Staffing Up the Sales Team

By Margaret Steen

Oct. 1, 2009

Whom should you hire to sell your staffing company’s services? Is it best to find people familiar with the staffing industry and teach them about the niche you serve? Or, if your customers are law firms, would it be better to seek out people who have worked for law firms and help them learn the ins and outs of staffing?

It depends—on your firm, your niche and the individual candidate.

“There is really no single model for a successful sales force,” says Mike Neidle, president of Optimal Management, a management consulting firm for staffing companies.

There are, however, pros and cons to each background. For example, many people would view someone who has sold staffing services to the same industry that their firm focuses on as the perfect candidate.

“I want to hire somebody who knows how to sell staffing,” says Frank Troppe, vice president of Providus Legal Staffing in Houston. “If you’re selling to construction sites, you’ve got to be familiar with the construction business. You have to understand the habitat of the customer.”

It may be difficult to find candidates who meet this exacting standard. And even if you do, that candidate with the perfect background may turn out to have drawbacks. Experts caution that because each staffing firm has its own unique culture, it’s critical to make sure the person’s work style will mesh well with your system.

“It’s very difficult to teach an old dog new tricks, to change them to do business your way,” says Lynne Mesmer, CEO of Creative Management Consultants, which consults to the staffing industry. “You need to make sure their old firm did business like you.”

For this reason, Neidle says, some companies actually prefer to hire people without extensive experience so they can train them to do sales their way.

“They don’t have things that they have to unlearn,” he says.

For these same reasons—or out of necessity—many staffing firms look beyond candidates who have done a similar job for a different company. Many suggest finding candidates who are experienced—and successful—at sales from another industry.

“The sales background is the foundation,” says David Pearson, vice president of sales for CLP Resources, a construction staffing firm.

Still, not all sales backgrounds are created equal. Brian Mangines, president and general counsel of Auslin Legal Staffing in Boca Raton, Florida, says he looks for candidates who have been through a sales training program. “When someone comes in to sell me something, I usually can tell if they’re a well-trained person or not,” he says.

Troppe says he focuses on business-to-business sales. And selling to a business is a bit different from selling to consumers.

Previous sales experience “is a possibility,” though not necessarily a sure sign that the candidate will do well at staffing sales, says Scott Wintrip, founder and president of StaffingU, which provides training, coaching and consulting for staffing and recruiting firms.

“Not all sales experience is transferable,” he says. “The staffing and recruiting industry is the hardest form of selling on the planet. It sells the only product or service on the market that can say no. That makes it unlike and more complicated than any other form of selling.”

All in the family
Another approach is to look for someone familiar with the industry, someone who knows what the customer wants and can speak the customer’s language. This can work, but it’s critical to remember that this is a sales job, and the person needs to somehow demonstrate an aptitude for sales.

Troppe suggests talking to your customers and asking whom they buy from—whether the person is selling staffing or other products. Ask, “Who calls on you? Who made a good presentation?” Then approach those individuals and recruit them.

For example, a staffing firm that sells to law firms might talk to attorneys and administrators at the firms for recommendations. In addition to buying from staffing firms, they may be buying the services of firms that do electronic discovery.

But not everyone who sells to law firms would fall into this category. Some may make their sales pitch to the IT director or the facilities manager.

“My buyers in a law firm are not buying a plant-watering service,” Troppe says.

Mangines, the immediate past president of the Florida Staffing Association, says he focuses on people with an aptitude for sales, but familiarity with the industry is a plus.

“We took a woman out of a paralegal program who was a bartender,” he says.

She was familiar with the legal field, but her bartending experience showed that she had personality traits that would serve her well in sales. “She did very well,” Mangines says.

On the other hand, he says, “a lot of paralegals are more paper-driven.”

Not everyone who enjoys the detailed work of preparing legal cases would be successful in sales.

In technical fields such as IT and medicine, it’s very helpful for the people selling staffing services to understand those services.

“It would certainly be an asset if you could speak the language,” Neidle says.

However, technical knowledge and sales skills don’t always go together, he says. “Someone could be a fantastic IT programmer, but that’s usually not a very good profile for being a sales rep.”

Sales requires more than a simple understanding of the industry. In fact, Troppe says hiring people from the industry you serve may be more successful on the placement side than for sales. He has seen people assume—incorrectly—that since they have been customers of staffing firms, they understand how to sell staffing.

“Just because someone has been a patient doesn’t mean they’d be a good doctor,” Troppe says.

