From deciding if it’s the right time to hire salespeople to identifying dynamic candidates, a hiring strategy helps you make recruitment decisions based on what’s best for your business.
Your hiring strategy will also have a larger, company-wide impact: A watertight sales hiring strategy will reduce turnover, save you money and enable you to cultivate a first-rate, revenue-producing sales team.
That’s why companies in the U.S. spend $15 billion a year training salespeople and another $800 billion on incentives to retain them.
In this post, we’re going to take a deeper look at how sales recruitment has changed in the recent past, why a strategy for hiring salespeople and sales managers is important and outline the eight steps to building a refined sales hiring strategy.
Table of Contents
The way we hire for sales has changed
Last year, University of Pennsylvania Human Resources specialist Peter Cappelli made a somber observation: Businesses have never hired as many people or spent as much money on the hiring process as they do today. But, we’re doing a terrible job at hiring and retaining the right people.
In fact, a 2018 Sales Talent Study found the average attrition rate for sales reps is historically low at just 16%. The study also found that it takes sales reps an entire year to reach full productivity.
So, what’s going wrong? Capelli writes that companies used to concentrate more on internal development processes and promotions to fill vacancies. Now, they’ve shifted their focus to sourcing candidates externally.
In theory, this method should save time and money: The skilled candidate requires less training and will be ready to contribute from day one. In practice, these outside workers have proven difficult to find. This is because as technology becomes more complex, finding qualified candidates with applicable experience is a challenge. Also, these reps often demand higher compensation, putting them at risk of being poached by a competitor who places a better offer.
And, once employers do find the perfect candidate, they are incredibly difficult to keep. Why is this? Ironically, 45% of salespeople report leaving their jobs because of a lack of opportunity advancement within the company.
So, sales teams cut down internal promotions and new hires are difficult to retain because they feel there’s little room to climb the company ladder.
But, that’s only one of the reasons sales hires are difficult to retain.
How have buying processes changed?
The advent of the Internet put product information at your prospects' fingertips. Since then, sales reps have had to focus on why and how their product or service is a superior solution to the competition; requiring them to analyze data and think more strategically than reps of the past.
This has forced today’s sales leaders to turn to strategies and sales methodologies that attract reps who match the new buying process.
Yet, new hiring strategies do still consider certain key aspects of a sales rep’s role, like developing leads, qualifying prospects and adapting to different buyer motivations as essential. On the flip side, these skills are now expected in candidates.
The sales skills from two decades ago that were regarded as strengths have become today’s minimum skill requirements. For example, ‘develops sales leads’ was a requirement in 30% of sales job profiles before 2000, but only in 8% by 2014.
Retaining top talent
It’s estimated that the turnover of salespeople in the U.S. sits at 27%, which is twice the rate of the country's overall labor turnover average. One study found it can cost a company as much as $240k to recruit, hire and onboard a new rep.
Because today’s buying process demands adapted competencies, sales managers must elevate their internal engagement efforts. While many reps leave jobs due to a lack of promotion opportunities, others leave because they feel like mice on a wheel.
As a sales manager, it’s key to focus on professional growth and development and act as a coach to your team. You must concentrate on creating challenges and opportunities to help your reps expand their knowledge and become better each day.
Ask yourself if your employees are engaged, challenged, inspired and feel a sense of camaraderie within a positive workplace culture that you’ve worked hard to cultivate.
The best way to achieve success is by starting at the beginning: with a strong recruitment and onboarding strategy.
Sales hiring strategy: Why is it important?
Without a strategy for hiring salespeople, you risk making a bad hire and ending up in a costly cycle of consistent turnover.
A watertight sales strategy can help retain sales hires and, in return, significantly influence your company’s bottom line.
For many businesses, hiring mistakes are unaffordable. According to the Harvard Business Review study mentioned at the start of this article, turnover can also have a direct impact on your company's sales. Unfilled positions take time to refill, and even when you do find the right hire, the new salesperson must learn the ropes and build client relationships. All the while, your sales goals are suffering.
