4 Tips to Help You Hire Top-performing Sales Talent

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Feb 18, 2016
This article is part of a series called How-Tos.

Want to hire the next “Michael Jordan” of sales? First, get real about your ideal target candidate profile.

I’ve noticed over the last 20-plus years in companies ranging from global brands to startups, that when we first discuss my client’s “ideal” sales candidate, they’ll say, “We only want to target our competitor’s top-performing sales ‘A’ players.” My standard response to this is, “That’s great! So, if I target your competitor’s top performers — their Michael Jordans — what’s most attractive about your company and opportunity to motivate that salesperson to make a job change in the next 90-120 days?”

That’s when the proverbial the rubber meets the road. And I’m able to realistically assess whether my client “gets it”… or not. At this juncture, it becomes clear whether the client has realistic expectations regarding what they want, what they can afford and what operational support and benefits they offer to engage, attract and recruit their target ideal sales candidate.

All too often, sales leaders set the bar too high on recruitment and retention and consequently set themselves up for failure. To succeed, sales leaders, whether embarking on large-scale sales hiring initiatives or experiencing turnover among top performers, need to get real. That means defining the ideal target sales candidate profile based upon an absolutely objective assessment of your overall ability to attract and retain the top talent you desire — your employment value proposition.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, I advise clients to examine their competition’s employment value proposition prior to examining their own. It makes perfect sense — and has worked well for me in executive search and outsourced sales recruitment — when you consider what your competition, as a whole, is doing right to enable their salespeople to be very successful individual performers.

So, below are a few essential questions to ask about your competition’s employment value proposition. The answers are certain to help you make more informed sales talent recruiting processes:

What is your competitor’s brand reputation within the talent pool you want to recruit? Does your competitor have a more established and recognized corporate, product, or employment brand reputation than you do?

Many salespeople are successful selling the products or services of a well-established brand, but fail miserably when they must (a) sell a new brand for a startup company; (b) open a new market/division for an established company; or (c) sell for a company in turnaround mode to re-establish market share.

If your company fits the latter category, you may be better off targeting sales talent with demonstrable entrepreneurial success, regardless of company or industry experience. As long as they have proven success selling a similarly priced product or service to similar buyer profiles — ideally with established relationships and knowledge of your industry — your chances for mutual success and long-term retention are far greater.

What compensation structure and territory assignment does your competitor offer? This knowledge is critical to getting the attention of a top performer — no one wants to leave a job in which they are happy and successful and well compensated.

Top-performing salespeople who are confident in their ability to produce are generally not as focused on base salary as long as their total compensation package and upside incentive potential have the potential for a significant improvement within a reasonable time frame. That said, if you plan to offer a lower base salary in an attempt to reduce fixed overhead expenses, be prepared to offer some sort of initial guaranteed annual income for at least as long as it takes to complete an average sales cycle. Figure on, for instance, offering a guarantee of at least 15-20 percent more than current earnings in order to get their attention during the recruiting process.

On the other hand, if you truly have Champagne taste on a beer budget, consider targeting the up-and-coming “B” players at competitors who are blocked from becoming “A” players by something beyond their control, such as a bad territory assignment, a capped incentive compensation plan, or a favored “A” player who is on the exclusive receiving end of leads from management.

What operational, sales lead generation, and marketing support does your competitor provide to top performers? Do they provide qualified leads, ongoing marketing support, and CRM technology to support the sales process as well as administrative support staff to assist with proposals, travel arrangements, and the myriad administrative tasks that most top-performing salespeople hate?

In my experience, one of the top causes of poor performance and early turnover among new sales hires is the “bait and switch” game. To engage a top performer at a competitor, employers aggressively recruit and promise whatever it takes to get a salesperson’s commitment to make a move. Once they are on board, they quickly realize that the promises are hollow. They may not have some, or all, of the sales support they received at their prior employer, and they end up spending less time on what they were hired to do (networking, existing client-relationship building, cross-selling, and closing business) and more time doing the things they are not good at (administrative tasks, reports and, in some cases, cold calling).

If your company’s operational/sales support doesn’t align with what your target sales candidate is used to, then you may need to re-consider a different target candidate profile. A former business owner or someone with an entrepreneurial track record in a similar type of sales role and/or parallel industry selling to buyers similar to yours may be a far better choice than a person recruited from a competitor who currently is fully supported and may be locked into a restrictive non-compete contract.

What aspects of your competitor’s sales and business culture are most appealing to their top sales talent? Do they offer complete work schedule flexibility and work from home or office based upon need, or is it more of a 9-5, in-office culture? Does the organization operate with a matrixed, hands-off management style, or does it have a multi-layered, hierarchical, and formal structure?

Knowing how your company’s culture and organizational structure compare to your target talent competitors is key to engaging the salespeople you desire, minimizing early turnover and ensuring the new employee’s long term “fit” within your organization. People who are successful in a highly unstructured culture may not do as well in one that is more formal and hierarchical. However, once you know how your culture compares, you can highlight the positives via your recruitment communications by focusing on the aspects that will attract people who work best in an environment similar to yours.

There are many good “fit” assessment tools available (i.e. Profiles International, HR Chally, The DeGarmo Group, and Wonderlic) that map prospective job candidates to your existing top-performing employees’ specific competencies and culture fit. According to the assessment vendors, using a predictive assessment tool typically improves the likelihood of hiring a top sales performer by up to 90 percent and can reduce early sales turnover of non-fit hires by up to 25 percent.

In closing, knowing more about your competition and how you compare before you decide to embark on a sales recruitment initiative may change your ideal target candidate profile, and how you go about engaging that salesperson in the recruiting process. You may, for instance, learn that your organization is not set up to offer what a competitor’s “A” player needs to be successful. If that’s the case, you’ll need to either consider hiring your competitor’s “B” players or revise your target profile and expectations to better align with your employment value proposition and culture fit.

Alternatively, you may learn that your organization offers far greater financial opportunity or a better culture than your target competitors, which should make it easier to attract their “A” or “B” players by highlighting your superior employment value proposition in your outreach communications. Either way, the time you invest in asking the questions I pose above up front will help you figure out the best possible recruitment strategy for recruiting top performing salespeople who will deliver the bottom-line results you desire.


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This article is part of a series called How-Tos.
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