How to Hire, Develop, and Fire Salespeople

A key part of a sales leader’s role is to hire, develop, and retain salespeople. Over the course of my career I have hired more than 150 sellers. I have always subscribed to the Marcus Buckingham school of hiring. In his book, First, Break All the Rules, he says leaders should always hire employees for their talents, not for their skills or knowledge. Buckingham defines a talent as a recurring feeling, thought, or behavior that can be used in an effective way. And it cannot be taught.

Three Distinct Talent When Hiring Salespeople

When hiring salespeople, I look for three distinct talents. 

The first talent is competitiveness. If you are competitive, your desire to win comes from a deep internal need to earn your customers’ business and beat your competition. In sales, this is extremely important because there is no shortage of competitors vying for the same clients. 

The second talent is discipline. Prospecting is hard. Sellers must be very persistent in their efforts and this requires a high degree of self-motivation and daily perseverance. 

The third talent is empathy, the ability to know what another person is thinking or feeling. If a salesperson can define and articulate a customer’s problem in a way that resonates with them, they will be able to help and provide the customer with value.

You will notice I did not include a laundry list of required years of sales experience, specific training, or technical certifications. I believe a post-secondary education is critical because it develops key life skills, but it has never mattered to me what someone studied at college or university. I majored in political studies and have had a successful career in technology sales. Good salespeople come from a wide variety of disciplines.

Even if your team is at its desired headcount, hiring never stops. Like the general manager of a baseball team, the best leaders are always thinking about drafting the best prospects in the market while simultaneously developing the players on their team.

The As, Bs, and Cs of Salespeople

Every sales team has A, B, and C players. 

The A players, the top 20% of the salesforce, typically contribute a significant portion of the team’s revenue and profit. These are the most valuable people in your sales organization, and spending time to develop them pays exponential dividends. 

I recently watched The Last Dance, a 2020 sports documentary miniseries that highlights the career of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ championship teams of the 1990s — especially the run-up to their sixth National Basketball Association title in eight seasons. It was an excellent reminder that even the best basketball player of all time craved coaching, feedback, and development. 

Everyone needs a coach. Michael Jordan needed Phil Jackson, and your top sellers need you.

The B players, the middle 60%, make up most of your team. They are good but not great, or they are great at times but not all the time. Your opportunity as a leader is to identify the high-potential Bs who have the innate talent to become As, and to invest extra time with them to help them improve their ranking. 

A bonus tip is to pair your high-potential Bs with the A players on your team who have expressed a desire to take on more responsibility. Not only will those Bs learn from the best and raise their game. You are also giving your A players a development opportunity while allowing yourself to better scale your time across the rest of the sales team. It is a win for everyone involved.

Your C players, the bottom 20%, can be the toughest group to manage. Many managers fall into the trap of spending far too much time with their Cs. There is an opportunity cost in doing this. An over-concentration on C players comes at the expense of investing more time and energy with your As and high-potential Bs.

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There are two types of C players. The first category is those who lack the skill to be successful — they are not effective in customer meetings, are unorganized, or are not progressing in the role. In some cases, they are simply in the wrong job and their talents do not match well to sales. 

This can be the toughest situation for a manager to deal with. You might often really like these sellers and enjoy their company in the office, but you know in your gut they are not cut out for the position.

The second category of Cs are those who lack the will to be successful. They are not trying and/or they have a poor attitude. Often, they simply do not care. 

This category of sellers can cause real problems for you and your organization. They can be negative and disruptive in meetings and on the sales floor, and they can drain the morale of their colleagues. 

I once heard a leader describe this category of sellers as “moldy strawberries.” If you do not pluck them out of the basket quickly, the mold will spread through the rest of the batch. The best thing you can do when you discover that you have a moldy strawberry on your team is to partner with your human resources department and work to get that person out of the organization in the most efficient way possible.

When It’s Time to Terminate

Letting people go is a necessary part of the job. The first time I ever had to terminate someone’s employment, I could not sleep the night before. I genuinely believed I was going to ruin this person’s entire career. Seeing how visibly stressed I was, my director gave me some excellent advice. If you keep someone in a role where they are not successful, he said, you are doing them a disservice. The longer you drag it out, the longer it will take them to find something they are good at. And when people are good at their job, they are happy. 

After that, whenever I had to let someone go, I felt marginally better about it. I am not saying it ever gets easy to terminate someone’s employment. If someone tells you it is easy, it’s entirely possible they have sociopathic tendencies.

Several years ago, the first person I ever terminated contacted me on Facebook. We chatted for a while and he said that my firing him was the best thing that had ever happened to him. He was miserable in sales and the move prompted him to start along a different career path where he was much happier. He thanked me. It was helpful for me to know that the next time I had to let someone go, there would be some small comfort in recognizing I was giving that person an opportunity to go and be great somewhere else.

Adapted from The Token: A Guide to Thriving As a Female Leader in Sales by Cheryl Stookes. © 2020, FriesenPress.

Cheryl Stookes has 15+ years in senior sales and operational leadership positions in Canada and the United States with Amazon Web Services, SHI, Lenovo, and Softchoice. She has hired and developed hundreds of salespeople, led a significant multi-year company expansion, directed North American marketing initiatives through comprehensive partner programs and strategic marketing campaigns, and served as chief of staff for a global technology manufacturer. 

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