Want to Scale your Sales Team Quickly then Watch Out for these Pitfalls.

I am currently doing a little work helping an early stage tech start-up. Just yesterday, I was talking with the CEO about the financial plan and scaling the sales team to meet the plan goals. During that conversation we covered several different aspects of growing a sales team that directly impact the company’s ability to meet its financial plan, I highlighted some of the pitfalls to be aware of and put forward some suggestions on how to overcome them.

Reflecting on the conversation, I thought it would make an insightful blog post. At some point, just about every company in the world goes through a stage of needing to rapidly scale their sales team and it can be challenging. If you’re leading the sales team in a start-up or indeed any other company that is about to shift into hyper-growth mode then here’s some ideas on how to scale the sale team and what to watch out for.

Time to Hire

When building your financial plan these are two pieces of data that are critical and will need to be factored into the plan. “Time to hire” is the first. Do you understand the time to hire in each of the regions where you are looking to grow your sales team? Each region, and indeed each country, can be radically different. In the UK you should expect your time to hire (the point at which you launch the role to the new starters first day) to be no less than 8 weeks, although 12 weeks would probably be more accurate. The more senior the individual that you are looking to hire generally the longer the time to hire will be. Some countries across Europe are similar to the UK then there are others that take significantly longer (Germany as an example). The shortest time to hire is usually the US, the US operate with shorter notice periods and time to hire can be as low as 4 to 6 weeks. The moral of the story here is to ensure that you understand what your time to hire will be, either use existing data from previous hires or speak to a recruitment partner who can give you insight into the market, and kick-off the hiring process early enough to make sure that the sales person you are hiring joins when you need them and not 3 months later.

Sales Person Ramp Up Time

The second piece of data to be reflected in your plan is sales person “ramp”. The universal truth is that in every company it takes new salespeople time before they become productive, the more complex the role and the organisation, the longer the ramp-up time can be. If you factor in the average length of your companies sales/buying process then you are potentially looking at a significant period of time before you see any return from your investment. As an average “finger in the air” measure, in a complex sales role, I would factor in a period of 6 months where your new sales person will be less productive. Some salespeople will take less time others a little longer. Ideally you will have previous data on how long it takes to ramp new salespeople and can factor this into your sales plan. Again, the message is very clear, start to hire early ahead of the time when you need all salespeople to be fully productive in order to meet your sales goals.

On-boarding Process

In order to give the newly hired salespeople the best possible start in your company and ensure that they are productive as fast as possible you should prepare a rigorous on-boarding process well ahead of the period where you start to hire and grow quickly. You have invested months of time and lots of money to seek out and hire the best candidates that you can find, don’t trip up at this critical stage. Compare the two scenarios :-

  1. Your new hire arrives, excited to be starting their first day. They arrive early, no one is about to greet them. When you arrive, you show them to their desk, tell them that their laptop will take another day or two before it’s ready and introduce them to the team. You don’t have any training program planned other than shadowing the team but then they’re salespeople, they know how to sell anyway !
  2. Your new hire arrives, excited to start their first day. They arrive early giving you chance to grab a coffee with them, it’s your opportunity to explain how excited you are that they joined you. You introduce them to the team, provide their laptop and then introduce them to their on-boarding schedule. You have a full two weeks planned; meeting new colleagues, their individual mentor and training courses that cover the basics of selling for your company. Everything they need to know to be successful all wrapped up into a nice easy package.

Not only is it very easy to see which scenario gives the new salesperson the very best opportunity to be successful quickly, if you were the salesperson who encountered scenario 2. you are going to be far more engaged and happy in your work, both avenues to greater success.

Having a fully baked On-boarding process is not easy to build when you are short of resource and growing your team quickly but it’s an imperative otherwise all of the work that you have put in up to that point will be for nought. Much better to build the process up-front and be all raring to go when you hit the hyper-growth button.

Hiring Salespeople : What Traits, Skills & Behaviors Should I be Looking for ?

Hiring salespeople is, without doubt, the single most important part of a sales leaders role. Employing sales people who have a high probability of succeeding is critical to you and your companies long-term success, yet it’s rare for leaders to have had any formal training on how to hire effectively and what to look for in potential future stars. This leads to decisions being made on “gut feel”, certainly not a repeatable strategy that scales.

Over the years I’ve hired lots of salespeople and I’m thankful that the vast majority have proven to be successful as well as being great people. That’s not to say that I haven’t made mistakes, I certainly have. My objective with this post is to share some of the traits, skills and behaviors that I look for in Salespeople to help you maximise your hiring success and hopefully help you avoid some of your own costly mistakes.

Before I get into the details of what to look for when hiring salespeople I want to share one very important message … at some point you are going to get it wrong, expect it and be prepared to move very quickly when you do. My advice, be honest and transparent, correct the situation with maximum urgency and dignity for all involved. When this happens you will know very quickly that the individual doesn’t fit, make the tough call and end things quickly for the benefit of all concerned. Rule no. 1 – Hire Slow, Fire Fast.

Here’s a non exhaustive selection of traits that I look for when Hiring Future Sales Stars :-

  1. Curiosity – I look for salespeople who demonstrate genuine, natural curiosity. People who are interested in their customers will engage and connect at a higher level, their questioning is of higher quality and more insightful. They avoid tiring situation questions and clichéd “what keeps you awake at night” questions.
  2. Intelligence – the days when a salesperson could be successful just by being outgoing, gregarious and persistent are long gone. Today’s successful salespeople lead with insights, challenge the status quo and coach their customer to performance improvement. This demands high levels of intelligence and strong mental agility.
  3. Coach-ability – even proven world-class performers utilise coaches, they understand that the small details matter and are happy to accept help and guidance from those who could provide them with even the slightest performance advantage.
  4. Desire to learn and Improve – this is closely related to coach-ability. World class salespeople are always striving to learn and improve. They understand that even the best can get better and they are hungry for learning to help drive their own performance improvement.
  5. Optimism & Enthusiasm – people still buy from people, enthusiasm and optimism are contagious, nobody wants to work with negative, unenthusiastic people.
  6. Confidence – I look for people who have confidence in themselves and a belief that anything is possible given enough time and work. Surprisingly, I find truly confident people have higher levels of humility and display no sign of the arrogance that can be confused with confidence.
  7. Work Ethic – this is very simple, strong performers work harder. Work ethic generally trumps talent (within reason) and you will find that successful salespeople put more effort into preparing to perform, they leave very little to chance.
  8. Pro-activity – speed of thought and speed of action are important. I love to work with proactive people who make things happen and create something from nothing. I would much rather work with people who try and fail rather than those who sit back and wait for the perfect timing.
  9. Results Focus – many people judge their performance based upon their intent, others judge us based upon our results. I want to work with people who measure their success based upon their results, these are the people who hone and refine their skills to ensure the best possible outcome every-time.

If you are striving to make good, strong, repeatable hiring decisions (and who isn’t) then determine which traits are indicative of success in your business, develop a series of questions that uncover these traits and then use them consistently in every potential hire interview. Record the responses and scores for each question, you will very quickly have a benchmark to use that indicates the propensity of any individual to succeed.

I really can’t stress the importance of hiring enough, it’s the difference between winning or losing, it’s the future of your business. Done well it’s the largest source of competitive advantage (let’s not dwell on the impact when it’s not done well) and therefore deserves the time and effort needed to get it right time after time.