You Don't Just Hire a Sales Team -- You Build It

The wrong approach is to fill sales positions with warm bodies. Here's how to build a team that'll be in it for the long haul.

Just this week, in speaking to two prospective clients, both Microsoft partners, I heard the same complaint that I hear over and over from sales executives: " My turnover rate is huge."

They're not alone in their concerns. Consider these facts:

  • Based upon a 2006 Microsoft study, 25 percent of new sales hires at Microsoft partner organizations leave after just 90 days.
  • In a recent Manpower Inc. survey of nearly 33,000 employers worldwide, U.S. and Canadian respondents both ranked "sales representative" as the job they were having most trouble filling.
  • Nearly 25 percent of the 2,176 sales executives surveyed in the Miller Heiman's 2006 Sales Performance Study reported that turnover had increased during the previous year.

Hiring the right talent is critical in building successful sales teams (see "Hiring Smart," September 2005). Studies show that, if you bring in the wrong salesperson, you lose four times the cost of that person's salary and benefits to missed opportunities, management time and other factors.

However, hiring is just one part of the equation. It's also important to develop and retain your salespeople. Here are a few suggestions for achieving those goals:

Buff up the "B" team. Because there are a finite number of "A-level" salespeople, you should focus on grooming the B-level team members most likely to be able to move up to "A" status. Don't waste time on salespeople who are C-level or below. Conducting interviews regularly will improve your ability to identify both the winners and the runners-up with strong potential.

Emphasize education. Design a comprehensive orientation and training program to ensure that new hires hit the ground running -- and keep moving forward.

Create a sales-oriented culture. From conducting numerous exit interviews, we've found that many top salespeople leave their jobs not because they're dissatisfied with compensation, but because they're frustrated by sales management. That frustration stems from a culture that in effect, sets up roadblocks to sales success via lack of support, poorly designed sales processes and internal policies that make it difficult to add new clients, generate proposals, process orders or even calculate commissions.

Sales leaders serious about improving performance need to examine all three areas, helping B-level players move up while developing programs and a culture that helps everyone succeed. The first step in doing that job well is making sure that your company's leadership views sales development as top priority.

That isn't necessarily a given. The management teams at many Microsoft partner companies view their sales divisions as cost centers -- when, in reality, they're profit centers and executives should be doing everything possible to help their salespeople execute brilliantly. Partner companies should emphasize developing, mentoring and coaching their sales teams in much the same way that they focus on building certification levels for their delivery teams.

Smaller partner companies often tell us that, unlike larger enterprises, they don't have the resources to undertake professional-level development projects. (My typical response is: "That's why you're still a small company.") But effective sales, training and retention efforts are specially critical for small partner organizations. Cash flow and decreased sales impact monthly profitability far more for smaller companies than for their bigger counterparts, who can usually better weather a few bumps.

Bottom line: Building a strong sales organization involves developing programs dedicated to each salesperson's short-term success and long-term growth, and doing so in a positive culture that rewards achievement. Such efforts will go a long way toward helping all team members reach their potential -- and keeping them on board.

About the Author

Ken Thoreson is managing director of the Acumen Management Group Ltd., a North American consulting organization focused on improving sales management functions within growing and transitional organizations. You can reach him at [email protected].