Build a high-performing sales team: your comprehensive guide
This comprehensive guide covers everything you need to build a stellar sales team, from defining roles and hiring top talent to setting goals, choosing the right tech stack, and keeping your team motivated and successful in the long run.
You may be a newly hired or appointed sales executive charged with building out a sales department to further company goals, or you may be a sales manager looking for quick guidance on what to hire for when expanding your existing team with a few new hires.
At the core of all this is building a high-performing sales team that will help you make a strong impression straight out of the gates.
No matter your background or experience in leading sales teams; it’s always good to have a guide to help you stay on top of the important elements of building high-performing sales teams.
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Let’s cut to the chase: building a sales team from scratch is no small feat. It’s a process that requires careful planning, strategic thinking, and a deep understanding of why you’re tasked with building that team and what its role is. The role of a sales team is multifaceted, encompassing everything from lead generation and customer acquisition through to account management and customer retention.
When you’re building sales teams, it’s important to consider the unique needs and goals of your organization. What are your company OKRs and how might you and your team contribute to that? It’s no secret: sales is key to business success. So, when building your sales team, you want to build a clear strategy, establish the team KPIs, and make the right hiring choices.
So, let’s get started.
How to build a high-performing sales team
How do you build a high-performing sales team that delivers results? Let’s go through the steps one by one.
a. Define the team structure and role(s)
The first step is to clearly define the sales team structure and each of the team member roles within your organization. This involves outlining the sales team responsibilities and expectations, from identifying and qualifying leads to closing deals and managing customer relationships.
Examples of sales team structures can be seen in this article from Hubspot, which outlines teams across four distinct categories: geography/territory, product/service line, customer/account size, or industry/vertical segment.
b. Hire the right people
Once you have a clear understanding of what a sales team is and what a sales team does, you can start to recruit and hire the right people. Look for individuals who are not only talented and experienced but also motivated and team-oriented. Remember, a successful sales team is more than just a collection of high-performing individuals. It’s a cohesive unit that works together to achieve common goals.
Building a sales organization also involves providing your sales team members with the tools and resources they need to succeed. This could include everything from sales training and professional development opportunities to CRM software and other sales enablement tools.
As you build your sales team, keep in mind that this is an ongoing process. The sales landscape is constantly evolving, and your sales team needs to be able to adapt and evolve along with it. This means continually reassessing and refining your sales strategies, processes, and team structure to ensure they remain effective and aligned with your business goals.
Let’s delve deeper into the process of building a sales team, providing practical advice and insights to help you create a sales team that’s not only effective but also resilient and adaptable. Whether you’re just starting to build a sales team or looking to strengthen and expand your existing sales team, this is for you.
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First things first: when building your sales team, you need to have realistic expectations on the challenges and opportunities facing you – in other words, establishing benchmarks for your sales team building plan. And we don’t mean sales metrics. We’re talking about hiring benchmarks here.
These benchmarks include typical timelines of the sales recruitment process (otherwise known as Time to Fill), the competition you might be facing in your area and industry when it comes to attracting talent to your open sales roles (otherwise known as Total Job Openings), and the number of candidates you might expect on average for a given sales role (also known as Candidates Per Hire).
Let’s look at them one by one:
a. Time to Fill
Workable defines Time to Fill (TTF) as the time elapsed between the point when a job is posted and the point where a job is filled. It’s always helpful to know what that looks like for sales so you know what’s “normal” and what’s not in terms of your own Time to Fill when hiring for the sales function.
The following graph provides an insight into the TTF trends (calculated by looking at a month’s data using the 2019 average as a baseline). In this case, we’re presenting the entire timeline from January 2020 to June 2023 so you can see how trendlines have risen and fallen over the years.
b. Job Openings
Job openings are presented differently – we display here the average sales job postings per company per month going back to the start of 2022, and also segmenting that data into three size buckets of less than 50 full-time employees, 51-200 FTEs, and more than 200 FTEs. We’ve also included “all companies” as a separate trendline so you can compare and contrast.
c. Candidates Per Hire
Candidates Per Hire is, succinctly, the number of candidates who apply for a job that you’ve posted. Like Time to Fill, we measure these data against the average of 2019 as a baseline. Here’s the data, again contained within the sales function:
2. Sales compensation
Compensation is a critical component in the sales world, acting as both a motivator and a reward for hard work. Our recent surveys find that it remains a top priority for most jobseekers – and that’s no different in sales.
