Canadian Business Feature: How to build a stellar sales force

Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies are indisputable experts in selling stuff really, really well. Who better to give advice on revving up sales?

It isn’t easy to get a sales gig at Home Painters Toronto. For Brian Young, the CEO of the Toronto-based company (2018 Growth 500: No. 205), the hunt for a new addition to his sales team is an intricate, multi-step process. He’s looking for so-called “farmers,” people who want to sow long-term relationships, and it takes some work to tease that out.  The process starts by having candidates fill out an online questionnaire to ascertain whether they have the qualifications he’s looking for. Sample questions include “What kind of people do you find it difficult to work with?” and, “Can you tell me about a time when you needed to be extremely proactive?”

If a candidate makes it past the initial questionnaire, the tests then begin. Young will ask a potential hire to call him at an irregular time—like 9:30 p.m. on a Sunday night—mirroring the unconventional work hours he sometimes requires of his sales team. He also likes to change the time and location of an in-person interview at the last minute, testing a candidate’s ability to pivot quickly without getting flustered. “I like to refer to the interview process as ‘running the gauntlet,’” says Young.

Young knows as well as anyone that it’s hard to find good salespeople. Finding likeminded, customer-focused and highly motivated reps who can close, and who won’t quickly leave to chase the next big thing, is a chronic frustration for many business leaders. For entrepreneurs—many of whom never fully shed their early role as chief salesperson—the struggle can be especially acute. 

While Young’s techniques may seem to be a touch idiosyncratic, they clearly work: Home Painters Toronto grew revenue by 348% from 2012 to 2017, and that wouldn’t have been possible without a strong sales bench. His story, and those of his peers on the 2018 Growth 500 ranking of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies, prove that it is possible—and, with the right choices, relatively simple—to translate an entrepreneur’s innate hustle into a motivated and effective sales army capable of propelling exponential growth.

Know who you want

When it comes to salespeople, you have to know what and who you’re looking for—something that can be a challenge, say Sonya Meloff, founding partner at Sales Talent Agency (No. 446), a sales recruitment company based in Toronto. “We go into some companies and ask sales leaders what they look for, and they all put their hands to their chins, look to the left and right, and then say something like, ‘I like someone who’s really sporty,’” she says. In other words, they look for easy markers of a competitive spirit. By contrast, when Meloff looks for new talent, she focuses in on several traits, including natural goal-setting tendencies, the ability to overcome obstacles, leadership aptitude and an appreciation for expertise. “The ability to achieve goals while faced with obstacles is what truly differentiates ambition from drive—and the latter is a key trait for success in sales,” she says.

Ben Hogervorst, CEO of Lucknow, Ont.-based Britespan Building Systems (No. 454), which builds temporary, permanent and portable structures, has learned through trial and error the value of personality fit in sales. He’s found the most successful hires have been those who really understand the friendly-but-no-nonsense style preferred by the company’s clientele. “Our customers just want to come in, tell you what they need and have you give it to them,” he says. “Analytical types will drive my customers crazy, doing 25 quotes for them.”

Hogervorst pays particularly close attention to body language during the interview process, preferring candidates who are highly attentive, who lean forward in their chairs, make eye contact, smile and demonstrate enthusiasm. “Attitude is contagious and positive salespeople give consumers more confidence in what they’re buying,” he says. 

Train your managers

As important as it is to find quality candidates to fill sales roles in a growing business, it’s even more key to ensure you have good people managing them. Many entrepreneurial businesses don’t hire dedicated sales managers until they’ve reached a certain scale—and when they do, they often find the fit isn’t right. “If salespeople are failing, the first place to look is their managers,” says Jason Jordan, co-author of the 2011 book Cracking the Sales Management Code

Part of the problem, says Jordan, is that employers tend to take successful salespeople and promote them into management roles. That might seem a logical progression, but the skills that make a good salesperson are different than those that make a good sales manager. Without the right training, a rep-turned-manager is unlikely to succeed. Bad sales managers don’t just lead to poor sales performance; they can also create retention issues. “Sales manager training tends to fall into a few buckets: general leadership training and generic coaching,” says Jordan. “But that’s not really what they do. They’re managing sales pipelines, creating forecasts, and spending time with their people to help them win deals and penetrate accounts—and that’s the kind of training they need.”

