This post is written by Amy Volas, a sales fanatic, recruiter and entrepreneur for 20 years, working both for and with household brands like ZipRecruiter, Indeed, Jacobson, Yahoo! and DataTrend. She is currently the Head of Avenue Talent Partners.
There’s no denying that the startup world can be excruciatingly challenging. In fact, current statistics find that across all industries, 50% of startups will have failed in four years or less.
Those numbers can be overwhelming, but it’s worth bearing in mind that quite often, these startup failures are the result of management blunders that are well-documented and easily avoided.
In other words, what separates the 50% who succeed and the 50% who fail is often nothing more than surrounding yourself with the right people, stepping up their leadership game, intuition and knowledge of industry trends to stay on top of the marketplace.
One area where startup leaders tend to struggle is in sales recruiting. Their intuition and experience is impressive, but not always encompassing what it takes to build a world-class sales team. You may recognize that an illustrious sales team is essential for getting your startup to the next level, but if you don’t understand the anatomy of an effective sales performer within your company along with which practices you should follow for hiring and retaining a qualified team, you’ll likely never see the results you need.
So how can you avoid sales recruiting disasters that can undermine your startup? Start by making sure that you’re not making any of these critical mistakes:
1. Lack Of Understanding
As a startup, you essentially have a three to five-year deadline for getting your company on track, if not less depending on your funding situation. Each week or month lost to unproductive or low-quality work brings you that much closer to being forced to call it quits.
Yet amazingly, an overwhelming number of startups will put no great effort into their sales recruiting. They might post a job listing on their website, put out an APB on LinkedIn, rely on their board’s network (that doesn’t necessarily translate to the task at hand), call an army of less-than-stellar recruiters who have no idea what you need or why you need it, or slap up a posting on a startup job board or two.
The thing is, you can’t expect top sales performer to find you this way. Effective sourcing and recruiting are active processes, and this means you’ll often need to initiate outreach, engage and follow up repeatedly. The sales industry reports 20% annual turnover, which means those that organically come your way are not necessarily your best hires. If you sit around and expect them to come to you, you might wait a long time, as your competitors who are performing outreach will snatch them up instead.
True story, as I was getting to know a potential client who was ready to revamp their lackluster sales team, the founder/CEO explained that part of their strategy was to incorporate at least 50% attrition into the plan. It was a ‘competitive race’ in his mind to get the most out of the team where the ‘cream’ would ‘rise to the top’ and they’d get rid of everyone else or people would just leave. He really thought it would cost his company more if he didn’t approach the hiring process this way. He knew he needed ‘hunters’, but had no way of defining success for the role. Candidate experience was like a four-letter word in his mind and sadly there was no swaying his opinion of what an effective sales hiring strategy could look like. Many of his thoughts were influenced by his advisors. There were so many critical wrong turns with a plan like this that I respectfully declined the engagement and ran for the hills.
2. Looking For Large Companies And Big Names
As valuable as an active recruiting strategy can be, many startups make the mistake of looking almost exclusively for “big-name” talent—the people who have a track record of amazing success within their particular niche or who manage sales for one of the biggest companies in your industry.
While these individuals can bring similar results to your startup, this isn’t always the case. For one thing, those successful sales performers who work at a big-name company have a lot more resources than your startup will be able to provide. Their “hustle” looks, acts and feels completely different than what your startup requires to make it rain.
The lack of a support staff to handle tasks like prospecting and sales research could very well undermine your superstar’s ability to deliver results. If you’re not careful, these costly hires can completely undermine your sales effort.
Here’s another relevant anecdote: I worked with an impressive startup that made three mis-hires for the same enterprise sales role in less than three years. They felt like hiring someone out of an extraordinary Fortune brand would bring a lot to the table while instilling credibility within their marketplace. Unfortunately, those people struggled to deliver results as their “playbook” for success was quite the opposite of what was needed for this startup. While they had success in their former lives outside of the startup world, their plan of attack just didn’t translate. They quickly churned out of the company while creating a lot of angst at the buyer table. It took this company two more hires and plenty of additional pain and suffering to realize they were living Einstein’s definition of insanity. It was high time to make some long overdue sales hiring changes. Thankfully, they pivoted before it was too late.
3. Not Doing Due Diligence
While you can’t afford to drag your feet in the sales recruiting process, you also can’t neglect the importance of doing your due diligence when evaluating candidates. Getting warm bodies into your sales organization isn’t enough—you absolutely must make sure they’re actually qualified for the work you need them to do.
