespeople must possess equal parts product knowledge and people savvy. Dealers use both the training provided by the manufacturers and their own programs when training their staffs. Cindi Blechschmidt, owner of Aqua Spas & Pools in Gig Harbor Wash., an Emerald Spas dealer says, "It's absolutely a mixture of both." After product knowledge is firmly in place, make sure your staff does know how to cater to different types of customers, she says. "When training our sales staff we teach them to dance to the consumer's music. There are all different types of people out there, and we all have our own sales technique. And that technique has to change sometimes based upon the consumer you're dealing with. If you have a consumer who's like me, very direct, give me the facts, give me the details, you better tune in to that real quickly, and do just that, because if you start doing a lot of fluff and song and dance, it's going to turn that consumer off and you won't make a sale."

In addition to frequent company trainings, King also teaches his sales staff to tailor their presentations to customer's personalities. "If they come in and they're going to act like a CEO and order you around, there's a way to deal with that to still stay in control, and to not butt heads with that customer and to treat them with respect and ask their opinion of things," says King. "There are certainly techniques to use to make a customer feel like they're in control and that they're being listened to."

Keep Them Happy

Now that your store is full of great salespeople, how do you hold on to them and keep them happy. Aside from the obvious — offering them good wages, hours and benefits — dealers use different techniques, from team building to ongoing training, to challenge and motivate their employees. The most important factor, though, according to both dealers and sales consultants, is letting your staff be themselves.

Blechschmidt works hard to create a team atmosphere in her store. "Team atmosphere is really, really important," she says. "One of the things that our customers very much appreciate is that it doesn't matter who they talk to. We're all going to provide the same level of high-quality service to them. So it's not one of those 'Oh, it's not my sale.' We don't have that attitude here. We encourage a team environment, and the customer appreciates that." This cooperative approach to selling, Blechschmidt says, results in more sales for the store, keeping all her employees happy. "That's the bottom line, we all benefit if the sale is ultimately made."

King offers his staff ongoing training at weekly sales meetings to keep them engaged in their jobs. "The weekly sales meetings include information pertinent to our store, but we always incorporate a segment of sales training into it, just to keep everybody sharp. We role-play frequently, different situations, whether it's something off of the sales training material, or maybe something will come up where somebody had a customer that posed an unusual circumstance or situation." The HotSpring regional sales manager also visits the store every other month to put the staff through their paces. "Geographically we're really fortunate, he covers a lot of ground and we just happen to be on his way. I think we get more than our fair share," says King.

In addition to creating a good atmosphere and offering ongoing training, experts and dealers couldn't stress enough the importance of keeping your team happy by letting them be themselves. If her salespeople sense a personality mismatch with a customer, Blechschmidt encourages them to steer the customer to another salesperson. "When you recognize that you don't do well with this particular consumer's personality type, do a hand-off to another salesperson that you know deals better with that personality type."

"You can be true to your own style," says Jolles. Some of the greatest salespeople in the world have none of the stereotypical attributes that we see salespeople having." Not asking your employees to use a cookie-cutter approach to selling builds their confidence and commitment, to both your store and product, and ultimately keeps them happy, right where you want them: sparkling on your showroom floor.