The LBM sales force is aging, a reality few deny. Therefore, the challenge is to create the next generation of salespeople for your organization, which can happen in only two ways. The first is to hire experienced sales replacements; the second is to build from within. Given the fact that our salesforce is aging, there is an expiration date on the first option. This leaves us with the only commonsense approach, namely, to build from within.
Hire for attitude. The most successful companies hire right. They seek individuals who are career driven and want to work with a sense of purpose. The companies with legendary track records for hiring (e.g., Southwest Airlines, Zappos, The Container Store) all hire with the same mantra. Hire for attitude; train for skill.
This means the dialogue about career development begins in the very first interview. Define the characteristics you seek in an ideal performer. (For sales, I seek leadership, teamwork, perseverance, organizational skills, and a desire for personal growth.) During the interview, bluntly tell people you’re seeking future sales superstars, managers, and executives. Paint a picture of future success for candidates. Engagement can’t start after the associate joins your team; it begins with the first interview.
Train for skill. This means defining the mechanics of selling. Some will argue that salespeople are born with the natural talent for success. I will argue until the end of time that selling is a process. For sure, some people are born with better DNA for the position, but this does not negate the necessity for learning fundamentals of cold calling, business listening, territory management, and a host of additional skills. Sales leaders might hope and presume that salespeople will figure out how to do the job after they are promoted. My money is on the organizations with a structured process for skills development they teach to outside salespeople before they enter the role and continually long after.
Training is not the end; it’s the beginning. Good leaders inspect what they expect. Outside salespeople are invisible performers. They operate in a vehicle, away from the office, without supervision while interacting repeatedly with your valued clients. The only way you can know what they are doing when you’re not looking is to know what they do when you are looking. This means getting into the field and riding along with outside salespeople.
My process for onboarding a new outside sales hire includes numerous observation-and coaching sessions in the field. During that time, the salesperson is expected to schedule full days of appointments. He/She is expected to sprinkle prospect meetings along with productive customer interactions. During the coaching ride-along, I am observing to ensure that the salesperson proves they are prospecting, creating meetings that grow sales, negotiating properly and, in short, representing the company as a credible sales leader.
The best organizations, in any discipline, have a system. The Pittsburgh Steelers, the team with more super bowl championships than any other, have been competitive for decades, and the Detroit Lions not so much. The St. Louis Cardinals, the most successful National League team in history, have the “Cardinal way,” and the Chicago Cubs not so much. Good organizations have a “system.”
Selling is a system. There is no way any organization can rely on the recruitment of established sales professionals indefinitely because the pool of talent is aging out. If you want to build a true sales “force,” a term I am using here not as a group of people but instead a true market force, you need a system to hire and train.
What’s the worst that could happen? You might hire a bunch of really enthusiastic people and discover only a few become great outside salespeople while others become quality contributors in all the other areas of your business.
One thing is certain, the sales force you create for tomorrow begins today.
Rick Davis, president of Building Leaders, is a premier sales trainer in the building materials industry. His latest book, Sales Economics: The Science of Selling, is now available at buildingleaders.com. Rick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org