Take the time to define what success means to this role and your startup. Learn how to read between the lines of candidate resumes, looking for anything that might strike you as odd in their job history. Learn to ask the right interview questions. Always follow up on references or shared connections who you can trust to give you honest feedback.
While it may take more time to fully research and vet your next sales hire, doing so will save you the headaches that come when you hire the wrong person for the job.
4. Ignoring Emotional Intelligence
Many hiring managers and recruiters focus almost exclusively on experience—a candidate’s track record in prior positions that illustrates how much they improved (or failed to improve) the bottom line.
But experience and self-reported accolades aren’t everything. A candidate’s emotional intelligence should absolutely be weighed during the recruiting process, as this has a direct impact on their success internally and in front of your buyers. In fact, studies have found that the top 10% of sales organizations are also those with the strongest “EQ competencies,” and they often more than double the results of their peers.
Pay attention to key emotional intelligence attributes such as being an active member of the team, passion, assertiveness, empathy, optimism, coachability, and the capacity to respond well to rejection. These emotional attributes are often a better indicator of a person’s potential for success than past experience will ever be.
5. Neglecting Training And Onboarding
Unfortunately, many startups simply don’t have the resources to provide all of the training and onboarding support that they would one day strive to have.
This requires careful thought about the most effective ways to create a plan of attack that works, with a solid foundation to build on. Those initial weeks and months can be overwhelming for a new hire, especially if nobody is around to guide them while answering doubts or questions. While you may not be able to provide a full training program, it’s essential that you make yourself and the team available to communicate your company values and respond to the concerns your new team members will undoubtedly have.
Roll out the red carpet on day one and immediately immerse them. It’s the little things that make the biggest impact. Have that engaging company-wide memo ready to go along with social postings to boot. Make sure their desk is setup and equipped with everything they need to get started along with all of your “swag” they can proudly show off. A kickoff team breakfast or lunch makes a world of difference. Create a schedule with various team members where the person can gain practical insight to help them hit the ground running. All of these actions don’t take a ton of time, and get your newest hire started on the right foot. Why on earth would you ever want to circumvent such an important element to ensuring success?
Good news, the exciting world of sales enablement has really only just begun. We live in a world with a multitude of technology options to make this process more efficient and effective. Platforms like Jiminny help to get the most out of the team through efficient collaboration and coaching.
Remember, employee experience directly affects retention. What you put into your sales organization is what you will get out of it.
6. Setting Unrealistic Expectations
Do your new salespeople truly understand what they’re getting into when they join your startup? Your startup undoubtedly has some incredible qualities, but when all is said and done, everyday isn’t going to be all rainbows and butterflies. It’s your job to help them understand why and what you’re doing about it.
Startups aren’t for the faint of heart and will absolutely be challenging. You may not be able to provide all the resources a larger company can, and if you fail to help your candidates understand your pitfalls, you could find yourself losing people mere weeks after hiring them—a costly problem.
This doesn't mean you have to paint a doom-and-gloom picture about your business. You can still keep things positive. If you have a great mentorship program or serious career growth opportunities, talk about them! But make sure that your candidates understand how much work is expected of them and the challenges they might face and what you’ll do to support them. Otherwise, you’ll have a hard time hanging on to the people you worked so hard to get in the first place.
7. Neglecting Culture
Company culture plays a central role in keeping your salespeople happy—and this involves much more than keeping the fridge stocked with snacks and sodas. Company culture is part of everything you do—the way leadership interacts with employees, the office work atmosphere, accountability, and even your company’s mission and values.
While it’s essential that you create a positive and uplifting culture for your employees, it’s also worth considering how a particular candidate would (or wouldn’t) fit with your culture. Someone who lacks a genuine enthusiasm for your task at hand may have a hard time adapting to evangelize the right message in the marketplace.
Remember, “companies with happy employees outperform the competition by 20%.” If a candidate won’t mesh well with your culture—or if you aren’t creating a culture where employees will truly feel like they’re part of something significant to be happy about, you should consider a change.
Wrapping It Up
As you take the appropriate steps to ensure that your sales recruiting and retention efforts are enabling your team for the best possible success, you’ll be able to avoid these dangerous pitfalls so many startups face—and be much more likely to stick around for the long haul to truly scale.
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