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Build your team

Build your sales team the way you build your customer base

by Troy Harrison

You can’t build a good team without good players; unfortunately, too many business owners saddle themselves with hires that are either ineffective or inappropriate. Speaking as a trainer and consultant, one of the most difficult (and unfortunately, common) issues that I confront is the owner who fills the sales team with salespeople that are badly fit for the job. Worse, these owners lose the productive salespeople while hanging onto ineffective personnel too long.

To succeed, you should use what you already know about building a customer base to build your sales force. That means that you should acquire high-potential new sales talent; you should constantly work to develop your salespeople through training and
coaching; and you should then retain them through
constant dialogue and feedback.

Part of the problem with sales hiring is that we tend to hire people we like. Salespeople make their living by being liked (at least, that’s one of the qualifications). Hence, we see owners who hire salespeople that are hired too quickly with too little forethought. That can be avoided. Here are Troy’s Five Keys To Smart Sales Hiring:

Proper planning prevents poor performance: The topic of sales planning isn’t very well understood, but when it comes to hiring and managing salespeople, it’s vital. “Sales Planning” means working through the types and quantities of activities to be performed by
your salespeople on a week-to-week (or month-to-month) basis. How many phone calls, how many initial appointments, how many proposals, do you expect your new salesperson to perform in a given time period? Work backward from a desired level of sales achievement to create your sales funnel.

This is especially important to do pre-hiring because salespeople are creatures of habit, and if you’re planning on hiring an experienced salesperson, you’d better make sure that their experience and habits are a reasonable match for your needs. Forget about “industry experience,” it’s cheap to teach. Instead, focus on salespeople who have worked in similar activity patterns as your sales force. Industrial supply and distribution selling tends to focus heavily on relationship building; have your sales prospects been successful at forming and monetizing long, profitable relationships?

In the industrial world, technical ability tends to be important; however, don’t confuse technical aptitude with technical knowledge. If someone can grasp technical concepts, there are a number of ways for the person to gain the specific knowledge that you need.

Get your rear in gear: I do quite a bit of recruiting for my clients, and the most significant change I’ve noticed in the last year is the speed required in the hiring process. Hiring salespeople used to be a fairly leisurely activity; if the hiring process took a month, that was OK. Today, the market for quality salespeople is so competitive, you’d better figure on working people through the hiring process in two to three weeks or you’re going to lose the good ones!

In fact, the old system used to call for placing an ad, then waiting two weeks for all the responses to accumulate before making calls for interviews. Do that now, and you’re going to miss half your candidates. Today’s gold standard is to call salespeople within 24 to 48 hours of receiving resumés. That means that, when you decide to hire, it should be a priority project and not something that’s worked in around the edges.

Ask tough questions: Our natural impulse to form relationships and work with people can work against us when we’re interviewing. Too often, sales managers find themselves connecting with their interviewee and ignoring red flags or forgetting to ask questions that smoke out red flags. Make sure to carefully probe employment history, asking detailed questions and drilling down at each stop. Understand their achievement, compensation, etc. Make them justify short stays.

You should have multiple people interviewing, as well as multiple
interview formats. Behavioral interview questions should be part of at least one interview. Remember, good sales talent is rare; bad sales talent is both common and expensive.

Do your due diligence: Want a scary stat? Here it is. According to a survey I saw a couple of years ago, over 40% of all references submitted go unchecked, even when the
person is hired. In my own experience, that may even be a bit conservative. In the real world, that means that even if your applicant has absolutely no one who will say anything positive about him, he has a 2-in-5 shot at being able to fake it. Those aren’t bad odds.

The way to turn those odds in your favor is to check references, as well as employment history. Yes, it’s work, but it pays off. Don’t get lazy.
One more thought: Typically, past employers aren’t reluctant to give positive employment references. If you find that your candidate’s past employers are sticking to name, rank and serial number, that tells you what you need to know.

You’re not done when the person is hired: Even good hires can turn bad. When a good hire (good fit, strong due diligence and references, etc.) turns bad (results are unmet), you can bet it was due to bad or lacking management during the first 90 days. That period is the ramp-up period during which the new hire should be learning their job and establishing good habits. As a manager, if you see the person slipping off track, do not hesitate to correct them (privately, of course). If you wait until they’ve been on board for six months, you’ve waited too long. In my experience, it’s rare to see a good hire do the right things for the first 90 days and then start doing the wrong things later. Start them off right, and they’ll typically stay right.

Development: Once your bouncing baby salesperson is past their initial 90-day onboarding period, the work really starts. Good salespeople like to grow; they like to grow their business, their incomes, their skills, etc. Your job is to help them by providing the tools, training and feedback.

Training never stops: If you think that training is something you do only at the start of employment, you’re missing a very big boat. Good sales managers are always working on training and retraining your salespeople. Every sales meeting should include a training component. Don’t feel like preparing? Task your salespeople, on a rotating basis, to present training topics from articles they find. Nothing helps learning quite like teaching. Training should rotate between product knowledge and sales techniques.

Coach, coach and coach some more: You should be sharing the field of battle with your salespeople on a regular basis. When you do, don’t try to sell for them. Instead, work to improve their quality of activity by observing the customer and his/her reactions to the various questions and presentations that your salesperson makes. When you see nonproductive junctures in the call, note it and the reason. Then coach your salesperson out of those nonproductive behaviors through training and role play. Constantly coach, constantly reinforce.

Retention: If there is any part of this process that is neglected by business owners, it’s the retention phase. Think about it: how often do you survey your customers to assess their satisfaction and vulnerability to your competitors? How often do you ask your salespeople those same types of questions? Have you ever asked them those questions?

Review is a two-way street: When you do your employment reviews (you do those, right?), don’t just focus on how the salesperson should improve to meet the
company’s needs. Instead, spend part of that time on a dialogue focusing on how the job is meeting the salesperson’s needs. Questions like, “Do you still feel excited about selling for us? Why or why not? Is selling for us everything you thought it would be?” and so forth can be very high value. Don’t be afraid to adjust what you’re doing to take care of, and keep, winning salespeople. Sometimes you should even “re-sell” your opportunity to your people.

Stability is a winner: Most salespeople don’t reach full productivity until year three on the job. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t terminate salespeople who don’t make ramp-up goals, but it does mean that salespeople get more valuable, to themselves, their customers and their companies, over time. This is why retention is such an important step; your customer relationships will never be what they could be if you can’t hang onto your people. A simple and frequent two-way dialogue usually will work wonders here.

I realize this isn’t without extra work and effort. But, hey, you’re not afraid of doing a little work to do this correctly, right? Your customers, your staff and your bank account
will thank you.

Troy HarrisonTroy Harrison is the author of “Sell Like You Mean It!” and the president of SalesForce Solutions, a sales training, consulting and recruiting firm. For information on booking speaking/training engagements, consulting or to sign up for his weekly E-zine, call (913) 645-3603, e-mail or visit

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Industrial Supply magazine. Copyright 2012, Direct Business Media.


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