Hunting the Hunters: Attracting and Retaining High-Performing Salespeople

A powerful combination of creative and transparent compensation plans, the right culture, and the right support and development can help organizations hang onto their top sales performers.

Hiring a killer sales force is one of a company’s greatest challenges. Get it right and the rewards are obvious. But the risks of getting it wrong are perhaps even greater. That’s because salespeople aren’t just out there to bring in revenue—they’re the face of your brand to customers and prospects.

It’s also one of the most transient professions. Great salespeople are in such high demand that keeping them can be even more difficult than acquiring them.

Some sectors—such as technology, consulting, and investment banking—are especially notorious for having high turnover in their sales ranks. Based on the work we’ve done with companies in these industries and others, we’ve landed on a few key strategies that companies can use to find and keep the best sales talent.

More Than Money

There’s no denying that the potential to make a lot of money is a major motivator for most salespeople. But it’s overly simplistic to think they’re entirely coin operated.

When we talk to candidates, they often tell us they’re attracted to companies that can show them a clear and simple sales plan made up of realistic financial targets and territories. A compensation scheme that rewards them for each and every transaction also is seen as a strong draw.

Success isn’t always about dollars and cents, either. Non-monetary bonuses such as cars or trips for reaching certain goals are powerful ways to reward people who are wired to overachieve.

You’ve Gotta Believe

Sales folks thrive in companies that are full of smart, committed people working on cool products and services that benefit their customers. The best ones have a passion for what they sell—and that comes from believing in its value.

When you’re recruiting sales candidates, show them case examples of clients who’ve succeeded because of your product or service. That way, you’ll demonstrate two things:

  1. What they’re selling will be easier to sell.
  2. They’ll feel a part of something that ultimately can make a positive difference to their clients’ businesses.

Have them meet with non-sales staff, as well—especially those at the executive level or in product development. The best salespeople want to work with well-managed companies in growth markets that have the potential to deliver several years of solid prosperity.

Make Their Lives Easy

The easier you make it for your sales force to focus on selling, the more likely you are to keep them.

Few things turn a salesperson off more than bureaucracy. They detest internal meetings and administrative tasks that take time away from selling. Want to see steam come out of a salesperson’s ears? Have them spend an hour submitting an expense report (then take two months to reimburse them.)

Salespeople also value a high degree of autonomy. Consider pricing: A rep may spend months hunting, finding, proposing, and finally winning a deal, only to lose it based on price. Of course, you have to make a margin you can live with, but if your salespeople are partners in the pricing of deals, you’ll have a better chance of keeping the best.

On the softer side of the equation, remember that your sales force is made up of real human beings. Like any candidates, they’ll be drawn to an organization that provides a good work-life balance, including adequate vacation to spend time with family and recharge their batteries.

Build a Community

Sales can be a solitary job much of the time, but most salespeople enjoy getting together to cut loose and share war stories. To attract and retain good candidates, you need to offer an equivalent environment that has a strong sense of community among the sales team.

If your team is dispersed, find ways for them to get together on a regular basis. It helps them learn from one another—which has a value for them and your organization—and it helps build a closer affinity to your company’s brand, which easily can fade if people don’t feel connected.

Build a Culture That Values Sales

A strong corporate culture is important for many reasons—everyone wants to feel like they’re working with like-minded people. But salespeople crave a culture that demonstrably values what they do.

They’re looking for collaboration across the organization that will help them be successful. Your reps must feel that their pursuits will be embraced and supported by key resources in the organization, including the executive suite.

Salespeople are a little like thoroughbred horses—they need to be stroked and appreciated. Management by fear and intimidation rarely succeeds. They already know that consistently missing sales targets is a recipe for being shown the door, so don’t keep reminding them.

Few companies have such a compelling product that an effective sales force isn’t vital to their success. That’s why it’s so important to get these hires right and hold onto your best performers.

A powerful combination of creative and transparent compensation plans, the right culture, and the right support and development can help make that goal a reality.

Kristin Thomas is senior vice president, Client Service at Alexander Mann Solutions. She works with companies to attract, engage, and retain top talent, while adding value to the bottom line.