Jim Vaselopulos, the author of The Leadership Podcast, insists companies can avoid this mistake. He says there are eight behaviors he correlates with hiring salespeople:
- Curiosity: The tendency to identify, question and pursue answers
- Feedback: The desire and ability to receive and quickly process feedback
- Motivation: Comfort in understanding what truly motivates themselves and others
- Listening: The ability to listen for why, in addition to what, how and when
- Empathy: The ability to sincerely and authentically identify with a prospect’s emotions
- Closure: The ability to know when to hang on and when to let go
- Growth Mindset: The outlook that enables increased levels of achievement
- Timing: The understanding of when urgency is required and when to be patient
“It is possible to screen for these behaviors with well-constructed questions, creating situations that enable a sales candidate to actively demonstrate them,” he says.
It’s these steps, questions, situations and demonstrations, along with a structured hiring pipeline and retention plan, that form the foundational components of the perfect sales hiring strategy.
Asking potential sales reps pointed interview questions can help you identify their experiences, goals, priorities, work-ethic and personality; all essential pieces of the hiring puzzle. To learn more about what types of questions to ask and what information they can help you to uncover, read our article on the best sales interview questions and answers that you want to hear.
We will dive deeper into how to develop these questions in the third step below.
Nine steps to building the perfect strategy for hiring salespeople
Step 1: Knowing the right time to hire
The backbone of any successful sales hiring strategy requires team leaders to hire sales reps at the right time.
Before beginning the hiring process, it’s crucial that you are up to date with the latest trends and patterns both in the sales world at large and within your own company. Staying apprised of these cues and creating an accurate demand forecast will help you to discern whether or not it’s a good time to bring in more reps.
Keep an eye out for:
- Progress from your initial sales hires: Only once you start to see results should you consider adding more people to your team.
- Not enough time in the day: If your data shows that your reps don’t have enough time in their day to follow up on leads, or are booking more demos than they can handle, you may need more hands on deck.
- Projected growth: As your company grows, you may set new objectives and goals that are beyond your current team’s capabilities. If that’s the case, it’s time to expand.
- Complicated buying processes: New buying processes associated with your most recent products and services may require skills your incumbent reps don’t have. While implementing new sales methodologies are helpful, finding new talent may be the best answer.
Long story short: Only hire when your data and trends back up the need for more sales reps.
However, it’s also important to remember that there are circumstances outside your business, or even your industry, that could affect hiring, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Jump to our section at the end, for guidance on how you can manage recruitment during global health or financial crises.
Step 2: Build a hiring profile for your company
Once it becomes clear that you need more people on your sales team, you’ll need to build a hiring profile.
A hiring profile identifies the type of reps you want on your team, from ideal skills to their overall background and experience. It’s important that the profile is specific to what your company deems relevant experience, rather than painting a profile in broad strokes. After all, selling an Enterprise SaaS product is an entirely different ball game to selling insurance.
Your hiring profile should move away from fluffy language like “high performing”, and instead focus on a type of sales rep that has experience in:
- Selling to a specific field: A sales rep who has sold financial products will have a different skillset and knowledge to someone who has sold health care or insurance.
- Talking about technology/software services: Tech is nuanced and these reps need to be able to expertly explain complicated systems in a digestible way.
- Working in a cross-functional role: A rep that knows how to multitask and juggle various responsibilities may prove invaluable.
- Using a tool or application: Finding reps who are familiar with the sales tools your team uses will reduce onboarding time.
- Inside vs. outside reps: Inside and outside selling requires different strategies and experience. Make sure you hire the right rep for the role.
It’s important your hiring profile reflects your entire sales ecosystem. The closer a rep’s profile is to your ideal sales hire, the easier it will be for them to grasp your product and fit into your company.
Step 3: Develop questions and techniques
Developing an interviewing strategy that measures your candidate’s unique traits is the next step in making sure your hires are a good fit for your company.
A talent acquisition study commissioned by Glassdoor found that 69% of companies blamed broken interview processes as the reason why they were unable to hire quality reps. It also found companies without a standardized interviewing process are five times more likely to make a bad hiring choice than those who have a clear-cut strategy in place.
There are some obvious traits that a prospective member of your sales team should embody, like the ability to communicate well and have enthusiasm for selling. But it’s essential that the candidate has an understanding of buyer behavior and building relationships with prospects as well.
