I’ve worked for businesses of all sizes, ranging from “mom and pop” businesses to large organizations with tens of thousands of employees. There are a number of factors that change when you move into the larger scales, but some are exactly the same. One thing I’ve always found remarkable: when business starts to dry up, senior management tends to make the situation worse, often by applying pressure to the sales team.

Sales is an easy job when the market is hot and things are popping. Anyone can sell when everybody’s buying and there’s not enough to go around. The downturns reveal the differences in skill, persistence and confidence. Great sales managers understand how to coach and mentor a salesperson through the peaks and valleys. Unfortunately, small business owners often fail to recognize how difficult it is to train and develop a salesperson. The most common mistake I see is the tendency to assume that if a salesperson is not selling, they’re just unmotivated or lazy. The other issue I see is an inability to recognize the skills needed to sell.

Here are some of the comments I’ve heard from business owners over the years.

  • “Just get out there and sell!”
  • “It’s not that complicated; you can figure it out.”
  • “Sales training is a waste of time and money.”
  • “The only way to learn sales is by doing it.”

Sales vs. Business Development (BD)
Small businesses typically don’t have the infrastructure in place to support a pure sales role. A business development professional is responsible not only for selling, but also for wearing other hats such as project management and procurement. Business owners accustomed to wearing all of the hats typically do not remember everything they had to learn to build their businesses. Such a business might advertise an opening for a salesperson when what they really needed was a BD professional. In many of these situations I’ve seen, small business owners hire new salespeople straight out of college and provide little or no training. The end result is a revolving door of salespeople who stick around for a few months, then leave in frustration.

Assessing Fit for the Role

Ultimately, I believe it is the responsibility of employees to motivate themselves. If a salesperson is truly not motivated or is not willing to put forth the effort, I believe the only solution is to let that person go. They would be better served looking for another opportunity that’s a better fit. If they are motivated, then it’s necessary to do some further due diligence to make sure that their goals and capabilities are a long-term and short-term fit for the company. Lastly, once you have found a motivated person who is a good fit, it is still necessary to train and develop that person.
(Side note: if you, the business owner, are not motivated, that is a serious problem that needs to be addressed before anything else. It may be time to re-evaluate your own commitment to the business and decide if it’s time to do something else. An unmotivated owner cannot lead a motivated team, at least not for very long.)

I’ve often seen motivated and hard-working people leave because they could not see a path to success. That can happen for a number of reasons. If a salesperson simply lacks the foundation of skills and expertise that are required to sell a particular product or service, it may not be practical to provide all of the training and development they need. It depends how committed that person is, how committed the owner is to grooming that individual and the length of the learning curve. A word of caution: the learning curve is probably longer than you think it is. Most small business owners that I’ve met tend to grossly underestimate their own skills, while overestimating other people’s ability to learn quickly without much instruction. If you estimate that a new salesperson should be able to learn your business in three months, it might end up taking a year or longer.

Too Many Roles

Many people fail at the conventional approach to cold-call selling, because it requires people to learn too much at one time. Sales reps in companies that use this approach are responsible for finding their own leads and closing them. Companies that recruit green salespeople straight out of college often see very high churn rates on their sales staff for this reason. Established companies recognize this and anticipate it. Many sales recruitment models are designed to withstand high churn rates. The basic idea: pack a room full of fresh recruits, give them three days of sales training (unpaid), then wait and see who sinks and who swims. This type of approach is not viable for a small business, because these high churn rates tend to be cost prohibitive at a small scale. They require aggressive advertising and full-time staff dedicated to recruiting and training sales reps, neither of which a small business can afford. It also requires a robust operational infrastructure built for scale, which is also beyond the reach of many small businesses.

There are two different approaches that can work here. Under one model, a business can bring on a marketing person and task that individual with prospecting activity, which might include attending networking events, calling or dropping in on past and current customers, writing blog posts and social media content, and/or executing other campaigns for the purpose of lead generation. In order for this model to work, the marketing person must not be responsible for closing the deal. They must only be responsible for building relationships and gathering information to qualify the opportunity. When the opportunity is vetted, there needs to be a hand-off meeting, where the owner or another seasoned individual meets with the prospect and the marketing person. Another way to go about attacking the problem is to hire an inside salesperson who fields inbound calls only and is not responsible for lead generation.

The biggest question to tackle is how to fund the position. Every small business wants to pay straight commission, but this model is usually not viable for small businesses. A sales rep with the skills to succeed in a straight commission role will more likely gravitate toward a larger company, where they have the opportunity to make more money. If such a person is willing to work for a smaller business, they’re probably going to want equity. In this case, you’re essentially looking for a full partner, not a salesperson. On the other hand, it’s not easy to justify paying a base salary to someone who has yet to demonstrate any commitment. I’ve seen a handful of businesses burn up money this way, also. It’s another case of small businesses trying to copy big-business tactics, where a fundmentally different approach is needed. The approach I’m about to recommend here is an opportunity to really make a company stand out and deliver a “wow” factor. (Caveat: it’s a lot of work.)

Encourage Employees to Start Their Own Businesses

I’ll start with the most unorthodox part, which I expect might even offend some business owners. If you land a self-starter who is motivated and passionate about what they do, there’s a good chance that they will eventually want to do their own thing. By supporting a new entrepreneur on their journey, you can create a win-win. Instead of promoting an employee to a manager, for instance, you might become their client and retain their services. You might even spin off a separate business unit and keep an equity stake. There are all kinds of ways to do it, but the bottom line is this: if you align your company’s operations with an employee’s long-term plans, you will keep them forever. This is one area where small businesses have a huge advantage over larger ones. We have much more freedom to write our own rulebooks.

Hire Based on Entrepreneurial Traits

In a small business, everyone wears multiple hats; there is no getting away from it. An agile team cannot isolate people in departments or assign fixed job roles; the market moves too quickly for that. Bearing that in mind, I believe that any business with ten or less employees should hire and recruit with the expectation that every employee will be required to sell as part of their job. For instance, if a marketing agency hire a copywriter, the copywriter could be responsible for executing a monthly lead generation campaign and reporting on the results. Part of their interview might consist of asking them to propose a marketing campaign, explain how they’ll do it and communicate what they will need from you.

Develop Subject Matter Experts

Any business that stays competitive needs to continually sharpen its skill sets. Another factor that needs to be taken into account during the hiring process is eagerness to learn. A small business needs team members who take initiative to deepen their knowledge in the areas of their greatest strength. One job interview question might sound like, “What subject do you find the most fascinating, and what do you do to keep yourself educated on that subject?” Any candidate who gives a blank stare in response to that question is probably not a good fit. A requirement for ongoing self-education must be a part of any healthy growing company. Lastly, it’s important to think about what new skills each team member will bring to the table, and how those skills will complement what’s already on the team. It’s important to hire someone who extends the company’s core skill set while also rounding out any critical gaps.

Leverage Each Employee’s Network

Most people know more people than they think they do, and this should be a factor to consider when hiring every employee. What networks, clubs or communities do they belong to? Who do they know personally, and how could those relationships benefit the company? What do they do every week to get out and meet new people? While it’s true that some people may be highly-skilled hermits who can do one task very well in isolation, that type of employee tends not to fit well in a small business. Excellent communication skills and a commitment to building a network are absolute musts.

What I’ve suggested here might not sound like what everyone else is doing, and it’s not. I believe this will be the key to surviving as a small business in the coming era. The ability to hire and retain BD professionals is quite possibly the single most critical competency for any growing business. After all, nothing happens until a sale is made, and you can only grow sales as fast as you can scale your delivery. It takes a team of entrepreneurs to grow a small business.