How to Handle a Sales Talent Shortage [Q&A with Colleen Honan]

February 19, 2019 | Alec Shirkey
How to Handle a Sales Talent Shortage [Q&A with Colleen Honan]

Are you facing a sales talent shortage? Learn from these best practices for attracting and keeping top sales talent.

Are you having trouble hiring or holding onto talented salespeople? If so, you’re not alone.

With experienced Baby Boomers retiring every day and fewer millennials taking sales jobs, many companies report that open sales positions are the toughest to fill, according to HR consulting firm Manpower. The outlook isn't much better for firms with a full sales staff: SiriusDecisions finds that millennials are twice as likely to be seeking a new job right now.

There's no question that sales leaders should make recruiting and retention a top priority in 2019. But how can sales organizations actually improve in those areas?

Few people are better-equipped to answer this question than Brainshark CSO Colleen Honan, whose experience managing millennials has given her a unique perspective on sales talent management. As part of our ongoing Q&A series, Honan discusses what it takes to overcome a sales talent shortage, win in today’s competitive labor market, and keep productive sales reps happy.

[Learn more by downloading our on-demand webinar, Winning the War for Sales Talent in 2019]

What’s causing the war for sales talent that we see today?

CH: It’s a generational thing. You’ve got Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers who are either retiring or moving into non-direct selling and management roles. And we have fewer millennials that are moving into sales roles. It’s very hard to hire talent when there just aren’t as many millennials interested in sales positions.

Why don’t more millennials pursue sales careers?

CH: Most millennials are coming out of colleges and universities. Some institutions are starting to focus on the sales profession as a major, but there’s still not many that do. The generation ends up looking at marketing roles, or something more technical like product management or software development. They’re less focused on face-to-face roles like sales. The generation that’s in school now works in teams and groups a lot. When you think about sales, it’s more of an individual contributor role. That’s something that may influence it.

And when you look at sales as a profession, it doesn’t always have the greatest connotation. People know what they know about sales from movies like Glengarry Glen Ross or Boiler Room. It looks like there’s a hard-charging leader screaming “hit your numbers” all day. It’s considered a “dirty” profession and not something you aspire to – which I believe couldn’t be further from the truth. You have to do a lot of work to convince people that sales is a good profession.

What are your best practices for recruiting sales talent?

CH: I look at it just like my sales funnel. The more you put in at the top, the better opportunity you have of hiring somebody talented. I spend a lot of time working with our Talent and Culture team to make sure we get the right type of people in at the top. That includes people in active roles today that have a good track record, and people who want to come to an organization like ours because of its reputation.

Making sure you always have enough talent at the top of the funnel is going to be critical in the next couple of years, because you’re going to be fighting for these people with a lot of other companies. You don’t want to be left short.

It’s all about putting the people we really want at the top of our list, then qualifying them by looking at their attributes, cultural fit, and making sure they match up with what we need, negotiating with them and closing. Making sure you always have enough talent at the top of the funnel is going to be critical in the next couple of years, because you’re going to be fighting for these people with a lot of other companies. You don’t want to be left short. If we don’t have enough people to cover the numbers we need to hit as sales leaders, that’s where the biggest problems begin.

How do you hire the candidate who is the best fit?

CH: I’m always looking for those things you can’t teach. Skills can be taught, and you can tell pretty quickly whether they have skills or not. What I really look for is not, “can they do it?” but “will they do it?” Some people call it “skill vs. will.” Traits like work ethic, persistence, and clock speed – are they switched on enough to advance deals through the pipeline and have really good business conversations – those are all things you can’t teach. That all comes through while you’re interviewing.

We’ll send candidates a video coaching activity with Brainshark, where we ask them to sell us a product or a service in 60 seconds. It can’t be the company they currently work for, but it can be anything else. How creative are they? How quick are they? What are they saying about the product or service? We use that exercise a lot with our business development openings. We also send a sales question via email to test their written communication skills. For example, we’ll play the role of a customer who’s not renewing. How well do they respond to negative news like that?

What trends come up when you interview salespeople?

CH: I’m always the final interview for everyone we hire into the sales organization. The two questions I hear time and time again are, “How are you going to make me successful?” and “How long am I expected to be in that role before I move to my next role?” They want to know how they’re going to be trained and how much you’re going to invest in them. Frequent job changes are the new reality, so you have to onboard new salespeople efficiently and get as much production from your sales reps as you can while you still have them.

They want to know how they’re going to be trained and how much you’re going to invest in them.

What mistakes do you often see during onboarding?

CH: There’s a tendency to get sales reps in the field before they’re ready, which I see as a real problem down the line. There are only so many prospects to go around, and you only get one chance to make a good impression. If that’s not a good one because your rep didn’t understand enough about the business or wasn’t asking the right discovery questions, that could kill opportunities for your company.

The reps don’t retain most of what they’ve learned because of how they learned it. There’s not any reinforcement mechanism. It’s very overwhelming.

Another tendency is to bring new hires in for a week and give them every little fact and figure about the company, its customers, competitors and the market for 8-10 hours a day. They do this for 5 days straight, and then expect reps are ready to start hitting their territory. The reps don’t retain most of what they’ve learned because of how they learned it. There’s not any reinforcement mechanism. It’s very overwhelming.

Hiring salespeople is a challenge, but what about retention?

CH: There’s nothing worse than getting a rep up to speed and productive and then seeing them up and leave. That is a total sunk cost for your company and very painful, because it could cause you to lose productivity for a year or two just by not retaining your good reps.

We’re always investing in our salespeople. We take a good look at our sales pipeline to ensure that all of our reps are successful – and not all of them do everything well. We look at who’s really good at opening doors to new business and determine how we can leverage them as peer mentors. We also have an embedded sales coach who analyzes every stage of the sales process and works with people on performance improvement.

For instance, someone might skip steps in the sales process or discount on price at the end because they get nervous. Figure out how you can help that rep improve and invest in getting them better at those things. When you do that, they tend to stay around longer because they can be successful.

How can peer learning help sales leaders improve retention?

CH: Our sales force has some tenured reps who have been very successful, and we have some who are in their first sales job. When you’re newer to sales, you usually have less business acumen. A lot of that comes with practice and interacting with buyers.

Our more seasoned reps will take a less-seasoned rep under their wing and work with them on things like business acumen. And they’ll use Brainshark video coaching activities to do that, making sure they hold each other accountable. Less seasoned reps might also introduce new ways of doing things, too, like how to research a prospect’s company. A video coaching tool makes it super easy to harvest all of those best practices.

How do you retain reps who are focused on their next role?

CH: We look at career pathing in two different ways. There’s occupational learning, which is what you need to do your job today. And there’s aspirational learning, which helps the reps get ready for a position they might want one or two years down the line. This is one of the most important things you can do.

We have a Future Leaders program where managers hand-pick people in the organization who have shown leadership qualities. We then run a 12-week learning program where we walk through different aspects of leadership, such as time management, managing different personalities, coaching and mentoring and applying company finances to your role. We also use our video coaching platform to send reinforcement questions and prep work for the next week’s session to program members. It’s been hugely successful.

Download our FREE special report below for more insights!

How CSOs Can Win the War for Sales Talent in 2019

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