That training can take a lot of forms: Mentorship, online courses, books and, increasingly, events. Sales Talent Agency’s Meloff, who has also observed a lack of formal sales management training, points to events run by such organizations as SalesTO and Enterprise Sales Forum as great opportunities for sales managers to network and learn.

Be free with feedback

Most salespeople thrive on information­—the more, the better. “Salespeople are different from other people in an organization,” says Herb MacKenzie, associate professor of marketing at Brock University’s Goodman School of Business. “They like the excitement and challenge of closing deals on a regular basis, but they also need to be shown new opportunities.” MacKenzie recommends providing formal feedback three or four times a year, but informal feedback on a weekly basis. “There shouldn’t be a week that goes by when the sales manager doesn’t talk to a salesperson about how they’re doing.” 

The love for feedback ties, in part, to the common need among salespeople for validation—which can be essential in a role full of rejection. “The best validation a salesperson can get is closing a sale, but salespeople lose sales opportunities frequently,” MacKenzie says. “This makes feedback from sales managers much more important.”

At Document Imaging Partners (No. 471), a Breslau, Ont.-based data management company, this takes the form of a weekly sales meeting comprising equal parts scrum, workshop and post-mortem. Every Monday, the entire sales team gathers for three hours to go through all aspects of the sales process, including tips to start that initial phone call and understanding ongoing customer needs. “We do role-playing,” says co-CEO Carole Dunkley. “Our reps have a chance to troubleshoot obstacles they may have encountered during the week.” The process takes up time and resources, but Dunkley says it keeps all the reps on the same page, with the added benefit of lifting morale. Another spirit-booster? When a sales rep makes a win, Document Imaging Partners shares that news with the whole team, and even blows an air horn in the head office.

Simplify, simplify

Research has demonstrated that the most motivating thing for salespeople is not compensation, but having a very clear task to accomplish. “Incentives and rewards are important, but when salespeople have a very clear idea of what they need to succeed, then they’re more motivated to do it,” says Jordan. He recommends setting one key, measurable objective for each salesperson—whether that’s winning back customers, acquiring new ones or cross-selling products into existing accounts—then limiting the scope of her job to include only the most important tasks achieving that goal. 

That clarity can have stunning results. Sherri-Lynn Teri, the other co-CEO at Document Imaging Partners, notes that her organization has recently reduced the amount of red tape expected of their sales team. “We really want them to have time to just focus on sales,” she says. “There are only so many hours available in a day, and administrative tasks can actually give sales reps an excuse to not prospect as much as they should.” This change necessitated the creation of a new admin role, but it’s allowing sellers to sell, which is proving popular with both reps and, crucially, clients.

At Sales Talent Agency, Meloff is also a champion of simplifying the work of her sales team. She encourages her reps to focus on things they can control—like the number of phone calls they make, or emails they send—rather than outcomes. “If you’re placing targets on the right activities, the results will follow,” she says. Patience, she adds, is key: “It can take a couple of years before salespeople hit their stride with targets. It’s up to the company to ensure the right activity is happening, that there’s progress in terms of learning, making more targeted outreaches, understanding clients and asking better questions.” If this measured approach seems like a slog, consider that it has helped Sales Talent Agency more than double its revenue in the past five years. That kind of growth doesn’t happen when salespeople are disengaged—and it sure doesn’t happen by fluke.

What has changed in sales in the past 10 years

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BY SONYA MELOFF | September 14, 2017

This month, our company Sales Talent Agency will be celebrating a very exciting 10 year milestone as a business and,  in honour of the occasion, I spouted my mouth off in a meeting (as I'm so apt to do) that it would be fun to put out a content piece reflecting  what has changed in the world of sales over the past 10 years.  Working with hundreds of companies every year to help them hire their best salespeople, we've had front row access to seeing what has changed in the profession and discipline of sales and, though some changes seem remarkable, it feels like things are at a pivot point and only now starting to change at warp speed.  We can only imagine where the next 10 years will lead us.

Here’s a breakdown of 7 fun changes we’ve seen in the past decade of sales, as seen through the eyes of Sales Talent Agency!

