Sales Faces a Hiring Crisis. How Should Leaders Respond?

Sales plays an outsized role in driving growth at many organizations. Yet despite its importance, recent data suggests that sales as a profession is facing a looming hiring crisis.

Data from ZipRecruiter indicates that sales vacancy listings are reaching unprecedented highs, up 65 percent to more than 700,000 listings as of July 2021. The Wall Street Journal notes that many companies are struggling to attract new sales reps, due in part to negative perceptions of sales as an industry. This phenomenon is especially pronounced among younger people, many of whom view sales as an aggressive, volume-driven business.

So what can sales leaders do to mitigate the hiring crisis facing the industry?

Build a Supportive, Collaborative Culture

Traditionally, sales hasn’t had the best reputation. Movies such as Glengarry Glen Ross and Boiler Room played on the high-pressure, boys-club imagery long associated with sales, and the stereotype of the shady used-car salesman persists as cultural shorthand for people not to be trusted.

Contrary to these stereotypes, the sales industry has become more focused on building relationships. According to Timothy Strickland, senior VP of sales at ZoomInfo, the days of “always be closing” and “winner takes all” are a thing of the past. Today, it’s about cultivating a supportive environment in which every salesperson can succeed.

“The Boiler Room days are gone and enablement is a huge component of that,” Strickland says. “When I think of Glengarry Glen Ross, I think of folks who are out there ‘lone wolfing,’ right? ‘Eat what you kill.’ When I think about how we ramp salespeople into our business, it’s about giving them the proper tools to be successful, both from a technology perspective and from a value perspective.”

Sales is very much a team sport at ZoomInfo. Individuals are still recognized for their contributions — especially closing long-term deals after months or even years of work. But sales leaders view their salespeople more as a long-term investment and not individual rock stars who can move the revenue needle quickly.

“We are very much oriented around team selling. If you build that type of culture, it also helps solve the retention challenge that a lot of companies are seeing,” Strickland says. “Because your reps are going to be successful and you’re building a business around them that supports them.”

Acknowledge Industry Challenges

Many organizations are struggling with the current recruitment landscape, which is very much a candidate-driven market

Candidates in virtually every sector are enjoying an unprecedented shift in power dynamic between employers and employees. Many companies and media outlets are framing this as a “labor shortage,” but this doesn’t reflect the realities of the current hiring market

According to Charles Knauft, director of sales development at ZoomInfo, the organizations that are likely to succeed are the ones that acknowledge and respond to what’s actually happening.

“In the next 18 months, I think more companies will recognize that it is highly competitive and that the folks that they’re interviewing probably have several offers,” Knauft says. “I think we’ll see a lead open up for the companies that are willing to say, ‘Hey, we’re not just going to throw you in the deep end and hope things work out. We’re going to invest in you over your first two, three, six months to make sure that you’re successful here.’”

Practice Consultative Selling at Scale

Sales, particularly in SaaS, is becoming more consultative. Today, the most successful salespeople place greater emphasis on building relationships and solving problems than on aggressive closing tactics. However, salespeople still have very real targets to hit if they’re to succeed and help their organizations grow.

It may sound contradictory to reconcile a consultative sales process with the reality of ambitious sales goals, but forward-thinking organizations are combining both to reach new customers and achieve their growth objectives. Strickland believes this will become increasingly commonplace as sales continues to mature as an industry.

“There are accounts we have that are very strategic in nature where we still transact a lot of business,” Strickland says. “Our largest accounts, we will have typically penetrated upward of 20, 50, even 100 different business units. While those relationships are strategic, and while you still have to be consultative in the sales process, that doesn’t preclude you from running transactional cycles inside of those businesses. If you’re adding value in your product or technology or service, that gives you the opportunity to be transactional, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.”

In Knauft’s opinion, this approach is a prime example of how sales as an industry is changing and that perceptions of it are changing too.

“It’s not this sleazy thing anymore,” Knauft says. “It truly is a profession for folks who are curious, who want to truly understand another business and another person’s perspective. Those are the folks who are in sales now.  They want to understand from a core level how the product that they’re selling can help people.”

Invest in and Reward Top Talent

In addition to creating inclusive, supportive cultures for their salespeople, companies also need to acknowledge that compensation and benefits must be better than “competitive” to attract and retain the best people. According to Strickland, the days when generous commissions and bonus incentives were enough are long gone.

“You have got to be competitive on pay and on benefits,” Strickland says. “There are too many companies out there that are succeeding in this digital world that are giving opportunities for reps to over-attain quota. If you’re not doing that, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”

For sales leaders, setting challenging yet attainable targets is a delicate balancing act, especially when the rewards for exceeding those targets are a major component of compensation strategies. Strickland says that, like intentionally cultivating supportive team cultures, setting ambitious but realistic quotas can be a highly effective retention strategy.

“We are meticulous about the quota-setting process, and we’ve done a really good job of that,” Strickland says. “This has given us the opportunity to retain sales talent at a really high rate, because we have the right percentage of our sales reps over retaining their quota numbers.”

Face the Rapidly Changing Future of Sales

Today, sales is a team sport that requires not only curiosity and drive, but a desire to help build stronger, more cohesive teams, and help people grow as individuals. These qualities align strongly with changing expectations in the workforce.

According to Knauft, the companies and sales leaders that value what a person can bring to the organization are most likely to succeed, even in the most challenging markets and economic conditions. 

“I think of it almost as a volunteer mindset,” Knauft says. “The people we’re bringing onboard, they’re volunteering their time to be here. We want to make it worthwhile for them. We want to do everything that we can to make sure that they’re enjoying their time, that they’re learning, and that they’re growing as people and as salespeople.”