Talent, skill or something else?

Recruit and manage salespeople well, provide the right tools and training, and soon rivals will be whispering jealously about your “culture of success”, writes Dan Matthews

Traditionally sales managers are wary of structured approaches to recruiting and developing talent within their organisations. Commercial people like to think they have impeccable instinct and can identify killer sales acumen in new recruits just by looking at them.

Thirty years ago, suggesting to a senior salesman (because they were mostly men in those days) that he should consider evaluating staff in a way that went beyond his powers of observation would be tantamount to calling him a sissy.

Today things are different, and companies spend a great deal of time and energy thinking how they can foster a culture of sales excellence in their workforce. They bring in consultants, consider the best practice of leading firms and install training programmes to create the mythical “culture of success”.

But what exactly does that mean? Is it a team of highly motivated salespeople who think about nothing other than closing the deal? Or should modern salespeople contribute more to the business’s brand?

“From a sales perspective, a culture of success is when you reach a point where a customer is so satisfied by your product or service that he is more than happy to testify during events on your behalf,” says Alexandre Papillaud, EMEA  (Europe, the Middle East and Africa) marketing operations manager, at software firm McAfee.

This is certainly a desirable outcome, just like multiple repeat sales to lots of satisfied customers, word-of-mouth endorsements and soaring profits. But for Dr Pushka Jha, at Newcastle University, the culture of success starts with motivated employees.

“Companies can create this kind of culture by giving employees a stake in its performance,” he says. “A culture grows from the bottom-up, not top-down. If employees feel partly responsible and rewarded for outcomes, like a profit increase, then they will want to replicate this success again and again.”

Such an approach will reflect well on your business, he says, especially if you can contain the rampant enthusiasm of incentivised staff and channel it to create a sales strategy that mimics the best parts of your brand.

The explosion of new channels, such as internet forums, blogs and social networks, means salespeople have access to more information

“The customer experience of your brand should remain consistent. Just like you’d expect to walk into a Starbucks in London, or in Leeds, and expect to receive the same service or treatment,” says Tom Quayle, business analyst at The Chemistry Group.

“The people selling your product need to sell it in a way which represents the culture of the organisation; this is about the ‘fit’. So you need to get specific about the attributes that define high performance for salespeople and sales leaders.”

An obvious place to start is recruitment, but really the first area of your business to consider is management. Hiring the best is one thing, training and guiding them, while maintaining a high level of morale, is quite another.

According to Karim Iskandar, international vice-president of sales at OneSource Information Services, managers must identify the key requirements of sales staff at different levels of seniority. “Our managers make sure salespeople are all engaged with our range of sales information solutions to help them assess and prioritise leads,” he says.

“Middle managers are fundamental to engaging a sales team,” says Mr Quayle. “Sales is all about activity – you need to be motivated at work to keep making calls, in spite of no one picking up, to keep chasing the proposal that no one ever got back to you on.

“Managers in sales departments are often guilty of promoting themselves and not focusing closely on the executives they are responsible for. Managers need to get to know salespeople, help them improve with feedback, provide new challenges and pat them on the back.”

Top managers have a role to play too. Charismatic leaders (think the late Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison) have a great advantage in providing a kind of focused inspiration to sales employees who are often hungry for both encouragement and direction.

“Sales performance is certainly at least partly the responsibility of top managers,” says Mr Papillaud. “The atmosphere within the company is very important and this comes from the management team. For example, are they able to stimulate teams and motivate them to go beyond their quota?”

The structure of your management hierarchy and individual approaches to leadership come first, only after which should you turn your attention to the recruitment and development of fresh talent.

Here, like in the Eighties, gut instinct will play a role, but its power is diminished as other, more statistically proven, methods of gauging and developing talent have emerged. Variables, like whether the candidate understands the business, has researched the customer base or is asking the right questions are a good start.

Then there are intelligence tests, psychometric questionnaires and behavioural or competency assessments, all of which contribute evidential “data points” towards answering the question who to hire and who not to.

When it comes to training and development of new recruits, The Chemistry Group’s Mr Quayle recommends preaching the path of “good content”.

“Our data tells us this is a key differentiator in high-performing salespeople. They offer an opinion to their customers and tell them things they don’t know. They use insight to break away from standard and boring ‘solution selling’ frameworks.”

He recommends assessment based on input rather than outcomes: who is putting in the most calls and what kinds of conversations are being offered by sales staff, and are they talking to the right people? Good outcomes are driven by source activity, he says, so focus here.

It helps too if your people have the right tools for the job. The internet in general and social media in particular can play a game-changing role.

“The challenge for organisations is how to arm salespeople with the intelligence that can optimise their performance,” says Andrew Yates, chief executive of Artesian Solutions.

“The explosion of new channels, such as internet forums, blogs and social networks, means salespeople have access to more information than ever before, and can obtain valuable insights into brand sentiment and customer preference.

“However, in order to take advantage of the information available, businesses need to introduce software that can filter through the huge amount of social interactions available to uncover relevant information,” he says.