Sales leaders today face challenges with shaping their sales teams and delivering the right employee experience in order to keep sellers motivated, effective and profitable. And, in order for sales teams to be successful, they need to have a strong understanding of who buyers are and what they need.

In our 2021 Buyer Preferences study, we heard directly from B2B buyers and one thing was clear: most sellers didn’t impress them. These buyers reported that most sales talent didn’t exceed expectations. Buyers also said that they didn’t view sellers as a resource for solving business problems, turning first to industry publications, vendor websites and web searches. Further still, when picking a solution, buyers said that most of the time, they saw the winning seller’s solution and approach as only slightly better than the competition, showing little value add from sellers.

Over 1,000 sales leaders in our 2020 Sales Talent Study told us about the challenges they faced with their sales team talent. As a result, we learned about three key — and costly — gaps.

3 common sales team gaps

  1. Sales leaders are overly reliant on top performers. The top performers in an organization produce, on average, 62% of revenue.
  2. Underperformers stay in their role too long. Sales leaders can’t identify exactly which sellers have the potential to take them forward and who isn’t a good fit. Therefore, they’re reluctant to discipline or dismiss underperformers.
  3. Swapping out sales talent is costly and has mixed results. Not surprisingly, our study also found that the average sales force is constantly in flux. Voluntary and involuntary attrition was 22% combined.

When looking at these findings combined, sales leaders may need to replace an average of a quarter or more of their sales force in any given year. When sales managers do make a change or are forced to make one due to involuntary attrition, the result is costly.

It takes four months on average to find and hire new sales talent, and it takes an additional nine months to get a new seller up to full productivity. This is valuable selling time leaders can’t afford to waste.

Why the sales team talent gap is an opportunity

Given these challenges, it’s no wonder that the vast majority of sales leaders in our study (69%) didn’t feel like they had the talent they needed to succeed in the future. The sales talent gap may sound like another item to add to the list of challenges above. But, it can also be viewed as an opportunity.

Sales talent can accelerate or stall sales initiatives such as new methodologies, changes to processes, deployments of new technologies, exploration of new coverage models and more. If a sales leader hires the right people and engages and develops them appropriately, the face of the sales organization can change substantially in less than two years, accelerating a tipping point for change.

It’s worth the effort.

5 ways to build an effective sales team

Assuming that a sales organization is doing an effective job with hiring , what needs to happen after a new team member joins? Think of it like selling. After closing the deal, how does a salesperson ensure the client gets the promised value of a deal while also delivering value to their organization? They need to ensure the relationship is renewed and grows over time. And the same applies after you’ve hired a new seller.

Here are 5 things to think about when building an effective sales team.

1 Have an onboarding program for your sales team

Most organizations have an onboarding program, even if it’s informal. But more often than not, onboarding ends up being an effective way of sharing product knowledge, giving the seller the best possible start.

Study participants who agreed that they had a strong onboarding program reported getting sellers up to full productivity in 8.5 months. Those who disagreed or strongly disagreed took 9.5 months. If sales quotas are $2M on average, the resulting gap of that month could potentially make a difference of $50K to $100K per new salesperson.

2 Extend development beyond new hires and poor performers

Effective sales teams require support. A dedicated sales enablement discipline that supports both sellers and managers through onboarding, ongoing development and sales coaching is a critical element of the sales talent system.

Organizations looking at development through an enablement lens can better integrate their sales content by training and coaching their sales team on the sales methodology in alignment with the buyer journey . This elevated approach helps sellers feel more supported and be more successful.

3 Make sales coaching a top priority

It’s still true that most people quit managers, not jobs. Yet, despite almost two decades of discussion on the importance of sales coaching, many organizations continue to underestimate its value as a vital strategy for maintaining a successful sales team.

Korn Ferry’s recent research found that 62.9% of organizations still let managers use an ad hoc or informal coaching approach. Yet, the minority of organizations with a “dynamic” coaching approach (linked to training and content) won an average of 55.2% of forecast deals, far higher than the 41.8% found in organizations that left sales coaching up to the individual sales manager’s discretion. This demonstrates the organizational impact coaching can have on a team, as well as aiding seller retention and engagement.

4 Look beyond compensation to drive engagement

Many falsely assume that salespeople are “coin-operated,” meaning that if they’re making money, they’re happy. Others overemphasize the superficial tactics that will motivate sellers. While compensation is important, it takes more than that alone to engage sellers.

