Staffing Management

Death of a Salesman, Birth of a Sales Team

By Barrett Riddleberger

Apr. 19, 2015

There was a time when sales professionals were a breed unto themselves; they were highly independent extroverts who thrived on autonomy and were fearless in the face of rejection.

To be sure, selling anything — be it a $3 box of Girl Scout cookies or a multimillion-dollar human resources software system — takes nerves of steel. That level of passion and dedication needed for a career in sales will never change.The Argument logo

But while some tried-and-true methods remain the go-to for many sales pros, it’s time for anyone managing salespeople at any level, in any industry, to breathe new life into old-school tactics.

The “I’ll do it my way” sales mentality is a potentially limiting stereotype for organizations that want to excel. That dated mindset misses the importance of the sales process by relying too heavily on the individual performer. A sales organization composed of lone-wolf-born salespeople can work fine — so long as everyone stays. But what happens when that hard-charging loner who racked up sales like no other joins the competition? And then another top seller followed by lone wolf No. 3 immediately after?

Well, basically you are screwed. The reason is your HR department is struggling to find the old-school sales stars you are accustomed to managing and not the ones built for the economic realities of a 2015 sales force.

Here’s a secret most sales folks don’t like to admit: More people are qualified for sales than commonly thought. You just need a sales process with clearly articulated steps and roles for which to effectively recruit, onboard and train sales professionals.

Companies that fine-tune a sales organization with broader talent and deeper skills can reap immediate gains in revenue. They also establish a healthier organization in which talent and motivation mesh with goals and rewards.

Assess Your Organization First

The best way to ensure that sales works for the company is to have a clearly defined sales process. Companies should not go about hiring or training until they can articulate and define the steps and roles of selling their goods or services. Who makes cold calls? Who qualifies prospects? What has to happen to ensure profitable sales? Once there’s a process, then a training curriculum can be written.

Here’s a secret most sales folks don’t like to admit: More people are qualified for sales than commonly thought. You just need a sales process with clearly articulated steps and roles for which to effectively recruit, onboard and train sales professionals.

Selling is a skill that improves with training and practice. Using assessments that measure motivation before hiring is very helpful in sales. However, evidence demonstrates that motivation is actually more important than personality.

Assessments are just as important in sales team alignment as in hiring. An organization can have great talent, but if they’re in the wrong roles, they will fail or be miserable. Accurately aligning people with the process is an opportunity to have more diverse talent onboard.

Establishing a teachable sales process with effectively aligned roles can ensure continuity of sales, even as personnel comes and goes. 

Why HR Needs a Sales Process

The National Association of Sales Professionals defines sales process as “a systematic approach involving a series of steps that enables a sales force to close more deals, increase margins and make more sales through referrals.”

It’s important to stress “systematic” because an easily articulated and repeatable set of steps delivers more certainty of results. A systematic set of steps gives talent managers and trainers an outline for job descriptions, recruitment, assessment, alignment and measurement.

Exploring the sales process according to the most common steps — prospecting, qualifying, presentation, handling objections, closing and follow up — reveals that selling for a medium-size to giant company is a series of discrete but interdependent and individually important functions.

Herein lies a company’s first opportunity to customize sales: When talent managers look at sales from this perspective, they are likely to see more opportunity for a broader range of talent. And those people are better equipped to find the best people for the company and place them in roles best suited to their abilities and motivation.

Assessments Reveal Options

Selling and its associated functions — qualifying, presenting, etc. — can all be learned as long as the talent has the cognitive ability. Using assessments for hiring helps to select candidates best matched to the organization and provides a baseline for development and alignment.

Jonathan Libratore couldn’t do his job as call center director at Liberator Medical Supply Inc. without sales assessments. He is responsible for hiring and managing a 100-person sales organization. Liberator, a wholly owned subsidiary of Liberator Medical Holdings Inc., is a provider of direct-to-consumer medical supplies, focusing on sterile urinary catheters, and urological and ostomy supplies. The company is experiencing growth and continually hiring call-center salespeople.

“It’s extremely beneficial to take your agents through the personality assessments and find out what drives and motivates them,” Libratore said.

Not only does the company hire with assessments, but also it uses the data to build better teams. The organization includes sales coaches who give daily support and feedback to their teams and “knowing” the personalities is vital.

