I recently interviewed Chris Walter, a Vice President of Strategy who knows how to build a sales force. Today’s topic is dedicated to attracting and retaining top sales talent. Chris and I leverage the How to Make Your Number in 2018 to access emerging best practices as a guide for our discussion. Review the People phase starting on page 367 of the Sales Strategy section.
Chris Walter is the Vice President of Strategy for the Strategic Enterprise Services group at MarketSource, a sales outsourcing firm serving both retail and commercial channels. Chris will demonstrate how to attract and retain A-Players who generate 5x more revenue than B-Players and 10x more than C-Players.
Why this topic? Relying on the heroic efforts of a few eventually catches up with you. When 20% of the sales team produces 80% of the revenue, something is wrong. The labor expense associated with the sales team incurred by the company has to be justified, or a head count reduction is warranted. Tolerating under-performers, hiring mistakes, and very long new hire productivity cycles all lead to missed revenue targets — and job loss for the head of sales.
Chris is uniquely qualified to speak on this topic coming from a business services firm that provides outsourced sales services. Not only is Chris a peer sales leader with a sales force of his own, but his “Product” is providing feet on the street for other companies.
Review the transcript below, or listen to the podcast of the interview while on the go with your smartphone.
Listen as Chris demonstrates how to attract and retain A-Players who generate 5x more revenue than B-Players and 10x more than C-Players. Chris describes the level of talent required, and whether he requires an exceptional sales talent or great product/industry fit.
Review the full transcript of the interview below, or if you prefer to listen to the full interview on the go from your smartphone, click here.
My first question is in the type of client that you call on is the growth objective dependent on exceptional sales talent, or sometimes we see that you can get by with kind of a great product in the right industry at the right time? What’s your perspective there? Do you think outstanding sales results is dependent on superstar sales talent?
It’s really a combination of both, but we put priority on the sales talent side. Good sales talent, good behavioral skills that relate to solid selling is critical. The great product and industry knowledge can be important for a fast start, but we put a lot of credence on transferrable skills. People, if you’re technically selling and they have a technical aptitude, they can typically get up to speed on the product and the industry quickly, but if they lack good sales talent, and again those behavioral traits that are important for selling, that’s a tough one to bone up on.
Even if you have a huge product advantage here. I’ll give you an example. Way back in the day when salesforce.com first hit the market they had a huge advantage in product and some would say that even an average salesperson could produce above average sales results. Do you agree or disagree with that?
I think the importance is you’re always going to be as a seller up against big brands. People are always moving a leg up on one side or the other side, so the role of the salesperson today is to play as consultant and really help the buyer understand the differences in the products, and really as it relates to solving the problem.
If you’ve got a product that’s a niche and a one-off and really nothing else compares, that’s a tough row to hoe, but by and large across the board in selling I’ll take great sales talent and get them up to speed on product and drive results with what we’ve got to work with.
One of the reasons why I always like talking to you guys is because you’re in the sales outsourcing business, so therefore you must be leading edge. Your people outsource a critical function to you and they’re doing that in part because you guys are always using the latest and greatest. What investments are you making today that will lead to making the number next year and the year after? Kind of what’s on the horizon, so to speak?
We’re seeing a big increase on both sales enablement and sales productivity tools, so kind of the good old days of the book of business and Rolodexes and spreadsheets are gone away, have been for quite some time. Sales enablement, leveraging things like artificial intelligence and simulations, sales productivity tools that are doing predictive analytics on buyer behaviors to help route salespeople to the highest probability prospects are some of the things that we’re looking at.
It’s really been interesting to see the rise in technology in selling, that people are still a critical component of it. But it’s tough for our larger customers to be able to come in and out of technology, and that’s what we’re there to help them with.
Artificial intelligence is beginning to be applied to sales. Do you feel that this is a new shiny object and a fad and this too shall pass, or do you think this is a game changer?
It’s likely a game changer. Like all things like this, you’ve got to wait and see, but what we see with the artificial intelligence piece is really allowing, as an example, sales simulations to be more interactive. So as opposed to kind of script driven and just branch logic if you will as a salesperson moves through a simulation, it’s able to react in a true artificially intelligently way to the seller and it provides a more realistic type of an interaction using simulations as an example.
When hiring and selecting sales talent, what’s the evaluation criteria you use?
