How to Hire and On-Board Sales People?

by John O’Connell, Founder and Executive Chairman of ScaleUp Group


At a recent CEO Forum, we discussed the perennial issue of finding successful enterprise sales people.

I’d like to say we came up with a silver bullet which unerringly hit its target every time – hiring and retaining top performers. That’s what I would like to say!!

I suppose it was of some comfort that every one of our businesses expressed great frustration at their success rate – although they were honest enough to accept that both their hiring and on-boarding processes (if the latter existed at all) could be improved.

Another major contributor to this depressing factor is that entrepreneurial led, small, growing businesses are still finding their way in terms of product/market fit. This means more creativity is required typically by a new business sales person than in a more established organisation with a settled offering and a proven sales playbook, such as documented competitor knockout points and other objection handling scripts.

So brace yourself as here is a sample of the feedback from our survey.


  • ‘50%+ fail rate is not unusual for us’.
  • ‘Good salespeople are usually never out of a job which means they need to be ‘poached’, so be prepared to pay a premium.’
  • ‘Recruitment firms are bottom of the league, as far as we are concerned.’
  •  ‘Avoid hiring from the so-called blue-chip big-ticket enterprise software vendors such as SAP and Oracle. They are either rejects or expect big company support and branding.’
  • ‘A tiny minority of Enterprise Sales people are ‘hunters’ – most are glorified account managers.’
  • ‘References are the best way of checking out claims’
  • ‘Get a copy of their last Earnings Statements to verify claims of sales success.’

Any Better success with less experienced hires?

  • ‘Yes hiring recent grads with little to no experience has produced good results, as they are ‘home grown’ so more willing to adapt to our way of doing things.’
  • ‘They put in more effort and have a willingness to execute cold calls and outreach.’
  • ‘Many of them progress upwards within the company into customer success and other roles.’
  • ‘We have had better retention rates.’

But it depends upon the buyers’ profile,

  • ‘Larger enterprises tend to have more experienced buyers who expect to deal with more experienced sellers.’
  • ‘New business selling into an Enterprise – be it commercial organisations or government is tough.’
  • ‘An experienced sales person is one who orchestrates all parts of our company to play a role and is well aware of the challenges of multi-level selling and manages it well.’
  • ‘Selling to government has its own issues, which requires someone with the relevant experience to do it.’
  • ‘Selling via a channel is a completely different technique , necessitating much more technical/product knowledge than anything else.’
  • ‘Salespeople with more experience tend to be ‘pickier’ about tasks such as cold calling.’


  • ‘Treat new hire prospects as you would your best customers– they are the route to your next big deals.’
  • ‘Sales people are good at selling themselves so interviews are not conclusive at all.’
  • ‘As Interviewing is no guarantee of finding the right people – some canniness might be required, including seeing them in a variety of different locations/environments.’
  • ‘Make the later interviews stages as close to a realistic high-pressure sales situation as possible.’


  • Typical motivators of commissions might not be the most effective always, nor the only way.’
  • ‘Try to personalise rewards and recognise exceptional performance (applies to other roles too of course.) Works often disproportionately well. ‘


  • ‘CEOs should be involved pro-actively.’
  • ‘We have nothing formal in place.’
  • ‘It needs a senior exec. to own the on-boarding process and be responsible for its success.’
  • ‘Pass/fail has to be an outcome to create a lifelike pressured environment.

My Recommendations

  1. Role. Be clear about the key components of the sales role. Is it primarily new business or account development? Are you therefore looking for a hunter or a farmer? This in turn defines the relative importance of product/industry knowledge on the one hand and sales capability on the other. The former is most important in an account management development role whereas the latter is in a new business role.
  2. Industry. Specific industry sectors require specific knowledge of that industry, so either hire people who already have it or arrange for them to obtain it during the on-boarding phase.
  3. Leads. Be clear about how new business leads are going to be generated. Very few experienced high earning salespeople will expect/want to generate their own.
  4. Profile. Match the profile of the salesperson with your buying community. Senior buyers expect to be communicating with senior staff and vice versa.
  5. Technology v. Business? Likewise in terms of technology selling v. business benefits selling
  6. References. Take up references (best done verbally) before making hiring decisions.
  7. Hiring. Make the hiring process rigorous.
  8. On-boarding. Ditto on-boarding – a complete process is described in our CEO Handbook.
  9. Non-performers. Be ruthless in weeding out non-performers as otherwise tolerating them communicates to your top performers that your business accepts mediocrity – either diluting their focus or ‘telling’ them to move on.
  10. Incentives. Be imaginative about the Rewards package. e.g  ‘winning’ a place on a Rewards Trip or similar, for both the employee and their partner  – and include the high performing non-sales people too, whose places are ‘paid for’ by high-performance sales achievements. This should generate a company-wide focus and support to help make sales people successful, rather than a ‘them and us’ atmosphere.


There seems to be no fool-proof method of ensuring 100% success in finding and keeping top performing sales people. However, covering all of the above points should help to improve the current abysmal results – which in turn undermine achievement of a high growth strategy – often the main reason for ScaleUp Group obtaining growth funding in the first place for its clients. Global Champions need top global sales performers!

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