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Selling lies

Features - Human Resources, Industry News

John Wingfield needed a salesperson. What he got was a headache and a valuable lesson.

Brian Horn | June 15, 2011

John Wingfield Jr. was on a medical mission in Peru last year. That meant two weeks away from his business distractions, customer meetings and cell phone service.

As the president of Eagle Landscape near Forth Worth, Texas, it wouldn’t have been shocking for Wingfield to have a pretty full voicemail box, especially because his company just started a handful of new jobs. 

But when Wingfield finally could get a signal, he wasn’t happy with what he heard.

“I got back on day three,” Wingfield says, “and I had all of these phone calls from property managers saying ‘Who the hell are you?’”

Not exactly what you want to hear from your customers.

Confused, Wingfield returned the calls to the upset customers and explained that he possessed signed contracts between them and his salesperson, “Sue.”

Except, the customers had no idea who she was, and had never met her.

“That’s when I put two and two together and realized, uh-oh, we’re in trouble,” Wingfield says.

It turned out Wingfield had been conned. The salesperson, “Sue,” never sold the contracts. She just told Wingfield she did and had fake ones created. In fact, not only hadn’t she sold anything, she was working for a rival company when she should have been working for Wingfield. She was also charging the company credit card with $60 increments, making it look like she was entertaining potential clients, when she was actually buying her groceries.

“It was about a $30,000 hit for me in six months from all the cash out flow,” he says.

And it could have been worse. Wingfield was ready to buy $30,000 worth of equipment and hire more people because of the new jobs.

“Had we’d really been awarded those jobs, we would’ve had to start another crew and hired more people, which means when I’d came back, I would’ve had to fire all those people,” he says.

But it wasn’t as if Wingfield hadn’t done some due diligence. When he hired “Sue,” he was under the impression she had sold $1 million worth of work for her prior company.

Wingfield even saw the contracts of the work she sold.

At least, that’s what he thought.

“She had shown me contracts, which I now know were just forged contracts that she had written,” he says.

But Wingfield wasn’t going to let her get away with it. Owning a company that is approaching $3 million in revenue, Wingfield could handle the $30,000 a hit, but a smaller company wouldn’t be so lucky.

“My fear was she was going to keep doing this to employers, and I felt that I had an obligation to have it stopped,” he says. “Because if she did this to a small company, that would have put them out of business and ruined that family’s income.”

Having been through litigation before, and knowing “Sue” had no money, Wingfield took her to small claims court.

He was able to recoup the unauthorized credit card charges (she signed an employee agreement, which prohibited her from such charges), and he was also able to get money back for a laptop she claimed was stolen, but Wingfield was able to prove otherwise.

Through all of this, Wingfield learned a few lessons. He paid “Sue” less than the market value for a quality salesperson, but now is paying more for a salesperson, and that has paid off.

"I was desperate for a salesperson and I tried to take the cheap, easy way out, and I paid the price for it,” he says. “You’ve got to pay what people are worth.”

When Wingfield hired “Sue,” he thought he’d be able to train her. But, as an owner, something always comes up, and you run out of time. Now, he has weekly staff meetings where he hears what sales people have in the works, as well as reasons why a sale fell through. He also likes documentation of potential customers visited and details of expense reports.

Though Wingfield says he hires self-motivated employees, there is nothing wrong with staying informed on what they are doing.

“The lesson that I learned was just really to do your diligence and hire the right people, hire people with experience and not hope for them to figure it out on their own,” he says. “There’s a big difference in an owner or a manager of a company micromanaging an employee versus keeping track and holding employees accountable.”

The author is an associate editor at Lawn & Landscape. He can be reached at bhorn@gie.net.