We leverage a few different types of sales assessments, depending upon the route to market we’re looking at and the mission. That really helps us kind of a tool to leverage for a bit of an unbiased view of the candidate. But for us number one is culture. That’s a critical component of our success at MarketSource. But then some of the other key traits are things like really good communication skills, either relationship development in a more account management role, or quick rapport development in a more transactional selling.
We like people that tend to be more consultative, problem solver type folks, because today, given digital’s impact on the buyer’s journey, it’s important to understand how people are kind of coming in and be able to be more consultative with them and challenge them in some ways in some of the decisions they’ve made in the buying process. Those are a few of the things that we look for in our sales talent.
Great list. I love the fact that you started with culture. It’s one of those things that’s really tough to measure and some of my clients would suggest that that’s not something that’s a hard measurable, culture is kind of this soft thing, and I disagree. I think every company has a unique culture. Within the company culture there’s the culture of the sales force, and sales is a team sport these days. I mean you’re always relying on other members of the sales team, whether it’s professional services or product specialists or system engineering, you name it, to help you. And if it’s not a good cultural fit, that’s usually a number one reason you might have infant mortality, meaning you hire somebody and they don’t make it through the first six or 12 months or so. So, I agree with you. I think that’s a great thing to reinforce here for our audience.
It’s interesting you say that, because we’ve actually had people that have come onboard MarketSource seeing us as a bridge to a big brand, and after experiencing our culture, we’re integrated with these brands, and seeing how the culture of the brand, they typically want to stay with us and do long term, so right on with the stickiness based on culture.
Chris, my next question for you is how do changes in routes to market impact the corresponding changes in sales talent?
As you look at I think the biggest change in I guess what you call route to markets is the digital impact on selling, if you just look at routes to market, direct and indirect is an example that truly takes a different skill set of a seller, and you really need to recognize that as you’re setting up to hire sales talent related to those two.
But as I mentioned, the impact of digital on the overall route to market is important. I’ve seen stats as high as 60-70% of the buyer’s journey now is conducted digitally, so it’s really important that companies adapt to that change, begin to work in both demand generation and prospecting through these digital channels, and it’s important for the sellers to understand they need to prospect differently, leveraging social, being engaged in social conversations, and then really understanding the buyers are coming to them in a different mindset than they might have been 10 years ago as an example, so they really need to play more of a consultative role, more of a challenger type role because of where the buyers are at the point in time they’re hitting the salesperson.
For the audience, just think about this simple example. Let’s say that you’re investing in inside sales. That’s a route to market. That’s a sales channel. You’re going to sell certain products through inside sales to certain customers, okay? Then here comes all these digital tools. That’s a new route to market, social media, email marketing. I know that sounds basic, but it’s different.
Within social you’ve got different approaches, depending on which social channel you’re looking for. Search engine optimization, et cetera, right? These are all new innovative routes to market, and it seems like every day there’s yet another innovative route to market. If your hiring profile doesn’t change to reflect that, you’re going to be hiring the old model and trying to deploy them in a new world, and that’s not going to work.
Somebody who might have done fantastic selling on the telephone, when they must sell virtually, let’s say through Chat, they’re not so good. So, let’s make sure that you understand that as your channels, your routes to market, change and you innovate in the sales channel that you’re changing your hiring profile.
My next question for you, Chris, is near and dear to my audience. They ask me this question all the time, and that is how long does it take you to fill an open position?
In our retail side of the business we literally hire thousands of retail sales associates every year, so we’ve built quite an engine and we can on average fill a position from open to the individual cleared and ready to for training within about 18 days. That’s an average. On the B2B side of the business, we can be four to five to six weeks, just depending upon the type of role, and that includes a two-week notice, to get them ready for training as well.
For us, this is what we do. We see this, and have seen it over the years, as real value proposition for MarketSource. Sometimes it’s just difficult for organizations and their HR/recruiting organizations to drive the kind of results that we drive because it’s not what they do every day.
It’s a remarkable stat. My audience is primarily B2B, so I’m going to focus on the four to six weeks number. It’s common for my clients to take three to six months, and you’re doing that in four to six weeks, which is incredible, so what’s the secret sauce?
I think the secret sauce is it’s what we do every day. We’ve got folks that are very relationship based in the various industries and markets on the B2B side. We’ve got it dialed in. We can’t accept anything less than that. We’re typically launching a B2B program at about 60 days from agreement and signature to having salespeople, the technology up and running, everything ready to go day one for selling. This is what we’ve been doing for a whole lot of years and it’s tough for folks that don’t do it every day to kind of keep up with that kind of a time frame.
