The riskiest hire in business

Taking on your first salesperson.

“How did you go hiring Paul, your national sales director?”

“Terrible! That guy cost me $500,000!”

I met Paul (not his real name) about two years ago when he was planning to expand the sales function at his start-up software company. I wasn’t in a position to advise him at the time but I had doubts about his approach. Paul’s company folded into a holding company not long after and he’s since moved on from being a founding CEO to another role.

The riskiest hire in business is your first salesperson. That new sales recruit could be the trigger for scalable growth but for many it’s a catastrophic failure that can kill the business. Few business decisions are as consequential.

Why do so many get this crucial step wrong? There are two fundamental reasons: hiring the wrong profile, and not setting up the sales recruit for success.

Hiring the right profile

Many will tell you there are two types of salespeople – hunters and farmers. Start-ups need hunters, that’s for sure, but you must know there are two types of hunter: marines and magicians.

Marines follow a well-developed sales process, selling the same products and services into a defined market. Magicians figure out how to sell new products and services into new markets. Marines are disciplined, persistent and goal-oriented. But you have to define the process for them, step by step. If you haven’t already achieved regular sales success, you won’t be able to define a process and your marine will fail.

“Why do so many get this crucial step wrong? There are two fundamental reasons: hiring the wrong profile, and not setting up the sales recruit for success.”

By contrast, magicians are curious, creative, political and intrinsically motivated by the challenge. You must have a magician if you’re still working out how to open a market. A magician will find a viable sales process. Early-stage business development requires magicians. If the company founders don’t have that skill, they need to find one and pay well – preferably with equity. After the market entry has been cracked, start-ups need a sales consultant (or sales manager) to design a process for the marines. (As a rule, neither magicians nor marines are well suited to documenting a sales process.)

Setting up for success

Almost every company founder is frustrated by the length of time it takes for new salespeople to sell their first deal. A job that seems straightforward to the founders can take up to a year for a new recruit because they don’t have the stories they need to succeed. Stories that the founders may tell unconsciously must be exposed to both magicians and marines.

The critical stories are …

The company story is the narrative that explains how your company started, why it didn’t fail, how it succeeded, how it serves its customers and where it is going. Your company story is also your strategy story.

Insight is defined as knowledge your company has that your customers would profit from but do not currently appreciate. The insight story teaches your future clients your insight by describing how you discovered it. You must take your client on a learning journey otherwise they’ll push back or fail to understand.

Success stories are about customers who succeeded with your products and services. Your successful customer is the hero of each success story. It’s critical that your prospective customer be similar to the successful client.

Another way to distinguish marines from magicians is to note that marines can only sell if there are success stories, whereas magicians can sell when you only have an insight story. That is, before you have a successful customer.

If you don’t take the effort to craft and hone these three story types, your new salespeople will need to figure out the stories for themselves. That takes a long time – time that can sink your company.

It’s critically important to hire the right profile for your first salesperson. You can use existence of success stories as the test for the profile you need. Get that hire right, prepare your stories and you’ll be on your way to a stable growing business. Mess it up and you may never recover.

Mike Adams, The Story Leader, author of “Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell”

This story first appeared in issue 24 of the Inside Small Business quarterly magazine.

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