Attracting & Retaining a Top Sales Force

Your sales people are perhaps some of most important employees to retain at your organization. In the ERC/SBN Workplace Practices Survey conducted annually, sales personnel are frequently cited by organizations as some of the most important staff members. After all, they know your customers intimately and their relationships sustain your business.

All organizations need to attract and retain a top sales force…but what do sales people want in a job? What retains them? In ERC’s most recent survey of top performers across Northeast Ohio, development, compensation, and work/life benefits/autonomy were some of the most important attributes that top performers in sales positions look for in jobs. Based on this research, here are a few pointers to attracting and retaining a top sales force.

Training and Development

Sales personnel need training and development in a wide range of important and difficult skills spanning communication, sales tactics, customer service, negotiation, presentation, conflict resolution, and more. In fact, compared to other groups of your workforce, your sales people may require the most soft-skills training of all, given their continual interpersonal interactions with current and prospective customers. Not to mention, the necessary managerial and supervisory skills for sales management roles. The most common methods of training and development provided to sales staff include:

  • On-the-job training
  • Individual instruction
  • Seminars
  • On-site classroom instruction


Sales compensation can be complex, and while there are many ways of approaching it, maintaining a competitive edge in terms of the “right mix” of incentive and base salary compensation is critical. It’s also important to keep in mind that compensation typically ranks very high in importance among sales people. Often, sales individuals are motivated heavily by compensation and competitive environments. With this in mind, benchmark sales compensation practices of other organizations in which you compete for sales talent.

For example, the 2009-2010 National Sales Compensation & Practices Survey is a good resource to use for this type of benchmarking, particularly for small and mid-sized employers. Some compensation insights based on this survey’s results include:

  • Make sure the pay mix isn’t too aggressive for the sales role
  • Mix base salary with commission, bonus or both
  • Base bonuses/commissions on reaching various goals rather than on individual sales dollars or a combination of goals and sales dollars
  • Maintain competitive benefits and expense reimbursement practices

Work/Life and Autonomy

It’s not surprising that employees in sales roles desire work/life benefits. Sales personnel are often attracted to sales roles because they tend to be more flexible and autonomous (want less supervision) than other roles.  At the same time, sales roles can also impede work/life depending on the amount of travel involved. To whatever extent possible, make work/life programs available to your sales staff. The most common flexible arrangements for sales staff include:

  • Flex hours (flexible start and end times)
  • Telecommuting/work-at-home options

In addition, while autonomy is important to sales staff, it’s common for them to feel removed from the organization and perhaps their supervisor. Effective communication, with greater quantity and frequency, with sales employees by both supervisors and the organization is crucial.

Product Quality and Service

Although product and service quality is not one of the top attributes cited by top performers, it’s rated more importantly by sales top performers than any other employee group. This holds significance, as the organization should strive to ensure the products and services are quality and meet customer’s needs.  Don’t underestimate the importance of quality and competitive products and services and strive to continue to improve and innovate on current practices.

Additional Resources

Check out these other resources provided by ERC to help your organization attract, retain, and motivate its sales force:

  • Surveys: The 2009-2010 National Sales Compensation & Practices Survey provides benchmark information on sales compensation, incentive plan design, benefits, reimbursement practices, and training practices. This survey provides critical benchmark information for your sales force. Click here for more information.
  • Compensation information (members only): In addition to the survey above, we have several other sources of compensation information for sales personnel available in our Research Library.  Click here for more information.
  • HR Resource Line (members only): For sample policies, practices, articles, and additional research related to sales compensation, performance evaluation, training/development, retention, flexible work programs, and other issues impacting a sales force, contact
  • Sales training and development: ERC provides a variety of professional development for sales professionals including customized on-site training programs, e-learning solutions, and public workshops. From sales and customer service skills to sales management to general soft-skills, ERC has nearly every solution for your sales force’s development needs. Click here for more information.
  • Sales coaching – ERC can provide on-going coaching and support for sales professionals and sales managers who are working on long term behavior change in support of meeting or exceeding their sales goals. Click here for more information.
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