Trends in Sales Hiring – 10 Questions for Kathleen Steffey – Founder/CEO of Naviga Recruiting & Executive Search

This month, Tony Smith had the opportunity to speak with Kathleen Steffey, owner and founder of Naviga Recruiting & Executive Search,  a national sales and marketing recruitment firm, about trends in the sales hiring market. Kathleen also shared her insights about what it takes to make a sales hire a success. Over the last two years, Naviga Recruiting & Executive Search has been a strategic partner of The Brooks Group. They are a strong and reputable firm that we have recommended to a number of our clients for assistance with their selection and hiring needs. With the positive feedback we have received, we wanted to share some of their knowledge and insights with you. Here are the key nuggets from our conversation with Kathleen.

Tony Smith: I’m sure our readers will be interested to hear what you’ve experienced over the last year so let’s get rolling. What does the sales hiring marketplace look like currently? What are you hearing from your clients—both employers and candidates?

Kathleen Steffey: The employers I work with are doing better and starting to re-gain a positive financial outlook. We’re also seeing a change in hiring behavior. Six months ago, we had steady business, but our employers wouldn’t move and make decisions. They were paralyzed by the uncertainty of the market. Each month, I’ve seen an increase in hiring decisions and the confidence to pull the trigger with offers. September has been our biggest revenue month of the 2009 year. Keep it coming! Keep it coming!

Tony: What trends are you seeing that sales managers and HR professionals should be aware of?

Kathleen: A consistent trend we are seeing in candidates is “desperate” behavior. Candidates who have been downsized and are unemployed tell us that they are open to a lower base salary, lower commission plan and even less accountability. We view these people as “flight risks” and so do our customers. When the economy turns, so will their confidence, career goals, compensation expectations, etc. In this current climate, they will take whatever feeds their family and pays their mortgage.

Tony: What are you seeing from the perspective of the Candidates/Job Seekers you work with?

Kathleen: We are seeing a significant trend in people who are currently employed and won’t leave their existing employer. They want to remain as stable as possible in these uncharted economic waters. Even if a promotional opportunity, with increased earning potential is offered, fewer candidates are jumping ship.

Tony: For those out looking, what can they expect to find in the marketplace?

Kathleen: We recently surveyed job-seeking sales professionals and asked them about their current job search experiences. Here’s what we found:

  • Most were let go due to the economy
  • Most have been looking for 4-6 months
  • Most have been on 4 plus interviews
  • Most feel they haven’t been hired because there are too many candidates to choose from by employers
  • Most have not received ANY offers
  • Most feel confused and frustrated and are seeking additional advice on the best way to go about their job search

Tony: There is no doubt that the marketplace is competitive and that there are a number of qualified candidates out there. Is hiring the right person more critical in sales than in other positions?

Kathleen: I believe that hiring the correct person is critical for all positions, but especially in sales. When a business decides to hire a salesperson that means that they want to grow revenue. Organizations determine additional headcount, product growth, and overall company strategy by sales forecasts and predictions. If an organization hires a salesperson to generate revenue and the salesperson does not perform, the entire organization is affected negatively.

Tony: When a sales hire doesn’t work out, what is the most common reason?

Kathleen: This may shock you! The answer is poor sales leadership. Most people think that the answer is lack of performance or lack of fundamental sales skills. But the truth is, if strong sales leadership is not present, the sales team suffers and cannot perform to his/her potential.

Tony: How can sales organizations avoid this problem?

Kathleen: If an organization does not have the appropriate sales processes, motivational influences and measurable accountability in place, even the best sales professionals can fail. There must be a strong leadership individual who has experience in sales or has significant sales leadership training to influence results. Consistent accountability checks, sales strategies/solution conference calls, and attainable quotas do the trick. Also, philosophical alignment between the CEO and the sales leadership individual is critical.

Tony: How can working with a search firm help to avoid this problem?

Kathleen: An excellent search firm will be able to evaluate the lack of sales infrastructure and leadership during their initial discussions. They will act as a resource not only to recruit top sales talent, but to also provide insight on industry trends and best practices. The best of the best search firms are aligned with influential advisors who can influence their customers in the success of the overall sales organization.
The bottom line; if the recruiting firm isn’t asking a lot of smart questions or isn’t aligned with reputable sales resources, they are likely missing depth and sophistication in their ability to hire top sales talent.

Tony: What advice would you offer for effectively working with a search firm to hire salespeople? What should managers do to ensure they get the results they’re seeking?

Kathleen: When selecting a recruiting firm look for the following:

  1. Do they specialize in sales recruitment?
  2. Can they recruit for multiple positions at a time?
  3. Who is their CEO and are they a high-integrity individual?
  4. Does the leadership of the recruiting firm understand recruiting?
  5. Ask for endorsements and existing customer references.
  6. What is their evaluation process?
  7. How do they go about recruiting?
  8. Accountability! Hold the recruiting firm accountable. Look for proactive communication from the recruiting firm. If you feel you have to call the firm for an update, something is wrong. Ask for bi-weekly updates to ensure success (this is generally with retained searches).

Tony: How much of a successful sales hire is in the hiring—and how much is in the on-boarding, training, setting expectations, holding salespeople accountable for performance, etc.

Kathleen: I would say it’s 25% hiring and 75% calibration and leading. Recruiting is the easiest piece of the puzzle. Leading a sales organization and retaining sales professionals is challenging. Coaching, guiding, leading and influencing revenue through people is a very difficult job and it takes a significant skill.

Tony: And the good news is that these are skills that can be developed. While selection and hiring are important, too often we see sales managers not taking the time to provide the needed management and leadership to ensure success. A program like the Sales Management Symposium provides a framework for assessing, developing and reinforcing a winning sales team. Kathleen, we appreciate your insights and assessment of what a sales manager needs to consider when making that next hire.

This article has been re-printed with the permission of The Brooks Group, an international assessment, sales training and executive coaching firm based in Greensboro, North Carolina. For more information visit