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Does Experience or Intrinsic Skill Make a Salesperson Great?

Wednesday, September 19, 2018
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What qualities make a sales rep successful? Is it innate skills like charisma, confidence, and storytelling, or learned knowledge such as product and company messaging?

It’s an age-old debate, and one that’s apt to provoke controversy. Instead of debating, let’s turn this on its head and ask a more pertinent question: How do sales organizations today approach sales rep hiring and development?

To delve deeper, we surveyed over 150 sales executives and sales enablement leaders to determine the practices of top-performing teams. We found that sales managers generally fall into one of three schools of thought: Hire sales reps with innate talent, develop new hires with training, or develop new hires with coaching.

Let’s take a deeper look at how these philosophies change hiring strategies, as well as the pros and cons of each.

Philosophy 1: Hire the A-List Sales Reps

Managers with this approach generally believe that top sales reps are born, not made, and typically seek out A-list players from the start. They believe that the most important skills can’t be taught—or at least not well enough to challenge those with innate talent. We found that around 15 percent of executives and leaders fall into this bucket.

Pros: New employees can hit the ground running since they already have the talent and confidence needed. They will require little training on the part of the sales organizations due to their innate skills.

Cons: Hiring A-list players isn’t always straightforward, and organizations often compete with one another when they hire like this, forcing them to boost benefits. This can also result in a heightened risk of unwanted attrition from competitors.

Philosophy 2: Develop A-List Players With Training

Training can help individuals accomplish great feats—and organizations focused on training often do, too. Companies following this philosophy put an emphasis on creating internal learning and development programs as well as looking externally for experts and consultants. Nearly 22 percent of those surveyed believe training is the best method to promote high performance.

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Pros: Training can have a positive effect on team culture and group performance and can help promote additional practice and strategizing. It can also lower attrition, as great training programs develop professionals more thoroughly and lessen their likelihood of leaving. Overall, these efforts generally lead to better on-message customer conversations and experiences, resulting in higher revenue and brand equity.

Cons: Training can be expensive and difficult to schedule, requiring one-off, lengthy sessions that expose teams to greater risk of oversaturation and “training fatigue.” Additionally, a lot of time, energy, and budget must be spent periodically refreshing content and developing innovative training practices to keep up with evolving expectations.

Philosophy 3: Develop A-List Players With Coaching

Learning by coming to your own conclusions with the help of an experienced mentor leads to powerful results. The majority of sales executives and enablement leaders surveyed—45 percent—subscribe to the idea that continuous coaching is the key to developing high-performing sales teams. Organizations adopting systems and processes in this school of thought tend to emphasize coaching programs, one-on-one mentoring, and frequent ride-alongs.

Pros: Continuous coaching programs and one-on-one feedback provide sales reps with a better understanding of their strengths and weaknesses so they know what to focus on when pursuing a deal. Additionally, well-developed coaching frameworks give salespeople a better understanding of the organization’s selling and messaging strategy because they get more face time with company management to solve problems across many different deals.

Cons: This strategy exposes organizations to a greater potential for low morale and poor performance if a manager is bad at coaching. Finding a great coach is challenging, and companies can spend a lot of time searching for people with the right balance of soft skills, aptitude for quickly gaining product and industry knowledge, and propensity for big-picture thinking. A poor coach can also hinder creativity if they have an autocratic style—and a lot of the traits needed to become a successful manager are linked with autocratic tendencies.

Strong Sales Competency Trumps Hiring Strategy

No matter which approach you prefer, there’s one universal metric to objectively measure selling skills and improve performance across teams that comprise both naturally gifted sales hires and those who’ve had to work for it: sales competency.

Systematically analyzing the skills and knowledge required to perform each activity throughout the sales process gives organizations the means to cut through the noise. It can break down the sales process into discrete competencies and help teams zero in on the precise mix of knowledge and skills needed. The use of competency-based learning is a growing trend in the world of education—and sales training and performance management practitioners are beginning to take note.

For more on how organizations develop their top salespeople, connect with us in New Orleans at the ATD SELL conference, November 6-7.

Note: A version of this blog post was originally published on the Allego blog, which you can check out here.

About the Author

Mark Magnacca, president and co-founder of Allego, has spent the last 15 years helping sales leaders shorten the sales cycle and distribute their best ideas faster. Over the last five years, Mark has been instrumental in coaching leading sales teams to deliver a consistent message in the marketplace by integrating mobile technology into their sales process. He has worked as a presentation coach with a wide range of financial service companies by delivering innovative, practice-development and business-building strategies. Mark is the author of So What? How To Communicate What Really Matters to Your Audience. His work has been featured in numerous media outlets including Fox TV, The New York Time,s and The Boston Globe. Prior to co-founding Allego, Mark founded Insight Development Group, Inc., a leading Sales and Presentation training firm specializing in the Financial Services industry. As a former financial advisor, Mark brings a unique perspective to the world of consultative selling. Mark is a graduate of Babson College and resides in the Boston area.

1 Comment
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Great article. I've been living this for the last 5 years or so and the sales competency model aligned to sales process takes the guesswork out and also is easy for salespeople and managers to understand.
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