How to Hire, Train and Motivate Support Staffers

Support staffers are often the engines of a company’s sales efforts. Learn how you can better hire, train and motivate these essential employees.

Life is pretty good at Bullpen Marketing (asi/150076). Support staffers enjoy free lunch more than once a week and unlimited paid time off. But getting in the door is no small accomplishment.

Besides three rounds of interviews with multiple employees, applicants must undergo a Wonderlic assessment test (the same one used by the National Football League to evaluate incoming players). And, aside from proving their worth through a barrage of questions about their ability to succeed in a support role in marketing, sales or production, they must answer questions in keeping with the corporate culture – like: “Do you watch Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead?” That question tends to be asked in jest (maybe), says Colin Hageney, the Houston-based company’s president. But the distributor firm takes its talent search seriously – in both its skills assessment and corporate fit.

These days that process is so accurate that the company’s method can take 40 candidates and whittle them down to the final two or three in a matter of weeks through a series of interviewing tests, tasks and talking points that has been repeatedly refined over the years. Some of those steps are standard (reviewing resumes), while others are simple but very powerful, Hageney says.

For example, every applicant who makes it to a round-one interview is asked to conduct an initial phone assessment by calling the company at a set time, say 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Hageney says. Those who miss the call, phone in an hour early, or check in on the wrong day are quickly weeded from the pack.

“It’s just a benchmark,” Hageney says, but one that is surprisingly predictive of job performance for support personnel. “You can always tell the ones that are good because they’ll call five minutes before,” he says. It’s a simple exercise, Hageney adds, but applicants who can’t honor a routine request in the interviewing process will struggle tremendously to fulfill customer needs in a multi-tasking service role.

Identifying Top Talent
How to hire, train and motivate an exceptional support team can be one of the most important – and daunting – tasks distributors face. Too often, when it comes to business development, the hiring and retention focus is on the sales team. But the support staff is just as crucial – if not more so – at keeping orders progressing in a timely manner and without errors. What makes a great support worker and how do you find and train that person?

Distributors seem torn on where to look for top talent, but they’re in agreement that the hiring process is exceedingly important. “All the interpersonal problems, all the things that make work ugly, it all stems from not having the right people in the right roles,” says Jason Robbins, CEO of Top 40 distributor ePromos Promotional Products Inc. (asi/188515), based in New York.

Using a smattering of tools (referrals, online job boards, industry and college recruits, among others), Robbins and his team also have applicants complete a DISC assessment personality profile. “We never hire somebody without interviewing them at least twice, typically three times at a minimum,” Robbins says.

More than almost any other position, distributors insist that the personality traits of support team members are vital to their productivity. Those with resilience, flexibility, a strong work ethic and a curiosity to take on new and different roles are often the strongest team members, industry executives say. Because service roles are multi-functional with a strong need to complete multiple tasks back-to-back, if not simultaneously, it is important that new hires don’t require too much coddling, hand holding or ego boosting.

Traits that Robbins and his team are looking for when hiring service professionals include leadership and critical thinking, among others. And, because these traits are so crucial to success, time is never a hurdle in finding the right fit.

“Even if we spend 10 hours on 10 people, picking only one, that would be 100 hours. And if the person works 2,000-plus hours a year, isn’t it worth spending 5% of a person’s time to find the right hire?” Robbins asks.

In other words, time up front, means better customer service and sales support on the back end. That translates to smoother operations, happier customers and greater profits. “So it’s important to hire slowly and, if you do make a mistake, fire quickly,” Robbins says.

Derek Block agrees. And, he adds, finding quality support workers should be a constant effort – even when positions aren’t available. “Even when the need isn’t there right now, we know with growth it will be,” says Block, president and founder of Mason, OH-based Touchstone (asi/345631). “You need to have a proactive strategy to create and maintain a pipeline of qualified candidates.”

Look Everywhere
Finding the right back-end employee can be a chaotic experience unto itself, fraught with uncertainty about the best recruiting paths, including – the industry (some candidates come with exceptional experience while others are, it becomes apparent, job searching for a reason), social media (some distributors have leveraged Facebook for hiring, one reporting an employee with a three-year commitment) or online job boards (a local landscaper seemed an unlikely fit, despite his best efforts to parallel lawn mowing with promotional product customer service).

Often college campuses are a ripe recruiting ground, particularly this time of year as new graduates are eager for work and itching to prove their value in their first job out of school. It’s a key recruiting ground for Corporate Imaging Concepts LLC (asi/168962), says Brian Abrams, the company’s CEO. Why? New hires who have never worked in promotional products – or in the workforce for that matter – are “easy for me to train,” rather than having to retrain someone from the industry whose old habits don’t fit with Imaging Concepts’ work plan.

To do that, Abrams says, his company looks for applicants who have faced and conquered adversity, whether it was in another job or life in general. The fact that “they’ve overcome that to get where they are right now” – ambitiously seeking gainful employment – is a sign of “confidence” and capability, Abrams says.

