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Optimizing Your Sales Force by Balancing Culture and ROI: Q&A with Robert Hawthorne, President of Hawthorne Search

by | Aug 22, 2022 | BIA, Blog, Sales Best Practices

In discussions with our clients, we’re seeing many organizations struggling to hit their sales numbers.  Sales leaders are wondering about the lingering impact of COVID, the economy, culture and other factors are affecting their sales team. Recruiting, retaining, compensating sales teams capable of delivering top results is always challenging. Sales leaders wonder if their organizations better off having sales reps sell a mixed product offering of digital and traditional media or have more specialized sellers?  Some wonder is it better to saturate the market with a number of low base, high commission reps or to hire fewer but proven sellers with higher base salaries?

As we have in the past, we’ve put these questions to our friend Robert Hawthorne, President of Hawthorne Search, who’s been working with media companies facing these issues for years. Robert’s seen a lot and we wanted to pick his brain on these questions.

Robert Hawthorne, President
Hawthorne Search

BIA: Robert, thanks for lending us your expertise. You’ve been working with media sales leaders for years trying to drive both traditional and digital ad revenue growth. With all the changes we’re seeing in both the media industry and larger economy, what is your thinking now on the best way to run sales teams?

ROBERT HAWTHORNE:  Having recruited in media for over twenty years, we have seen companies wrestling with the digital only vs. blended product seller argument rage over and over.  While there is no surefire answer, we have historically seen organizations that have true digital subject matter experts on their sales team do better than putting reps in the field who have to balance selling legacy media and digital. 

Three legged sales calls have worked well for many of my clients where the trusted advisor who has sold the advertiser traditional media brings in the digital seller on a meeting to cross sell.  As digital products continue to evolve, it is almost unfair to expect a local market sales rep to sell effectively a bundle that includes legacy and digital products.

As for the number of sales reps, given the extremely low unemployment rate and the number of companies looking to hire sellers, it is unrealistic to “throw bodies” at sales with low base salary compensations.

BIA:  Do you see people coming back into the labor force or there being a long term structural shift where companies will constantly struggle to find talent?

ROBERT HAWTHORNE:  There are few absolutes in life, but the trend lines appear to show a long term numbers problem for employers.  With the vast majority of baby boomers cycling out and a smaller number of Gen Z and Millennials to replace them, it was always going to be an uphill battle. 

Additionally, the younger set more and more don’t want a corporate “grind.”  They have side hustles, they start their own businesses, they “do their own thing” much more than my group, Gen Xers, did.  I see a long term shortage of willing and able talent in many disciplines, including sales.

BIA:  So what does an employer need to offer to attract qualified sales people?

ROBERT HAWTHORNE:  Culture is paramount.  Younger sellers want a culture that promotes development, learning, and giving back.  They want to work for a company that strives to do more than hit the bottom line.  They are mission driven more than any group I have ever seen.  Paradoxically they also value cash compensation as well. They read and are well informed so they know their talents are needed. Many in their peer group are sitting it out, so they want to be well compensated for their time as well.

BIA:  In terms of compensation plans, what seems to be working?

ROBERT HAWTHORNE:  I have personally spoken to no less than 250 sellers over the past year.  One thing that stands out as a whole is that they get frustrated at constantly evolving comp plans.  They hate when the rug gets pulled out from underneath them. 

Additionally, they love recurring commissions.  Companies that offer a one time commission and then offer smaller percentages on renewals or upsells will find it tough to attract and retain sales talent.  Sellers want to feel like they are building something, and being able to build an ongoing commission base is highly valued. 

I have one client that is offering on top of a great base salary 8% commission for the life of the account.  By year two and three a strong local market seller should be able to make over $200,000 with this organization.  This has great appeal.

BIA:  Any final words of advice to companies struggling to attract sales talent?

ROBERT HAWTHORNE:  I tell companies that the process is as much about recruiting as it is about interviewing.   You need to sell your organization at the same time you are trying to ascertain whether a prospect is a potential fit.  The days of sitting behind a desk and asking a prospect “why would I hire you” while your arms are folded are long gone. 

You need to operate like a big time college football team that brings in recruits they know they want and then sell them on your products, culture, compensation.  

My final piece of advice is to constantly interview, don’t wait for resignations.  Build a constant pipeline of prospects.  And if you can’t find them, call me to help!

See Robert’s other posts appearing in BIA’s Local Media Watch blog and trad press: