For many companies, sales teams are the ultimate growth engine—which makes effective hiring of sales reps tremendously important.
Figuring out the right time to hire, nailing down the responsibilities and expectations of the sales role, and understanding how to evaluate and select the best talent can make or break your business. And rightfully so: If you hire the wrong person, it can end up costing your company a fortune to find, hire, onboard, and train a replacement.
LinkedIn’s Global Recruiting Trends 2017 study shows that sales positions are the #1 hiring priority for talent acquisition leaders. If your team needs to add some all-star sales talent, read on for our deep-dive on when to hire, who to hire, and how to hire.
PART 1: When to Hire
Before you go in search of the perfect sales rep, you'll want to make sure it's actually the right time to hire one, whether you're just starting to build out your sales team or you're looking to expand the one you have. New hires should be brought on not only when they're likely to make a positive impact on your business, but also at a time when you're ready to onboard them and provide training and support.
While this timing will vary based on your unique situation, there are trends and patterns you can look for that can serve as cues for when to bring in new sales hires.
Understand your buyer's behavior and sales process
If you’re building a sales team from scratch, the first thing to consider is the path your customers go through when buying. How many people need to sign off on the purchase decision? Are there multiple friction points that may prevent them from doing so?
"The key determining factor is the buying behavior of your customer,” says Omer Molad, co-founder and CEO of Vervoe, an advanced interviewing platform. “If multiple stakeholders need to be influenced, a sales team will be required to initiate conversations, respond to queries, address concerns, and negotiate terms."
"Sales is a channel, so the first question isn't when to hire sales people, but rather if sales is the right channel for your product or service,” Molad adds. “Some products need to be sold, while others can be marketed in a self-service fashion."
It's easy to fall into the trap of hiring your first sales person with the assumption that they'll know what to do and will be able to easily sell your product simply based on their past sales experience.
"If you don't have the structure in place to support that rep, it's a waste of money,” says David Mattson, CEO and president of Sandler Training. “Just because they have 'sales' in their job title doesn't mean that revenue is going to come flying through the door.” Sandler suggests building out as much of a structure as possible before your first hire, including a playbook, scripts, and an initial sales process based on everything you've done so far, because that will help your first sales hires be successful from the start.
Work from your business strategy and growth plans
Another element you have to consider when hiring salespeople is your business strategy, particularly in relation to your forecasting for the year ahead.
"Most of our sales hiring requirements are driven by the business strategy," says Tim Tolan, CEO and Managing Partner of executive search firm The Tolan Group, a member of Sanford Rose Associates. “Sales should always be tied to growth and scale of that strategy, so you can look at your planned activity for the upcoming year, quarter by quarter, and see whether or not your current sales headcount is enough to support it.”
Lead flow is a great indicator of whether increasing the number of sales reps makes sense. "If you have the lead flow coming in and you can support another person on the team, that's a good sign,” David Mattson added. “You can't expect a new sales rep to bring in more revenue if there are no leads to get that revenue from, or if the territory doesn't support it.”
Hire for new product rollouts and new audiences
If you're rolling out new products or services to the market, it may be another cue to expand your sales team. The logic here is simple: If you reassign your existing sales reps to the new products, you'll be spreading your current team too thin, and sales for your existing products may suffer as a result.
Tim Tolan also emphasized the importance of hiring new sales reps if you'll be targeting a different market segment. “New product offerings will have a separate business use case and a unique value proposition, and it often makes sense to expand your team so that you can segregate your sales efforts by product and target market,” Tolan says.
You have to start somewhere
The best thing you can do at any point is to test and learn. This applies both to expanding an existing team and building a new one, but it’s especially true when you’re hiring your first sales rep.
"Start with one sales person at a junior to mid level," adds Molad. “Set clear goals for them, then compare the results to other channels. If sales is the right channel, then it's never too early to build out a sales function at your company. For a startup, the founder is often initially the primary salesperson. When the load becomes too heavy, it's time to look at hiring.”
PART 2: Who to Hire
The traits you should look for in a perfect sales rep include a history of measurable impact in a previous sales role, as well as intangible attributes like soft skills and passion.
Here's the thing: The role of your sales team is to demonstrate how your product or service can improve their prospects’ lives and make them more successful. To do this, your sellers’ job goes beyond the words and statistics they say and extends to their tone and their ability to tell stories that prospects can relate to.
"Beyond the obvious things, like intelligence and role-related knowledge, you should look for reps with grit, creativity, and the ability to empathize and understand your customer's business and problems,” says Steven Benson, Founder and CEO of Badger Maps, a route planner for salespeople.
"A great rep truly understands the uniqueness of their challenges and goals, and finds a way to communicate solutions that make prospects more successful."
Beware of the cost of a sales mis-hire
When a new sales person joins your team, you're not only investing in their compensation. You're also investing time and company resources to hire, onboard, and train them, all with the goal of increasing revenue.
If you hired the wrong person, you didn't just lose the time and money it took you to get that person on board. You also have severance costs, the lost sales they hadn't brought in, the reduced productivity of the rest of the team operating in damage control mode, and the opportunity cost of not hiring a better candidate.
According to Smart & Associates, Inc., hiring the wrong sales rep can wind up costing your company six times the rep’s base salary—so here are two ways to make sure that doesn't happen.
Identify the job profile
Start by building a job profile for the sales person you want to bring to the team. A job profile differs from a job description because instead of focusing on your company's culture or product, it outlines what it will actually look like to be in the position.
"A job profile outlines how this person is actually going to be selling,” says David Mattson. “For example, is it a six-week cycle or a two-year cycle? Is it a $6,000 product or service, or a $6 million one? Does the process involve calling the C-suite or somebody else? Is it a transactional sale, or are you looking for a hunter?”
Mattson explains that looking at a salesperson’s past experiences and successes is useful, but it's the job profile that will uncover whether they’re an ideal fit for the role you're looking to fill.
"For example, there was this one bank that found a salesperson who [outperformed] his quota by about 500% with a competitor, so they hired him," Mattson recalls. "To everyone's shock, the salesperson performed badly. Why? Because the bank wanted the new sales rep to bring in new business, but he wasn't able to do that because all he did at his previous job was renew and upsell existing clients. To avoid this, you need to look for the match with the job profile.”
Identify the perfect candidate
Before you get to the hiring process, you'll want to filter your applicants and recommended candidates based on an ideal candidate profile. This way, you can quickly identify good matches for the position and move them to the interview stage.
To help this process along, David Mattson suggests following an acronym called SEARCH, which he uses to define the candidate profile and the skills, experiences, and results that should match the job profile. The acronym stands for:
- Skills the candidate needs to have to become a top performer in the role
- Experiences from their past work
- Attitude they use when working (e.g. What is their mindset? Can they demonstrate a collaborative attitude if the role calls for it?)
- Results that they bring from their existing job, like the type of prospects they're currently selling to
- Cognitive skills (e.g. Do they do pre-call planners? Are they using a CRM, and if so, how?)
- Habits they need to have
Once you align these traits with the specific job profile, you will have an easier time determining if a person is a match for the role.
Another framework you can use is one that Hoffeld Group CEO and Chief Sales Trainer David Hoffeld covers in his book The Science of Selling, which includes five essential qualities that are scientifically linked with high levels of sales performance:
1) Intrinsically motivated. What motivates them outside of the money? Why are they in sales? Why do they enjoy it?
2) Understanding the perspective of others. How do they gather sales intelligence? How do they get an understanding of prospect's motivation to buy?
3) Integrity. Would I want one of my children to work for this person?
4) Growth mindset. Do they believe their sales skills can be continually developed?
5) Skilled in interpersonal communication. What kind of first impression does this individual give? How do they represent themselves, verbally and non-verbally?
"When you find all five of these qualities to be strongly present with a specific person, sales will always follow," says Hoffeld. And as we’ll show you next, asking the right questions will help you achieve that.
PART 3: How to Hire
After you've decided it's time to hire a sales rep and you confidently know who you're looking for, it's time to get to work.