“We’ve been able to determine in certain divisions, certain personality types are going to not be successful at doing what we need that job type to do. We’ve found that when we paired them up with similar personalities, we get better production out of them.”

Assessments also need to address motivation. Two sales reps can have nearly identical personality traits but have entirely different motivation. One could be motivated by financial rewards and altruism while helping customers might motivate the other.

If an organization has a multistep sales structure, the otherwise qualified employee motivated by altruism would likely make a better qualifier than a closer. For single-step sales structures, a blend of financial and “being helpful” motivation may be necessary for the job.

Before anyone is trained, a job description needs to describe the motivation required for the candidate to be successful. Companies that take the time to parse out the roles and associated motivations benefit from a broader range of talent and more options when inevitable adjustments are needed.

At Liberator, personality and motivation assessments help Libratore take performance up a notch by fine-tuning divisions within the sales organization.

“We put people who like to spend a little more time on the phone together, and instantly we started getting better success,” Libratore said. “They were spread out in the call center, but we rearranged the seats and literally put them together. Now our top producers are battling each other left and right over numbers, and they love it.”

Better to MASK It

The wrong motivation can be a deal-breaker for a particular position because it’s so intrinsic. Knowledge and skills can be developed as needed, but motivation exists, and it either matches the job description or doesn’t.

The tried and true “knowledge, skills and abilities” endure in human resources lexicon as must-haves for most jobs. KSAs are certainly important for building a sales team, but based on using a proprietary sales assessment for the past decade add “motivation” to the acronym. In fact, for sales roles, motivation is probably the single most important must-have for the particular job.

Any sales job has a crucial customer service component that can be enhanced with well-aligned motivation.

“When it comes to motivation, the first outcome that comes to mind is the service that employees provide. Customers talk about it all the time,” said Sharlyn Lauby, president of HR and training consultancy ITM Group Inc. and author of the blog “HR Bartender.” “They can tell when someone truly loves their work and those employees who are simply watching the clock.”

Determining what people most thrive on in their work can ultimately save time and money and improve performance.

At the top-tier telecom carrier, an employee was failing as an outside sales representative. A sales assessment revealed that the worker was motivated by helping people, which illuminated the problem. That person became so emotionally connected while attempting to solve the prospects’ problems that the representative could never let go of unqualified buyers.

Even though the employee’s challenge was rooted in motivation (altruistic), training was successful in turning the problem around. That person was coached to understand that it would be more helpful to the prospect if the representative politely moved on and recommended other vendors than by trying to devise a solution that the company couldn’t deliver.

The result? The employee was able to do a performance turnaround by better understanding motivation.

For sales, MASK — motivation, ability, skills, knowledge — may be a more effective acronym than KSA because building a successful sales team is so contingent on fitting people in the best roles.

“Effective organizations understand that motivation is important,” Lauby said. “They also know it’s unique to each employee, difficult to identify and challenging to measure.”

Aligning Talent With Tasks

In a multistep sales structure, more people can participate in sales and be much better at it than most people imagine. This is a factor of how the organization divides up responsibilities in the sales process.

After hiring, addressing how an organization determines responsibilities is where talent management can have the greatest effect on improving sales performance.

“With our sales team dealing with four or five completely different product lines with four or five completely different customer needs, we’re going to need four or five completely different personality types,” Libratore said.

Results can improve, because more people are concentrating on fewer tasks, and each task has the best-matched talent. Or, sometimes the tasks can be modified to match the talent at hand. When a solid sales process is in place, there is a great deal of flexibility to accommodate people with diverse abilities and motivation and a more positive atmosphere is created.

“We’ve had some people in customer service who had traits that were needed in sales divisions, and we moved them based on this hunch and they are now No. 1 and No. 2 in sales; they’re rock stars,” Libratore said. “They loved customer service, but they had an itch for sales; they had an economic motivation.”

Structure Offers Flexibility

A little structure and rigidity in the process allows a great deal of flexibility in building the team. Applying common KSAs as they relate to the company culture, managers can then consider the motivation of individuals to more successfully align employees for specific roles from a broader pool of talent.

Libratore sums it up: “Assess your people. Know your people. Don’t be afraid to make changes. Trust the science.”

And put the lone wolf out to pasture.

Barrett Riddleberger is founder and CEO of the sales training firm xPotential Selling and the author of “Blueprint of a Sales Champion: How to Recruit, Refine, and Retain Top Sales Performers.” Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

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