How Building a Sales Team Works


Some people can sell anything!
Some people can sell anything!

Did you ever wonder why some people seem to be able to sell anything? I'm sure you've run across this type of person -- and have probably bought something from them! These are the ones who could sell a Yarmulke to the Pope, you know who we mean....

In this article, we'll talk about how to hire your sales staff, and we'll address questions like:

  • How much experience should your sales reps have when you hire them?
  • How important are computer skills?
  • What should you look for?
  • What should you include in training for your sales reps?
  • What personality traits make one person a better sales person than another?
  • How do you know if you're hiring a "star" or a "dud?"

Read on to find out how to put together a sales team that can produce. And remember, if there weren't sales people, there wouldn't be any need for production or management.

Hiring the Right Sales People

When you begin the process of hiring your sales team, it pays off to first spend some time planning and setting up a budget. Advertising, recruiting, interviewing, and training are all expensive, and you don't want to waste your time and money on the wrong candidates.

Before you interview your first applicant, have in place the compensation structure you plan to use. Depending on how attractive it is, it may be a good enticement for top candidates. Check out Salary.com to get a feel for sales salaries in your area. Also, see How Employee Compensation and Benefits Work for ideas on setting up your sales compensation package.

Write out the complete job description. For example, put in writing the leg work that must be done prior to making a sales call, how you expect existing customers to be serviced, how you expect records to be maintained, how many calls should be made in a week, etc. Think through the entire sales process and detail how you want it to be done, what tools will be used, and your expectations for their results.

This exercise should include not only what you want sales reps or account managers to do, but how you want them to approach it. Think about the style of selling you want them to use. We talk more about the many ways to sell in How Sales Techniques Work.

Recruiting Your Sales Team

Recruting events can draw in hundreds of potential candidates.
Recruting events can draw in hundreds of potential candidates.

When recruiting for your sales team, do you do it yourself or go through a recruiting firm? Do you put ads online or in your local newspaper? There are many sales recruiting events that offer the opportunity to meet and interview large numbers of qualified candidates. But which of these is the best for finding good people? Which is the most cost-effective? Well, that depends on how good you are at writing and placing your own ads, the pool of job seekers in your area, and the amount of time you have to spend doing it.

Recruiting Events

Recruiting events offer you the opportunity to see a lot of qualified candidates in a short amount of time. If you use a company like The Thomas Group, you can expect to pay about $3,000 to attend an event. But what do you get for your $3,000? You get two expense-paid nights in a luxury suites hotel setting. You get your company ad written and placed for you in key recruiting-based publications. You get pre-screened applicants, and you DON'T have to spend time calling applicants and setting up interviews. Because the recruiting firm places your ad in key publications, you draw in the best candidates.

The event will pull in several hundred job seekers, but the recruiting firm's sales recruiters will monitor and direct to you only the candidates meeting your preset qualifications. All resumes are available for you to review online one week prior to the event. You then interview your key candidates in a suite at the event.

Recruiting Firms

Recruiting firms screen and place sales representatives with companies, managing the entire process from start to finish. They even offer continuing services like sales management and training. You'll be charged either a fixed price or a percentage of the first year's salary.

Outsourcing

If you are in a new company or are moving into a new market, you may prefer to focus your resources on your core product or service rather than on developing a sales team. If this is the case, then outsourcing your sales efforts may be the answer. Save yourself some time and effort and get a seasoned sales team to boot. A sales management group will implement your sales strategies within the team, provide training, management, and handle the administrative side as well. There will be pluses and minuses, but it may be the answer that makes the most sense for your company.

Do It Yourself

If you're handling the recruiting and screening yourself, then here are some tips. The first step is to write a spectacular recruiting ad that really makes people want to sell your product or service, or work for your company. Describe your company in the absolute best light possible (without stretching the truth -- you don't want a new hire to be immediately disgruntled by the company not meeting his expectations). Make sure any benefits and perks are listed, such as company cars, flexible hours, on-site daycare, etc. These can sometimes make the difference between getting the best applicants and getting the not-so-hot ones. State your requirements for experience so that you get candidates who have the skills you need. Emphasize the possibilities of the job: If it is very likely that these sales reps can make X dollars per year and a nice cash bonus each quarter, then make that stand out in the ad. Remember, the people you want to attract should be motivated by money! Include the things that will get their attention.

Evaluating Your Sales Candidates

You should have a good idea of the experience and skill level of your job candidates after reviewing the hundreds of resumes you've most likely accumulated. At this stage, you should be asking:

  • Have they been in front of people selling before?
  • Are they right out of school, or do they have a few years of experience to draw on?
  • Do you have a strong enough training program to allow you to hire recent grads with no experience?
  • Do they have what it takes to actually perform the technical functions of the job? -- In other words, do they have computer skills?

There are a lot of things to think about. With selling, experience isn't always the most important thing to look at, especially if you have existing sales reps who can assist in the training and mentoring of new recruits.

