You Get What You Pay For: Why It’s So Hard to Hire Salespeople

Nov 13, 2013

Demand for sales professionals continues to boom, even in our fluctuating job market. An search for sales positions in the U.S. yields over 770,000 results (versus marketing at 280,000 and human resources at 96,000). With so much competition for great sales hires, it’s no surprise that sales positions continue to rank among the hardest to fill.

Often, a mismatch between compensation and candidate expectations, as well as complex recruitment processes, means losing out on a top candidate, especially at the lower levels. And because candidates have so many opportunities to choose from, compensation and the hiring process become critical factors in recruiting a top salesperson.

In the typical sales environment, commission is the most popular way to compensate sales representatives: it’s essentially a pay-for-performance model that rewards results. What makes commission-oriented opportunities work, however, isn’t the commission check, but rather the perks and incentives that surround sales compensation. While some companies may believe that great sellers can make a living on commission, the real question is: why should they sell for your organization? What does your company offer that a competitor can’t? The answers to these questions are the keys to crafting a successful recruitment program.

Some companies offer only commission (often hiring sellers as independent contractors) because they believe good sellers can be successful on any structure. Remember, the competition for great sellers remains strong, and strong candidates are looking for additional elements in their comp package.

To stay competitive, some companies offer base salaries on top of commissions, but this isn’t always possible. What tends to be a hard sell, in our experience, are commission-only opportunities with no other benefits. In a competitive market, it’s difficult to attract the volume of candidates you need to build a successful sales organization with such a structure.

This doesn’t mean that commission-driven opportunities can’t work, only that they are more attractive if paired with other incentives. Commission-oriented programs can work if the salesperson is able to ramp up quickly and start earning money. Otherwise, by the time that ninety-day commission check mark rolls around, that new hire may be out the door looking for a new opportunity.

Some compensation incentives that we’ve seen work well include:

  • Car allowances, especially if your salespeople are constantly on the road.
  • Cell phone allowances for salespeople who work around the clock.
  • Perks like vacation time, sick days, and financial incentives like 401(k)s also help sweeten the pot and make candidates think twice about an opportunity.
  • Offering tools like laptops, smartphones, and tablets to help make selling smoother.
  • Flexible work environments or hours that keep in mind that a good salesperson can sell anywhere, anytime.
  • Some larger organizations also offer incentives like tuition reimbursement.
  • Ongoing training is another great way to attract top salespeople.

With a more competitive compensation package, your company will be able to attract better quality candidates who are serious about building a career with your organization, which takes us to the next most important piece of hiring: the process itself.

While compensation and perks can open doors and entice a candidate, the interview process seals the deal. Although the purpose of the interview process continues to be vetting and qualifying the applicant pool, its other function is selling the opportunity, and you can’t do that if the candidate taps out too early.

For executive-level positions, a lengthier vetting process that may span months and several decision-makers may help save your company money in the long run. But for entry-level positions with limited responsibility, a similar process not only costs the company time and money, but also potentially the candidate, who may be interviewing with many other firms for the same kind of position and is open to the fastest offer. (This is where differentiation on compensation is also critical.)

One way companies can combat this is by improving efficiencies within their current process. Think about the following:

  • How long are positions staying open? What do vacancies cost your company in the long run (not only in recruitment fees, but in revenue too)?
  • What is the lengthiest part of the process and when does it occur? Can you move it to speed candidates along?
  • Are managers trained on interviewing? If not, get your HR team or recruitment partner involved to help build a solid qualification process that reduces time to fill.
  • Are candidates taking multiple trips to your headquarters to interview? How can you compress that and still glean all the information you need?
  • Are you using assessments? Are they helpful in selecting for success? When are they administered?
  • What are your background check requirements? Do they reflect the position or do they drag out the hiring process?
  • What processes can you automate to save you time and open the lines of communication between you and the candidate?
  • For lower levels, are senior executives involved in interviewing? How does this add value to the process and where can you save time?
  • What’s your turnover? Is it fixable? Planning for this will help put hiring into perspective and keep your recruitment program moving forward.

As your process improves, you’ll start to see better quality candidates over time, and candidates will leave with a positive feeling for your organization — even if they don’t necessarily receive an offer. Ultimately, a smoother hiring process pays dividends in your employer brand as candidates leave the interview with a good impression of the organization.

Compensation and the interview process are only two pieces of the sales puzzles, but they’re two of the most important ones when it comes to hiring. By matching candidate expectations with your compensation plan as well as streamlining your recruitment process, you’ll find that you’re not only attracting better quality hires but able to hire them more quickly, so you can start ramping them up to generate revenue sooner.

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