Recruiting and Retaining Sales Talent

From The SalesGlobe Forum
Held in Atlanta on 11/13/09

MARK DONNOLO: In this current economic climate, it’s a good time to recruit or upgrade your sales talent; to get rid of your bottom performers and actually bring in, ideally, a top ten percent. How you systematize an approach and adjust the compensation for those coming in? The top performers are leaving their company. They’re unhappy, so you have a chance to get them, but there’s a dollar figure hanging over the head.

Has anybody had any luck with a program or a system for that?

SGF Member: That’s a pertinent question for our organization. There’s a lot of available talent, and if you’ve got an attractive environment for winning sales people, true pros, you want to get them. It’s also a time to call underperformers.

We racked our brains because we don’t have the most lucrative compensation package. But we’re post-acquisition, and there’s always an integration budget that’s really nice and flush. And you have to have a good idea of how you’re going to use those dollars. So we’ve considered formalizing this “upgraded talent” and creating a sales bullpen. And, in order to have people come in that are attractive to your business, based on their historical performance and what they’re going to do for you going forward, we have used some integration dollars to formalize this upgraded talent and create a sales bullpen.

And I’m not sure if this is going to be successful or not. It was a great idea, because you’re talking about affording good sales people. So, once we create this bullpen and recruit the best talent, they would be joining the organization to bring new talent and bring the organization to a new level. But they wouldn’t be placed in roles right away. You’d have your own sales team seeing this unfold and probably raise their own performance. So, hold them in a bullpen and try to place them quickly, and use integration dollars to afford good sales people.

SGF Member: Definitely in today’s environment – in the macro economic situation – there’s tremendous talent out there. The talent I see out there is the talent that’s still with companies, not having left, because usually they’re the ones companies are trying to hold on to.

When someone asked, “How do you get rid of the lower ten percent?” I look at it somewhat different. I’ve inherited a highly tenured sales force – people who have been around for a long time. One of the fallacies is trying to look at how their performance has been over the years. The lower ten percent may not be the people who have had the worst results.

The change-out might be needed of people who have consistently hit their numbers. And the reason for that is you’ve got to look at the skills that they have and how they got there. And sometimes the reason they are where they are is they have the right customers. And what they’re bringing in every year, you might want to get double. Look at the existing team. It’s not just about who’s got the numbers and who hasn’t.

But the flip side is: when you’re looking at bringing someone in, the first thing I tell the HR people is, forget about this benchmark data you have. If you go after eight players it’s just like acquiring a company. They’ve got their own profit and loss statement. So first, what are your expectations out of some of the people you’re bringing in? If their compensation expectations are high, then the return you expect from them should be high as well. And when you get top talent like that, they don’t mind when you set the bar high.

SGF Member: For adding top talent to the organization, we look at people within our organization that are top talent. Because if I bring people from outside at income levels that are significantly higher, I put my top talent internally at risk. I’d rather cut more than the lower 10 percent because I think I’ll get more out of the higher performers than I would …

SGF Member: If you look at deals won over last few years – significant deals – and you look at the 80/20 rule, does it follow what you’re saying? That the top performers are bringing in 80 percent of your revenue, not 80 percent of your deals but 80 percent of you revenue?

SGF Member: Yes. And you know those people are your go-to people on everything.

SGF Member: So you’re loving on them more than usual right now because you don’t want them to look around or get discouraged.

SGF Member: That’s right. And to the question you had about the executive team who doesn’t love paying sales people a lot of money. We actually are led by a CEO who came up through sales, but I think some people say, “Well that’s a lot of money to make, I didn’t make that when I …”

But I say, “Well it may be different today.” We are pushing that envelope really hard. I think I’m putting a lot of personal reputation on the line, for that, because I think that is the way to transform our sales organization. The investment in the sales people will be required to change our company. But it’s scary, because you have to pay a lot more than people are used to.

SGF Member: Just yesterday I had a conversation with my CFO, and said this person is way out of line. We got through the conversation and bumped him up $40,000 in total compensation – some salary and some variables. You absolutely have to reinvest in your folks. You have to be continually recruiting your folks.

You made a great point about another company. I spent a lot of time talking to another company before making my decision, and I had an option to potentially join them. They were dangling those $800,000 – $1 million compensation packages in front of me. But they were 2008 figures. So I said, “Show me the 2009 figures,” and that dog’s not hunting in 2009.

