Photo by Wayne MacPhail on Flickr
Here are a couple of realities we’ve all had to face:
- Effective salespeople are rare for the same reason as great talent in any field. That is, the sales profession requires talent, training, and a managerial context designed for success.
- Smaller companies are working within a constrained budget. The fact is that it is hard to hire someone who you expect to turn a million or multi-million dollars in business, for a $45k or even $75k base. Anyone who can do the former knows enough to not accept the latter.
Now, even when compensation is adequate, the pool of applicants is still small and all-too-often substandard. Why?
- Great salespeople are about 10% of the profession (same as every other line of work).
- Those engaged successfully are less willing to risk transition in this economy – they’re not looking with as much urgency.
- Those who are failing ARE actively looking and filling your application inbox.
These are serious problems businesses — especially smaller businesses — have to combat head-on. It’s not enough to hope for the best – you must have a strategy in place for hiring and keeping great salespeople.
How to Hire Great Salespeople
1. Know Your Ideal
Do you know your ideal candidate? I’m not talking about a general idea — I’m talking specifics here. Specifically, what qualifications are necessary for the job? What type of personality will reach your customer base? Who else do you need to round-out your sales team? What are the red flags you’re going to look for? Just as it’s important to define — quite specifically — your ideal customer, so should you define your ideal candidate. Too many salespeople have been hired because they “generally fit the bill” only to either leave after a short time, or just be fired. Save yourself the time, energy, and money of training someone new that ultimately doesn’t work, and be utterly specific when looking for your next hire. It may take a little longer to find the right person or people, but in the long run, it will be incredibly worth it.
2. Interview Strategy
Is there an interview guide for your company? If not, don’t proceed with another interview without developing one. Having an interview guide for all managers to use — specifically designed with different questions depending on the job descriptions — is a vital part of ensuring the right people get hired. In order to truly choose the best candidates out of the pool, consistent questions are key (and these would be based on big things — like your company’s value proposition — as well as little things — like the social climate of your office). An interview strategy is especially important if your managers have not received formal interview training (and my guess is, most haven’t). Even if they are trained, an interview guide must be developed so it specifically fits your company.
3. Experience Plus Gut Instinct
Sometimes you run across a candidate who looks good on paper, and maybe even answers all the interview questions with flying colors. But don’t ignore that gut feeling that tells you something’s off — especially if more than one interviewer feels it. If something’s off, then it probably is — and you don’t want to be there later on to find out (neither do your customers). On the other hand, even if one or two things don’t fit your ideal candidate to a “T,” if you have a really strong feeling about a person, talk with the other managers to see if the candidate is teachable. Yes, it’s important to have the ideal candidate, but sometimes a person walks into the room that you just know is going to work. Trust that instinct.
Alright, so you’ve just hired the best person for the job, and they’ve hit the ground running. Now what?
How to Keep Great Salespeople
1. Fair Compensation
I have an employee who started out in sales. It was a great job, and she was doing a fantastic job. The problem? Her base salary wasn’t enough to cover basic living expenses in the (rather wealthy) area where the company was based. To make ends meet, she had to live an hour away (an hour and a half during rush hour) and eventually quit because the commute was too taxing and the pay was not worth the stress. Smart people will not stay in the position if the compensation is not worth it. Ensuring that the base salary is competitive yet doable is extremely important. Don’t rely on promises of commission to keep the salesperson at the company. You might get them in the beginning, but if your product isn’t selling (and it’s not the salesperson’s fault), you better believe they’ll be out the door before you know it. Take it from The New York Times: “The fact is…that great salespeople are not easy to find, and they deserve to be paid more money than sometimes seems reasonable.”
2. Solid Training
This is really so basic, I’m surprised at how many companies fail in this regard. Initial training is vital. No matter what experience the person has, if they haven’t worked in sales for your company, then you need an extensive training program. Everyone in sales must know your company and product inside-and-out. They are the representatives of your company, and they are the ones who can either make or break trust with the general public. Once you’ve got the initial training down, continue on-going training for a while, and whenever something changes — as your company grows, things shift. Maybe the product changes slightly or maybe the ideal customer is tweaked by marketing — whatever it is, your sales team needs to know it and breathe it. Furthermore, free training — that’s not necessarily related to your specific company, but builds your sales teams’ skills — is an incentive to your employees.
Incentives are important to keep your team motivated and keep the job fun. Spend time each year developing challenges that your entire sales team can reach — not just your top people — in order to get extra incentives. Incentives could range from free training events (although I think these should be available for all your people), gift cards, trips (the most popular incentive, according to Austin Business Journal), or perhaps creative ones (one company I knew gave “coupons” for leaving work two hours early, which ended up being fairly popular).
Is That Really All There Is To It?
No, of course it’s not a simple formula; there are exceptions to the rule, and there are many other great tips that could be added to the above list. There’s no distinct magic or science to it. These are just a few pointers to get started — the top three in each category, in my opinion. For some comprehensive thoughts from a variety of sources, I recommend this article here.
And now I turn it to you.
- In your experience, what are the top three key ways to ensure you hire and keep good salespeople?
- What specific interview strategies have you found most effective when hiring for sales?
- Share a story of when you hired a great salesperson, or a time when things didn’t work out so well. What went right or wrong?