Talented salespeople are always in short supply. Witness the substantial industry that has developed just to try to solve this ever-present problem. You can buy bodies from the auction block through personnel agencies. You can invest in advertising and attract hordes of also-rans. You can do psychological testing, either in person or by mail, in an attempt to discover the profile of a successful sales representative for your company. You can do all of the above and still not have a well-oiled, highly productive selling team. What more, then, can you do?
To begin with, you can't wait until openings occur. Recruiting must be an unending search, an everyday management duty, especially when all slots are full. Think about it. You don't want to hire the best available; you want to hire the best, period. And it's naive to expect that high-level talent will be available exactly when you have an opening.
If recruiting is to be ongoing, every sales manager must structure a regular and significant amount of his or her time to do it -- up to a half or full day a week. Seeing three people a week is not an unreasonable objective. Finding one talented person a quarter is a must. Unless you are constantly in the marketplace, you may miss the best people altogether or, worse still, lose them to the competition. You want to substitute your current problem -- "How do we fill the holes?" -- with a new one: "Where can we fit this person in?"
Most managers will agree that in theory this is the ideal, but in practice they feel that "producing the numbers is what gets you paid on a regular basis." That, of course, is managing sales, not sales management, and the difference is critical. Your salespeople must manage the sales. You must find and manage the people who will keep the vital stream of orders flowing.
Once you have decided to commit the time, the question then becomes what to look for and where to find it. Unfortunately, there is not one good way or system to acquire productive salespeople. What works best is a variety of methods and approaches.
Let's start with what you should be looking for. From what I've observed, a mix of types on a sales team is ideal. Some strong and steady workers, some potential superstars, and one or two (at most) renegades will produce the best results. You'll want a combination of career sales reps and those wanting to move into management. Your selection will depend somewhat on the business you're in -- if your industry calls for a grind-it-out effort, for example, you look for reps with that type of dogged determination. Regional differences also come into play. There is no such thing as a low-key, successful salesperson in New York City, nor is there any such thing as a high-powered, successful salesperson in Mississippi.
Just as there are no standard profiles of good talent, there are no standard formulas as to where to-find it. The thing to keep in mind is that anyone can be anywhere, so you'll want to be continuously looking in a variety of places. Encourage referrals from your current sales team. They know the job, and they know you and want to look good by discovering good candidates. You should talk long and hard to any and all referrals from your salespeople. Be sure the message is out that openings are not required for interviews -- or for hires.
Good customers should also be quizzed regularly about sales talent. And there is nothing wrong with keeping in touch with the best of the competition's salespeople. If they are being well taken care of, nothing will come of it; but you may pick up a hot prospect every now and then.
You shouldn't discount the employment industry as a source of good referrals. Keep your door open -- not fully open, mind you, or they will fill your every waking hour with bodies.
Don't dismiss applicants just getting out of college, either, by thinking they are too big a risk or too costly to train. Actually, they are low risk because they are low cost and have no bad habits. By matching them with a buddy -- a steady producer, not a superstar -- you will be amazed how fast someone can become productive right out of school. Again, not everyone right out of school, but a few now and then will add balance to your sales efforts.
You are not in business to be a riverboat gambler or a social worker, so you will not want to take many wild chances on people. Some high school dropouts can sell to doctors, but I wouldn't count on many being able to. My counsel is, don't be rigid in your selections, and do be reasonable. It may be, for instance, that a candidate will compensate for other shortcomings by fitting in particularly well with you and your customers.
Before you hire anybody, get second and third opinions. Two or three separate meetings, stretched over a minimum of 10 days -- or even better, 30 days -- produces more accurate people pictures. And be careful of psychological testing. While tests can be useful in revealing specific characteristics, their interrelationships cannot be tested easily. Besides, tests are never a substitute for good judgment; often, they are a crutch that hinders its development.
No matter how careful or experienced you are in recruiting, there are no guarantees that a new sales rep will succeed.Still, there are some things you can do to help success along. For example, try not to relocate new hires. A new position is tough enough to handle, without adding a geographical move. And once you have found that special person with drive, your task is to keep the fire alive. In particular, you must identify your best people and be sure they are well cared for in special ways.
Despite your best efforts, your new recruit may not meet the performance standards you have set and may have to be dismissed. Or one of your experienced salespeople may get a call from a competitor that he or she can't refuse. It's in just those moments that you'll be grateful to have an ongoing recruitment program that has every possible talent source in a constant state of alert -- and your calendar booked weeks ahead with interviews.