Motivating the Passive Sales Candidate

Feb 18, 2008

I was never very good in science class, which is probably why I’m not a doctor today. Yet, I remember vividly the exercise on heated atoms. The experiment started with a flask of water and a Bunsen burner. When the flame from the Bunsen burner was applied to the flask, the atoms would dart all over the place in excitement. The excitement was uncontrollable. The energy remained as long as the heat was applied. As soon as the Bunsen burner was removed, the atoms moved back to a static state. All movement stopped.

This science experiment teaches a lot about recruiting “passive” sales candidates (those not presently looking for a job). All companies want to recruit the top-talent salespeople from other companies. However, that talent is usually locked in pretty tightly. The top salespeople are the best earners of the company, so they probably aren’t looking to leave. What would get them to leave? How do you find these candidates? What would energize passive sales candidates to be excited about another opportunity?

Years ago, my father used to take me deep-sea fishing off the Jersey shore. When we went fluke fishing, we used one kind of bait. When we went blue fishing, we used a different kind of bait. Thus, you need the right bait to attract a particular type of fish. You certainly won’t catch a shark using a worm for bait.

Once the baited hook was in the water, the fish didn’t usually grab it in a way that allows you to reel them in right away. There was a dance. You had to make sure the fish had eaten all of the bait and was firmly on the hook. Professional fishermen talk about all of the different techniques involved with playing this game well. On any Sunday morning, you can find television shows on ESPN that walk you through the steps on how to select bait and tackle, as well as techniques to bring the fish into the boat.

So, what is the right bait when looking to catch passive sales candidates? How do you motivate them into action? There are two fundamental motivators of salespeople: fear and greed. Very simply, it’s just those two. Thus, the two types of bait for recruiting passive sales candidates are fear and greed. Sales managers use techniques to direct their sales team based on those two motivators every day. Guess what happens when a “greed” technique is used on a salesperson motivated by fear? Nothing! Thus, it is critical for the sales manager to figure out the right motivator for each of his team members.

The wrong bait is also an issue for sales recruiting. Many recruiters rely strictly on the “greed” motivator. “Come to our company, and you can make oodles of money.” That will work with some sales candidates, but certainly not with all.

As sales managers have come to recognize, there is an equally-sized population motivated by fear. I might argue that the “fear” population is larger than the “greed” one. For those folks, the “greed” factor does not motivate them into action. Some of you may be thinking that some salespeople are motivated by both, which is true. However, one of those two is more dominant. One of those two drives them into action.

As you can imagine, I talk to salespeople all the time. Most lament about the goings-on in their companies. So, I ask them if they are looking for another job, and they say no. Then, an event occurs, something that gets their attention, and they call me and say that “today” they have decided to make a change. That event is different for every salesperson, but it always falls into the category of either fear or greed.

To motivate a passive sales candidate into action based on fear, do your homework to effectively use fear as a motivator. The media provides most of the tools you need to do this well. Here are some examples of the fears salespeople have:

Leadership Change

As a whole, salespeople don’t like change. They like their territory and compensation to remain static unless they are getting more. When there is a change in leadership at the top, they get very uneasy about what happens next. Will the territory change? Perhaps the compensation plan will change?

Thus, top salespeople could be open to listening to you about a new opportunity. How do you know when there is a leadership change? The business journal of that city announces promotions/new hires at the management level of companies. A weekly read of this tool gives you new ponds for your fishing expedition. You also may learn that information from an active candidate who cites that as a reason for looking for another job.

Company Acquisition Rumors

For the larger companies, the financial news (print, online, television) broadcasts rumors like this. Whether the company is going to be acquired or is the “acquiree,” there is uncertainty in the sales team. Salespeople don’t like uncertainty. Post-acquisition, there will be changes to the sales team, but who will still have a job and who won’t?

Just like kids who, during the week before Christmas, wonder what is inside the wrapped boxes under the tree, salespeople wonder what their “gift” will be. For some, the uncertainty of the future is just enough to lead them to be receptive to a job exploration.

Company Financial Woes

Again, this information is shared in the financial news media. It is also in the local business journal. Salespeople panic when they hear this kind of news. For one, they wonder if their companies will survive. However, they also connect a few other dots. “If the company isn’t doing well, I bet it will lower the commission rate.” Or, “I bet they cut the size of the sales team. Even if I survive the cut, I’ll have to do twice the work for the same pay.”

Compensation Change

How can you possibly know when there is a compensation-plan change in another company? This information is certainly not shared in the media. When “active” candidates are asked why they are looking at other opportunities, they usually cite compensation-plan changes as one of those reasons. Hearing that should trigger a campaign to find the top performers of that company so you can apply your “Bunsen burner” tactic.

To motivate passive salespeople into action, you need the right bait. With research and technique, you can apply the heat that sends these candidates into a frenzy.

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