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Recruiting, retaining, training and assessing your organization’s sales force in the new world of work

By Tom Schoenfelder, Ph.D.

The rapidly evolving world of sales is causing significant changes in how companies hire and train their sales force. Because today’s buyers are much more aware of features and benefits, alternative offerings and reviews from other customers, salespeople must now add value by conveying much deeper knowledge of the needs of the client organization, competitor activity, trends in the customer’s own client base and how the product or

service being offered will address strategic issues, provide real ROI and help the client hone their competitive advantage.

Although some elements of sales remain as important as they were in years past – such as initiating relationships, building rapport and establishing credibility – HR professionals are tasked with understanding this business shift in terms of what sales success looks like as they look to bring salespeople on board that will remain engaged, loyal and ultimately succeed in taking companies to the next level.

Moreover, looking at current sales professionals and then understanding their strengths and areas of development can provide further areas of exploration as a company looks toward training and development initiatives in the areas of sales training.

Research into sales performance over the past 15 years clearly demonstrates one thing: the business world must expand the traditional “hunter vs. farmer” conception of sales to more closely align with how customers buy in today’s complex environment. For HR professionals charged with supporting the performance of sales, it’s important to note that there are six approaches to sales that organizations may consider, depending on the type of product they sell and their client base:

1. New business development

This is the approach that comes to mind when one thinks of the “traditional” sales professional. Opportunities are created by initiating contact with prospects, often through cold calling, in order to generate interest in products or services. New business developers persuasively present their value proposition, persist past resistance and negotiate the close. This category of sales typically requires competencies such as influencing and persuading, building relationships, negotiating and resilience. Top performers tend to be self-starters driven to initiate action on their own.

2. Account development

If new business development is associated with the “hunter” style of sales, account development aligns with the “farmer” model. Individuals in this category are often charged with maintaining and strengthening relationships with current customers and working to develop new relationships through introductions or referrals. In addition to competencies such as persuading, developing relationships and negotiating, top performers are able to effectively collect and leverage information related to the client organization’s formal and informal communication channels and power dynamics.

3. Account service specialist

This category of sales professional often finds success by providing strong service to existing customers and accounts, while strategically taking the opportunity to cross- or up-sell. Top performers in this category build rapport with clients, identify their needs, offer tailored advice about products or services and create additional opportunities to generate business by focusing on the overall customer experience.

4. Consultative sales

This approach reflects recent trends in the world of sales, in which customers expect to partner with the sales professional to collaboratively develop solutions to pressing business problems. Top performers win business by building working relationships based on mutual trust and shared accountability, asking probing questions to systematically uncover root causes of issues and providing compelling proposals. Important competencies include interpersonal sensitivity, active listening and relationship building.

5. Technical sales

Professionals in this category generate opportunities by leveraging technical expertise and product and/or industry-specific knowledge, perhaps working as the primary salesperson in a technical or scientific sale or as a subject-matter expert in conjunction with a closer. Technical sales professionals leverage their expertise to build credibility and gather important information or specifications, and they often have educational backgrounds in engineering, medicine or another specialty. Competencies of a top performer typically include analytical thinking, business acumen and learning agility.

6. Strategic sales

Top performers in this sales category, who may be thought of as “knowledge brokers,” establish themselves as industry experts and true business partners. They leverage deep knowledge of the client’s business, industry, product and marketplace to bring new insight, challenge assumptions and conventional wisdom and ask the difficult questions that the customer may not have thought about or has been avoiding. They often manifest competencies such as strategic thinking, business acumen, learning agility and organizational savvy.

A new paradigm and what it means for hiring and training

So what does this mean for the company looking to hire and train successful salespeople? Because the business environment is changing rapidly, it’s imperative for both business strategists and HR professionals to first understand the makeup of their sales teams. What are the competency-based strengths and weaknesses of the current sales force? What do your top performers have that other salespeople seem to lack? Does your sales success model reflect any of the categories listed above? Where are the gaps? And how can these gaps be addressed via training and development?

Many of these questions may not have an immediate answer, however, it’s critical to understand the competencies required for sales success so that you can train up to – or hire against – that benchmark to accommodate the business requirements for salespeople in today’s world.

Once companies have an idea of how their teams look in terms of strengths and areas of developmental opportunity, you can create goals that include training and development as well as hiring to fill gaps, if necessary.

The nuances resulting from this evolution in the sales profession are important to understand for both salespeople in the field and those looking to hire them.


Tom Schoenfelder, Ph.D., is the senior vice president of research and development with Caliper, an employee-assessment and development firm.

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