Start by asking some introductory questions, such as:
- What was your role in a previous sales process that succeeded?
- How would you describe your process when you’re communicating with a prospect?
- Think about a time when you failed to reach a sales milestone or quota. How did you overcome it and what did that teach you?
- If you had to pick a part of your job role that was more important, would you choose making your quota or keeping a client happy?
You should then look at their mentality behind selling and their approach to their work by asking questions like:
- When have you given up on trying to close a prospect and why?
- What are some common hurdles you face in this position? How do you handle them?
- What do you find most rewarding about working in the world of sales?
- Tell me about a past experience that you can look back on proudly.
- What team environment have you been involved in that highlights your competitive streak and how have you used that experience to help your approach to selling?
Gain a deeper understanding of their goals and interests, as well as their approach to the intricacies of selling. Head of Sales at Recruitee, Lodewijk de Stoppelaar, takes this step even further by keeping interview scorecards. He recommends making a scorecard with seven characteristics of what you're looking for in your next sales hire.
“They [the scorecards] help you keep track of interview assessments in real time; otherwise, you may forget important details about the interview,” he said.
Step 4: Create a winning job description
A common mistake that companies make when creating a job description is trying to explain every single part of the job role. Instead of overwhelming the applicant with a tidal wave of information, it’s much better to write a job description that’s clear and concise.
Explain the job and its responsibilities clearly, covering:
- Key tasks and responsibilities
- Your company’s product/service
- The hire’s earning potential
- The culture/vision of your company and how the candidate will be expected to fit in with your team
Go into detail about objectives, daily/monthly responsibilities and preferred skills/qualifications when hiring sales reps.
Make sure to summarize your company and the role in a way that attracts your ideal candidate. It should be written in your company’s tone of voice and imbued with the enthusiasm, excitement and drive of a sales rep. After reading it, the applicant should feel excited to join a team that’s aspiring to achieve greatness.
Here’s a made-up example of what the job role summary section could look like for a business selling a SaaS tool to help short-term rental managers maximize revenue and improve ratings:
As a sales rep for the company, you’ll be an instrumental part of helping short-term rental managers elevate their entire guest experience. Your goal will be to inspire property managers to invest in a digitized service that provides cutting-edge tools, like digital guidebooks and a robust affiliate partner program, that will not only please their guests, but also boost their ratings and profits. You will play a role in bringing the rental-host relationship to new heights, as guests will be able to communicate with hosts through a real-time AI chatbot that speaks their native language. Your success will not only help us expand our reach, but you will be part of cutting-edge technology on a mission to disrupt the dated short-term rental experience and set the bar for a new norm.
In general, make sure to use active verbs and adjectives to build excitement. Highlight the unique company culture and make the position stand out from the crowd.
Step 5: Know what qualities you're looking for when hiring salespeople
Sales experience matters when it comes to picking the right candidate, but what other qualities should you look for in a sales hire?
Don’t confuse this step with earlier parts of the strategy that focus on the company’s hiring profile. The qualities you’re looking for in a candidate means focusing on what traits they possess that aren’t found on their CV.
Is the candidate coachable? Are they independently resourceful? As good as a sales rep is on paper, they need to be open to training and navigating difficult situations by themselves. If not, it can cause problems down the line.
Try to deduce if your candidate has qualities such as:
- Resourcefulness: How good is the candidate at figuring things out? Have they held a position before, perhaps in a startup environment, where they’ve been required to think on their feet?
- Coachability: If you can’t coach a sales rep to get better, it’s going to be an uphill battle to make them a success. There is possibly nothing worse than a sales rep who thinks they know everything already. Past indicators of coachability could be their involvement in sports and their school subjects (for example, music lessons).
- Resilience: Even the best sales reps in the world don’t win every deal in their pipeline. A good sales rep needs to be an optimist. Ask them how they’ve overcome past failures in their career and see how they answer—either with optimism or pessimism.
- Teamwork: A sales team can only meet its goals if every sales rep is working towards the group objectives as well as individual accolades. If a rep is hesitant to share information, feedback and sales tips with other team members, you’re going to have a problem
- Ambition: However, a little competitiveness is no bad thing. Look for candidates with the drive to succeed and a desire to do well in the role. Asking about their career ambitions is a good way to start, but you could discover more by asking them what they want from the role.
