October 1, 2003

9 Min Read

Kelly Svoboda

WASTE HAULING MAY be one of the few recession-proof industries, but that doesn't mean your business can't use a boost. A sales team can give you a competitive edge by going beyond only referrals or advertising to actively convey your level of service to the public.

To be successful, a salesperson “needs to be hungry,” says Mike Watson, the director of commercial sales at Houston-based Waste Management Inc., who joined the company more than 11 years ago as a sales representative. Resiliency is just as important. “If you stay focused, you'll eventually get the results you want,” he says, noting that one of his memorable accomplishments, a large account of $35,000 per month, took two years to land.

Besides efficiently targeting new customers and specific markets, sales teams can increase retention among your current customers by identifying and responding to their needs and concerns. Watson says developing relationships with customers and growing a company that he believed in is the most enjoyable part of his job; the hardest is constantly overcoming pricing pressure from the competition. “I really needed to stress our value over competitors' lower prices,” he says.

Because salespeople are typically compensated through commission (some also receive a base salary), this small investment in people can have a large influence on your business.

Increasing Your Presence

The right representative can expand your business opportunities, says Sales Manager Terry Dreblow of Vasko Solid Waste, St. Paul, Minn. Dreblow should know: He has more than 20 years of experience in selling waste services. Since being hired to run Vasko's department a few months ago, Dreblow has increased the company's sales team from two to six, including the recent addition of three independent contractors. Dreblow, who also handles sales, says the larger department already has had “a positive impact on the company,” although he says it's too early to provide specific numbers.

The expansion was part of Vasko's strategy to capture new commercial and industrial business. For instance, one salesperson now is focused solely on roll-off sales. “There's a lot of construction going on, and we want a share of that,” Dreblow says. Second, independent contractors who work out of the Minneapolis area strive to increase the company's presence in the Twin City. Dreblow says the contractors add flexibility and can extend the company's reach without having to be hired on full-time.

A salesperson can be valuable in the service business. “Service is different than selling a product — you can't hold service in your hand to show how good it is,” Dreblow says. Relatively few people have a background in the waste industry, but anyone can receive preliminary and on-the-job training. For that reason, he prefers employees who have a sales background in a service industry such as landscaping or building maintenance.

Then, Dreblow teaches his employees “everything from the history of the market to how to measure the size of a container.” “I show them how to tailor their selling strategy to the trash business,” he says. As the young sales department matures, the company's chance to expand and succeed increases, he says.

Staying Competitive

A salesperson can help you develop a profitable and long-term relationship with your customers, says Bob Henriques of Rolloffs Hawaii in Kaneohe. Henriques first acquired a sales department in 1985 when his company bought out another company with one. Almost immediately, he noticed at least a 50 percent increase in overall sales. Prior to that, Henriques had been handling all the sales by himself.

Henriques' sales department, which now consists of three other people, works hand-in-hand with property management companies. The salespeople also work on roll-off and front-loader sales. They are compensated with a base salary plus commission, and Henriques sets specific (and closely guarded) sales targets for the team each month.

“In the sales industry, your best bet is to know your customers and develop a good relationship with them,” Henriques says. “Then you'll be able to use your contacts forever. As I tell my salespeople, once they become your friend, they'll become your customer.” Henriques suggests that frequently visiting prospective customers, even to just drop a card and say hello, means those contacts will remember you at renewal time.

Building relationships is very important in a small area like Hawaii, where many waste hauling companies are competing for a limited number of customers. Henriques says he has the third-largest company in the Honolulu area, and he needs his representatives to be on the same level as the other local companies, which have between three and five salespeople. To get an extra edge, Henriques also will hire extra salespeople at times to work on a commission-only basis.

Capturing a New Market

When Gordon Beers wanted to expand his business of 20 employees and 15 trucks, which operates franchises in Arizona and California, he relied on his sales and public relations person.

Beers, president of Palo Verde Valley Disposal, Blythe, Calif., hired his salesperson on a salary plus commission basis about three years ago. He said the addition has been a big improvement over relying solely on referrals and ads for business. “The biggest help has been for overloads; we're doing more service there,” he says. “We've also increased our extra pickups. In Arizona, we have seen a significant increase in new customers.”

