The Better Way to Build a Sales Team

Author: 
Paul Nolan

How do you put together a winning team?
The question is asked in all facets of life — sports, business, education, government, even in marriage and families. Leaders are asked to raise the performance of those around them, but the reality is not everyone is up to the challenge. By definition, teams have middle performers and, depending upon how forgiving management is, even low performers.

However, in today’s competitive business environment, companies can’t afford to field a mediocre team for long. We asked veteran B2B sales managers, consultants and coaches how best to build and sustain a high-performing sales team with a clear understanding that a company’s success relies on a lot more than it sales personnel. Everything starts with a strong product or service. Consumer companies like Apple
have proven if you have that, you can charge a premium.

But eventually, someone has to make a sale. Fielding a consistently strong sales team — let’s say the revenue-producing equivalent of the New England Patriots — requires smart hiring, efficient and effective onboarding, and a proven record of retaining top performers. How is that done? It’s complicated.
As with the NFL, you can study top-performing teams for a dozen or more years and still not be able to mimic their success.

There are intangibles, to be sure, but there are identifiable strategies as well. Because the most consistent answer we received regarded how to keep top teams together, we’ll start there.

Stars like stars

One thing we heard repeatedly from those we spoke with is that high-performers like working with other high-performers.

“The best thing you can do to retain good reps is to have a winning company,” says Manny Medina, CEO and founder of Outreach, a Seattle-based provider of a sales engagement platform. “All you need is one B player and you have a cancer.
I am not devaluing the importance of compensation, but all else being equal, you need to have a winning mentality as a team. The last thing you want is a rep who feels he is dragging your team along. That is why great reps quit.”

What does a winning culture look like? Medina says a core component is having a customer-centric approach that ensures your customers are winning even more than you. “I don’t optimize my company around [my] sales. I optimize my company around retention and expansion of current accounts,” he says. “Even though I’m growing the top line well over 100 percent year over year, I grow each of my accounts 200 percent. If you do that, your reps feel like they’re on a mission of mercy. It creates the feeling that you’re winning as a company because your customers are winning.”

Good sales managers understand that sales teams do not have to have middle or low performers. “If your low-performance bar is a rep who makes 80 percent of quota 90 percent of the time, you really don’t have a low-performance bar,” Medina says.

Be quick to cut low-performers

The best way to build depth on your sales team is to continually recruit, even when you’re not hiring, so you can be quick to cut low-performers loose, says Mike Smith, founder of SalesCoaching1, a training and recruiting company.

“You’re going to make mistakes hiring. You can’t wait once you’re convinced that a person is not the right one. You’re not doing them a favor keeping them around and you’re not doing yourself a favor.”

Yes, a small percentage of reps can be coached up, but Smith says managers waste far too much time hanging on to reps who will never be a good fit. “They’re either doing the right things or they’re not. Often, it’s their energy level and their motivation. I’m big on creating a culture that demands excellence.”

Like Medina, Smith says managers should be concerned if too much of a sales team’s performance is shouldered by too few reps. “If 80 percent of your sales comes from 20 percent of your salespeople, companies end up making their overall numbers on the backs of the top-performers. You can’t keep pounding on people who are successful and ask them for more.”

Hiring smart

It’s no secret that building a well-rounded sales team starts with smart hiring. Many of those we spoke with said a good fit for one company may not be a good fit for another. Thus, a sterling resume is not a foolproof sign that you’ve got your next sales star.

“A mediocre salesperson can sell themselves off as a good salesperson if a hiring manager is not looking for the right things,” says David Radin, CEO of Confirmed, a sales empowerment app that helps salespeople increase acceptance of meeting requests and improve efficiency. Before developing his app, Radin says he rose through the sales ranks at several companies and worked as a sales trainer.

“The single biggest mistake I’ve seen managers make on a consistent basis is hiring somebody because they have a contact list. It’s a common thing to say, ‘This guy knows a lot of people in the industry. Let’s hire him.’ You need to hire the athlete, not somebody who knows how to play the game. Just because someone knows the rules of football or basketball doesn’t mean they’re going to be a great player.”

The science of finding a good fit

For some, finding a good fit comes down to sticking with a process and going on gut instinct, but others turn to science. Marc Prine is director of the consulting and assessment team at Taylor Strategy Partners. TSP started in the 1960s as a traditional recruiting firm. About six years ago, Prine and his team of PhD-level industrial/organizational psychologists introduced data analytics and psychology to help TSP’s clients make sure they made the right hiring decisions.