A strategic sales team hiring process goes beyond simply asking questions, accepting the answers, and settling on the best candidate out of those who applied.
Look at hiring as the long-term strategy, not a short-term fix
Considering the steep costs of a sales mishire, a long-term approach is the only right way to look at sales hiring. The annual turnover among U.S. salespeople goes as high as 27%, which costs companies not only from the hiring and training perspective, but also by hurting sales.
"On average, it takes seven months to get a new hire from a starting level to a high level of competency and performance," says David Hoffeld. “That's seven months you're investing in this person, and if they're not a top performer, the impact of the investment and lost sales is just staggering.”
"That's why we can't rush things in our hiring process. We identify the right person, and we wait for him or her. The biggest struggle companies have is wanting that sales person today," Hoffeld adds. "If you hire the right salespeople, success will come quickly and for a long period of time. If you hire the wrong people, you have to fix that mistake, and it might take you a solid year and a half to do so."
Hoffeld suggests shifting away from the hiring approach that typically involves a job posting, a number of candidates who applied by a certain date, and picking the best out of those. This often acts as a short-term fix. Instead, you should wait for the candidate that fits every element of your job profile—even if takes months longer—because it will pay off for years.
Use the 'reversing' technique
By now, you have your candidate profile and you’ve committed to waiting as long as you have to in order to hire the right person—so how are you going to test your candidates? What are the specific steps you can take to discover and identify those perfect sales hires?
David Mattson suggests a technique called “reversing.” It’s a strategy that reverses the flow of information from candidates to you rather than from you to the candidates, and it’s a way to uncover the true intent behind a response or a question.
“For example, an ineffective interviewer will say something like, 'One of the important skills we're looking for here is prospecting. How do you feel about that? What are your prospecting skills like?'” Mattson says. “The candidate knows what you expect to hear, and they'll tell you that. It's as if you held up a billboard that told them what to say.
“Instead, reframe the questions so that they need to speak about their experience and about real examples. It makes it harder for them to come up with a rehearsed answer. If you ask them about the ways they get clients at their current job and their answer is 'From a lot of different places,' you peel back the onion and ask a follow-up," Mattson explains.
"I'd then ask them about their most recent 10 accounts and where they came from. Really narrow in on specifics. You know those questions about handling difficult situations, or overcoming a challenge? We all know them, and everyone has a standard response ready to go. So, you peel back the onion again and ask them to clarify their answer, because no one usually rehearses further than that one response, and the truth comes out."
You can also use the reversing technique when your candidate asks you a question. “Let’s say the candidate is wondering how they’ll get leads at your company. A bad response would be to explain a good marketing strategy you have in place,” Mattson says.“
Instead, you can say ‘Great question. How do you get your leads now?’ The candidate might say, ‘I have to get them myself and it’s harder since we’re on commission.’ You can follow up with ‘How would you like to generate leads?,’ and if the candidate responds with something like, ‘I think creating leads isn’t the best use of my time, the company should secure them,’ you’ll know how this person feels about prospecting and you’ll be able to compare it with the job requirement.”
Get the sales team involved
When you're adding new members to your sales team, it's crucial to get the entire team involved in the hiring process. While hiring for a sales position recently, Steven Benson learned first-hand the value of having the candidate get to know the type of people they'd be working with and decide if it would be a good environment for them.
"By the time the candidate did their final round of interviews with me, they were able to very clearly articulate why they were a good fit for the company,” Benson recalls. “Also, I could tell they were really excited about the role, partially because they had liked what they heard from the team.”
Benson also recalls a situation in which a salesperson was hired despite a team member highlighting reasons why the person wasn't a strong fit. "The hire ended up not working out well, and the reasons that the team member brought up earlier were valid. Situations like this can have a negative impact on the team, so it's very important to take their feedback into consideration," he added.
Ready to start hiring? Understanding the unique needs for salespeople within your company and defining a strong job profile are always the best first steps to take. If you can commit to continuing your search until you find the perfect sales rep for each specific sales role, you'll be well on your way to the long-term success of your growing sales team.