So, how much do you pay your salespeople? That depends on a number of factors – and you should research this and get a good understanding of regional standards around compensation.
When doing so, consider the following variables:
The industry in which the sales job is located can play a significant role in determining the salary. Certain industries, such as technology or finance, tend to offer higher salaries to their salespeople due to the complexity and high value of the products or services being sold.
b. Company size
The size of the company can also be a determining factor. Larger companies typically have more resources and higher revenue, which can translate into higher salaries for their sales team.
The amount of experience a salesperson has can also impact their salary. Those with more experience and a proven track record of success in sales are often able to negotiate higher salaries.
A salesperson’s performance is typically tied to their salary in the form of commissions, bonuses, or other incentives. High-performing salespeople may be able to earn significantly more than their peers who struggle to meet their sales targets. More on this below.
We mentioned this above – the location of the sales job plays a huge role in determining salary. Sales jobs in major metropolitan areas or regions with a high cost of living may offer higher salaries to compensate for the increased living expenses.
A higher level of education, such as a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a relevant field, may also lead to higher salaries for sales jobs.
g. Type of Sales
Different types of sales jobs have different earning potentials. For example, B2B (business-to-business) sales jobs may offer higher salaries than B2C (business-to-consumer) sales jobs, while commission-based sales roles may offer the potential for higher earnings but may also come with more risk.
Let’s look at two salary examples: Account Executive and Inside Sales Representative. According to Workable data, the median salary range for an Account Executive in the United States is $60,000 to $75,000. For an Inside Sales Representative, it’s $60,000 to $90,000.
However, in California, the salary range for Account Executives increases to $70,000 to $94,000 and, for Inside Sales Representatives, it’s $60,000 to $80,000. As stated above, do your just homework to best understand what salary range is a good fit in the role you’re hiring for.
3. Sales compensation structure
You not only want to think about how much you pay your sales team members, but also how that pay is structured.
So, here’s a breakdown of the various compensation structures for salespeople:
a. Base Salary
This is a fixed amount paid to salespeople, regardless of their performance. It provides financial stability and is often used in industries where long sales cycles are the norm.
b. Commission Only
Salespeople are paid solely based on the sales they make. This model can be highly motivating, as the potential earnings are uncapped. However, it might not provide stability, especially during lean periods.
c. Base Plus Commission
A combination of a fixed salary and a commission on sales. This balances the stability of a regular paycheck with the motivation of earning more through sales.
d. Base Plus Bonus
Salespeople receive a fixed salary and a bonus for reaching or exceeding specific targets. The bonus acts as an incentive to achieve higher sales goals.
e. Commission Plus Bonus
Here, salespeople earn commissions on their sales and bonuses for hitting specific milestones or targets.
f. Tiered Commission
Salespeople earn different commission rates based on tiers of sales achieved. For instance, they might earn a 5% commission on the first $100,000 in sales and 7% on everything above that.
g. Residual or Renewal Commissions
Particularly common in industries with subscription models, salespeople continue to earn a commission for as long as the customer remains with the company.
h. Draw Against Commission
Salespeople receive an advance payment, which they then “pay back” through earned commissions. If their commissions don’t cover the draw amount, they might owe the company.
i. Team Commissions
The entire sales team is compensated based on collective sales targets. This promotes teamwork but can sometimes lead to friction if team members perceive unequal effort.
j. Profit Margin-Based Commission
Salespeople’s commissions are determined by the profit margins of their sales, encouraging them to sell more profitable items or services.
k. Straight-Line Commission
Salespeople earn a commission based on every sale, with no thresholds or tiers.
l. Variable Commission
The commission rate changes based on different factors, such as the type of product sold or the season.
Each compensation model has its benefits and drawbacks, and the best choice often depends on the specific industry, company goals, and the nature of the sales cycle. It’s crucial for companies to choose a structure that aligns with their objectives and adequately motivates and rewards their sales team.
4. Sale skill sets
Sales can be complex. One type of salesperson in a specific industry selling a specific kind of product is not the same type of salesperson in another industry selling another kind of product. There are also hard skills – actual knowledge of a product, the ability to use Salesforce, etc. – and soft skills that focus more around intangibles such as connectivity to others.
But there are some fundamental elements in a salesperson’s skill set.
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The ability to connect with people on a personal level is a cornerstone of successful sales. Salespeople should exude warmth, friendliness, and approachability, making potential customers feel comfortable and valued but without coming off as overly persuasive or “salesy”.
