Training a gentler sales force

ACN conference opens here today, with nary a cold call

June 25, 1999|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

Starting today, downtown Baltimore will be host to an unusual sort of business gathering. American Communications Network Inc., a Farmington Hills, Mich., telecommunications company, is holding a three-day sales training conference at the Baltimore Arena and the Baltimore Hilton & Towers Hotel. About 7,000 people are expected.

What sets this event apart from the normal sales conference is ACN's rather novel business strategy. While most sizable telephone and Internet companies use telemarketers and big in-house sales departments, ACN relies on at-home entrepreneurs selling to racquetball buddies and church pals.

These ACN sales representatives make money from the services they sell, and they also get a cut on sales made by reps they recruit to the ACN cause. Amway Corp. has been using similar networks for years to sell food and household products.

However, the cozy approach is seldom used in the brutally competitive telecommunications industry, where dinnertime sales calls and junk mail are among the preferred modes of reaching out and touching potential customers. ACN calls its strategy "warm marketing," as opposed to the "cold calling" that telemarketers engage in.

"One of the things you would get if you could sell this way is very loyal customers," said Michele Pelino, a telecommunications analyst with the Yankee Group in Boston. However, Pelino added that a company trying this down-home approach would have to convince customers that it is a legitimate operation.

One long-distance firm that tried a contractor-sales approach, Excel Communications Inc. of Dallas, built up a sales force of 400,000 and was bought by Teleglobe Inc. last year for $3.94 billion.

Privately owned ACN said it had more than $100 million in revenue in 1997 and is pondering an initial public offering. The company has more than 300,000 sales reps in the United States, Canada, Germany and Great Britain, and is planning to expand into Scandinavia. ACN ranked 22nd on Inc. magazine's 1998 list of America's fastest-growing private companies, and is gradually entering another industry that is being shaken up by deregulation -- gas and electric utility service.

This weekend's gathering is planned to be a blend of sales pitch and pep rally. With an eye toward garnering new salespeople, today's events are open to the public. On Saturday and Sunday, the focus shifts to honing the techniques and raising the spirits of ACN's national sales force.

ACN spokeswoman Kristin Gardziola said the weekend is intended "to give our reps an update on our different products, also to be able to motivate them, to keep them going."

One ACN representative who will be attending is Chuck Hall of Severna Park. In 1994, Hall was persuaded by a friend to become an ACN rep. Within a little more than a year, Hall said, he was making enough on ACN sales to quit his job as the general manager of a Randallstown health club. Hall, 37, is now a regional vice president for ACN. He said he draws income from 10,000 sales representatives and sets his own schedule.

"I'm so completely satisfied with what I'm doing, I'd never go back to a traditional business," Hall said. "I love making money through the efforts of other people."

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