In times of uncertain supply chains and unreliable delivery, salespeople are far more than order takers. Their relationship with a customer will make the difference between a transactional customer who shops around for the current best price and delivery and a long-term customer who relates to your company as a trusted partner in their supply chain.

With as much as half of a company’s value creation resting with the sales force, sales-team effectiveness is crucial for growth. In fact, research shows that the sales experience is one of the top drivers in customers’ purchasing decisions. This means it’s critical that companies focus on hiring, training and retaining the strongest sales talent that will lead to the best experience for their current and potential customers.

According to McKinsey, “these challenges call for a new set of sales skills, training, and tools. Companies are having trouble filling that void, however, because many of them lack the means to identify and cultivate the skills they need. Performance can vary by as much as six to seven times between top- and bottom-tier sellers, yet few organizations have metrics that show why. As a result, hiring choices are often based on gut feelings, while development and training often default to methods that have been in place for years.”

McKinsey went on to identify three areas that may account for the gap between high-performing sales reps and those who perform less well – intrinsics, skills, and freedom.

Intrinsics: While nearly three-quarters of sales managers, according to McKinsey, rely predominantly on intuition to guide hiring, leading sales executives zero in on the intrinsic traits and behaviors associated with strong performance, and then develop hiring plans to identify the right applicants. The exact characteristics will vary from company to company and product to product, but it is critical that Sales executives identify the characteristics most aligned with success in their industry and organization. One company may find that its most successful reps are individuals who are naturally more assertive and adept at holding their ground on customer discounts and skillful at converting objections into new opportunities. For another, by contrast, the highest performing reps might be significantly more skilled at discussing business issues and product fit and better at navigating internal resources and prioritizing leads.

Skills: Reps must have a skillset that matches the company’s product and sales strategy; different sellers and teams need different capabilities, and so recruiting and hiring, as well as training and development must suit those requirements.

For example, the skills needed to sell medical equipment, such as the ability to close complex deals and engage in lengthy negotiations, can be very different from those needed to win in biotech, where the ability to speak convincingly about the latest research is often essential. While such distinctions seem obvious, many organizations rely on intuitive hiring and static training methods that focus on a supposedly universal set of seller capabilities.

Freedom: In a previous blog, we discussed Daniel Pink’s work on intrinsic motivation where he found that, when compensation is sufficient to take money off the table as a motivator, freedom, along with autonomy and mastery, become the most significant sources of motivation. The companies that do best in sales make things as easy as possible for their reps so they can sell more. They focus on cutting down on paperwork, automating routine operations, and delegating administrative tasks. They also centralize common activities such as bid and pricing support and staff roles with specialized talent who can harness best practices from across the organization and deliver internal processes more efficiently. That’s a departure from most other sales organizations.

Awareness of these three factors – intrinsics, skills, and freedom – will allow companies to focus on what distinguishes candidates with the potential to be high performers from the rest of the crowd, and to create metrics and criteria that will make recruiting and hiring less dependent on intuition and more of an objective process.

Finding sales leaders and sales reps who have a mindset that correlates to high performance can be a difficult process. Outsourcing the search for and vetting of candidates is likely to produce the best results. An effective recruiting partner will know how to identify the right combination of skill and experience to find the top candidates and to convey to them what is needed by the hiring company.

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