Sellers need to feel that they can meet their personal and professional goals. For some, this may mean management opportunities, but for others, it could mean getting the first chance at selling new products, receiving access to sales support, or having input into product development plans.

Sales organizations should be careful to keep their finger on the pulse of the employee experience. Employee insights collected from those in the role and those leaving the organization can tell you a lot about what’s working and what’s not.

5 Use data for succession planning and unforeseen changes

Like hiring and onboarding, employee analytics data can help other types of sales team transitions go smoothly as well. Put simply, the more you know about your sales force, including what works and what doesn’t, the better prepared you’ll be for both change, whether planned or unexpected. For example, the right kind of data can tell organizations if their best salespeople are actually performing well in the market, or who may be ready to step into a new position.

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Assessing the full range of your sales team's talent

For years, our data has shown that the top 20% of a sales team contributes to over half of business revenue. Yet, even with a high reliance on such a small group of people, only 26% of sales organizations have assessed what makes their best sellers so successful.

But how can you ensure you are assessing the broad range of your sales talent, not just your top talent? Consider the five scenarios below.

1. Your “best” sales talent may not be the best

Most sales organizations measure success using lagging indicators. Top sellers are usually identified by revenue plan attainment. However, hitting a quota may not necessarily mean that a seller is the “best.” They may be very good at farming an existing territory that a previous seller acquired, or they may have a preferential account list due to tenure, background, or just pure luck.

Instead, sales managers should evaluate sales talent using a range of indicators that factor in a balance of skillset and mindset. This is a more effective way to find and utilize the strengths of all members of the sales team.

2. Observation doesn’t trump insight

Good sales leaders will certainly have a good gut feeling on best practices — what your best sellers are doing that others aren’t. It’s critical to share those best practices across the company.

But without data, it can be difficult to determine the underlying attributes that separate top sales team performers from others. Many times, what ends up in a competency model (such as product knowledge) isn’t what differentiates the high and low performers. Observations are informative, but they aren’t a replacement for a data analytics approach.

3. What is the best today may not be the best tomorrow

Buyers, industries and products are all changing rapidly. Sellers who may have broad success selling products may struggle with a SaaS model. Those who excelled when a product first went to market may struggle when lower-cost competitors emerge. Market factors may drive your organization to adopt a vertical approach versus a geographic, territory-based model.

When considering the best sales talent, think about the skillset and mindset sellers will need for the future, not just what is the best today.

4. Training is part, but not all, of the answer to strengthening your sales talent

A data-derived model includes a range of skills, knowledge and attributes. Some of those competencies you can train. Others you can develop. So, for example, if a seller is wired to be good at negotiations, you can enhance that talent by providing them with training and a negotiation process.

But when it comes to attitude and mindset, consider what your needs are from a team perspective. You may need a balance of curiosity, interpersonal ability and organizational skills across the team to complement team members.

Consider what goes into your hiring process and what you include in your ongoing development program vs. a success profile of hiring must-haves.

5. You may not want more salespeople who are like your best

You may find that while your top sales team performers are important to your organization, you can’t accommodate a greater proportion of them. They may be prone to working outside of the system, creating legal risk, innovating hard-to-fulfill solutions, or requiring large amounts of support resources. This may be an acceptable tradeoff for success on select accounts. But you should strongly consider how replicable that model is.

Consider what you could learn from a data-driven assessment of their skills and capabilities. With data, you can identify specifically what drives a seller’s success and what to replicate in your training program and future hires.

How to shape the future of your sales team

While much has been made of dire predictions that millions of sales jobs will go away, the truth is that we still need people to sell. It’s not a sustainable position to have the majority of sales organizations suffering from poor talent fit. The minority who are confident their talent will carry them forward into the future are already a lot more successful today than their peers with acknowledged talent gaps.

Organizations confident in their sales talent had a higher percentage of salespeople making or exceeding goal (61% vs 49%) and higher win rates of forecasted deals (52% vs. 45%). By creating an integrated talent strategy and turning hiring into an organizational strength, sales leaders can help accelerate sales transformation initiatives.

Remember, improving sales team retention rates requires understanding the success profile of a seller and how they are onboarded, developed and engaged. The best strategies will allow organizations to shift from reactive measures to proactive sales teams who deliver revenue.

Want to know more about developing sales talent? Contact us for insight on our sales team and talent solutions.