So I think from the recruiting standpoint, from your perspective, it’s about, “Where’s the puck going?” A lot of people have had great years, and they are looking at W2 statements for 2009 and asking if they’re at the right place.

Everyone’s asking that. Everyone’s sales compensation is coming down. There is a great opportunity. And everyone’s open. And if there’s a compelling story to where your company is going, and what the upside is – no caps, a big market opportunity – if you’re as good as you say you are, the sky’s the limit. So I think I’ve seen a market that’s extremely receptive.

SGF Member: Just a quick question if you find this in your experience. Your top performers – it doesn’t matter what you pay them, they are workaholics. They’re going to give it all to you no matter what. Why not take care of them and love on them and appreciate them, those top performers. Are you finding that to be true?

SGF Member: I paid our top twice as much this year. Because I paid them for the responsibility that they were shouldering. Like you said, they work so hard, they contribute to every deal, they’re helping sales people in other territories. So I started giving them money. I had sales people that made $200,000 more this year than they did last year. And nobody can believe that. But we’ve had a phenomenal year on the backs of a few.

SGF Member: I have one question about an issue I’m facing in my company.

I have a tenured sales force, and our focus is clearly on business development. I’ve emphasized a key account owner; I want these people to feel they own the account. The challenge I have is focusing on business development and account ownership. A lot of time my sellers are in involved in service delivery and problem resolution. But there needs to be more focus on business development.

I see two questions. One, how do you deal with that with the seller? I’m trying to get that emphasis on new business development and not so much on service delivery. And the other question is, how do you get the other folks in the organization that are responsible for service delivery to step up to the plate and do that? Because right now, it gravitates to the seller.

SGF Member: This is absolutely something I see this time and time again. I’m responsible for service delivery and sales. When I came in I said, “You know what? The services delivery element is as important in terms of the ongoing sales as anything.” So we changed our model to show that. Then, when I look at that, there’s a couple of things:

Whoever is leading the service delivery side, if your sales people are spending that much time on service delivery, you have the wrong person leading the charge. The person has to basically tell the sales guys to get out of the way. It has to be that brutal. Now what you’re going to find, there are going to be sales people who choose not to get out of the way. They’re not the right sales person. I mean, yes, a sales person cannot ignore the fact the customer has an issue, but he’s got to facilitate to get the right people involved, not be the person. Once you’re in that position, you’re always in that position. You can never get out of it. So, it’s a combination of the two. The answer, in my experience, is you have to have the right person leading charge on service delivery end.

SGF Member: We actually have a hard line of demarcation between sales and delivery, and there’s an account manager – really a project manager – who takes over.

And there are hunters and farmers, and they look very different. You will get the deal closed and at the 60 percent sales stage we’re going to introduce the professional services team. We’re going to say, “This guy right here will manage the entire delivery process. Bottom line accountability, here’s his home phone number.” The sales person will delegate that.

Where I’ve seen that not work in my previous career is when there’s not a clear delineation between roles and responsibilities. I’ve seen sales people gravitate towards that. Because cold calling and business development, that’s the harder part of the job. So one piece is structure. And then the second piece is stack ranking – pipelines. And peer pressure from a continuous track record. Stack ranking to me has been one of the best performance management tools in my career.

SGF Member: When you talk about the delineation, how does the customer like that?

SGF Member: Well, I’m 45 days into it. One of my observations is that we break a relationship a little, and that’s not ideal there. But the point still remains the same, and that is there is a role in the company that that person is solely responsible for.

SGF Member: I buy into that. Let the hunter be the hunter and cut them loose. It’s always soft. We’ve adopted this thing where the person that takes the account, they go in there, and then the hunter leaves, but doesn’t leave for first six months. We make sure there’s a transition and a time period.

SGF Member: That’s a big key – that relationship and the expectations with the client. But the sales person should be out looking for revenue. You remember the NRGAs – the non revenue-generating activities. You don’t want your hunters involved in those.

The NRGAs is a big topic with us right now, and also they’re hard to do business with. I formalized it. We’ll see how effective it is, but we formalized it as a pinnacle issue. We’ve got sales people doing what we’ve not hired them to do, and we need to stop that. So we’ve got an executive sponsor on the non revenue-generating activities that are contaminating their performance. We’re trying to shift that to someone who’s got the pull in the organization to make it happen, and trying to cut sales people loose.

To learn more about recruiting and retaining top sales talent, visit SalesGlobe or contact Mark Donnolo at mark.donnolo@salesglobe.com.

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