Sales organizations rank talent strategy gaps as one of the two top challenges they face. That’s likely because too many sales organizations have a loosely related set of talent practices, such as generic competency models, general interview guides, nonspecific training plans and the like — none of which are tailored to the sales context.
While some of these tools can be helpful, many become check-the-box exercises that, in the end, offer little value. And many sales organizations rely on other departments when it comes to managing talent-related tasks. For example, sales may look to HR for help with applicant tracking, learning management system purchases and more.
Sales organizations need a sales talent strategy.
A sales talent strategy is a holistic set of processes and practices that covers the entire lifecycle of a salesperson, from recruitment through exit. By coordinating hiring, assessment, training and coaching in a single, comprehensive strategy, organizations ensure they have the right people in the right jobs so they can achieve their sales goals.
Sales leaders build and execute a range of strategies. They have visions and concrete plans for coverage, channel usage, segmentation, market approaches, demand generation and so on. But sales leaders also need to own the talent strategy. Often, talent is managed by putting out fires: a top performer demands a different compensation plan, organizations have unexpected attrition or roles become too big and need to be specialized. Instead, they need a formal, data-driven sales talent strategy that offers an end-to-end view of how talent is identified, entered and exited from the organization — with positive sales results along the way.
Here are the eight elements of an effective sales talent strategy.
Use input such as quota/revenue goals, structural makeup, attrition rates and onboarding times to estimate hiring needs by role. The better your data, the more accurately you can predict production and fine-tune your needs.
Use a data-driven sales talent assessment process to determine what attributes are associated with success in your specific sales model. Closely examine the more intangible attributes (e.g., cognitive skills, learning propensity and interpersonal relating approaches) to ensure your profile narrows in on the specific traits that differentiate high from low performers.
Once you’ve identified an ideal candidate profile, rethink where you are sourcing your talent. Many sales organizations filter prospective sales talent by factors such as experience in their specific market. This narrows the field drastically and can result in competitors poaching mediocre talent back and forth from each other (with large signing bonuses offered along the way). We suggest looking to other industries or experience criteria using your more granular, data-driven success profile.
Use the data collected in the hiring process to personalize an onboarding process that will be most effective for a specific candidate (while ensuring that you still address the basics).
Collect data from the field from new hires and their managers and fine-tune what people really need to know when. Organizations that have an effective onboarding process report getting sellers up to full productivity two months faster than organizations that don’t.
Many sales organizations stop the learning process after onboarding is over, aside from some new product launch info. The conventional logic is that sellers are too busy managing their territories to attend training. Yet, the market, product set and customer need set are continuously evolving, and sellers need to evolve as well. In the Korn Ferry Research 2019 World-Class Sales Practices Report, we found that world-class organizations were much more likely to have a culture of continuous development. Training in sales methodology and selling skills will engage your sellers and boost their performance. Explore microlearning, leverage mobile tools and make smart decisions about modalities and time. But don’t abandon learning after you’ve onboarded your talent.
Few would argue that sales coaching is not necessary. Yet, most leaders say that they don’t have the time to do it. After decades of consistent proof that coaching is linked to better success among reps, the Korn Ferry Research 5th Annual Sales Enablement Study showed that almost two-thirds of organizations don’t use a formal approach to coaching.
In an integrated sales talent strategy, the data collected during the hiring process (or alternatively collected from incumbents during your work to create an ideal success profile) is used to match salespeople up with compatible coaches and to provide coaches with insights on how to best coach a salesperson.
In addition, your enablement function will have a specific set of enablement services aimed at sales managers and others who may serve coaching roles.
Sales is a unique profession in the sense that it does not necessarily have a clear career path. Most salespeople don’t want to be promoted to sales manager. And not all inside salespeople strive to be account executives who sell outside.
The key then is to ensure that sellers have developmental opportunities, perhaps mentoring a new hire or participating on a product board, early access to new content and more. There’s a long-standing myth that all salespeople are “coin-operated.” It isn’t true, as your talent data will tell you once it becomes the backbone of your sales talent strategy.
Attrition in sales is high in comparison to other positions. Sellers have a marketable skill, and when gaps in the above areas are large, voluntary attrition takes off. On the involuntary side, it’s an accepted aspect of the profession that not making goals means you will be exited from the organization. But it’s important to ensure that exits are handled in a fair and transparent way. And, rather than wait for quota as the end game, leaders need to have a fair and legally defensible way to judge performance.
Most sales organizations will do all of these things. However, they’re usually not driven by predictive and actual data, not owned by the sales organization, not integrated with each other and not executed at a mastery level. In fact, when considering the aspects of a sales talent strategy, the only piece that sales leaders reported was a strength for their organization was the last step, exiting. But if all the sales talent strategy elements are in place, fewer exits will be necessary.