Top 12 ‘Environmental Selling Factors’ to Consider When Selecting Sales Talent

"There is no doubt in my mind that to create a world class sales team, you need to know how to identify talent outside of your own industry. Identifying common ESF’s is the first step in widening the talent pool available to you."

When hiring sales people, many sales managers seek out someone from within their particular industry, thus minimising risk, with the understanding that a person from within the industry is accustomed to selling in the ‘environment’ in which they operate. The pro’s and con’s of this selection strategy have been discussed in a previous post. Although there are some great examples of hiring decisions made in this manner, this strategy often leads to us making a decision from a VERY ‘short’ list of candidates that happen to be on the market within our industry.

Look at the last few hiring decisions you’ve made in your sales team. How many candidates did you have to choose from that you thought could actually do the job? Most sales managers who like to hire from within their industry exclusively, would say, “One; and I had a vacant territory for around five months, costing me big money whilst I searched for them. We missed budget because of it”.This is understandable and common; after all we are in the midst of an acute skills shortage that I believe has hit the sales profession more than most (a subject for another post). Often this person wasn’t the best of what the industry had to offer; they gained the job by default, they were the only one there! So how can we expect to create a ‘best of breed’ sales force to beat our competitors if we are often recycling the sales people they let go? The fact is this strategy severely limits the talent available to you when selecting the best sales person for the job. It’s my belief that this selection strategy is born out of a lack of education on recruitment strategy or hesitance through fear of getting it wrong. “Last time we hired from outside of the industry, they just didn’t get it.” If every time we made an error, we never tried again, we would still be in the Stone Age. It’s having the know-how that can change this. The challenge is that most sales managers come from a sales background - they have little to no education on recruitment strategy, so they go for the safety of hiring from within the industry.

In all likelihood, the best sales person for your business on the market right now is not currently working with one of your competitors; but how do you know if they can make the transition across to your industry? Well, without meeting them you won’t know - and in my experience, many great sales people are overlooked at resume screening stage due to a lack of industry experience (ever heard this one before?).

Does this mean you should meet every experienced sales person that applies for the position? Of course not, you’ve got better things to do with your time. So how do you ensure you don’t miss that diamond candidate in the resumes hitting your inbox?

Consider this; there are other industries that face similar challenges to your own throughout the sales process. Perhaps your sales people are challenged by the ‘type’ of decision maker the sell to (be it a CFO or HR Director etc.), or the fact they are required to be more of a ‘trusted advisor’ than a slick sales person (often the case in the professional services space). Or perhaps your solution is particularly technical and requires that rare mix between a technical mind and a strong communicator. These are not factors that are common across all industries, however there are some industries that do share these challenges. Once you isolate the key challenges faced in the sales process in your industry, you can then go about isolating industries that share common ground in these areas. Upon meeting sales people that have come from these alternate industries but share the ‘Environmental Selling Factors’ of your industry, you will be re-invigorated about sourcing talented sales people for your business. You’ll have a new found understanding that you actually have far more talent to choose from than what you thought.

Here are the top 12 Environmental Selling Factors you should consider when sizing up candidates:

1. Commodity Selling Versus Value Selling.
Senior level management will rarely get involved in buying commodity products. After all, the vendors are all offering solutions that are very comparable (by definition). These buying decisions are mostly made at procurement level. Someone that is accustomed to influencing at the ‘C’ level is unlikely to be effective when dealing with procurement and may not appreciate what drives decision making at this level. The same can certainly be said visa-versa. Often one is a price sell where the other is what many call a ‘solution’ sell, where problems are solved or efficiencies are improved, or previously unrecognised more effective ways of doing business are discovered (often the case with technology solutions). In these situations, clients are quite prepared to pay a premium, as a clear return on investment can be argued.

2. ‘Technical’ Solution Selling
This is where one of the most severe skills shortages exists in the sales profession. You’re selling contract pharmaceutical manufacturing to pharma marketing companies, or you sell raw chemicals to manufacturers. You really need a brainiac with a science degree with the communication and sales skills to boot. Often these skills are mutually exclusive by way of interest (scientists don’t like to sell and visa-versa); but when you find someone with the rare combination, you’re onto a winner. Many engineering based industries have this challenge. Perhaps they could be cross pollinating rather than limiting themselves to recycling their competitor’s staff?

3. Collaborative Versus Solo Selling
Collaborative sales environments are often found in the professional services space (among others). You need to gain the buy in of internal delivery staff who will in the end be your ‘product’. They will be delivering a bespoke solution that the sales person needs to design with the delivery team in the best interest of the client. The sales person takes the time to understand the client’s needs, communicate them back to the delivery team and together they develop the solution to pitch to the client. This involves selling both externally and internally and requires great stakeholder management, listening and influencing skills. For example, the IT systems integration / consulting industry share this commonality with the management consulting industry. Could these industries consider talent from one another, thus increasing the talent pool available to them?

4. Flexible Solution Versus Rigid Solution
Going into a sales call with a pre-conceived understanding of what you are going to sell to them based on the fact your product is one-dimensional, is an entirely different sales process to having any number of malleable solutions to offer a client dependant on their needs or business opportunities.

5. Trusted Advisor Selling (Creative Selling)
In many cases (particularly in the ‘flexible solution environment’ listed above) the sales person must position themselves as a ‘trusted advisor’ to the client; advising that a solution be built and delivered in a certain way, or advising the client on how they can go about achieving a better business outcome through doing things differently. This is a fine skill that is typically only mastered after many years in the sales profession. It requires a quiet confidence, composure, deliberate communication style and advanced commercial acumen.