Sense of Community!

Grassroots organizations supporting sales people are popping up everywhere, creating a community for sales people to connect with each other to share and learn best practices.  Networks like the Enterprise Sales Forum (now in 80+ cities),  SalesTO based in Toronto, and conferences like SalesMachine are doing a brilliant job of elevating the profession and creating an eco-system where sales professionals can come together to network, learn and share best practices with each other.  

Prestige and the Rise of the CSO

It was around 2009 that we started hearing the title Chief Sales Officer popping up more and more.  As sales organizations grow, so do the opportunities and layers of management needed to support these teams.  Sales went from being the accidental profession, to recognized as one of the highest paid job and most valuable roles with an organization, and now the fastest path to CEO. 

One of my favourite stories of an original door-to-door salesman is the story of Bill Porter, a top-performing sales rep who worked for Watkins Incorporated selling soaps and mops door-to-door for over 40 years. He suffered from cerebral palsy and the movie Door to Door featuring William H. Macy does a brilliant job of showing that with hard work, discipline, positive nature, and some good smarts, anyone can be successful in sales. Today, thanks to greater education around sales as a profession, people are graduating university and college and choosing to go in to sales.

Some of the notable CEO's that made their rise through sales include: Marc Benioff from Salesforce, Mark Cuban of Shark Tank and Larry Ellison from Oracle.

Technology has invaded

Back in the day, sales people could get away with keeping their leads in excel, but when customer relationship management (CRM)  software came on the scene, thanks mostly to category creator Salesforce.com, it helped to provide a systematic approach to pipeline management and provided salespeople a proper tool to ensure their activities were being done.  This helped hold sales people accountable and provided sales managers with insight they so desperately needed to do their job effectively as well.

Today, the SalesStack as it’s come to be known, includes tools well beyond CRM– everything from datascraping tools, to tools that can unleash the contact details of any prospect a salesperson is trying to reach, to auto-dialers and software that records the tone of sales calls providing predictive data on how the calls went, to sales automation platforms that literally set every next step for a sales person in the sales process.  Finding leads has gone from scraping newsletters and press releases to specially curated lists via tools such as Sales Navigator from LinkedIn to Pitchbook.  SocialSelling is a term that has entered the vernacular as sales people look to leverage social media tools to also drive leads and foster connections.

The Rise of Inside Sales

Ten years ago, 75% of the sales jobs that companies were hiring for were outside sales roles, meaning that the sales reps were on the road, dressed in fine suits and expected to be meeting with clients and prospects for face-to-face meetings. They were equipped with car allowances, flight reward packages, and much time was spent shmoozing at lunch or on the golf course.  

Today, one could well write a book called The Vanishing Outside Sales Rep, as more companies invest in building inside sales teams that are equipped with top of the line video-conferencing and communications tools. At the most recent annual conference of the American Association of Inside Sales, the worldwide sales leader of Microsoft gave a keynote that laid out their plan for building a myriad of inside sales teams around the globe, effectively eliminating their channel business. Today, it would be safe to say that 75% of all sales are done from an inside sales perspective, with sales people rarely having to leave the office.

Cold Calling Didn't Die

Around 2010, marketing automation started to dance a little closer with sales, and it was around this time that chatter started popping up everywhere that cold-calling was dead. The thought of never having to make a cold call is still music to many people’s ears, but the reality is that just isn’t the case.  We always found it most ironic when the marketing automation companies themselves would call us to help them hire cold-calling sales reps, and eventually things settled down and everyone acknowledgement that cold-calling was an every day essential.  Today, the expectation is for it to be strategic and precise, and sales reps have no excuse not to be well informed on the prospects they are calling. Can I Google that for you?

Books we are reading

If you've ever been to a sales conference, you know that sales people love their books!  I can’t think of another profession that has so many books on how to be good at your job and as business evolves, so do salespeople. In 2007, everyone was reading Good to Great, which was quickly followed and eclipsed by The Challenger Sale which remains an extremely popular book and methodology used by sales leaders today.