The increase in rural areas is especially telling because Beers had to overcome a major obstacle: People had become accustomed to disposing of their own trash. “That's what people in rural areas do; they make individual trips to the landfill,” Beers says. It was up to his salesperson to convince people that it was more economical and time-efficient to hire his company to do the job, which would save them the trouble of replacing tires, driving to the landfill and maintaining their trucks.

Beers agrees a good salesperson can be trained; he or she does not necessarily need a waste-hauling or sales background. Yet the person should be comfortable in speaking to the public. “Someone who's outgoing, not timid, is important [in persuading a potential customer],” he says.

“Don't do a hard sell,” Beers adds. “It's difficult to force somebody to take service that's not mandatory.” Beers, who is satisfied with the size of his sales department, still reviews their activities every two or three days to follow their progress.

Growing a Small Business

Sometimes even just a little sales work can go a long way. Bob Kline, owner of River Valley Disposal, Columbia, Penn., does most of the sales work at the company himself, while also depending on word-of-mouth and some advertising to get his name out. With a family in the waste business, he started his own company in 1992 that does residential, commercial and roll-offs. He says he is “always looking for new business,” but with just five employees in his company, a full sales department probably would not be the best use of his resources.

However, Kline says “we might think about developing one in the near future,” he says. “It all depends if we decide we want to grow faster than we are.”

Kline believes what you sell is more important than how you sell it. “Your best selling point is your service; it speaks for itself. It's how you take care of your customers, your reputation,” he says. A bad reputation will undermine even the best sales pitch: “Bad news travels faster than good news,” he says.

Kelly Svoboda is based in Evanston, Ill.


Sales departments need to constantly evolve to adapt to the growing market and increase efficiency. In fact, Houston-based Waste Management Inc., the largest company in the waste industry, recently redesigned its sales model with the “Sales Force Effectiveness Plan.” The plan was developed two years ago and is currently being implemented nationwide. Even small companies can benefit from learning how Waste Management now gets the most out of its sales force, the company says.

The sales redesign was prompted by the business maturation at the company, which boasts more than 1,500 employees on its North American sales team. In its current position as industry giant, generating sales from brand-new customers takes on greater importance — even as the increasing population produces greater amounts of waste. “Organic growth is critical,” says Mike Watson, director of commercial sales.

Jim Trevathan, senior vice-president of sales and marketing, says the plan's aim is to incorporate accountability in metrics for the sales teams. “The needs of every customer, big and small, have been studied,” he says. Cancellation calls have been of particular note.

A revised training process is geared toward giving every sales team the tools to achieve its potential. Revamped classes cover topics on improving selling skills, prospect management and getting in front of decision-makers, and are offered to both new and existing employees.

The sales plan is being implemented among all national offices. “There are 400 collection companies around the country,” Trevathan says. “We are focused on finding the single-best method and making it uniform throughout our company.” But consistency won't impede the diverse needs of certain regions: “While we can't let every district set up its own process, we can let many of them adapt it to their local markets,” he says.

To find the best people for the job, recruiting has become focused and more streamlined. Watson says recruitment occurs on a national level (one method is listing jobs on the company Web site) with a stricter screening process that reduces legwork for managers. Like many other managers, Watson says that while waste hauling sales experience is a plus, it's definitely not a requirement. “Some of our top performers are from outside the industry, and have come in and blown the doors off,” he says, adding that the company profiles which companies or industries they get their top reps from.


  1. Make sure sales territories are promising and desirable.

  2. Develop marketing partners. Network, network, network.

  3. Keep the sales force in front of clients; don't draw them into bureaucracy.

  4. Encourage referrals.

  5. Be fair, but reward the best performers.

  6. Remember to include expenses, benefits and possible down-market com mission supplements in your financial thinking.

  7. Mentor, manage and offer ongoing training.

  8. At the same time, look for smart, self-motivated, goal-oriented, organized and resilient communicators. These characteristics can't be trained.
    John Lavine and Abe Peck Media Management Center, Northwestern University Evanston, Ill.

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