Despite economy, sales forces grow

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Many b-to-b companies are markedly expanding their sales forces to market themselves out of the economic downturn. They’re betting that bigger, more experienced sales forces are the surest way to counter a softening andgiven recent eventsan increasingly uncertain economic climate.

These businesses believe clients affected by the downturn are keener than ever on getting one-on-one attention from sales reps. They also say the pool of available sales talent is better than at any time in recent memory.

Companies hiring

Among the companies boosting their ranks are:

• FreeMarkets Inc., a leading b-to-b e-procurement company, which has increased its sales force by 30% over the past year.

• Comforce Corp., a staffing company, has built its sales rep force by 15% over the last year and plans to do more hiring.

• Forsythe Solutions Group Inc., a technology infrastructure company, has built its sales force by 25% over the past six months and plans additional hiring.

• RetailExchange, a b-to-b excess inventory site, has increased its sales force from 10 people to 20 since last year and is looking to hire more.

The companies say sales-force reductions elsewhere, especially among technology companies, put a lot of good salespeople on the street.

"There are more good people than weve ever seen," said Joe Juliano, VP-global enterprise sales at Pittsburgh-based FreeMarkets. Many of the available reps, he said, have experience in software sales and are looking to get out of that hard-hit industry.

Chicago-based Forsythe has taken advantage of the available talent to increase its sales force to 120 reps. "ROI [return on investment] is on everyones mind right now, and many clients are delaying IT buying unless they can justify how technologies can improve their business," said Eva Losacco, president-CEO of Forsythe.

"We train salespeople to be trusted advisers to their businesses. So when we can find that kind of person, we get them. Those people are hard to find during good times. Now theyre much easier to find."

Comforce, a Woodbury, New York-based staffing and outsourcing firm, has increased its sales force to 150 representatives. The company plans to hire more reps during the next four months. Evan Burks, exec-VP, said a big drop in orders prompted the company to build its sales staff. "A year ago, you could practically throw a rock and get an order," Burks said.

The companys main reason for building its sales force is to be positioned for an economic turnaround, Burks said. "Progressive companies should view expanding their sales force as great for ROI. We want to be riding a wave when the recovery happens," he said.

Cuts can hurt

Companies that cut sales jobs during a downturn hurt themselves, Burks said. "No companys ever downsized its way out of a downturn," he said.

Businesses that have depended on their Web sites to help bring in business must now focus on building up their sales forces, said Jason Kissell, director-marketing at Boston-based RetailExchange. "What weve built is an online presence, but weve got to get face to face with people to convince them that its a more efficient way to do business," he said.

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