Steel Products

Ethics and Your Business: Hire the Person, Not the Book

Written by Tim Triplett

Contributed by Justin Philipp, People Area Director, Pacesetter Steel

When you hire a new salesperson from within the industry, are you hiring them or their book of business? 

The term “book of business” originated in the legal industry, where two lawyers would combine their client lists to form a law firm. In the steel industry, a book of business is more of an old school, trunk of the car, salesman with a Rolodex kind of thing. Where they go, their book of business goes.

It’s not inherently unethical for a business to hire sales talent from another company, even a competitor. Those individuals have a right to pursue career advancement down whatever path they choose. Especially if their current employer is not giving them the support and the compensation they deserve.

As a human resource professional, I look at the individual applicant as a human being, not a book of business. We hire them for themselves, pay them a fair wage and incentives, provide benefits and welcome them into our culture. Often, other steel companies are more interested in that rep’s contacts, business relationships and account intel. They don’t necessarily care about the person.  

In the worst-case scenarios, after obtaining what they want from the new rep’s “book,” a company will put that person in a no-win sales situation where they often flounder until forced to leave. I can’t count all the conversations I’ve had with seasoned sales reps who tell the same story: “I started with XYZ Steel, things were going great, I grew the territory by a huge percentage, and I was well above sales targets the first year. Then year two came along. Suddenly, they transition some of my relationships to an account manager or a junior sales rep ‘to free up more of my time to go after new business,’ they say. By year three, my sales numbers don’t compare to year one, and the company and I are having performance discussions. I’m wondering, what the hell happened?”

Did the company do something illegal? No. Unethical? Maybe. Not nice? Absolutely.

Now, sales reps are not just innocent victims here. In an interview setting, most can’t wait to brag about what dynamic customer relationships they’ve built, how chummy they are with various groups of buyers, and how knowledgeable they are of the territory and its prospects. Some will even spout off the list of customers they will call their first day and start to bring in business.

I think both sides need take a step back and be honest. No Mr. or Ms. Salesperson, you are not guaranteeing us business by employing you. The best realistic hope is that your relationships may allow us to open communications with new customers. And Mr. Employer, you need to focus on filling the position with the best-qualified candidate for the role. If the open role is to grow business with a few targeted accounts, discuss those expectations. If the role is to prospect for new business, make that clear during the hiring process. Most folks will welcome the honesty and probably still apply for the position if it is presented correctly.

The hard fact is the majority of a company’s growth typically comes from the loss of business suffered by another company. We are all fighting for a larger slice of the pie, and to grow your slice takes hard work, good quality and an honest reputation. Any other way is a shortcut, and in the end people get lost. Perhaps through more ethical hiring practices, the steel industry can bake up a bigger pie.

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