Regardless of the recruitment or interviewing method a distributor uses, finding the right personality is key, since support employees often have traits different from salespeople or other staff members that make them particularly suitable for service-based positions. The traits of top support staffers tends to be the ability to multi-task, operate flexibly, have curiosity about corporate systems and processes, and display a strong desire to work with and better understand how the sales, production and fulfillment processes can work seamlessly for better customer service.

Yes, they may be working for a promotional product distributor. But the reality is “we’re selling supply chain efficiency,” says Abrams.  And knowing about that supply chain can involve a significant level of training.

Training Ground
Indeed, providing knowledge and information can be the key to whether a support employee is successful at a distributor firm today. Because support staffers are being asked to juggle multiple tasks at once and be flexible enough to jump from finalizing artwork to putting out fires within hours if not minutes, being knowledgeable in addition to hard working and efficient is key, says Steven Polish, owner of TNM Promotions (asi/341098).

The Winnipeg, Canada-based distributor runs every new hire through a two-week training program that involves online learning as well as one-on-one training, shadowing of staff members and trips to supplier and decorator facilities so they can have first-hand knowledge of order fulfillment processes. After all that? New hires are on a three-month probationary period, Polish says.

Of course, once a distributor finds the right support staffer, keeping the person there (as well as keeping them supremely motivated) is crucial, executives insist. How they do that varies widely within the industry, but perks, incentives and recognition are doled out with abandon it seems for many distributors with a strong tenure of support employees.

And, the more unusual the reward, the better. At Proforma Add A Line (asi/300094) in Lima, OH, for example, employees are allowed four sick days a year in addition to vacation. That may seem unremarkable, but those who don’t use those days are paid for them in the end, says Bob McPheron, the company’s president and CEO. That and flex time has helped keep some staffers there for upwards of 15 years.

Money Matters
For others firms, the best way to motivate and retain support employees comes in the form of financial incentives. They go to great lengths to back up their support teams with financial rewards when sales are booming. At Image Source (asi/230121), President Tom Goos says support staff are given a 50/50 split on commissions for sales contest winners. Other distributor firms pay their support people a percentage of profits, whether it’s based on total annual sales or for a specific order.

At Brand Fuel (asi/145025), employees are paid a percentage of the profits from sales they are working on. In fact, many distributors report making an effort to create a more direct financial connection between support staff functions and corporate revenue. At Top 40 distributor CSE Inc. (asi/155807) for example, a yearly “mistake pool” valued at $250,000 a year, is divvied up into four quarterly payouts, dependent upon how many mistakes are made on orders.

As mistakes are made “money gets taken out” of the pool, says Tom Savio, president of the company, based in New Berlin, WI. “Whatever’s left at the end of each quarter we split up in the company,” he says. “So everyone’s on each other about not making mistakes. It’s unique, but it really works.”

What also works is unlimited paid time off, says Bullpen’s Hageney. “It shocks some people,” Hageney says. But working “on the other side of the desk” where Hageney struggled to manage sick versus vacation days made him realize that a set number of days really just motivates employees to use up that time – whether they need it or not.

“Everybody would take off their sick days and fake it” in a use it or lose it system. Hageney thought there had to be a better way. Employees aren’t given any guidelines on how to use the unlimited time off, other than a general directive that they are free to go as they see fit, as long as their tasks are completed and their departments are properly staffed.

Culture Club
Distributors with a well-tenured support staff insist the key to keeping them around is by fostering a strong corporate culture, as much as it is about rewarding their efforts. For some, that can even involve world travel. Each year, employees from Touchstone travel to Mexico with service organization Youth With a Mission to build a home for an impoverished family. The four-day project is a profoundly moving and bonding experience Block says.

Part of Touchstone’s employee development program, called True You, which helps employees map out a four-year employee development plan (some of which involves traveling abroad) not only helps communities overseas, but helps build a sense of community and cohesiveness among Touchstone employees by participating in such an impactful and moving experience.

Others, like Image Source, leverage social media to play the role of recruiter and motivator in one. The company’s Facebook page is packed with pictures of employees in costume, going bowling or celebrating sports teams, suggesting a strong cohesiveness that both builds employee morale as they view the photos online and also entices new job applicants who are searching the Web for companies with a lively corporate culture.

It’s all part of the company’s “Culture Club,” an internal group sanctioned to organize movie nights, birthday parties and spontaneous “acts of kindness” events, says Goos. On any given day, employees might receive an email to look under their chairs, a la Oprah Winfrey. They may not find car keys taped to the bottom, but they will likely be surprised with a small jigsaw puzzle, and, the first to complete it gets a restaurant gift card. Just because.

For work anniversaries, employees may find a bottle of wine with a handwritten note thanking them for their service. “Culture is the biggest element for us in motivating employees,” says Goos. “And that’s where we’ve been able to retain and attract team members.”

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