Step 6: Build a pipeline that works for your candidates
When hiring sales reps, you need to make the recruitment process appeal to them and encourage them to take an interest in the position.
Part of this requires you to put your job advertisements on the sites where they spend their time. The first and obvious place is a site where most sales reps (constantly) are: LinkedIn.
Most LinkedIn profiles have direct contact information that you can use to contact a candidate, and LinkedIn Recruiter makes it even easier to narrow your search based on skills and location.
However, LinkedIn is a big pond when it comes to sales professionals, so you should also think outside the box. Job boards like SalesHeads and SalesGravy can put your job ad in front of the right people. If you’re a startup company, you can look at using a site like AngelList, which allows companies to advertise their jobs for free.
Finally, sales leaders should be tapping into their networks and reaching out to other organizations to ask for referrals. Sending out a quick email to connections and asking if they know anyone who might be suitable for the role is a great way to attract candidates.
Once you do begin to acquire a list of candidates, a good CRM can help you stay organized by creating a hiring funnel that allows you to have an overview of how many candidates you have in your recruitment process.
Step 7: Try before you buy and put your candidates through a test
Before sending out an offer to any candidate, it’s important to test out their abilities.
As good as a candidate may appear on paper, or in an interview, nothing shows their true capabilities like a real-life test. For example, if you are a tech company, you may ask a rep what their favorite tech product is and why.
While they give their answer, listen for how they describe the product, their explanation of why it’s great, and their reasoning for how it’s enhanced their life. By the end, if you feel like you want to learn more about, or even buy, the product they described, you know they’ve succeeded. This will also help you discern how quick-witted they are and detect their ability to emotionally connect with an audience.
You can also give your applicants a written test. Because sales reps send so many written communications, it’s important to check their written skills in tandem with their verbal dexterity.
A written test can be as simple as a rep typing the answer to, “What did you learn in school or your past sales role(s) that will help you in this role and why?” Or, if you want to make it more specific to the job at hand, show them an email from a lead and ask them to respond to it. Look for candidates who respond not only with excellent written skills, but who turn the customer engagement into an opportunity (i.e. keeping the lines of communication open).
Beyond tests, you can also put your potential hires through a mock sales call. You can get a feel for their selling abilities and understanding of the industry by asking them questions like:
- Describe your ideal sales funnel and how you closed an important deal?
- What traits did the prospects in that deal have, and how could you have used that experience to scale your processes?
- What are the current competitive characteristics of [company’s market]?
- What would you do to achieve higher conversion rates in the company’s sales funnel?
Asking tough questions can expose flaws in a candidate’s understanding of the job role. Considering the cost of making a bad hire, it’s best to do this before a contract is signed.
Step 8: Assess strong candidates against each other
One of the hardest tasks is choosing between two strong candidates. There is one final test that you can do to separate the best from the good: a coaching test.
One of the most important qualities of a good sales rep is their ability to take constructive criticism and grow from it. A rep can look great on paper, be quick on their feet and be able to sell your product to just about anyone, but if one mistake throws their entire performance, that is a huge red flag.
You need reps on your team who are resilient, can take direction, and who want to improve even if they are already at the top of their game.
The best way to find these allstars is by critiquing their answers to the verbal and written tests you gave them and seeing how they respond.
The idea is to put them under pressure and watch how they deal with criticism. If they become defensive and upset from your feedback, imagine how they’ll feel if they are told “no” all day from leads.
Sales reps need to be strong-willed and understand that they are playing the long game. Using this tactic at the end of your interviewing process will help you understand who can take the heat and who will show up every day ready to put their best foot forward.
Step 9: Extend an offer to the best candidate and focus on retention
If the candidate has ticked all the boxes, it’s time to offer them the job.
Remember, hiring is a two-way street. Even though you’re hoping to get the sales rep to join your team, you still have to convince them that your company is the best place for them to be. You must use the job offer to highlight why the job is a good fit for them, and clearly outline their compensation package and perks of the position.
Most importantly, make sure your offer hits their inbox in a timely fashion. Aaron Wallis Sales Recruitment Managing Director, Rob Scott, suggests sending out a written offer within 24 hours of a final interview (or, at the very latest, within 72 hours).
