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When we tallied the results from the most recent CSO Insights “Sales Talent Study,” we found that only 16% of sales executives believe they have the sales talent they need to be successful. The more dire news? B2B buyers agree. In our “Buyers Preferences Study,” only 23% of buyers said they consider sellers as resources to solve business problems.

Unfortunately, many sales leaders have grown used to the idea that talent is a problem, and they’ve gotten out of the habit of trying to fix it. For example, despite the concerns with talent, less than a quarter (22.6%) of respondents to our study were attempting to make changes to their hiring profiles.

Furthermore, once a new salesperson is hired, it takes an average of 9.2 months to bring them up to full productivity. Many sales teams are also fighting the headwinds of attrition — 15.8% on average in our latest study, two-thirds of that voluntary.

With forces like these working against them, it’s no wonder so many sales leaders lack confidence in their sales force.

Taking Ownership of the Talent Issue

As with any challenge, resolution begins with a strategy. And while sales executives are sure to have a go-to-market strategy, a pricing strategy, a compensation strategy, and more, they rarely have a sales talent strategy. Instead, they rely on out-of-date, disconnected practices led by other departments.

So what’s the difference between a set of talent practices and a true talent strategy? Based on our research, we’ve identified eight must-have elements of a successful sales talent strategy.

#1. A data-driven approach to identifying the best.

HR and recruiters often rely on traditional criteria such as education and industry experience to define the ideal salesperson. Sales leaders usually have a different point of view. They point to intangibles such as grit or persistence. The truth is that both are often wrong. Only 16.3% of the sales leaders in our study said they accurately assessed why their top performers were successful. Those who do are able to create a data-based hiring profile and avoid hiring candidates that “look good on paper,” but quickly fail in the field.

#2. A comprehensive sourcing strategy that works outside of normal talent pools.

On average, leaders told us that it takes four months to fill an open sales position. Additionally, competition for talent in most markets is fierce and requires a heavy recruiting investment. Crystallizing the attributes of your best may help you look for talent in less competitive pools. It may well turn out that hiring people directly from your industry may not be the best way to find the talent you need.

In addition, to cut the time it takes to hire the candidates you desire, remember that you first have to sell the seller. Just as with any other sales process, content and messaging are required, and they must be aligned to the candidates’ decision-making process. Make sure that these messages are supported by clear, compelling, and up-to-date job descriptions and competency models. These documents codify the shared vision you’ve developed and the common understanding of the kind of sales force you’re looking to build.

#3. Selection processes driven by data.

Formalizing the process of evaluating candidates with predictive assessments can give you an even clearer, unbiased picture of who will be successful. In our talent study, organizations that consistently used such hiring tools were 30% more likely to say they had confidence in their talent and had 10.9% more of their sales force meeting or exceeding their goals. These assessments can be used to cull a wide pool of applicants, or they can be used later in the process to narrow the options down to a short list or to validate a final decision.

#4. A systematic onboarding phase.

In a complex B2B sales environment, salespeople have a lot to learn. In our study, organizations that reported having a strong onboarding program brought new hires up to full productivity almost two months faster on average than those with less robust programs. A dedicated sales enablement discipline, which embeds onboarding services as part of a larger context, can go a long way toward making this often painful process faster and easier. For more information on sales enablement, a recap of our 2018 research findings can be found in this post.

#5. Formal coaching.

Coaching has been a challenge for decades. Unfortunately, 60% of organizations still rely on informal coaching or leave it up to managers to devise their own methods and plan for coaching their salespeople. Those organizations with a more sophisticated approach (processes, tools, skills, alignment to enablement) have a 10.8% higher quota attainment than those with a more informal approach. With an integrated talent strategy, organizations use the data from the hiring process along with other leading indicators, such as funnel data, to help answer key questions: What are the critical few items to coach? And how often and when should coaching conversations take place?

#6. Ongoing, sales-specific development.

Too often, formal development ends with onboarding. Unfortunately, only 18.6% of sales organizations in our study were highly confident in their onboarding, making this a poor ending point for sales talent development.  Furthermore, no matter how robust your onboarding process is, it can’t possibly keep up with the rapid changes in customers, products, and markets reported by more than 75% of respondents to our study. Those who offered strong, ongoing enablement services had significantly lower voluntary turnover (7.1%) than those who viewed this as a weakness (11.5%).

#7. Sales-conscious succession planning.

With a span of control of one manager to every eight salespeople in larger organizations, most salespeople don’t have much opportunity to become sales managers. That’s usually okay since most sellers don’t want to be sales managers. (Let’s face it. A promotion to sales management usually means more hours and less pay.) But while they may not want to be promoted into sales leadership, they do want to be engaged. Data can help you decide how best to inspire individual salespeople by answering questions like: Will this person be a good mentor to new hires? Would they want to be involved in piloting new products? Would they make a good sounding board for marketing? You can also predict the managerial success of those who sincerely aspire to management based on their assessment results and coaching interactions and then steer their development efforts accordingly.

#8. Use a process to offboard sellers too.

Only 32.8% of the organizations in our study said their management team “used a formal and fair process to identify and terminate poor performers.” Your sales talent strategy should define not only how you will measure a salesperson’s performance but also how you will address underperformance. This improves the work environment for your sales team, makes management’s job easier (they don’t have to make it up as they go), and helps avoid scenarios that can lead to legal action.  

But not all offboarding is performance related. Even with an effective talent strategy, there will still be voluntary attrition. It is the nature of sales. Be sure to take advantage of insights from those leaving the organization. Listening to your employees as they share their experiences can tell you a lot about your talent management strengths and weaknesses, and exit interviews offer a prime opportunity to gather feedback.


You will find that all of these necessary elements exist, to some degree, within your sales organization, though they haven’t been combined into a clear, concise strategy. They may be based on gut feel instead of data analysis. Or perhaps they don’t take into account the unique circumstances of sales. Filling in the gaps and driving an integrated strategy from a sales point of view will help you weave all the disparate parts together and is an important step toward gaining confidence in your sales talent and their future success.


With forces like these working against them, it’s no wonder so many sales leaders lack confidence in their sales force.”

Seleste Lunsford | Chief Research Officer, CSO Insights

Learn More

How to Craft the Perfect Sales Pitch By Annie Simms,
Account Executive, Salesforce
The Simple Client Meeting Rules Every Salesperson Should Follow By Laura Stack,
President and CEO, Productivity Keynote Speaker and Author, The Productivity Pro, Inc.



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