Steven St. Onge returned from a year-long sailing sabbatical with his family to find that the sales department of his business was not on an even keel. Six months before leaving, the president of Rhode Island Kitchen & Bath, in Warwick, had promoted his lead salesperson to the post of sales manager, overseeing a team of four salespeople. It was part of an organizational plan he made so the business would run smoothly in his absence.

“I committed the classic mistake of assuming that my lead salesperson would make a good sales manager,” St. Onge admits. “When sales slipped, she responded as a salesperson would — by selling more rather than hiring or training her team.” During their first meeting in 2004 after his trip, the sales manager asked to return to her sales position. This left St. Onge without anyone overseeing sales.

Because of the dearth of people with both sales management and remodeling experience, upscale remodelers have had to get creative in filling the sales manager post. St. Onge was determined to hire someone with sales management experience. After searching for months, he hired someone who had worked as the sales manager at an auto dealership for several years.

Most experts say that sales management trumps industry experience, but there’s a caveat: The candidate must have an interest in absorbing a new culture. St. Onge’s hire did not. His singular focus on sales caused trouble with the company's designer and sales staff.

“He alienated the staff because he was so focused on sales and not on the considerations of the design process,” St. Onge says. Two seasoned salespeople/designers and a new hire left the company during that manager’s first year on the job.

The sales manager recognized he wasn’t performing up to expectations and left the company in 2006, after just over a year with the company. St. Onge took back the job to reconnect with his staff and calm the waters. He put filling the position on hold to concentrate on an expansion project. In January 2008, the company moved to a 10,000-square-foot combination showroom, office, and warehouse.

Now, he’s thinking about trying again. What will he do differently? “I don’t have that answer yet, which is why I am still the sales manager,” St. Onge says. He’s reading up on the subject and working on a job description to balance sales management with the concerns of the design staff.

He’s also expanding the metrics he uses to measure success. Hitting sales and profit margin targets were the principal goals for the prior manager. The next one will likely have another goal: minimizing turnover so as not to rock the boat.

--Loring Leifer is a freelance writer based in Shawnee Mission, Kan.