FORTUNE Small Business:

How do I keep top employees?

A small-business owner wants to know how he can compete with larger competitors in retaining good employees.

By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer

(FSB Magazine) -- Dear FSB: How can I attract top-notch talent when I can't afford to match the pay that huge competitors offer? I own a medical-supply business, and I'm up against some global giants. They're doing a lot of hiring, and I've had several great candidates - all top salespeople - tell me they're going where the big money is. Any suggestions? --(Name withheld by request) Memphis

Dear Memphis: "Try offering salespeople bigger commissions to offset the lower salaries you're paying," suggests Dave Lorenzo, a managing partner at the Gallup Organization, who frequently advises entrepreneurs. Or go beyond standard one-time commissions: One of Lorenzo's recent clients, Brite Building Services in Dix Hills, N.Y., is a commercial-cleaning company that pays its salespeople relatively modest salaries but sweetens the deal with a percentage of any new business they bring in. The employee gets his cut over the life of the account, like an annuity. Very few big companies offer anything like that.

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You might also ponder a reward that's a little off the beaten path. "The only limit is your creativity," says Lorenzo. One real estate firm he knows has a gym as a tenant and gives its own employees free memberships. (In return the gym owner gets a little break on the rent.) Whenever possible, Lorenzo says, entrepreneurs should "try working a deal that's connected to your regular business. If you sell appliances, give your employees appliances at cost. Car dealerships routinely let them drive demo cars."

Okay, so medical supplies may not lend themselves so readily to that kind of incentive - how many Foley catheters or artificial heart valves do most of us need? - but Lorenzo insists that you can find appealing alternatives if you try. "The hottest thing today is letting employees work from home. People who have been successful in traditional sales jobs, especially, love being free to set their own schedules and not have anybody looking over their shoulder," he says. "And it's a win for you too, because you don't need to have office space for them." Top of page

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