Is there a labor pool available to you with the right candidates? If you’re filling jobs in four to six weeks, I think the answer is yes, so let’s talk about labor and pools, and we’re talking about B2B sales right now. What’s the labor market like these days? Is it plentiful or is it scarce?
It’s probably in between right now. With the economy coming back, it’s becoming more competitive for sure, but folks are out there. Again, we talked a little bit about the culture, and if you’ve got things that allow you to be a little bit stickier and attractive to employees, having kind of an employer brand these days, it makes it a little bit easier to track that talent. We’re always proactively looking for folks that aren’t necessarily seeking the job today, so it’s not looking for resumes on job boards and things like that. We’re staying kind of connected.
The labor pools are dependent. In our business, the product and market segment, one of the things that can be difficult for companies, dependent upon where they’re located, is inside sales. The outside sellers you’re typically putting in market where the opportunity is, so folks are typically there. But inside sales, depending upon where you might be set up, you may or may not have a great labor pool. One of the things that we’re seeing a rise in as we’ve all seen inside sales really take off is the concept of kind of virtual inside sales, where you can have folks all around the country that are connected through a virtual environment for inside selling.
I think the other thing related to the pool itself is, and we talked about it earlier, that willingness to acknowledge transferable skills. We see this with companies all the time. If they are hard fast on specific product industry requirements and if the resume doesn’t have it they don’t give a call it’s tougher. But when you leverage transferable skills, and we’ve been very successful with that over time, you find a lot of gems.
Quite frankly, we’ve hired people that our clients probably never would have hired based on resume, and after seeing them in action they’ve literally brought them onboard over time, so that’s an important part of being able to take full advantage of labor pool out in the marketplaces.
I love it, leverage transferable skills. That is a great piece of advice. I agree with you. So often we look at the resume and we want 15 years’ experience in this industry, right? Well, that sometimes can limit your labor pool dramatically. Transferable skills, focusing on that, that’s a good piece of advice.
Good sellers enjoy challenges, and sometimes people that have been in an industry for 15 years, been there, done that, they’re not as excited about it as somebody that gets to launch off on a new experience, so we see some great performance out of folks like that.
How long does it take you to make a new hire productive?
That again for us varies, depending upon the mission, but we typically look for three to six months on average to get somebody productive, ramped up and productive. It’ll be shorter if we’re doing transactional. One or two call closes, obviously it needs to be a lot faster than that. If we’re doing long sales cycles, complex selling, it’s going to be longer, but that’s kind of the target that we shoot for on average across our various types of sales programs.
Does the onboard process involve situationally applying the knowledge or is it classroom study driven?
We use a combination of both and we think both is important, so we’ll use classroom, we’ll use role play, we’ll use simulations. It’s interesting to look at a classroom only type environment and then put somebody through a role play and see how big the gaps can be, so I think situationally applying that is a critical part of allowing the training to be successful.
You’ve mentioned simulations a few times. For the members in the audience that might be not too familiar with simulation applied to sales, can you give us an example?
There’s a couple of different companies. One uses kind of a standard set of simulations that are based on kind of the typical non-transactional selling. It uses a written assessment to begin with and then takes somebody through a simulation. The simulation presented a situation on a customer using an avatar and respond to that with some choices. There’s a coach that will come up and coach them based on the answers. It’s basically a branch logic type of a thing that the seller goes through this and they get scored on it, so it gamifies a bit the training, and we find that people enjoy taking it over and over and try to improve. We’ll post the scores so that people can see how they’re doing against their peers.
Then there’s some other providers that will customize the content of the simulations to your exact business and your exact business scenario. It’s just a great way to continue to hone their skills in a fun way.
How do you make sure that your new hires have access to the right resources and conditions needed to get the job done?
We have a team of support folks. We call them the innovation teams. They are business process engineers, technologists, et cetera, that insure that our folks have the right tools and the right setup of technology to be successful. We’re constantly going through on a regular basis doing continuous improvement of these sales programs with our customers and really leveraging kind of the science of selling to insure the sellers have the right environment, the right tools, and everything they need to be successful. It’s been a critical part of our success. The ability to launch so quickly and get the results quickly is literally leveraging a group of folks to execute the science of selling while our people are out there hitting the streets.
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