Treating Sales Reps Like the Rest of Your Talent is a Mistake
Cancel the "cookie-cutter" approach to training your sales force and optimize your talent by using these five key steps.
A new employee is a new employee and talent development is talent development. It’s all HR’s domain, right? Wrong, at least when it comes to sales.
Whether you’re starting, growing or running your business, treating and managing sales talent like the rest of your talent is a costly mistake. It can be also a persistent roadblock for maximizing sales productivity and growth.
While cultivating talent organization-wide is important, the sales function is inherently different. It's the only role directly responsible for revenue production. Even with the perfect product and go-to-market plan, if you don’t succeed in getting your salespeople ready to sell, you can jettison the rest of your strategy.
We joke (mostly) that there’s a reason there's no President’s Club for, say, finance. Instead, it’s a core motivator for sales.
Organizations with sales-driven cultures often provide a blueprint on how to maximize reps’ learning and earning potential. When I worked for Xerox Learning Systems (now AchieveGlobal), sales-talent processes were managed separately from the rest of the organization’s talent. We dove into an intensive and specialized boot camp: living in apartments at headquarters for a month, getting immersed in various departments and returning regularly for follow-up training.
This process made for a well-versed, synchronized, results-driven and loyal sales force.
That was more than 20 years ago. For many companies today, this kind of differentiated development is aspirational, but not likely to be on corporate's radar. Yet, it should be. Losing a sales rep, especially unexpectedly, can be a sucker punch to the bottom line. Consider:
- Organizations incur tremendous costs with new sales rep development. That development includes acquisition, onboarding, continuous training, travel, salary and more.
- Ready, set, wait . . . Some time has to go by before reps take off their training wheels. For 61 percent of companies, it takes at least seven months for reps to ramp up to full productivity, according to CSO Insights. At that point, the output sales reps chalk up begins to repay the company’s investments in them. In fact, by some estimates, it takes two years or more for companies to fully recuperate what leadership may have spent.
- Develop and hold on to talent. If you don’t help salespeople become confident and competent, frustration can grow. When reps leave, especially before the two-year mark, companies lose the costs sunk into them before reps have “paid them back.” The Bridge Group reports annual turnover for B2B sales reps is an "ouch"-inducing 34 percent. Others estimate the average cost of replacing a single rep is $115,000.
- Fledgling companies aren’t immune. For example, if you have five salespeople and one or two don’t pan out, that’s 20 to 40 percent of your sales force who are not producing.
Be smart: Manage sales talent separately.
Given the gravity of their tasks, sales reps need to be recruited, hired, onboarded, trained, measured and rewarded differently from the rest of the talent in your organization. Doing so will minimize attrition and maximize success. Having a separate, strategic function, often through sales enablement, will keep them productive and accountable, reinforce key concepts and drive results.
Dating from my time as an industry analyst, I've tended to not use the general term “talent development” in reference to sales; we’re really talking about talent optimization. When structuring this function, you should consider these five key areas.
Finding good salespeople is getting harder -- the “A” players will always be employed. So apply dedication, cultivate relationships and target reps that meet the profile of what your business needs.
It’s also helpful to look for “trigger events” -- e.g., a company that went through an acquisition, realigned territories, had a failed market launch, etc. -- that might prompt reps to look elsewhere. While sales enablement conducts this research/recruiting separately, it’s often with dotted-line reporting to HR.
Determine the core competencies you need to hire to and how you’ll assess them. Will you evaluate the sales reps during interviews? Through a simulation? By administering a test or assessment? In many cases, the answer may be all of the above.
Typical organization-wide onboarding programs focus on a checklist: "Can you show knowledge of our company history?" "Pass this course on security?" New sales hires should know those details too. But the bar is higher. More than showing general comprehension, sales reps need to demonstrate mastery of the behaviors, skills and knowledge important to their job.
To mold reps for success, build a 90-day program, with intervals for developing core competencies, strategies for assessing mastery and plans to track individual salespeople.
Many sales organizations go through sales transformations -- whether the result of M&A, a shift in product or corporate strategy, etc. -- which necessitates a “re-boarding” of the field force. The sales talent optimization function should redefine desirable behaviors, skills and knowledge, then train to them and measure success.
5. Managers/role development
Too often, usually due to capacity issues, sales enablement focuses on developing only field salespeople. But it’s important to look beyond that. Research from CSO Insights shows investing in sales managers considerably boosts sales performance. Sadly, nearly one in five organizations offer no training for this role. Methodical recruiting and onboarding programs, clear job descriptions and competency maps likewise set up managers to coach, forecast and lead effectively.
Sales talent optimization shouldn’t be conducted in a vacuum. Input from HR and other departments is often critical. But operating strategically and independently, as a standalone function, is equally critical. To break the mold and cultivate stellar sales talent that stays, it’s important that distinct processes, bodies and metrics govern the lifecycle of sales talent. Cancel the “cookie-cutter” approach.
Jim Ninivaggi is SVP of strategic partnerships at Brainshark, Inc., a leading provider of sales enablement solutions. He has three decades of experience studying and driving sales productivity, and previously led the sales enablement research practice at research and advisory firm SiriusDecisions.