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Sales talent management, key for sales excellence

Talent management is the mid to long-term process to match the workforce competencies with business goals and requirements. Undeniable a more talented workforce drives a better performing organization and ensures better financial results. More and more, people are the differentiating factor in any company's performance. Just look at the high prices that (software) companies pay to acquire the employees and IP of smaller companies with little or no revenues. Some organizations have recognized this and have or are planning to put specific leaders and teams in place to improve the talent management process. There are reasons though to give sales talent management a special consideration.

Talent management issues

Talent management is not a single process but a number of sub processes with the combined objective to improve the overall business performance. Recruitment, compensation, goal setting, performance management, competency development and succession planning are some of the processes under this umbrella. 

While each sub process has its own issues in planning and execution, some challenges that hamper companies from successful execution are common to all:
  • They are complex. The ambition to create a solid process that serves the whole company including all governance and control elements results in overly complex procedures. This complexity not only demotivates the managers that have to execute them, it also limits the execution to only once or twice a year to keep them workable (e.g. performance appraisals, goal settings). 
  • Responsibilities and accountabilities are unclear. Typically, HR leads the talent management processes. The execution and success however, is in the hands of the managers and business leaders, who may not always recognize that talent management is in their best interest or that it is their job to execute. The lack of proper attention often results in half-hearted or poor execution.
  • They have limited resources or given insufficient attention. Over the years HR budgets and resources were cut, heavily outsourced and automated. Whilst in some areas this has given relieve, many HR departments are only staffed to cover the basics. Effective talent management requires different competencies than the basics and it requires proper attention of both HR and business managers.
  • There is a resistance to overhaul established systems. To improve the overall talent management, established processes and systems may need to be changed or stopped. For example, many companies have processes in place to identify and manage high-potentials. The way those processes are setup and executed may not fit, or even be counterproductive, for the overall talent management process.

Sales talent management: more challenging

The sales team (and a supporting marketing team) has the most influence on top-line results, yet few companies have specifically looked into the specific challenges of sales talent management:
  • The time and effort to develop competencies beyond the basic skills and knowledge. Given a choice, most sales leaders including their CEO's will prioritize short-term results above other activities and quarterly sales results frequently outrank the efforts of bringing employees and managers to a higher level. Competency development and coaching are incidental and done when time permits rather than following a structural approach.
  • Talent comes out of the same limited pool. (see a previous article) To minimize on-boarding time and in search for a short cut to success, new hires are often hired from within the same industry and selected on existing relationships and knowledge. Not only does this significantly limit the pool, it also lowers the chance on finding real talent. Besides, the recycling of talent in the same pool increases cost (wages) with little real benefit for the company.
  • Sales competencies are more difficult to assess. Sales is unfortunately a discipline were achievements may not correctly reflect competencies or the other way around. Whilst top sales professionals can usually show a consistent performance, there are external factors at play that can label for some time mediocre players as top and top players as mediocre.
  • Sales incentives schemes are often flawed.  (see a previous article) As sales is about setting goals, meeting targets and quotas, it should be one of the best managed processes. In reality however, this is one of the most complex processes, which at times for many reasons can undermine any talent management activity.

Sales excellence and talent are intertwined

As talent drives performance, sales talent management has to be an integral part of sales excellence programs to achieve higher revenues or bigger market shares. It has though some challenging differences compared to other functions. To address this one can consider:
  • To have a talent manager for the sales and marketing function only. Someone that can give focus and attention and ensure that the sales leaders (up to the CEO) can focus on the operations.
  • To simplify processes such that execution fits a single page. Whilst this may be a major effort, simplifying processes and tools will definitely provide a good return on effort. It will help with creating buy in of the managers that have to execute. Note that performance and goal management should be given priority.
  • To make talent management part of the culture. To increase its effectiveness, performance management and competency building should be an on-going activity, supported by active coaching as a powerful tool to develop employees across the organization.
  • To look for sales talent outside the pool. Whilst outside sales talent might not have immediately the knowledge and relationships, talented sales professionals will pick it up in less than no time.

Final words

In discussion with clients, the implementation of company wide, talent management systems is regularly cited as the solution for all talent management needs. Whilst we do agree that those systems are great tools in supporting the talent management process, the related effort and cost may not be within reach of every organization or enforce a real improvement throughout the organization. 

Assigning a clear leader, introducing simple single page processes, instil coaching throughout the organization and making talent management a topic of every business review meeting, certainly will improve results and push for higher levels of sales excellence.

Jack van Mook
© 2012 EnFeat Pte. Ltd.