6 Mistakes Small Businesses Make When Hiring Salespeople (and How to Avoid Them)

November 7, 2016

In large companies, recruiting salespeople has become more scientific. Armed with the latest statistics, personality profiling, time-tested orientation programs and effective use of LinkedIn, large companies with deep pockets can usually locate and hire successful candidates.

For small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs), not so much. While they do have tools like LinkedIn, recruiters at smaller companies typically lack the experience, infrastructure and institutions to hire the candidates most likely to be successful salespeople. In their struggles, SMBs tend to make the following mistakes:

1. Recruiting from big firms

SMB recruiters often assume that if a salesperson was successful at a large company (like IBM or Goldman Sachs), they will be equally successful selling for a smaller one. However, such salespeople are "likely to start their new job with a question like 'Happy to be here! Where is the sales support staff?'" according to Ram V. Iyer, president of Princeton-based consultancy The Midmarket Institute. The newly-hires then struggle to perform unfamiliar tasks, like sales research and competitive analysis.

To avoid this mistake, SMB recruiters must define the full range of tasks that each sales job entails. They should then look for candidates who have either experience performing those tasks successfully or who show the aptitude to learn them quickly.

2. Hiring "sales stars"

SMB recruiters often seem to believe in the hoary myth that "a great salesperson can sell anything to anyone." In fact, salespeople who really excel at a particular job are seldom successful selling a different type of product or in a different selling environment.

"Sales stars tend to be 'idiot savants' who are absurdly well-suited to a particular type of selling and not much else," explains Howard Stevens, former CEO of the sales training firm Chally Worldwide. "Expecting a 'sales star' to be equally successful in a different role is much like expecting a top-ranking basketball star to excel at playing soccer."

To avoid this mistake, SMB recruiters should seek candidates who have achieved success through persistence and training rather than candidates who are natural "stars." Because these "above average" salespeople are more intellectually flexible, they can be retrained for a wider variety of sales positions.

3. Ignoring culture fit

Another common SMB problem is hiring people who are "good at sales" but don't mesh well with the SMB's culture, says Stanford University's Robert I. Sutton, co-author of Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less.

For example, I've seen more than one high tech mid-size firm hire slick salespeople (the type who wear three piece suits) even though their culture is strictly sneakers and hoodie. Even if they're talented salespeople, new-hires who don't fit in "can undermine the culture and brand that the company is trying to build and project," explains Sutton.

To avoid this mistake, SMB recruiters should interview salespeople—even those who will be selling in remote territories--with the same attention to "cultural fit" they give to candidates who will be working at corporate headquarters.

4. Reassigning engineers to sell

Since hiring from outside can be fraught with peril (as seen from the mistakes above) some SMB recruiters conclude that they'll be better off hiring their salespeople from within their existing employee base.

Usually, this hiring strategy entails reassigning second-rate engineers to become salespeople rather than firing them. This seldom works because "most engineers lack a basic aptitude for selling and have only a vague idea of how to communicate with customers," Iyer points out.

To avoid this mistake, SMB recruiters should only recruit from within when an individual has already shown the aptitude for selling and, ideally, the ability to do so. For example, when I worked as an engineer at the beginning of my career, I became so frustrated at the inability of our sales team to sell the software product I'd built that I went out on my own and sold a copy to Lockheed Martin. As such, I would have been an ideal candidate to move into a sales position and, in fact, moved into marketing not long afterward.

5. Overloading salespeople with tech

Because they have so many problems hiring salespeople, SMBs often attempt to compensate by implementing sales technologies, like CRM, in the hopes that it will provide the consistency and structure to help candidates become more successful. Unfortunately, sales technology is only a good investment if the salespeople using them have good sales skills.

For example, "if you simply invest in better lead generation without sharpening the sales reps' skills, you will be throwing money out the window," explains Michael Pedone, CEO of the sales training firm SalesBuzz.com. "The world is full of under-prepared sales reps who mishandle hot leads."

To avoid this mistake, SMBs should first focus on hiring trainable sales people and then invest programs to train them to sell effectively to the SMB's target customer base. Only after the SMB has assembled a trained team should they invest in sales technology to make the team more effective.

6. Providing inadequate sales training

Large companies usually have established, well-tested procedures for bringing new salespeople up to speed. By contrast, SMBs often "are on-boarding salespeople all wrong," according to Joanne Black, author of the bestseller No More Cold Calling. "They inundate the new-hires with product details, playbooks, and then let them go at it," she explains.

To avoid this mistake, SMBs should "educate new hires on the company’s ideal target customer, what their issues are, what it’s like to be in that person’s shoes, and what they want to hear from a salesperson," says Black. "They need to learn and practice how to have a business conversation with their ideal prospects." 

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