TSP first works closely with clients to establish a “competency model” that is specific to that company’s market strategy and culture. “What we’re looking for is not, ‘Can you sell?’ but ‘Can you sell in this environment in the way our client wants you to sell?’ There are all types of strategies that win at different organizations,” Prine says.

TSP doesn’t recruit candidates for its clients. Instead, it provides them with customized profiles to help them improve their own hiring process by asking better, more targeted questions — questions that discover how candidates would behave in role-specific, relevant situations.

For one Fortune 500 biopharmaceutical company with large sales forces in primary care and a variety of specialty areas,
TSP designed, developed and validated customized tools and evaluation guidelines for each team. After 18 months, the client calculated a 24x return on investment within the primary care organization alone, Prine says. The return came largely from managers feeling comfortable hiring less experienced, yet equally capable candidates.

Predictors of sales success

Most of the predictive signals of success are not on a candidate’s resume, says Josh Jarrett, cofounder of Koru, a Seattle-based talent screening and selection company that applies predictive analytics to leading assessment science. To hire better salespeople, companies need to better understand their own system and cultural fit, Jarrett says. “It’s not about purchasing a free agent who has been great on other teams.”

According to Jarret, Koru analytics show the prior work experience that is most indicative of success in sales is project management. The flipside — that is, the work experience that could signal someone may struggle with B2B sales — is customer service experience. “They’re being responsive, not proactive,” he explains.

LaVon Koerner, co-founder and chief revenue officer of Revenue Storm, a sales consulting firm, agrees that hiring for attributes and then training to competencies is the path to take. Koerner is also from the “hire slowly but fire quickly” school of thought, citing a statistic he saw recently that only 46 percent of sales hires are successful. While he supports the science behind smart hiring, his three essential traits for finding a successful sales hire are a bit more philosophical:

  • Do they have a rescue mindedness? Do they get their “buzz” from helping others?
  • Do they have rescue eyes? Can they see what others can’t see? Are they selling a vision for each client?
  • Do they have a rescue heart? Can they take the future pain of their customer and move it to their own heart?

Effective onboarding

Those we spoke with emphasize that hiring smart is just the first step. Having a well-designed onboarding program that suits your sales process is essential to bringing new team members up to speed efficiently and effectively.

“A good onboarding process should have aspects that are templated and consistent with your entire company and/or team, as well as aspects that have been customized for that particular new team member,” says Jen Spencer, vice president of sales and marketing for SmartBug Media, an inbound marketing agency.

She is a proponent of ride-alongs, where new team members are paired with seasoned and successful employees in the same role. She also recommends recording and reviewing sales calls in order to create a library of resources for new team members and training materials for your veterans.

Mike Smith of SalesCoaching1 says it’s a good idea to incorporate ride-alongs into the interview process, sending prospects out with a top salesperson. “People can act for 45 minutes in an interview, but they can’t hide for four or five hours. They’re going to ask something or do something that indicates their work ethic and what they’re motivations really are.”

It’s important that training is consistent from one region to the next, and that it covers a company’s compliance, clarifies roles, explains the corporate culture and connects the new hires with team members, says Rob Danna, senior vice president of sales and marketing at ITA Group, which creates and manages incentives and recognition programs for sales teams, channel partners and wholesalers.

Engage and retain

Once star salespeople are in place, the challenge becomes keeping them engaged and on the team. Most of those we spoke with feel motivation comes mainly from within. Incentives are part of most every salesperson’s salary structure, but intangibles play a large role in retaining top talent.

“Keeping salespeople engaged has a lot to do with where
they think the company is going,” says Radin. “Beyond that, it has a lot to do with their trust factor related to their immediate supervisor. Motivation is a lot about trust and direction. That is as impactful as compensation or incentives. Many sales VPs don’t notice or disregard this piece, often because they were good salespeople themselves and they are not practiced at leading people.”

“People will go as hard for recognition as they do for money,” agrees Smith. “Recognition is not old-school.” He recalls a conversation he had with a sales manager who felt his team was not interested in plaques and other forms of recognition. Smith looked around the manager’s office and noted it was full of the exact things the manager felt his own team would not be interested in — many of them more than a decade old.

“Tell me about that one,” Smith asked, pointing to a plaque. The manager went into great detail. “How much money did you make that year?” Smith asked. The manager said he didn’t recall and Smith’s point was made.

Never settling is the most challenging aspect of building a sales team, adds Michael Krentz, director of sales at Taradel, a full-service marketing firm. “It doesn’t matter if you’re above quota, at quota or below, never being satisfied keeps everyone moving in a positive direction. Challenge yourself to beat your best.”