No one (with any sense) resigns from their job until they have an offer of employment in writing. A punctual arrival of a job offer letter is a fantastic indication to a sales professional that you are decisive, keen and genuinely serious about the individual joining your team. Although none of these may be true. a delayed offer can suggest loss of interest, lack of urgency or simply poor organization or a bureaucratic infrastructure where nobody takes responsibility.
Don’t let good hires slip through your fingertips by offering them a competitive compensation plan. Employees who feel valued are more likely to work harder and stay longer, which saves your business time and money on employee turnover. If you don’t have a watertight plan in place, you can build one using this guide to effective sales commission and compensation plans.
If the offer is accepted, the last step of your sales hiring strategy needs to be retention.
A solid onboarding and retention strategy can plug the holes in your sales team and help keep your new hires around for longer. Onboarding shouldn’t leave your new sales reps feeling like they’ve been thrown in the deep end. On the contrary, they should be empowered within their initial months at your company.
Use the new sales rep’s first days and weeks at the company to introduce them to team leaders and other sales reps, as well as submerging them in your culture. If your team is in-house, they should get a tour of the building and set up with their workstation.
Once your sales rep is comfortable, you can start to involve them in your sales processes. Giving them information about your products and services as well as passing along a sales playbook enables them to start selling quicker.
What do I look for when hiring salespeople
We asked some sales professionals about what they looked for in a salesperson and why.
VP Sales, Enterprise at Emsi.
"I look for integrity, passion, dedication to independent learning, commitment to quality, emotional maturity, and that the person has a motivation outside of work that will fuel them to push hard while at work."
Sales Manager at NetDocuments.
“The top thing I look for when hiring salespeople is a solid work ethic. I can train you to be good at presenting a product, but I can’t make you have the personality type to work hard/be consistent.”
Senior Sales Manager at Adverity.
“If I’m speaking to a candidate, my focus is on trying to establish cultural fit and a key aspect of that is personal motivation. Why do you want to work here? When I ask that question, I’m not looking for a particular response, just one that resonates with me, my team and/or my organization as a whole. Their answer could relate to career ambitions, working in a certain industry or being more ideologically focussed, i.e. I enjoy meeting people or helping others solve problems.
“If I feel that resonance, then chances are the candidate will fit in, contribute to the working environment I’m trying to create and be a good employee and a successful hire. For me, experience is secondary in importance to all of this.”
Sales Manager at Aptitude Software.
“I’d want them to be empathetic, a social chameleon and to have a track record with substance (i.e. proof that it’s real with exciting war stories that have tangible results over a long period of time). If you’re recruiting a grad or a more junior salesperson, then the last one will have to be substituted for something different in the previous 5 years.”
Hiring during a crisis
As we’ve seen, the first step of a rigorous recruitment process is making sure you know when to hire. During an event like the COVID-19 crisis, economic uncertainty, health concerns and government measures can all affect businesses.
Many industries are being affected differently. It’s been widely reported that, as more and more countries impose travel restrictions, holiday and aviation companies are seeing significant losses in business and revenue. Amazon, on the other hand, are hiring 100,000 more people in the U.S. to deal with the demand of customers stuck at home.
However, recruitment is down overall. Data from analytics tool WaveTrackR has revealed a 47% reduction in applications in February 2020 compared with February 2019.
Being realistic about the impact and clear in your messaging can help your business to stay secure and employees to feel more confident.
Firstly, if you need to stop hiring due to the economic or health effects, announce a hiring freeze to your company and make sure everyone understands the reasons and ramifications.
If you need to keep hiring, then communicate with employees how they can take the necessary precautions and provide them with the tools to do so.
Plenty of companies already conduct candidate interviews over a video call, but make sure that all staff carrying them out have the necessary tools at home. Also, let candidates know well ahead of time that you will be conducting interviews over a video call.
You also need to consider the onboarding process. You may be able to continue hiring people, but if new employees require one-to-one training or special equipment, have a system in place to provide it while your workforce is working from home—and take the costs of posting equipment to them into account.
Hiring the right sales reps can make an immense impact on your company’s overall success; from revenue growth to retention.