Analytical Skills

In order to be good sales representatives, your recruits have to have good research skills to find out about their prospects and know and understand their needs, their business, their business structures, etc. These skills can be taught, but experience in digging up the necessary information is helpful. These days, that experience includes Internet research skills, as well as good old-fashioned research techniques -- asking co-workers, making phone calls, and using business reference books at the library.

Communication Skills

They also need to be good communicators. The majority of what a sales rep does involves communication -- both written and verbal.

Whether it is explaining the specifications of your product or service or communicating how your prospect will benefit from the product or service, much rides on how this is articulated and negotiated. Pay close attention during the interview process to how your candidates articulate their qualities and "sell" themselves to you.

Technical Skills

What level of computer skills do they need? If you're planning on using any type of contact management software (see How Sales Techniques Work), then they have to be familiar with the basics of word processing, spreadsheets, and maybe the fundamentals of relational databases. You should also look for knowledge of presentation software like Microsoft PowerPoint. Many clients expect high-level presentations from sales representatives, so your reps have to be comfortable using the technology, and in some cases designing their own presentations.

Finding the Pearl

With all of these things in mind, it's now time to get a big cup of coffee and begin wading through your stack of resumes. Set aside the "maybes" and the "definites" into two piles. Schedule your first interviews with the "definites," and hold the "maybes" for round two if you need them. Keep in mind that you will probably have at least one or two more interviews with several of the prime candidates, one of which could be a mock sales call where the candidate comes in and sells you your product. This can be an important evaluation tool, and can also help weed out candidates who aren't actually comfortable with sales even though they think they are!

Now that you've narrowed your choices down to your initial candidates, it's time for the warm and fuzzy side of things. Do they have the personality traits that will enable them to sell for and represent your company in the best way possible?

Personality Traits to Look For

When interviewing candidates, look for those who:

  • ...are adaptable. Your ideal sales candidate should be able to deal with any type of personality, from the stern to the jovial. Put your candidates to the test by bringing in different personality types from within your company during the interview, and observe how they handle the changes in demeanor. They should be able to adjust their own mannerisms to meet the mood and tone of the person to whom they are speaking.
  • ...are articulate. A well-spoken sales representative can sometimes make or break a deal. Proper grammar, vocabulary, and usage are important in any position that acts as representative for a company. Make sure you pay attention to this aspect of your candidates.
  • ...are energetic. The energy level and alertness of your sales representatives is directly related to their success as sales reps. They must possess both an energy level that will keep them on the trail of leads, and a level of keen alertness that will enable them to notice details that may lead to future business.
  • ...are confident. Giving the impression of knowing what you're talking about can go a long way. Your sales reps should possess this quality if nothing else! Confidence when selling your products or services can be built by training and practice, so during the interview process you should look for self-confidence as an indicator of how well they will perform.
  • ...are enthusiastic. Enthusiasm is contagious. It is also a very necessary attribute for a successful sales representative. A sales rep who is enthusiastic about your products can also get their prospects enthusiastic about your products. Candidates who can show enthusiasm for your company at an interview will probably also show enthusiasm with your clients. Look for it and test it out. Ask them about things that get them excited, even if it's a hobby or other non-sales-related activity.
  • ...are self-reliant. One of the more independent positions within any company is that of the sales representative. Many times, sales reps work alone, work out of a home office, and only sporadically come into contact with the rest of the company. For this reason, you need to make sure the people you hire as sales reps are independent and self-reliant. Are they self-motivated and able to make decisions on their own? Do they show confidence in their judgement so that you feel comfortable with them making decisions on their own? Will they keep their schedules full? These are all questions to ponder when you're interviewing your candidates, and aren't often easy to determine in a single face-to-face meeting.
  • ...show integrity. Look for signs of integrity during interviews. How does the candidate speak of his former (or current) employer? Granted, there can be instances where they are leaving a bad situation, but watch carefully how they describe the situation. Do they seem loyal to their customers? Do they appear to be trustworthy? Is their work ethic strong?
  • ...show patience and perseverance. These are two very important traits for sales positions. With sales cycles for some products or services taking months or even years, you have to have patience and drive to keep on working the deal. Patience and perseverance also come into play when dealing with various customer personality types. In addition, listening patiently as clients talk and being able to teach them about your product are valuable qualities.
  • ...are good listeners. Listening is perhaps the most important quality of all. A good sales representative must be able to listen to the customer's needs, complaints, interests, and anything else they want to talk about. With today's emphasis on "relationship selling," if your sales reps don't listen very closely to their clients' needs, and then take that information and turn it into an offering, they won't be able to establish the relationship that is necessary in selling so many types of products and services.
  • ...are sincere. Without the sincere desire to help customers, many sales representatives will fail. It is all too often very obvious that a sales person simply wants to sell the client what they have rather than what the client needs or wants. Watch for signs of sincerity during the interview process.
  • ...are pleasant. A warm smile and handshake can go a long way at a sales call. The initial impression the sales rep makes is as important as you've always been told that it is. Simply smiling and having a cheerful demeanor can make inroads into many clients' doorways.

