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How Do I Find The Best Salespeople?

by David Brock on September 12th, 2016

I was just talking to an outstanding Vice President of Sales.  The solutions his company develops address very complex issues in “manufacturing.”  (I’m using that as a surrogate for what he is really doing.)  It’s a complex sale.

It’s an early stage company, they are starting to have great success and are closing some very large, intriguing deals.  He needs to grow the sales team, hiring BDRs, Account Managers and others.

He asked, “How do I find the best sales people?”

I asked, “Well what are the characteristics of the best sales people you have on board now?  What are you looking for in a sales person?”

He went on to describe what every sales manager describes, “I need strong prospectors, they need to be able to understand the sales/buying process, they need to to be able to handle objections, they need to present our value, they need to close…..”

He describe a huge number of selling skills and selling competencies the sales people should have.

I asked him to describe the customer engagement process.  I asked, “Who are you targeting?  What are the conversations you need to be having?  How do you demonstrate your credibility and understanding of their problems, challenges, and opportunities?  How do you position value in ways that are meaningful to them?”

We went through a discussion of the level of expertise in manufacturing, the need to really understand their manufacturing processes, metrics and drivers.  We spoke about the typical challenges that face the manufacturing decision-makers and the conversations they had to have with those decision-makers.

I then asked him, “Who is the best person in your company at having those conversations?”

It turned out to be the CEO.  As we looked at why the CEO was so successful, it was less about him being CEO, but more about his experience and background.  The CEO had been a VP of Manufacturing at a large company.  He had a long career in various jobs in manufacturing.  He had deep experience in all the issues their customers faced.  He didn’t consider himself a sales person, which is why he needed the VP of Sales.

The reason the CEO was so effective in selling was he came from an experience base that was similar to that of the customers.  He didn’t know anything about selling.  When he was having the first conversations with customers, he didn’t know he was qualifying them.  As they brought up questions and concerns, he didn’t know he was handling objections, as they started asking how they could do similar things, he didn’t realize he was presenting a solution and closing.

To the CEO, he was having conversations with people of similar backgrounds talking about problems and solutions.  The customers were eager to have discussions about how he could help.

As we talked about the issue, I thought, “Well maybe it’s because he’s the CEO?”  I asked, “Beside the CEO, who else is very good at engaging the customer in these discussions?”  We identified a manager in the organization.  Like the CEO, he’d been in manufacturing all his career, at significantly lower levels.  But he had seen the challenges, issues, frustrations manufacturing executives faced.  He had felt their pain in his past jobs.

Like the CEO, he was effective because of his credibility in engaging the customers in conversations about their business.  Again, he didn’t know he was prospecting, he didn’t know he was qualifying, he didn’t know he was handling objections.  In fact the sales person shared a story of this manager at a customer meeting.  The customer had brought up a concern, the manager responded, “That’s a bunch of BS, this is what the real issue is….”  (I certainly didn’t learn that approach in my objection handling courses.).

The point was, the most effective sales people were people with manufacturing backgrounds who understood their customers, had “been there, done that,” and who could share ideas and solutions with credibility.

As we explored further, it wasn’t just the manufacturing background.  There were other attributes and characteristics that contributed to their success.  They were curious, they were passionate and enthusiastic about their solutions and solving problems, they were driven to engage the customer in talking about change and new ideas, they were persistent and didn’t give up, they were goal and accomplishment oriented, …….

The secret to their success wasn’t just their deep understanding of manufacturing, but it was a number of attitudes, behaviors, characteristics that are common to great sales people.

The VP of Sales came to the conclusion, perhaps the very best sales people are business (in this case manufacturing) people who had the capability and passion to sell.

Some of the most difficult aspects of selling are understanding enough about the business, the function, and the problems of our customers have.  We can’t possibly script everything to the levels we need to engage the customer in deep conversations.  We can’t possibly cover every possibility we might encounter with our prospects and customers.  We want to engage the customer with credibility, knowledge, understanding, and empathy.  We want to feel their pain, but show them a path to solving and eliminating it.

It’s very difficult to train these to people who don’t have the experience and knowledge, it takes a lot of time.  It’s very difficult to develop the content and tools to help sales people who don’t have this experience and knowledge.

Perhaps our best source of sales people are business people who can sell.

Ironically, too few sales managers look at it this way.  Selling skills are relatively easy to teach.  People in other disciplines use similar skills.  For example, project management, persuasion, questioning, listening, goal setting and meeting goals.

If a person has the right knowledge/experience, the right attitudes, behaviors, attributes, characteristics and willingness to sell; it’s relatively easy to teach them to sell.

Business people who want to and can learn to sell are often our best sources of talent.

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3 Comments
  1. Dave,

    Very thought provoking post. For a long time, the complex high value selling model was to team up the salesperson with a knowledgeable pre-sales tech support person – I expect you started out that way at IBM. In my career, my success was in large part due to having excellent support from my systems analyst. Under that model, we hired sales people without too much concern about domain knowledge, but were looking for curiosity, passion, and demonstrable successful sales experience. It seems like that model might be changing (or already have changed), but I’m not sure that it’s any easier to train sales skills than it is to train domain knowledge. How do you see the balance between the two?

    • Andy: You make a great point. I don’t think it’s a clear answer, in fact it’s more likely a combination of both, recruit some with domain expertise, train them to sell, recruit some with sales expertise and train them on domain/business acumen.

      One of the biggest challenges we see is acquiring the domain expertise. Many sales organizations need that badly, they have no ability to “train” it, but aren’t considering the “hire domain expertise, teach them to sell” option. That’s what drove this post.

  2. It’s true that in order to find success, companies need to find the best salespeople. Everyone on the sales team needs to have similar traits and a similar knowledge set. A lot of this can be learned, but only if they already have the right traits.

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