The Next Generation

Possibly one of the most exciting changes that we’ve seen in the sales profession over the last 10 years is the excitement and enthusiasm for sales among new graduates, and the opportunities that are being created and fostered for entry-level sales jobs everywhere.  We are seeing more interest by Academia towards the sales profession and courses are popping up across Universities and Colleges that focus on educating students about sales as a career.

As founders of The Great Canadian Sales Competition, we’d like to think that we played a small part in sparking the conversation around how awesome new graduates can be in sales!

For the love of Sales!

10 Years of STA: The Sales Revolution

Sales Talent Agency opened its doors in 2007. Back then, sales was the accidental career. Today sales is one of the most sought-after jobs in every company. In the last 10 years almost everything has changed for a sales professional...

It has been an amazing decade for Canada's biggest sales recruitment company. More than 8,000 recruitment projects and 4,000 sales hires. Thanks to the smart sales leaders and rockstar sales people who helped us get here.

Globe and Mail feature: Educational institutions should help prepare students for careers in sales

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By Sonya Meloff | June 2, 2017

Canadian university and college students want to be entrepreneurs, marketers, teachers ... the list goes on.

One thing is becoming clearer than ever: If we want the youth unemployment rate in this country to decrease – it’s double the national unemployment rate of 6.2 per cent at 12.4 – we need to realistically prepare students for the job market by opening their eyes to a career that they may never have previously considered.

Throughout my 10 years as a sales recruiter, CEOs and business leaders have expressed how eager they are to hire talented, passionate college or university graduates to sales roles. This desire lines up directly with a study from the Conference Board of Canada, which consistently lists sales as one of the top-five highest-in-demand specializations.

So why are we not preparing Canadian students for the jobs that are out there?

Positions in sales at flourishing companies, particularly at up-and-coming technology companies, are not getting filled for two main reasons:

  • Not many students dream of being in sales when they grow up, because of misconceptions about the industry (used-car sales, commission-only, door-to-door, etc.).
  • Select new grads applying to these roles are not qualified. There is a big gap between what students are learning in the classroom versus the needs of employers.

Sales people are capable of climbing the corporate ladder. My business partner Jamie Scarborough and I have found that about 20 per cent of the CEOs we encounter have come from sales positions.

All of these discoveries inspired us to take on a big project in 2014: the Great Canadian Sales Competition (GCSC), an initiative aimed at shedding light on the opportunities in B2B sales with the help of faculty members at universities and colleges across the country. We wrapped up the third and largest year GCSC in March, as more than 2,100 students learned about a field that likely never crossed their mind. Of the contestants surveyed, only 11 per cent of them initially wanted to pursue a sales career. After participation in the GCSC, 98 per cent would considering it.

Over the past three years, our program has grown from just 215 submissions to 2,187. Educators are starting to realize that sales is a career that is not being highlighted to students; in turn, they are not being properly prepared for modern job opportunities.

Bruce Anthony is the program head of the Professional Sales program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), a postsecondary institution offering a Professional Sales Diploma. He says the program originally had 18 students enrolled in 1980, and today graduates an average of 50 students each year, with three companies hiring per one student enrolled. Moreover, they teach selling skills in other programs, including Engineering.

Since 2014, we have built awareness on campuses and spoken with college administrators across Canada. But these efforts would be much more successful if they were mirrored by program directors who can prioritize the creation of programs that focus on sales education.

Another advocate is Linda Traill, a professor and co-ordinator of the B2B Corporate Account Management Graduate Certificate at Centennial College in Toronto. She’s also the brains behind the Marketing: Corporate Account Management program advisory committee (PAC) at the School of Business. She’s aiming to raise the profile of the sales profession through a graduate certificate program and by exposing students to opportunities in the field.

Derek Spence, professor at the School of Business and Management at Niagara College (Ontario), is researching what employers are looking for in future employees and how schools can better prepare students for their future. He says that once students go through the program, about 60 to 70 per cent of graduates land sales roles. Their opinions about the career shift positively from when they first start because they understand the opportunities. Our goal is to ensure that students across the country are landing jobs right after graduation – jobs they are passionate about, in organizations they can excel in.

Every post-secondary institution, particularly with business courses, should implement some type of B2B sales course or project element to their programs to pull the curtain back on this often misunderstood field.


Read the original article here.