Interviewing Tips and Warnings

The interview will only be effective if you are properly prepared. Here are a few tips to help you along:

  1. Start by creating a relaxed and friendly atmosphere so your applicant will be comfortable.
  2. Have a list of questions ready to make the interview process fair to all job candidates.
  3. Allow plenty of time for the applicant to fully answer the questions.
  4. Begin your interview with open questions that will encourage your interviewee to talk (these questions will begin with who, what, when, where, why, how).
  5. Get more specific information by probing deeper into the answers from the "open" questions -- ask for examples.
  6. Make sure you ask some behavior-based questions, like how they handled a staff problem in the past.
  7. Be sure to take notes.
  8. Don't ask questions to which you already know the answers.
  9. Watch for inconsistencies in their answers.
  10. Don't monopolize the conversation.
  11. Don't paint an unrealistic picture of your company.
  12. Set up a rating scale so you can compare each candidate equally.
  13. Don't allow any interruptions -- put phone calls on hold, close your door, etc.
  14. Don't cut your interviewing time short -- allow enough time to adequately rate the applicant.
  15. Be on the lookout for job hoppers (a new employer each year?).
  16. Be on the lookout for a salary history that shows little increase (usually means the person is too comfortable with average sales and probably not competitive enough).

There are also a slew of questions you shouldn't ask. This list certainly doesn't include every question you should avoid, but does include some of the more common questions you might slip up and ask. Check with your HR department for more information on illegal interview questions, or go to the EEOC Web site.

  1. DON'T ask how many days the applicant was sick last year (but you CAN ask how many days were "missed").
  2. DON'T ask broad questions about a disability, such as "do you have any disabilities?"
  3. DON'T ask about any past workers' compensation claims or job injury history.
  4. DON'T ask about lawful (prescription or over-the-counter) drug use (unless it is part of a screening for unlawful drugs).
  5. DON'T ask age, gender, marital status, race, ethnic origin, or religion, or anything else that could be discrimination-based.
  6. DON'T ask about child care necessity.
  7. DON'T ask about employment status of family members.
  8. DON'T ask about sexual preference.

Okay, so once you've hired your staff, you need to conduct some initial training. Read our next session to find out some of the best ways to make that training effective and interesting.

Training Your Sales Team

Confidence and selling ability go hand in hand. Building confidence can be tricky, but having a good understanding of your product, your competition, and the most effective sales techniques can help build that confidence and make an average sales rep into a star performer. A good training program for your sales reps can help them in numerous ways. You need to conduct training not only about your own products, services, company history, and existing clients, but also about selling techniques, technology, and software.

Ongoing and useful sales training is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your sales staff. It can have tremendous impact on sales and keep your staff "on their toes" as far as new and potential client needs and new techniques in the sales world go. By ongoing, we don't just mean annual training. For many companies, annual is the most they ever do, but the real benefits come with more regularly scheduled training sessions that build on each other. For instance, you may choose to talk about a specific sales technique as it applies to your product line in the first session, and then build a cross-selling technique onto it in the next session.

Keys to Successful Training

The keys to making your sales training effective lie partially in how you present the training to your staff. One of the most important things to get across is how this training is going to increase your reps' sales, as well as benefit the company. In other words, what's in it for them? Make specific statements about how using this new technique can improve the percentage of closed sales by X% (Of course, making sure you know your statistics is important, too!). Or, how it can improve customer satisfaction by X%, which will in turn pull more sales from those happy customers.

Another key element of your training is making it interesting and entertaining. You don't want your staff snoozing through your brilliant PowerPoint presentation any more than they want their prospects snoozing through theirs! Make sure you (or whomever you hire) are entertaining enough to keep everyone awake, and more importantly, interested!

Give specific examples about how to use the new techniques. Tell stories that realistically reflect your product and market. Be overly prepared for questions and have multiple scenarios in mind to illustrate your points. Make all of your training information specific to your product and your market.

Make sure everyone participates. What they "do," they "learn." Simply listening to an idea about how something should be done is never as effective as practicing it. Also, encourage participation in the discussion. Have everyone come in with a list of questions from prospects that have stumped them, as well as some answers they've given that have landed the sale. Then have discussions about these problems and keep track of the solutions that come up.

Handouts (or e-mails) that recap some of the best ideas that were generated from the meeting can be sent out for reference later. You can also use this information to build a database of questions and answers that can be accessed electronically when a sales rep is stumped.

Some final points in training include:

  • Encourage and motivate your sales staff through enthusiasm and on-target information.
  • Keep it lively!
  • Provide useful information, and make sure they understand why it is useful.
  • Make it specific.
  • Make future sessions build on techniques learned from preceding sessions.
  • Have a reward system for those reps who have used the new techniques and been successful.
  • Set up regularly scheduled training sessions.

For more information on building a sales team and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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