Focus on character
Many staffing experts recommend focusing less on the precise job experience a candidate brings and more on certain personality traits that indicate they will be successful at sales. Wintrip says his research indicates turnover is lower among employees who are hired for their fit with the company and fully trained than for those who are hired based on previous staffing industry experience.

Others have also found advantages to that approach.

“I would rather have a competent, capable salesperson who we can teach the fundamentals of IT to than a programmer who cannot relate to people,” Neidle says. “You can’t learn personality—that’s what it comes down to. But you can learn the fundamentals of the jargon relatively easy in most situations.”

Pearson says his company had tried several strategies for hiring.

“At one point at our company, we hired people who had construction backgrounds and taught them the staffing side,” Pearson says.

Then they switched to looking for people who were familiar with staffing and could be taught about the construction industry. Now, he says, he looks for people with “very specific characteristics around sales. We’ll teach them both the construction and the staffing.”

Pearson and others offer this list of characteristics to look for in a candidate:

Great people skills. “They can meet a potential customer and find a personal connection in record time,” says Pearson, who is co-author with Troppe of Cross-Sell/Up-Sell. “They do it without distracting from their goal on the sales call.” Making conversation and making a sale are not the same thing—and it’s not always easy to tell in an interview whether someone who is personable will also be able to sell. Mesmer says it’s too easy for interviewers to “fall in love” with a candidate who is friendly—but who may not be able to close the deal with customers.

Lots of connections. Pearson looks for people who are “highly social” and good at keeping in touch with others, the people whose cell phone memory is filled with contact names and numbers. The connections themselves may come in handy, and it’s also a sign that they will be able to keep in touch with potential and former customers.

Organizational skills. The best candidates are “incredible planners,” Pearson says, mapping out several days in advance whom they will call on. And they’re “absolutely meticulous with follow-ups.”

Confidence. It takes a certain fearlessness to strike up a productive conversation with a stranger. Pearson says of his top candidates, “You could put them in front of the president of the United States and they would probably find out that they both fish in the same spot every summer.” These candidates are able to talk to anyone—and they’re not afraid to press them for details. “They don’t accept vague responses from customers—they always drill down to make sure they clearly understand the needs,” Pearson says.

Quick thinking. An ability to think on one’s feet is essential for any salesperson. Customers are more likely to trust the salesperson who can answer questions—correctly—during the sales call. This is part of what Neidle calls “native sales ability.”

Competitiveness. “You want to make sure that somebody is an achiever, that they’re competitive, that they’ve got that inner drive to go out there,” Mesmer says. Some people look for evidence of competitiveness in other areas of a candidate’s life, such as athletics. But others say success in sports may not translate to success in sales. Mangines, for example, says he has found that some highly successful athletes wanted to compete only if they were sure they could win, making them less likely to take the risks necessary to make sales. Troppe says he prefers candidates who have been successful in individual sports to those involved with teams. “As much as we’re all part of a team in staffing, good salespeople in staffing also have to be strong individual performers,” he says. Troppe has seen people whose experience with competition comes from team sports struggle to “get things going on their own” when things aren’t going well for the team.

Ethics and integrity. This is a very difficult quality to instill in someone who doesn’t have it. “Communications skills can be enhanced,” Wintrip says. “The industry can be learned. You can learn how to talk IT, but you can’t teach somebody to be somebody they’re not.”

Discerning the right traits
It’s relatively simple to tell if a candidate has experience in sales, or has worked in the industry you’re targeting. But how do you know if the person is competitive, well connected or confident?

Mesmer suggests conducting different interviews at different times of day (not necessarily with the same person each time).

“You want to see them in the morning versus the afternoon,” she says. Watching how they react in a social setting, such as at a dinner, is also a good idea.

Experts also recommend using behavioral interviewing questions, since past behavior is a good predictor of future performance. Pearson asks candidates how they manage their time on a typical day to see how well they plan and what their priorities are.

He also asks them, “Tell me about a time when you were in front of a customer, and they didn’t want to talk to a salesperson. Tell me what you did, and how you broke the ice with them.”

In the end, you may find it helpful to have salespeople with a variety of backgrounds on your team. In fact, Troppe says, it’s worth considering, when you start the hiring process, whether you need a sales representative at all. For example, someone who is great working the phones could be hired to set up meetings for the sales reps, saving them time.

Still, even as you consider these possible creative solutions, or candidates’ varied backgrounds and character traits, it’s important not to forget your goal: to sell staffing services.

“Some variety can be helpful, but customers want to work with people who know what they’re doing,” Troppe says. “They’re coming to us with a staffing need because they think we’re experts in the staffing business.”

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