6. Length of Sales Cycle
When selling strategically over a period of twelve months and five (plus) sales calls in order to bring in a piece of business, someone who is used to a shorter sales cycle may become impatient and lose motivation as they are used to ‘winning’ on a more regular basis. They may feel a need to ‘close’ often and throughout the sales process, which will bring a sales person undone in this environment. Strategic selling involves understanding your clients business at the deepest level and the ability to formulate bespoke solutions. A shorter sales cycle may simply require one or two meetings, some discovery questions, a presentation, a Q and A and a close; two very different skills-sets required. However, often sales people progress from one to the other over time.

7. Average Sale Value
Dealing with large scale decisions where significant capital outlay is required takes a certain skill-set and persona in order to be trusted by a client with such a commitment. This is less about industry and more about seniority of sales position. Selling a smaller solution may involve one decision maker where selling a larger scale solution may involve you needing to influence five key stakeholders and have them reach agreement with one another. This involves an intricate understanding of organisational structure, behavior and business drivers and may require someone with greater commercial acumen and business experience.

8. Average Unit Price
Selling pens (regardless of the volume) takes a different skill-set to selling industrial capital equipment.

9. Markets Sold To
The buying behavior of government departments can be vastly different to that of a top 500 company, albeit they may both be making large scale purchases. The motives in such buying decisions will often vary greatly, as will the process prospective vendors have to go through to be successful.

10. Level Of Decision Maker Sold To
A CFO is driven to make decisions on entirely different criteria to that of a Marketing Manager. Even personality types typically vary between job functions. Knowing how an HR Manager typically thinks; how and why they make decisions and so forth, can be a great asset to a sales person. You may sell Human Capital Management Software to HR leaders within large corporations. Perhaps a sales person from a leadership training company would be worth talking to. Both industries sell to HR decision makers and understand the typical buying drivers and behavior.

11. Product Versus Service
Selling a product that can be touched, felt and demonstrated in action, is vastly different to selling something than cannot be seen, but can only be described. The skill-sets involved with each sales process often vary greatly. Sales people can sometimes struggle to make the transition from one to the other.

12. New Business Versus Account Management
Perhaps this one goes without saying. I’ve seen many sales people fail in making the transition from one to the other. We must remember selling is not selling, even if someone comes from the same industry. In this case, the day-to-day tasks and often the personal ‘make-up’ and occupational interests of the individuals a vastly different from one another.

So ask yourself; which of the above environments exist in your industry. Sales people coming from alternative industries that have conquered these same selling environments may be quite capable of making a successful transition into your company. Therefore, you have brought an enthusiastic new entrant into the industry that is keen to learn and do things ‘the company way’ rather than saying “at ABC and Co (your competitor) we didn’t do it this way”. This new entrant is stimulated by your industry (it’s new to them) and has no pre-conceived notions of how things should be done. They are not underwhelmed about what your company does, having been in the industry for 20 years and a little ‘over it’. Furthermore, they bring new ideas; and although of course many of them may be misguided initially, as they develop, their slightly different way of looking at things is sure to add value to company processes and selling strategies.

The obvious benefit of being able to identify these ESF’s (Environmental Selling Factors) is increasing the number of sales people you have to choose from when hiring, thus improving the quality of sales talent in your organisation. You can then focus on getting the person with the best selling skills with an aim to attract someone that is in the top 10% of sales people in Australia, rather than choosing from the one or two people you have in front of you from your competition. If you did have people that only represented the top 10% of sales professionals, what could this do to your sales numbers over time?

The immediate challenge is learning how to identify the ESF’s in prospective CV’s and understanding the industries these candidates are likely to coming from. If you’re like most successful sales managers, you’ve only worked in two to three industries over your time, so how are you to know the common ESF’s that others industries may share with your own? This can take a lifetime of recruiting sales people or a strong recruitment partner that is able to be your ‘trusted advisor’ in your recruitment strategy development and deployment. It may help to work with a specialist sales recruiter with many years experience to guide you through it and suggest industries to consider sales people from that have already mastered the ESF’s that exist within your industry. If you’re short on such a contact, I can point you in the direction of a number of good consultants (cheap plug).

If you are a sales person looking to make a transition across industry, perhaps you can consider the above. Which industries share the ESF’s that you have mastered over your career? Perhaps these are the industries you should be pursuing.

Without the common ESF’s, can a successful transition be made?
Of course it can sometimes be made, with a healthy investment in professional development and plenty of time to be given to the prospective candidate to create success. Unfortunately, not many companies are able to or are prepared to make such an investment. However many acceptations are out there; companies that are more than prepared to make this investment in sales people early in their career. Often the salary is not substantial at first as the company is investing in your development and is prepared to wait longer for their return on investment. Unfortunately for those advanced in their sales career, asking $100,000 plus salary without any common ESF experience is unlikely to come off (of course there are exceptions). This is due to the fact that this sort of salary normally demands a faster return on investment, larger result expectations, and lower risk (if you’ve not done it before, you are high risk, like it or not).

I hope this article has inspired you to lift the bar in considering what sales talent looks like and where it can be found. There is no doubt in my mind that to create a world class sales team, you need to know how to identify talent outside of your own industry. Identifying common ESF’s is the first step in widening the talent pool available to you. Of course once you have a selection of talented sales people to choose from, you'll need to learn how to employ situational and behavioral interview techniques to help determine which of the people you have in front of you has best performed in these common ‘Selling Environments’ (a subject for a future post).

Originally Published on the HG Sales Leadership Blog


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