Attracting, developing and retaining high potential salespeople – conference summary

28 September 2017: Many companies see attracting top sales staff as the silver bullet that will end their problems and boost their growth. With too few high-potential salespeople to meet rampant demand, how do you make sure your company gets the best?

A wealth of experience and scientific research was shared at yesterday’s APS conference on how exactly you attract and nurture these valuable commodities.

There were some surprises: too many companies are failing to identify the leaders of the future within their own ranks, we learned. They are valuing the wrong skills, and offering the wrong incentives.

Here are the highlights of what you missed if you weren’t there, and some of the best soundbites.


Denise Bryant, group managing director, APS

Sales apprenticeships and professional development: the ultimate motivational tools 

Denise Bryant, group managing director, APS

Salespeople average only three years of peak performance in a job before they move on, so the financial advantages of retaining them are huge. The best way to build the loyalty of your high potential salespeople is by investing in them. Partner with them to go through APS registration and to develop their skills with continual professional development. Best of all, claw back the money your company has had to pay under the apprenticeship levy, and use it to help them get the degree in sales or other accredited professional qualification they need to accelerate their career within your ranks. The APS can help you identify your most promising staff by monitoring who makes most use of the wealth of online learning available to its members.

Key quote: “I heard a war story today from a sales leader that as soon as new sales recruits sign their contract with his organisation, 30 seconds later their next question is where they need to go to sign up for APS registration to start their accredited training.”


Zachary Gropper, CEO, sales and marketing solutions EMEA, at CEB now Gartner

Defining the behaviours that drive high performance and future potential

Zachary Gropper, CEO, sales and marketing solutions EMEA, at CEB now Gartner

The best indicator of present and future success in sales is Challenger behaviour: the selling style that offers insights and leadership help to steer clients towards the best value solution. More than half the top performers selling at the highest level, in complex deals with multiple stakeholders, use Challenger behaviours.

Once you’ve identified the people with these valuable talents and skills, you have to rebuild your organisation around exploiting them. You need to select and coach for these traits, and embody them across every part of your organisation so that you can empower and retain your top performers, rather than having them bucking the system and trying to leave.

Key quote: “What sets a Challenger salesperson apart is like the difference between a bartender and a personal trainer: one just wants to sell you a drink, the other wants to make you better, smarter and stronger.”

Mark Powell, post-hire area director, CEB now Gartner (formerly SHL Group)

Mark Powell, post-hire practice area director, CEB now Gartner (formerly SHL Group)

A scientific approach to identifying high potential

Mark Powell, post-hire practice area director, CEB now Gartner

On average 15 per cent of your staff have the potential to be leaders of the future. They will provide 91 per cent more value to your company than average. Most companies have no systematic process to spot HiPos and leave it down to a manager’s gut feeling. This is very inaccurate. To succeed in future, a salesperson needs just three qualities: high aspirations, ability, and commitment. Lack any one of those three, and their career will fall off over time. To hang on to them you need to meet their aspirations, develop their abilities;  do this, and they will be around 12x more likely to do a brilliant job for you.

Case study: when Nationwide building society reacted to the financial crisis by buying in external talent, company performance went down – external hires are much more likely not to work out. When we put a process in place to identify and develop high potential in existing staff, it helped stabilise the company and internal promotion went up to 64 per cent from a low of 30 per cent.

Key quote: “Don’t bother selecting on knowledge and skills. Those are things you can develop over time.”


Jonathan Evans, CEO, Discovery ADR Group

Creating a world-class sales team

Jonathan Evans, CEO, Discovery ADR Group

We helped our client, RS Components, a £1.5bn company, to turn around its fortunes by redefining what “good” looked like. We started with insight, to help the company to fully understand itself and its customers. We created a world-class benchmark that was specific to RS Components, and gave every staff member an MOT to measure them against it. When we shared the results, it motivated staff to improve and meet the benchmark. We supported them to attain it. Changing someone’s behaviour can take 16-18 weeks so you need buy-in to get success. Map your team’s future development: you should know what the next two roles of each of your staff members will be.

Key quote: “We find that values are crucial to an organisation. If you recruit purely on skills but your hires lack shared values, when times get tough they get self-serving.”


Callum Wallace, Berwick Partners search group

Attracting, assessing, developing and retaining: the recruiter’s perspective

Callum Wallace, Berwick Partners

Talent is scarce, and everyone is trying to recruit it. The best way to get buy-in from the right people is to share a clear vision of your organisation and what you want to achieve, values that they can identify with. Just talking about their salary and role is treating them like mere guns for hire.

To pick the candidates with most potential, I begin by asking why they’re here and why they want the job. If they can explain that clearly, and move on to what they would like to do in the role, then you’re halfway there. It’s unfashionable, but I always take up references; a 30 minute reference call can be very enlightening. Ask the referee: would you work with this person again? Once you’ve identified the right person, act fast and boldly – you’ll be more likely to get who you want.

Key quote: “Elon Musk, the exuberant inventor, always asks candidates to talk about the most difficult problems they’ve faced, and how they solved them. That’s how you really find out who they are.”

Are salespeople coin-operated? asks Andrew Hough, CEO of the APS

Retention: a sales leader’s practical experience

Andrew Hough, CEO of the APS

To hang on to high-potential staff, find out what motivates them. Do not imagine it is the same things as when you were starting out. Millennials are more likely to want values and purpose than cars and mortgages. But don’t write off money as a motivator. In surveys, no-one will admit to being coin-operated, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Find out their ambitions, with an encouraging but realistic eye. Corporate development plans that create buy-in into company values, like the UPS sales academy developed by Volker Roessler, are incredibly important. Professional recognition is also vital to retain staff in the critical first year after they come into sales, usually by accident. Try to keep an eye on their work:life balance, though goodness know there’s no such thing these days.

Identify the people who have an inquiring mind and the motivation to challenge and develop themselves. Invest in coaching. Train all your managers to coach, and ensure their buy-in, because there’s nothing kills a culture of open learning like throwaway remarks from managers. LMS systems are good, but if its 95 per cent teaching about product then you’d better change it.

Key quote: “Give it time. Coaching for success takes six months to embed, before people stop worrying that it should be all about their number, not their individual development.”

Craig Spencer, Neopost, (centre) collects his APS investor in sales award at our June conference, 2017

Case study: the value of APS registration

Craig Spencer, head of sales enablement, Neopost

When we offered our UK field sales staff the chance to opt for APS registration and CPD, we estimated perhaps 40 per cent would take us up. In fact, it was 98 per cent. They all have it on their business cards. It turns out people were crying out for a bit of personal recognition and a pat on the back. It’s even changing our culture – at team meetings, if someone says something a bit old-school, they get hauled up on it: “That’s not in the code of conduct!” Our staff attrition rate is at about 5 per cent (the EU average is 12 per cent).

Key quote: People are asking about the APS at interview: what’s this? Do you take it seriously? Absolutely we do. It has become an integral part of what our people do.

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