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Recruiting the Right Salespeople

“Recruiting the Right Salespeople”

Develop a talent bank of selling power that you can tap quickly.

What’s the difference between a so-so sales rep and a star? A lot of revenue.

An average salesperson at a hospitality company generated $1.4 million in sales per year. But a top performer doubled that to $2.9 million (see chart below).

And it’s not just money at stake. There’s also time to consider, says Jeff Multz, founder of Emerging Market Technologies, an Atlanta-based software integrator that has been growing at 20% to 40% annually. "You only have so many clock ticks," explains Multz. "If you invest time [in hiring salespeople] and get poor results, it’ll kill you. You can never get that time back."

Do it daily

Regularly recruit for sales positions. One expert recommends that sales managers spend at least 15% of their week dedicated to recruiting activities.

Develop a talent bank — a pool of talented individuals who are ready to come on board as soon as the right opportunity arises. Not only does this allow you to fill vacancies in a heartbeat, it results in better hiring decisions. When you’re caught off-guard and trying to fill a spot from scratch, it’s easy to wear rose-colored glasses. Then you don’t want to see negative qualities because you need a warm body fast. (Also see the related article "How to hire winners.")

When talking with candidates, be upfront that there isn’t an immediate opportunity. The fact you’re working ahead should be a positive sign, indicating that you’re a fast-track company poised to grow quickly.

In your talent bank, it’s good to have people at different levels: not only reps that can handle top-gun accounts, but also the mid-level and smaller ones.

Where to look

Too many companies recruit only through ads. That’s probably the last place you’re going to find sales stars. The best people already have jobs.

Take a marketing approach to recruiting. Where might top selling talent hang out? What might they read? Keep your eyes open. One manager discovered a salesperson (who later became vice president of sales) waiting tables. Some places to start looking:

  • Current employees. This is probably your best source. Current employees already know what your company is all about. Look at employees not only as a source of referrals but as potential salespeople. There may be someone in your customer service department who has the innate talent to be a sales star.
  • Other industries. Look in other industries. Product knowledge is easy to teach, but prospecting panache isn’t. Outsiders can bring fresh ideas to the table.
  • Customers and suppliers. Recruiting someone they like to work with is a plus.
  • Trade shows. They’re a good place to watch your competitors’ salesforce in action.
  • The Internet. Post job opportunities on your own Web site or virtual career centers such as Monster.com or Hotjobs.com.
  • College campuses. Even if you need people with more experience, it’s a great way to plant seeds and market your company.
Top performers vs. the status quo

Source: Talent+, an international management and consulting firm in Lincoln, Neb.

Design an interview process

One of the biggest mistakes managers make when interviewing is to wing it. They glance at a resume five minutes before the candidate walks in the door.

Get your management team together and brainstorm about all the important qualities you need on your sales team. To test for those key traits, devise open-ended questions that can’t be answered with a "yes" or "no." Develop a scoring system to subjectively rate people, and then decide what kind of score they need to advance to the next round of interviews.

You want to determine:

  1. What kind of sales volume is the candidate capable of generating?
  2. How long will it take the candidate to reach his or her potential?
  3. What resources or training are necessary?

During the interview, it’s also important to share standards for the position, such as how many outside calls reps are expected to make, what kinds of reports are required and how much travel is involved.

Some tips to fine-tune your process:

  1. Space interviews. Don’t run interviews back-to-back. Give yourself at least 30 minutes between meetings to collect your thoughts and make notes. At the end of the day, all candidates start looking alike.
    It’s also wise to see how candidates react at different times and in different settings. You might schedule one meeting in the office, then another over lunch or dinner. A third meeting might be over coffee. In some cases, it may be appropriate to ask the candidate’s spouse along.
  2. Don’t go solo. Involve a trusted colleague in your interview process — perhaps during the second round of meetings. It’s a good idea to get someone else’s insights.
  3. Stay in control. It’s easy for salespeople to sell themselves. Set the stage by telling candidates about the process and what you’re trying to accomplish, and then ask the questions. Spend 20% of the time talking and 80% of the time listening.
  4. Look for balance. Entrepreneurs have a tendency to hire people who remind them of themselves. You don’t want an organization of clones. Though you will be searching for certain core talents and attitudes, look for diversity in terms of selling style and personalities. One rep might be especially good at closing, while another is good at maintaining accounts.
  5. Involve other team members. Ask employees what they think of the candidate, especially your other salespeople. How the new person interacts with those key people is important.
  6. Phone first. Talk to the interviewee over the phone before you make an appointment to meet. It’s an opportunity to assess his or her phone style; many companies conduct the majority of communications with clients or prospects over the phone.
  7. Consider prospecting skills. Prospecting is one of the most difficult skills to teach, so look for people who have the stamina to withstand a lot of rejection. Many sales reps like to see the same customers day in and day out. But if you need a prospecting pro on your team, you’re looking for someone who gets bored seeing the same people.
  8. Take a field trip. Take candidates out in the field for a few hours. This gives candidates a clearer idea of what the job is really like, and it allows you to assess them from a different perspective — and see how customers respond.

Check references

Don’t downplay references. Many managers view it as a waste of time, believing that references won’t say anything negative. But asking the right questions can give those references an opportunity to share information about the candidate’s true capabilities. Ask:

  1. What positive traits did the person bring to the firm?
  2. What areas of improvement would you like to have seen?
  3. Would you hire that person again? Why or why not?
  4. What were the person’s strengths in selling? Weaknesses?
  5. How would you describe their prospecting ability?

Then ask references for other people who might know the candidate. By drilling deeper, you glean unexpected information.

It doesn’t hurt to run a background check on candidates. Look at their driving r
ecord, do a credit check. If a candidate has anything to hide, you want to find out before he has a chance to contaminate your organization. There are companies devoted to running background checks for as little as $35-$50.

Wooing and winning

One challenge that entrepreneurs often face is having fewer perks and resources than a large company does.

Yet you do have one big advantage: A smaller company offers employees greater control over their destiny. And salespeople are bigger risk-takers than other employees. They also tend to be mavericks who dislike bureaucracy and red tape.

Remember: Sell all your benefits. Though most salespeople are motivated by money, flexible schedules and extra vacation might be attractive. Stock options can be another carrot.

Use your PR machine not only to get in front of customers, but potential employees. Good salespeople are always watching newsmakers for possible leads. If you build the right image, they’ll not only see you as a potential client — but as a place they want to join. And players only want to play on A teams.

Writer: TJ Becker