Employers Tune Up Sales Force, Tap Growing Talent Pool

As the talent pool gets flooded with laid-off, often high-performing salespeople, employers re-consider their staffing plans.


The economy’s in tatters. Consumer spending is down so far that almost every major company has had to lay people off to keep itself in the red instead of the deep, deep red. Can anyone who knows sales expect the market for salespeople to be anything but slow?

That depends on where you’re looking. As in every other market, there are jobs being filled — sometimes even new jobs, rather than just those that open when someone leaves or gets fired — according to recruiters who specialize in filling sales positions.

Even hiring freezes are sometimes less-than-solid, according to Ed Sordellini, partner at Target Solutions, a recruitment firm in Wilmington, N.C. Several big software companies have announced hiring freezes but are hiring anyway — sometimes to fill open positions, sometimes to beef up a strategic product or business unit.

Not only that, but some sales managers see a period of high unemployment, when talented salespeople are out of work through no fault of their own, as an opportunity to upgrade their sales staffs.

“There’s a lot of good talent on the street, so some companies can say, ‘Let’s take the bottom 20 percent of our sales force and put them on the street and see if we can get some better people in here,’ ” Sordellini said.

Even in good economies, that kind of turnover happens, but it becomes much more common in hard times, according to Art Romero, managing director at The Academy Group, a recruiting agency that specializes in jobs at financial-services companies. Even stranger, he said, is the number of salespeople pushing into areas most people think would be barren for jobs, namely financial services.

At Smith Barney and other financial-services companies, applications are up for programs designed to train new financial advisers, the position most financial institutions rely on as their primary sales role, Romero said.

“For people who really get it, they realize this economy is a great economy to become a financial adviser,” Romero said. “There are a lot of clients right now unhappy with their financial advisers and looking for new ones — not just individuals, trust funds and 401(k) account managers. Everything is in play.”

Unfortunately for people wanting to get in, the training programs at “the big four” — Smith Barney, UBS Morgan Stanley or Merril Lynch (now part of Bank of America) — are more selective today. Smith Barney cut in half the number of seats in its program; UBS, Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch have cut even more, Romero said.

Getting into one of the better programs means being able to demonstrate you’re a potential sales star, Romero said. That means good experience in financial or sales roles and at the executive or adviser level. Pharmaceutical salespeople tend to do well, as do attorneys who have lots of clients to refer, Romero said.

But there are plenty of opportunities at smaller financial-services companies, many of which pay on commission only, so they’re willing to “hire” people who look like they’ll be successful but don’t have much of a track record yet.

Being unemployed may be an advantage

Hiring in sales is different from in other areas: Hiring decisions are based on the priorities and perceptions of the salespeople who do the hiring, which are often different from those who hire for other functions.

There are a lot of hiring managers, for example, who don’t want to hire someone who doesn’t already have a job, according to Jim Brown, president of Jim Brown Associates, a boutique recruiter in the San Francisco area that specializes in retained search in the medical and pharmaceutical industries.

“Even if there are a lot of good people laid off, they’d rather talk to someone who’s demonstrably enthused by the opportunity rather than just looking for a spot to land,” Brown said.

That’s not only logical, it’s almost a rule in for sales jobs, Target Solutions’ Sordellini said — but those rules are bending in this economy.

“If you’re unemployed, in sales that’s normally a big negative. Right now, there’s a kind of unique dynamic,” Sordellini said. “If you’ve got a job and you’re looking, there may be a reason. You may have a target painted on your back. You have to peel the onion a little bit and see why someone wants to leave a job when most people are just hanging on.

“Just because someone is working doesn’t mean they’re good,” Sordellini said. “With the market the way it is, it might mean they’re not performing and are on the way out anyway.”

There is so much high-caliber talent on the streets that recruiters are doing themselves and their clients a disservice not to consider candidates who have been laid off, Romero agreed.

“As a rule I’d be more skeptical of someone who wasn’t working for the last several months,” Romero said. “Now I try to look more at what they were doing until they were laid off and what they have been doing since. I have one good candidate who hasn’t worked since August; so I asked and he said he was finishing up construction on his house next to his country club and now that it’s done, he’s ready to get back to the corporate world.”

It’s unusual, even in the big-money financial services world, to find someone who took time off in this economy for a lifestyle choice. Investigating why and for how long a candidate has been unemployed can leave a recruiter “grasping at straws, trying to figure out from the resume why that person hasn’t been working,” Romero said.

The good news on the hiring front, though, is that salespeople tend to be good at getting jobs, Romero, Brown and Sordellini agree.
They change jobs, on average, more often than other professions, and have much more practice looking for prospects, overcoming objectives and closing the deal.

“They know how to tell people what they want to hear,” Sordellini said. “They’re good at qualifying and good at closing. Those are both important in looking for a job.”