Empathy is also crucial, as it allows salespeople to understand and respond to the emotions and perspectives of their customers. Moreover, interpersonal skills help in building long-lasting relationships that can lead to repeat business and positive word-of-mouth for the company.
c. Product knowledge
A salesperson’s expertise in their product or service is a key determinant of their credibility and effectiveness. They should have a deep understanding of the features, benefits, and potential applications of their product.
This knowledge enables them to answer technical queries, provide tailored recommendations, and demonstrate how their product can solve the customer’s problem or meet their needs – a fundamental ingredient in successful sales.
d. Time management and organization
The world of sales is fast-paced and often involves juggling multiple tasks and clients. Salespeople must be proficient in prioritizing tasks, managing their schedules, and maintaining organized records of their sales activities.
This ensures they can follow up on leads, meet deadlines, and keep track of their progress towards sales targets.
e. Resilience and persistence
The sales landscape is fraught with challenges and competition. Salespeople must have the mental fortitude to handle frequent rejections and high-pressure situations, learn from failures, and stay motivated despite setbacks. Building a resilient team that can handle these challenges without becoming discouraged is crucial.
This can involve providing support and training in areas such as stress management and resilience, and fostering a positive and supportive team culture.
f. Analytical and problem-solving skills
Sales is not just about selling; it’s about solving problems. Salespeople must be able to analyze customer needs, identify their pain points, and devise solutions that address these issues.
This requires a blend of analytical thinking, creativity, and practical problem-solving skills.
Successful salespeople are self-starters who take the initiative to seek out new leads, learn about new products, and set challenging goals for themselves. They don’t wait for opportunities to come to them; they go out and create them.
i. Digital literacy
In today’s digital age, salespeople need to be comfortable using a range of technologies, from CRM systems to social media platforms. They should be able to leverage these tools to track sales activities, engage with customers, and research market trends.
j. Cultural sensitivity
With the global nature of business today, salespeople often interact with customers from diverse cultural backgrounds. Understanding and respecting these cultural differences can help build stronger, more trusting relationships with customers.
k. Cultural fit
While skills and experience are important, it’s also crucial to consider cultural fit when building your sales team.
This involves hiring people who share your company’s values and vision, and who will contribute to a positive and productive team culture.
A successful sales team needs to be focused on the customer. This involves understanding the customer’s needs and preferences, and striving to provide the best possible service. This is a key part of the sales skills bucket. A customer-centric approach can lead to higher customer satisfaction and loyalty, and ultimately to increased sales.
If you don’t have KPIs, you don’t have quotas, and you don’t have goals. You absolutely need to identify clear KPIs for your sales team to pursue if you want them to succeed. When you have a KPI or KPIs for your team and team members, they know what they need to attain in order to be successful, and they know what they’re being measured against.
The good news is that there are numerous different sales KPIs that you can focus on. These include but are not limited to:
The cornerstone of all KPIs, revenue is the ultimate measure of a sales team’s performance. It quantifies the total income generated by the team through sales activities.
It’s crucial to track revenue trends over time to understand the growth trajectory and the effectiveness of sales strategies.
b. Sales quota attainment
This KPI gauges the effectiveness of a sales team by comparing the actual sales with the predetermined sales targets or quotas.
It provides insight into how well the team is performing against expectations and helps identify any gaps that need to be addressed.
c. Average deal size
This KPI provides an average value of the deals closed by the sales team. It’s a useful metric for understanding the profitability of sales and can help in strategic decision-making, such as targeting larger deals or focusing on volume sales.
d. Win rate
The win rate is a measure of the sales team’s success in closing deals. It’s calculated by dividing the number of won deals by the total number of deals pursued.
A high win rate indicates a successful sales strategy and effective sales skills.
e. Lead-to-customer conversion rate
This KPI tracks the efficiency of the sales process by measuring the percentage of leads that become paying customers.
It provides insights into the effectiveness of the team’s lead nurturing and conversion strategies.
f. Sales cycle length
This KPI measures the average duration from the initial contact with a lead to closing the sale. A shorter sales cycle can indicate a more efficient sales process, while a longer cycle may suggest potential bottlenecks that need to be addressed.
g. Sales activities
This KPI tracks the number of sales-related activities, such as calls, meetings, and emails, completed by the sales team.
It provides a measure of the team’s engagement and productivity and can help identify areas for improvement in the sales process.
h. Sales by product, region, or segment
This KPI helps identify trends and patterns in sales performance across different products, regions, or customer segments.
