How to Attract & Recruit Top Sales Talent

Selling Skills | Sales Training | Sales Coaching

Like a championship sports team needs great athletes, exceptional salespeople are the lifeblood of a high-performing sales organization. But if you have recently recruited new salespeople,  you probably have also experienced how brutal it is to try to hire top talent in today's market.

Even during more favorable hiring conditions, hiring sales executives is risky. Every sales manager has horror stories of hiring promising candidates who later were poor performers. 

But why is hiring great salespeople so challenging?

According to Frank Cespedes, Senior Lecturer at Harvard Business School, "Sales is the most context-specific activity in the value chain."

For example, selling software is different from selling medical devices, selling to SMB customers is different than selling to the Enterprise, and selling in the U.S. is different than selling in Europe. So, a rep’s previous sales experience may not be a good predictor of future success in a different sales environment. Disciplines such as accounting, finance, and marketing, on the other hand, are much more similar across companies and industries.

Moreover, the context-specific nature of selling makes it challenging to teach in an academic setting. That may be why most business schools don’t offer a degree in sales.*

How Can You Identify Great Unproven Sales Talent?

This brings us to another common hiring problem. Research has shown a low correlation between a good interview and future sales results. In sales, it’s all about behaviors, so to improve your odds, you should implement a behavior-based interview process that includes opportunities for candidates to demonstrate key selling behaviors. But even a sales organization with a rigorous hiring process is still rolling the dice when it hires reps.

Chasing Sales Stars

Another favorite hiring strategy for sales organizations is to target sales stars, either from competitors or outside their industry. According to research by Boris Groysberg, a professor at the Harvard Business School, stardom is real in sales (e.g., top performers are up to six times more productive than bottom performers). Unfortunately, top talent and great sales performance is not easily portable. Professor Groysberg’s research found that approximately 50% of sales success is based on factors such as a hot market, the product or brand, advantages in lead generation or other resources and capabilities, internal relationships, culture, and training– all of which are not transferable to the new sales organization.

The bottom line is that if you hire an expensive sales star, the odds are that they will not perform at the level which they did at their previous company.

Leverage Sales Training to Become a Talent Magnet

According to Professor Groysberg, the only viable long-term strategy to gain a competitive advantage is to:

  1. Recruit and hire smart, hardworking candidates.
  2. Train them to become high-performing salespeople.
  3. Retain them.
Your goal should be to become a “talent magnet,” a place where smart, ambitious candidates want to work.

Think of General Electric in the 1980s, a company where the best and brightest business school graduates went to learn how to manage. Many GE alumni are now CEOs of major corporations. A key component of GE’s success in developing its managerial talent was its legendary management training program, which helped GE attract the best and brightest candidates.
A great sales training program that helps develop homegrown stars can be a strategic differentiator for sales organizations.

To create an impactful, scalable sales training program, Professor Cespedes recommends starting by defining your buyer’s journey. How do they make purchase decisions? Then consider what you expect your reps to do to exert influence in that buying journey. Your focus should be on specific selling skills and behaviors—e.g., consultative selling skills, selling higher in the organization, selling value, and negotiating.

Your training program should also equip your reps with a deep understanding of your solution and how it solves real-world business problems for your customers. This will enable your reps to position themselves as trusted advisors with customers.

Ultimately, there is no shortcut to scaling a sales team with great talent. Becoming a talent magnet isn’t easy, but it is the best long-term way of attracting star sales reps. A core part of this strategy is implementing a comprehensive sales training program.

download sales coaching white paper

About David Jacoby

As a Managing Director at Sales Readiness Group, David helps large B2B sales organizations improve sales performance. Previously, David was a Principal at Linear Partners, a sales consulting firm providing sales strategy, sales operations, talent management, and interim management services to emerging growth companies. In the past, David has served as Vice President of Business Affairs of Xylo, Inc., where he was responsible for the Company's business development, sales operations, legal affairs, and financing activities.