It can guide strategic decisions, such as where to invest resources or which markets to target.
i. Customer acquisition cost
This KPI measures the average cost of acquiring a new customer, including marketing expenses, sales team salaries, and other related costs.
A lower CAC indicates a more cost-effective sales process.
j. Customer lifetime value
This KPI estimates the total revenue a business can reasonably expect from a single customer account. It helps businesses understand how much they should be willing to spend to acquire and retain customers.
k. Sales per rep
This KPI measures the average revenue generated by each sales representative. It can help identify high-performing reps and provide insights into the effectiveness of sales training and development programs.
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Of course, every team-building strategy has niche elements to them. When building your sales team, you’re likely thinking about unique high-level priorities that are specific to your organizational and team goals.
These can include the following:
Specializing allows sales teams to become experts in their chosen field, understanding the nuances and intricacies of the industry.
This deep knowledge can help in identifying potential clients’ needs and providing tailored solutions, leading to higher customer satisfaction and loyalty.
Personalization goes beyond just knowing the customer’s name. It involves understanding their business, their challenges, and their goals.
By offering personalized solutions, sales teams can show customers that they are valued and understood, which can lead to stronger relationships and increased sales.
c. Digital marketing
This one’s plainly obvious, but better to have more information than less so that it’s on the sales radar. As more businesses move online, digital marketing becomes increasingly important. Sales teams can use digital channels to reach a wider audience, engage with customers, and track the effectiveness of their strategies.
Digital marketing can include everything from email campaigns to SEO, content marketing, and social media advertising. This is more in marketing’s realm, but sales teams will do well to align closely with the marketing department in this area.
d. Cross-selling and upselling
Like digital marketing, this isn’t a de facto property of sales – but rather, customer support or account management. Still, by understanding the full range of their company’s offerings, sales teams can work closely with those teams to identify opportunities to offer additional value to customers.
This could be in the form of related products or services (cross-selling), or more premium versions of the products or services the customer is already using (upselling). This strategy can increase revenue and deepen customer relationships – ultimately boosting retention.
e. Social selling
Social selling involves using social media platforms to find and engage with potential customers. This can involve sharing valuable content, participating in discussions, and building a strong online presence.
Social selling can help sales teams to reach a wider audience, build their personal brand, and establish themselves as thought leaders in their industry.
Sales teams can benefit greatly from a collaborative approach, where members work together to share insights, strategies, and resources. This can lead to more innovative solutions and a more cohesive team dynamic.
Collaboration can also extend beyond the sales team, with members working closely with other departments such as marketing, customer service, and product development to ensure a unified approach to customer engagement.
g. Data-driven decision making
In the era of big data, sales teams can leverage data analytics to inform their strategies and decisions. This can involve analyzing customer behavior, market trends, and sales performance data to identify opportunities and challenges.
A data-driven approach can lead to more targeted and effective sales strategies, and can help sales teams to continuously improve and adapt.
h. Customer retention
While attracting new customers is important, retaining existing customers can often be more cost-effective and valuable in the long run.
Sales teams can adopt strategies focused on customer retention, such as providing exceptional customer service, understanding and meeting customer needs, and building strong, long-term relationships with customers. This can lead to increased customer loyalty and repeat business.
7. Additional priorities in team building
There are other goals you may be thinking about when building your sales team based on your goals. While these aren’t necessarily focused on the actual day-to-day work, they are important ingredients when building your sales team. These can include:
a. Diversity and Inclusion
Building a diverse and inclusive sales team can bring a range of perspectives and experiences to your business, which can lead to more innovative solutions and better understanding of a diverse customer base.
This can involve hiring people of different genders, races, ages, and backgrounds, and fostering an inclusive culture where everyone feels valued and respected.
Investing in ongoing training and development can help your sales team to continuously improve and adapt to changing market conditions.
This can involve providing training in areas such as product knowledge, sales techniques, and customer service, as well as offering opportunities for professional development and career progression.
d. Team structure
The structure of your sales team can have a significant impact on its effectiveness. This can involve decisions about the size of the team, the roles and responsibilities of different team members, and the way the team is organized.
For example, you might choose to have separate teams for different stages of the sales process, or for different market segments. Or you might have full-cycle sales processes, where prospects stay with the same sales representative through the entire experience with a company.
Good communication is crucial for a successful sales team. This involves ensuring that all team members are kept informed about company news, product updates, and sales targets, and that they feel comfortable sharing their ideas and concerns.
Regular team meetings, one-on-one check-ins, and effective use of communication tools can all contribute to good communication within the team.
8. Additional resources
Additional reading is always helpful. Check out these resources for a deeper dive in different areas of sales team building.
This one shares tips on how to source and attract the right talent to your sales teams, including utilizing personal networks, encouraging employee referrals, employing efficient evaluation tools, and providing competitive compensation.
Packed with actionable tips, this in-depth guide gives you everything you need to know about hiring salespeople, including sourcing top talent via referrals, niche job boards, and social media. It stresses the importance of clear job descriptions, transparency, and evaluating candidates’ qualities and interest in the job.
Just as important in sales team-building success is who not to hire. This article identifies four types of candidates to be cautious of during the recruitment process. It offers insights into potential red flags and pitfalls to avoid, ensuring you hire the most effective salespeople for your team.
Want to know how it’s done behind the scenes at Workable? We’re happy to share our own story about how our sales leaders doubled its sales team within a month by implementing a strategic hiring process. The importance of planning, team alignment, and quality control in rapid scaling are all emphasized here.
High turnover rates in the sales industry can be mitigated by investing in career development. Workable’s one-time sales and business development manager, Paul Mathieson, and former account executive Olivia Spector discuss the importance of career progression for a happy and productive sales team based on their own unique career trajectories.
Three members of Workable’s Athens-based sales team share insights into their roles and experiences. That team, consisting of Sales Development Representatives (SDRs) and managers, emphasizes the importance of understanding the needs of potential clients and offering tailored solutions. Despite diverse backgrounds, the team members highlight the value of continuous learning, adaptability, and a positive work environment.
And finally – a video!
This panel discusses how the sales market in Boston has evolved and how finding and nurturing talent can be challenging. They suggest building a network and having constant communication with recruiters to overcome these challenges.
Does this all seem like a lot? Sometimes it makes sense to hire a sales recruiter who can specialize in bringing the very best salespeople to your organization. This sales recruiter job description can get you started.
9. Tools to help you get there
Building a high-performing sales team often goes beyond backfill to scaled growth within a short time as you look to capitalize on new markets, launch a new product, or put a new strategy into action.
This means your hiring team will often be hiring for multiple sales roles at one time – especially in the entry-level SDR/BDR positions. This will require you to establish a scalable recruitment process free of breakdowns.
There are a number of ways you can establish a more scalable hiring process in sales. These include:
a. Video Interviews
Asynchronous or one-way video interviews will come in incredibly handy when hiring in sales. It gives you an opportunity to screen numerous candidates in one sitting.
Also, because sales are by nature very public-facing, you will want to be able to assess a candidate’s ability to speak comfortably and at length on an assigned topic – video interviews also gives you that opportunity to evaluate a candidate in this way.
When you’re hiring 12 SDRs in a short time, that will likely involve the processing of hundreds of candidates at any given time. Automating parts of the hiring process – including emails that trigger when a candidate has applied for a role or is moved to the next stage, for example. These can come in incredibly handy when “employer ghosting” is one of the major grievances that candidates have about the recruitment process.
When you have a lean hiring team – often consisting of a single recruiter and one or two hiring managers – it’s easier to manage the load of candidates through the system without breakdown when you have automated actions as a feature in your ATS.
c. AI Recruiter
Sometimes, you’re looking to hire a salesperson in a very niche industry or you’re in an area that doesn’t have the talent availability that other areas have. This means you might need to do the legwork to find the right candidates for your roles – whether that’s finding and contacting passive candidates or just finding the candidates who aren’t finding you.
A core tenet of marketing is awareness. If a sales candidate isn’t aware that you’re hiring, they won’t apply for your job – in other words, you don’t exist in their world. Employer brand awareness is already nailed down for the Googles and Microsofts of this world, but it’s a little more challenging if you’re one of the thousands of startups in San Francisco or a relatively new company building its very first sales team.
Workable’s numerous tools help you get your jobs in front of the right candidates – including a careers page builder, one-click posting to more than 200 job sites, and even custom social posts designed to appear in a specific candidate’s social feed.
e. Interview self-scheduling
One of the most annoying elements of the recruitment process is the back-and-forth communications between sales candidates, recruiters, hiring managers, and executives when scheduling times for interviews.
Workable’s self-scheduling interview feature – much loved by recruiters for its time-saving benefits – will circumvent that challenge and free up plenty of bandwidth for your sales hiring teams to focus on the important parts of hiring. For example, the actual interviewing.